In all there are some 40 Byzantine-era church structures still standing throughout Istanbul. However, no matter which one you visit, one feature in particular strikes the visitor: they all either have minarets, or a ticket box, or both. Astonishingly, of the dozens of extant Byzantine churches in Istanbul, only one of them has never been converted into a mosque or museum and has been in continuous service as a place of Christian worship since before the conquest of Istanbul. This is church of Panaghia Mouchliotissa (Παναγία Μουχλιώτισσα), a.k.a. Meryem Ana Greek Orthodox Church, a.k.a. Kanlı Kilesesi (Bloody Church), a.k.a. Church of St. Mary of the Mongols. Since it is far less known than St. George Church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate or St. Stephen of the Bulgars, the only cast-iron church in the East Orthodox world, I’ll start with telling you its amazing history.
At the beginning of the 7th century, Princess Sopatra (daughter of the God-loving Byzantine Emperor Maurikios), and her friend Eustolia built a nunnery on the slope of the fifth hill of Constantinople. The ground, which was bestowed by the Emperor, lay north of the Cistern of Aspar and had been used up to then as a cemetery. The building was dedicated to Saint Eustolia. During the 11th century, a monastery was added. It was dedicated to the Theotokos Panagiotissa, and had a close relationship with the monastery of the Great Lavra, on mount Athos. The monastery was ruined during Latin domination after the Fourth Crusade.
In 1261, after the reconquest of the city by the Byzantines, Isaac Doukas, father-in-law of George Acropolites and maternal uncle of Michael VIII Palaiologos, rebuilt a simple, one-storey monastery. The same year Maria Palaiologina, illegitimate daughter of Emperor Michael VIII was born. Her father tried to maintain friendly relations with the Mongols, many of whom were already Nestorian Christians, and for this purpose betrothed Maria to Hulagu Khan. However, on her journey to marry him, Maria and the abbot of Pantokrator monastery who escorted her learned that Hulagu had died. So Maria was instead married to his son, Abaqa Khan and spent 15 years at court in Persia. When Doquz Khatun, Hulagu’s wife who was a Nestorian Christian, died, Maria Palaiologina became an influential religious leader among the Mongols.
In 1281, after the assassination of her husband by his Muslim brother Ahmad, Maria returned to Constantinople. She is said to have rebuilt the nunnery and the church (which then assumed the shape still seen today), deserving the title of Kτητορισσα (“foundress”) of that complex, and retired there until her death. The founding of the nunnery is mentioned in the Paris Codex Gr. 2625 and dates back to 1285. Maria Palaeologina bought the grounds with the vineyards and whatever structures existed, repaired some of them and erected new ones. She endowed the monastery with relics, valuable vessels, manuscripts, lands in Constantinople and Rhaedestus, spending all her fortune. Since that time, the nunnery and the church, officially dedicated to the Virgin Mary, got the appellation of Μουχλιώτισσα (Mouchliotissa, “of the Mongols” in Greek), although Maria herself was never canonized.
A surviving mosaic portrait of Maria with an inscription with her monastic name of Melania, from the narthex at the Chora Monastery
It’s interesting that in older days the origin of the church’s name had given rise to a minor philological argumentation. S. Kugeas maintained that the name derived from Mouchlion, at Mystra, the inhabitants of which had settled in this area of the Phanar quarter in 1242. H. Gregoire, M. Lascaris and Gennadios Metropolitan of Heliopolis, believed that it is the Greek rendering of the Slavonic word “mogyla” (grave).
After Maria Palaeologina died, her usurper brother-in-law, Isaac Palaeologus-Asen, presented as proof of their right an imperial chrysobull certifying the purchase of the nunnery from its foundress, but the document was deemed false. Moreover, he used the revenues to his own advantage and the nunnery was facing dire poverty. So, the nuns started a suit, first before the Emperor, and then before the Patriarch. Finally, according to a synodical document of 1351, the Ecumenical Patriarchate decreed the restitution to the monastery of the entire fortune seized by the. The nunnery existed until the end of the Empire, then was abandoned.
On May 29, 1453, the day of the Fall of Constantinople, the surroundings of the building saw the last desperate resistance of the Greeks against the invading Ottomans. Due to that, the church got the Turkish name Kanlı Kilise (“Church of the Blood”), and the road that leads to it from the Golden Horn is still named the Ascent of the Standard Bearer (Turkish: Sancaktar yokuşu), in honour of an Ottoman standard bearer who found his death fighting here.
After the Conquest, Sultan Mehmed II endowed the church to the mother of Christodoulos, the Greek architect of the mosque of Fatih, in acknowledgment of his work. The grant was confirmed by Bayazid II, in recognition of the services of the nephew of Christodoulos, who built the mosque, which bears that sultan’s name, at the site of the demolished church of the Holy Apostles. Under Sultan Selim I and Ahmed II there were two Ottoman attempts to convert the church into a mosque (the last one, pursued by Grand Vizier Ali Koprülü at the end of the seventeenth century, was thwarted by Dimitrie Cantemir) and, thanks to the grants of Mehmed II and Bayazid II, the church remained a parish of the Greek community. Thus, the Panagia Mouchliotissa has remained an Orthodox church to this day.
The firmans, or sultan’s imperial seals, of Mehmed II and Bayazid II, which granted ownership of the church to the Greek community
Damaged several times (in 1633, 1640 and 1729) by fires that ravaged Phanar, the building was repaired and enlarged. At the end of nineteenth century a small school was built close to it, and in 1892 a small bell tower was added. In 1955, the church was damaged during the anti-Greek Istanbul Pogrom, and since then it has been restored.
Today, Meryem Ana is obscured behind an imposing wall, but in fact is open to visitors. Ring the doorbell at the threshold on Firketeci Sokak — where the sign “Meryem Ana Rum Ortodoks Kilesesi” is posted — and an attendant will escort you inside the premises.
Inside the church are visibly ancient frescoes, dozens of ancient icons. Unfortunately, some traces from a representation of the Last Judgment are the only remnants of the old painting decoration of the church. An annotation on the manuscript of Suidas’s Lexicon (Paris Codex Gr. 2625) informs us that the church was painted by Modestus in the late 13th century. In addition to the mosaic icon of Panagia Mouchliotissa, dated by Soteriou to the late 13th-early 14th century, another four post-Byzantine icons are notable: St. Paraskeve (1.35×0.40 m.) St. Euphemia (1.35×0.40 m.), the Three Hierarchs (1.25×0.60 m.) and the Sts. Theodoroi (1.27×0.54 m.). The belfry in the courtyard is of later date.
Besides that, there is a variety of devotional objects such as a nativity scene inside a bottle, and a clever slatted icon that changes its image depending on the direction it is looked at. Another interesting feature of the church is an underground chamber made of stone, which you can descend into. It used to be part of an underground passage that at one time connected St. Mary of the Mongols to Hagia Sofia, several kilometers away. By now this tunnel has collapsed and so you can’t go more than a few yards into it. It’s certainly worth seeing all the riches of the church of Panaghia Mouchliotissa and praise the Lord in person!
Hours: The church holds Sunday services and is open to visitors until 5pm.
Address: Balat Mah. Tevfiki Cafer Mahallesi Firketeci Sokak No. 5, Fener.
Bus: 36CE, 399B, 399C, 399D, 44B, 55T, 99, or 99A from Eminönü; 55T from Taksim.
Walk uphill along Sancaktar Yokuşu until you reach Fener Rum Lisesi. Follow Mesnevihane Sokak around the back of the college. Meryem Ana Kilesesi will be visible on your left.