Essential Architecture-  Turkey

Saint Mary of The Mongols




Istanbul, Turkey






Brick, tile roof


Saint Mary of the Mongols  (pr. Theotokos Panaghiótissa, lit. "All-Holy Theotokos") (pr. Panaghia Muchliótissa); Turkish name: Kanli Kilise (meaning:Bloody Church), is an Eastern Orthodox church in Istanbul. It is the only Byzantine church of Constantinople that has never been converted to a mosque, always remaining open to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Maria Palaiologina was an illegitimate daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (ruled 1258-1282), the wife of the Mongol ruler Abaqa Khan, and an influential Christian leader among the Mongols. After Abaqa's death she became the leader of a Monastery in Constantinople which was popularly named after her as Saint Mary of the Mongols.



The church of S. Mary of the Mongols, which stands on the heights above the quarter of Phanar, a short distance to the west of the Greek Communal School, was founded in the thirteenth century by Maria Palaeologina, a natural daughter of the Emperor Michael Palaeologus (1261-1282). As the church has been in Greek hands ever since its foundation its identity cannot be disputed. The epithet given to the Theotokos in association with this sanctuary alludes to the fact that Maria Palaeologina married a Khan of the Mongols, 473 and bore the title of Despoina of the Mongols (Δέσποινα τῶν Μουγουλίων). 474 The marriage was prompted by no romantic sentiment, but formed part of the policy by which her father hoped to secure the goodwill of the world for the newly restored Empire of Constantinople. While endeavouring to disarm the hostility of Western Europe by promoting the union of the Latin and Greek Churches, he sought to conciliate the people nearer his dominion by matrimonial alliances with their rulers. It was in this way that he courted, with greater or less success, the friendship of Servia, Bulgaria, the Duchy of Thebes, and the Empire of Trebizond. And by the same method he tried to win the friendship of the formidable Mongols settled in Russia and Persia. Accordingly he bestowed the hand of one natural daughter, Euphrosyne, upon Nogaya, 475 who had established a Mongolian principality near the Black Sea, while the hand of Maria was intended for Holagu, famous in history as the destroyer in 1258 of the caliphate of Baghdad. Maria left Constantinople for her future home in 1265 with a great retinue, conducted by Theodosius de Villehardouin, abbot of the monastery of the Pantokrator, who was styled the 'Prince,' because related to the princes of Achaia and the Peloponnesus. A rich trousseau accompanied the bride-elect, and a tent of silk for a chapel, furnished with eikons of gold affixed to crosses, and with costly vessels for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. When the mission reached Caesarea news came that Holagu was dead, but since reasons of state inspired the proposed marriage, the bridal party continuedits journey to the Mongolian court, and there in due time Maria was wedded to Abaga, the son and successor of Holagu, after the bridegroom had received, it is said, Christian baptism. 476


Exterior View.

Fig. 93.—S. Mary of the Mongols. Exterior.
(From a Photograph.)

Interior View.

Fig. 94.—S. Mary of the Mongols. Interior.

In 1281 Abaga was poisoned by his brother Achmed, 477 and Maria deemed it prudent, and doubtless welcome, after an absence of sixteen years, to return to Constantinople. She appears again in history during the reign of her brother Andronicus II. Palaeologus, when for the second time she was offered as a bride to the Mongolian prince, Charbanda, who then ruled in Persia, 478 the object of this new matrimonial alliance being to obtain the aid of the Mongols against the Turks, who under Othman had become a dangerous foe and were threatening Nicaea. With this purpose in view Maria proceeded to that city, both to encourage the defence of an important strategic position and to press forward the negotiations with Charbanda. The Despoina of the Mongols, however, did not comprehend the character of the enemy with whom she had to deal. Her contemptuous demeanour towards Othman, and her threats to bring the Mongols against him, only roused the spirit of the Turkish chieftain, and before the Greeks could derive any advantage from the 30,000 Mongolian troops sent to their aid, Othman stormed the fortress of Tricocca, an outpost of Nicaea, and made it the base of his subsequent operations.

The church was built for the use of a convent which the Despoina of the Mongols, like many other ladies in Byzantine times, erected as a haven of refuge for souls who had dedicated their lives to the service of God. She also endowed it with property in the immediate neighbourhood, as well as with other lands both within and beyond the city, and while Maria lived the nuns had no reason for complaint. But after her death the property of the House passed into the hands of Isaac Palaeologus Asanes, the husband of a certain Theodora, whom Maria had treated as a daughter, and to whom she bequeathed a share in the convent's revenues. He, as soon as Theodora died, appropriated the property for the benefit of his family, with the result that the sisterhood fell into debt and was threatened with extinction. In their distress the nuns appealed to Andronicus III. Palaeologus for protection, and by the decision of the patriarchal court, to which the case was referred as the proper tribunal in such disputes, the convent in 1351 regained its rights. 480

The Dome (Interior View).

Fig. 95.—S. Mary of the Mongols. the Dome.


As already intimated, to this church belongs the interest of having always preserved its original character as a sanctuary of the Greek Orthodox Communion. This distinction it owes to the fact that the church was given to Christoboulos, the Greek architect of the mosque of Sultan Mehemed, as his private property, to mark the conqueror's satisfaction with the builder's work. The grant was confirmed by Bajazet II. in recognition of the services of the nephew of Christoboulos in the construction of the mosque which bears that Sultan's name. Twice, indeed, attempts were subsequently made to deprive the Greek community of the church, once under Selim I. and again under Achmed III. But, like the law of the Medes and Persians, a Sultan's decree altereth not, and by presenting the hatti sheriff of Sultan Mehemed the efforts to expropriate the building were frustrated.

Among the Turks the building is known as Kan Kilisse, the church of Blood, and the adjoining street goes by the name Sanjakdar Youkousou, the ascent of the standard-bearer, terms which refer to the desperate struggle between Greeks and Turks at this point on the morning of the capture of the city.


Architectural Features


Although the building has always been in Christian hands it has suffered alterations almost more drastic than any undergone by churches converted into mosques. The interior has been stripped of its original decoration, and is so blocked by eikons, chandeliers, and other ornaments as to render a proper examination of the church extremely difficult. In plan the church is a domed quatrefoil building, the only example of that type found in Constantinople. The central dome rests on a cross formed by four semi-domes, which are further enlarged below the vaulting level by three large semicircular niches. It is placed on a drum of eight concave compartments pierced by windows to the outside circular and crowned with a flat cornice. Externally the semi-domes and apse are five-sided. From the interior face of the apse and on its northern wall projects a capital, adorned with acanthus leaves, which, as it could never have stood free in this position, probably formed part of an eikonostasis in stone. The narthex is in three bays, the central bay being covered by a barrel vault, while the lateral bays have low drumless domes on pendentives. The entrance is by a door in the central bay, and from that bay the church is entered through a passage cut in the central niche of the western semi-dome, and slightly wider than the niche. The end bays open, respectively, into the northern and southern semi-domes by passages or aisles terminating in a diagonal arch. The arches between these aisles and the western semi-dome are pierced, and thus isolate the western dome piers. On the south the church has been greatly altered; for the entire southern semi-dome and the southern bay of the narthex have been removed and replaced by three aisles of two bays each. These bays are equal in height, and are covered by cross-groined vaults with strong transverse pointed arches supported on square piers, the whole forming a large hall held up by two piers, and showing the distinct influence of Italian Gothic work. This part of the building is modern. On the eastern wall is a large picture of the Last Judgment.

The plan of this church may be compared with that of S. Nicholas Methana (Fig. 97).

Plan of Church.

Fig. 96.

Plan of S. Nicholas Methana.

Fig. 97.
S. Nicholas Methana (Lampakes)

Text quoted from-
Byzantine Churches in Constantinople, Their History and Architecture.
MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited, London, 1912.
by Alexander Van Millingen and Ramsay Traquair and W. S. George and A. E. Henderson.