Consecrated in the thirteenth century, Istanbul’s Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is the city’s only church to have continuously remained in the hands of the Greek Orthodox community. Unlike many of Istanbul’s old churches, St. Mary of the Mongols was never to be converted to a mosque according to an order given by the Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror; in fact, the order is still kept within the historic church today.
With its red brick exterior, the church is not regarded as one of old Constantinople’s architectural stars; and yet, this church is one of the city’s most historically significant places of worship. Although the church is named for Maria Palaeologina, an illegitimate Byzantine princess who lived during the thirteenth century, it actually dates to the seventh century when Princess Sopatra built a nunnery on a Constantinople hillside. In a later century, the nunnery was expanded to include a monastery; the monastery disappeared, however, during the Fourth Crusade.
In 1261, a new monastery was added. It was during this century that Constantinople faced the threat of Genghis Khan’s Mongol armies. In order to facilitate peaceful relations with the Mongols, Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII betrothed his illegitimate daughter Maria to Abaqa Khan, the Mongol ruler of the Persian Ilkhanate. Upon their marriage, Maria became his second wife in accordance with the Mongols’ polygamist traditions. She remained with him until his death fifteen years later; historians record that he was poisoned by his brother.
After her husband’s death in 1281, Maria returned to her home where her father once again planned to marry her to a Mongolian prince in order to create an alliance against the Ottomans who were threatening the Byzantine city Nicaea. Before the marriage could take place, the Ottomans conquered Nicaea and Maria remained in Constantinople where she rebuilt the nunnery and monastery. She lived at the complex as a nun until her death. Although the church was originally named for the Virgin Mary, it remained closely associated with Maria Palaeologina.
According to scholars, Maria led a pious life and was revered by the Mongols who referred to her as Despina Khatun, meaning “lady.” She was allowed to influence both politics and religion during her marriage to Abaqa Khan. Though she was never consecrated as a saint, Maria is remembered and honored for her piety and the church she rebuilt. Today’s structure dates to Maria’s time.
Over the centuries, the church has been damaged by various fires. It has undergone enlargements and restorations. In 1892, a bell tower was constructed on its grounds. The interior of the church is heavily decorated with icons. Its most famous treasure is a Byzantine mosaic that dates to the eleventh century. The church is also said to contain an underground passage that leads to the Hagia Sophia. Even though the church is one of the most historically significant in Istanbul, its architecture has not been widely studied.
In a city rich with historical and cultural attractions, the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is a quieter venue. It is not frequented by tourists as are many other historical structures of the city. And yet, this quiet church behind its wall is an arresting view. Its captivating history has infused its present atmosphere; it is a remarkable attraction that should not be missed on a visit to Istanbul.
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