Kariye Museum

We had been tipped off that many cruise ships would be in port, so for our second full day we decided to visit the Kariye Museum to take us out of the Sultanahmet area and away from the crowds. We picked up a tram at the square and took it to the ferry terminals at Eminonu, where we found the line we would need to take to Kadikoy for our food tour later in the week, but did not find the one to take us to Aksaray. We decided to take a bus instead, and with the transit app Dan found, it was very easy to figure out where the right stop was. 

After a short walk down the hill, we found the museum and stopped at the Pink Pavilion café next to it to grab some pide for lunch. I went with the cheese, and Dan with the meet and cheese version. While eating, we befriended a tiny one-eyed kitten, and Dan fed him a lot of the meat off his pide while fending off aggressive larger cats who wanted in on the snack. 

What is now the Kariye Museum began as the site of the Chora Monastery, dating from before the city walls of Constantinople were built in the 5th century A.D. Kariye is a Turkish word that derives from the Greek word chora, meaning ‘country’ or ‘rural.’ The emperor Justinian built the original church in the 6th century. This was destroyed during the Sack of Constantinople in the 1204, then rebuilt between 1282-1328. It continued to serve as a church after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and was converted to a mosque in 1511, and then a museum in 1945.

The real stars of the church interior are the mosaics and frescoes that were created in the 14th century, at the peak of these crafts in the Byzantine period. The Kariye Museum is a bit off the beaten path, but not hard to get to, and well worth the minor effort required.

After we finished at the museum, we decided to stay in the neighborhood for dinner. We found our way to a nearby market district and sat in the square for a little while considering options, eventually settling on a place a couple of blocks away. Since we had some time before dinner, we walked to the restaurant to make a reservation in person and spoke to a very friendly woman, who told us that there would be a set menu for iftar, the meal to break the Ramadan fast, starting in about two hours. 

I was already hungry, so we stopped in at the bakery at the end of the block for lemonade and a delicious milky cake with dark caramel on top, and then looked around the neighborhood some more as evening approached. We walked up to the Fatih mosque but it was too late in the day to go in as visitors, so we passed through the courtyard, then circled back to the main road and around the block to the restaurant.

We were seated right away, and there were a few other families around us. The servers started bringing out appetizers and drinks, but we wisely chose not to start eating – the fast is not broken until sunset. This was clearly not a tourist restaurant, and we wanted to be respectful of the other diners around us. We waited patiently as more things were put in place: water pitcher and glasses, glasses of juice (tamarind for me, lemonade for Dan), plates of stuffed peppers and eggplant and potato salad as starters. At about 8:45, we heard the call from the mosque that meant it was time to eat, and everyone around us picked up their forks and began. Our main course was beef on a bed of eggplant puree, with a long, slender, light green pepper alongside. The last course was dessert of course, and the servers brought around trays with several options to choose from. My selection was halva made with toasted coarsely ground wheat and served with cream. It reminded me of a sweeter version of Wheatena, and it was very good. Dan chose a rice pudding with caramel topping that was also very good.

After dinner we walked down to Ataturk Boulevard and the Aksaray stop to catch the tram back to Sultanahmet. The park and square there was the busiest we had seen so far. It was jam-packed with picnicking families, blankets spread on the lawns and covered with food and portable samovars, creating a lively but mellow atmosphere.