Today known as Fenarî Isa Mosque, this house of worship, despite being immediately adjacent to the busiest part of the city and despite some parts being lost has stood in its original location for over a thousand years. The building was constructed as a monastery within the city walls. One of the greatest destruction that the church witnessed throughout the Byzantine era was during the Latin period. Although the Orthodox Church cursed Emperor Michael VIII for his ambition to unite with the Catholic Church once his reign had come to an end, his wife Theodora restored the monastery and converted it into a philanthropic institution. The institution had a different sense of philanthropy. The most important annex, a small hospital with twelve beds, did not provide services to outsiders.
Notably, during the political unrest in the final Byzantine era, the imperial family and some powerful personages had monasteries built to secure their future. In this regard, Lips Monastery was rebuilt as a shelter in case of political chaos and danger. During the time he was ruling, the emperor’s son Andronikos II, claimed to be different than his father and donated abundantly to the monastery after which the building served as a sepulcher church for the Palaiologos family and all Byzantines dream to be buried in this monastery was realized for this family. The structure still stands as a sign of the political chaos in the final period of the Byzantine Empire and sense of insecurity, even among members of the imperial family.
Lips Monastery was built in Lycos valley in Byzantine times. This area is today known as Vatan Avenue, in the district of Fatih. Among the modern sources Patriarch Constantinos mentions Lips Monastery for the first time as Panakhrantos Monastery in his work Constantiniade, dated 1861. The source of the name is coming from an inscription on a narrow corbel tablet outside the northern church. Paspates gives a detailed description of the structure in his work, Byzantinai Meletai. Paspates probably confused this building with another Panakhrantos Monastery, which was near Hagia Sophia. Later on Pulgher, Mordtmann, Van Millingen, Ebersolt, Thiers and N. Brunov also mention the structure. Based on Byzantine texts, all researchers indicate that a dignitary named Constantine Lips, who lived during the reign of Emperor Leo VI (886-912) and Constantine Porfirogennetos (913-959), had the northern church built. The opening ceremony was in 907 or 908, with the participation of Leo VI. Emperor Constantine Porfirogennetos mentions Constantine Lips as protospatharios.1 The sources about the history of the structure until the Palaiologos (1223-1453) period are insufficient. But after the Latin invasion, the wife of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1223-1282) and the mother of Androkinos II (1282-1328), Theodora Palaiologina, restored the structure in large scale. Apart from an extensive restoration of the structure, Theodora commissioned another church to be built dedicated to St. John the Baptist and she had the monastery compound extended with a hospital-like structure that included twelve beds. Theodora Palaiologina converted the structure into a sepulcher church for the last imperial family of the Byzantine Empire, the Palaiologos. According to Gregoras, an important historian of the era, many family members, including Andronikos II and Theodora Palaiologina, were buried in the compound. Theodora Palaiologina’s typikon of the structure explains all the rules regarding donations to and the administration of the monastery in detail.
The period when the church was converted into a mosque is not known for certain. According to some views, the conversion occurred during the reign of Sultan Mehmet II (1451-1481), between 1460 and 1480. Another point of view suggests that this process happened during the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512). However, Th. Macridy’s research on the excavations, dated 1929, indicates that this conversion includes only the southern church built by Theodora. The first church on the northern side, dating from the 11th century, was restructured as a dervish lodge. Additions such as the mihrab and minbar to the southern church, are not found in the northern church, thus supporting such a view. Moreover, the Rumelian kazasker Fenarîzade Alaeddin Ali added a minaret to the southeast wall in 1498. In 1636, the grand vizier Bayram Pasha essentially restored the structure, as we can understand from foundation registers. During this restoration, a new minbar was built in the southern church and the northern church was restructured as a dervish lodge. Isa el-Mahvî was the imam of the masjid and transformed the niches of the monastery into the Halvetî zawiyah. Until this date, the structure was the only mosque in the area of the Monastery; from this date on the structure became known as Fenarî Isa, the combination of the two names who transformed the structure from a church to a mosque.
City fires in 1636, 1782, 1784 and 1803 heavily damaged the structure. It is thought that the building was repaired in 1831 on the orders of the sultan, but this is not certain. After a great catastrophe, great fire in 1917, the structure lain in ruins for a long time. Visits by Macridy and Casson changed the destiny of the structure. An extensive investigation was carried out on the structure. In his excavation reports, Macridy rearticulates that another structure had stood on the site of Constantine Lips. However, when the niche-side on the apse was analyzed, it was possible to understand that the floor tiles did not date from the 6th century, but from 10th century. Macridy and Casson state that during excavations remnants of floor tiles and traces of walls belonging to the previous structure were found. The opus sectile depicting Empress Aelia Eudoxia as a saint, dating from the 10th or 11th century, is now in Istanbul Archeological Museum; originally this was located in the church. The minaret was torn down in 1942, and although the structure was partially restored in 1947, it was abandoned for a long time, between 1930 and 1960. During this period, the structure fell under the control of Hagia Sophia Museum. After the Byzantine Institute of America excavated the area between 1960 and 1963, the structure’s destiny changed once again. It was opened for worship as a mosque after the excavation. The structure acted as a mosque during the construction of Vatan Avenue, and still functions as such today.
The structure is the core of a monastery, but none of the annexes are extant today. There are only three contiguous buildings, each built in three different periods. The northern church, of a recent date, was dedicated to Virgin Mary, and had cross-in-square or Greek-cross plan, common to Byzantine architecture. The excavations in 1960 and 1963 revealed that the structure had been built on another structure that dated from an early period. Under the circumstances, it would be correct to think that Constantine Lips acted as an extension and restoration of a previous structure. Tomb stones of an unnamed Roman emperor and some stone material spolia, dated back to the 6th century, were used in the construction. The building was transformed into a narthex plan, in keeping with the Late Byzantine period architecture; this surrounds the northern and southern church in a u-shape and is definitely of the 13th century. The u-shaped narthex to the north no longer exists today. The southern part, however, appears to have been connected to St. John the Baptist Church. The northern church structure consists five sections. The small roof chapels which were added to the corner rooms are interesting. Wooden stairs on the south of narthex, which was once the entrance to the small roof chapels, are no longer present. It is not possible to clearly understand what has been added to the structure after the Latin invasion (1204-1261).
The nave in the northern church measures 14.50 meters long and 9.50 meters wide. There are three entrances from the narthex to the naos. A Thessaly marbled door frame is facing the central portal. There used to be three monograms in circles on the door frame. These monograms were found in the excavations and the letters were deciphered, reading: “Mother of God, allow Constantine to succeed.” The walls of the structure are bond in alternating courses of bricks and ashlar stone. The bricks and stones were cemented with a thick mortar. On both sides of the main apse, are the diakonikon and pastoforion, the preparatory areas for church service. This side is sectioned by windows. A retaining wall for the dome surrounds the structure and an eight-windowed dome tops these walls.
Empress Theodora, as mentioned above, built the southern church in the 13th century and dedicated it to St. John the Baptist. Although the construction dates are not certain, it must have been between the death of Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1282 and Theodora in 1304. Whether the structure was built on a cistern or a vault has not yet been ascertained. As this structure served as a Palaiologos family grave during the 14th century, a bidirectional narthex, that is, a parakklesion including crypts, was added to the structure. This parakklesion has a typical architectural feature. Graves are found here in addition to the tombs under both the structures. These 22 tombs in total were destroyed between 1930 and 1960 when the building was abandoned. According to some sources, the structure was used as a sepulcher church for a short time after 1453.
The southern church has a rectangular structure and a dome, and is split into three sections; there are two entrances, one to the east and the other to the south. The main entrance to the east means that the entrance is on the middle axle. The narthex of this structure appears to be a continuation of the northern part, however, it is wider. The dome is placed on two arches from the apse and two wide bases. Under the ground dating to the Turkish period, four pedestals were found in the excavations; however, it was thought that there would be six such bases. This suggests that the great arches were built during the Turkish period. The dome must also have been rebuilt in the Turkish period. There is a bema arch in front of the apse. The side of the apse is covered with windows from the inside, while small columns and moldings decorate the window openings from the outside. The building material is an alternative composition of 4-5 lines of brick and one line of stone. The bricks on the exterior form a colorful pattern, which was the custom of the era. The decorations on the apse are remarkable and the springers are ornamented with zigzags, swastikas, curly lines and triangles, and interwoven arches surround the window openings.
The narthex, or the parakklesion which surrounds the structure on the southern and western directions, was added to Theodora Palaiologina’s church probably in the 14th century; this is well worth attention as it forms another narthex outside the structure. The southern annex measures 22 meters long, whereas the west annex is 28 meters in length. The width is only 3.50 meters. Two separate entrances lead to the main church. Although being shut during the Turkish period, the other portal on the east annex still functions. The minaret of the structure is on this narthex, at the southwest corner. None of the Byzantine friezes in the structure have survived until the present day.
Eyice, Semavi, “Fenari İsa Camii”, DBİst.A, III, 277-278.
Macridy, Theodore, “The Monastery of Lips and the Burials of the Palaeologi”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1964, vol.18, pp. 253-277.
Mango, Cyril, Ernest, J.W. Hawkins, “Additional Notes, Constantine Lips”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1964, vol. 18, pp. 299-315.
Marinis, Vasileios, “Tombs and Burials in the Monastery tou Libos in Constantinople”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 2009, vol. 63, pp. 147-166.
Megaw, Arthur H.S., “The Original Form of the Theotokos Church of Constantine Lips”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1964, vol.18, pp. 279-298.
Müller-Wiener, Wolfgang, İstanbul’un Tarihsel Topografyası, translated by Ülker Sayın, Istanbul 2001.
Talbot, Alice-Mary, “Empress Theodora Palaiologina, Wife of Michael VIII”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1992, vol. 46, pp. 295-303.
1 Protospatharios: This post was one of the highest ranks, to which generals or chancellors would be promoted, and was common in the Byzantine era between the 8th and 12th centuries.