The Monastery of Christ Pantokrator is located on the fourth hill of Constantinople overlooking the Golden Horn, east of the Church of the Holy Apostles and north of the Aqueduct of Valens. Built between 1118-1136, it was a large monastic complex with a hospital. It is possible that the nearby Şeyh Süleyman Mosque was once part of the complex, perhaps serving as its library. There are also several cisterns in the vicinity, including the prominent is Unkapanı Cistern. At one time it held more than a dozen tombs of Byzantine emperors.
The Pantokrator Monastery complex, which was one of the most ambitious imperial foundations of Constantinople following the reign of Justinian, played an important role in Komnenian ideology. Now known as Zeyrek Mosque, the surviving contiguous structures consist of two churches with a chapel between them. The monastery was founded by Eirene, the wife of John II when construction on the south church, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator, began around 1118. After her death in 1124, John constructed the north church (dedicated to Theotokos Eleousa) and built a funerary chapel (dedicated to the Archangel Michael) for the Komnenos family which joined the two churches. The south courtyard and the exonarthex of the south church were also added during the final stage of construction.
Except for the Church of the Holy Apostles, no other Byzantine building received as many imperial burials. John II (1118-43) and Eirene (Piroska of Hungary), their son Manuel I (1143–1180), and his wife Bertha of Sulzbach, were buried there, as were the Palaiologan emperors Manuel II and John VIII in the 15th century. In front of Manuel's black marble sarcophagus was the Stone of Unction (a marble slab on which Christ’s body laid after his crucifixion), which Manuel brought from Ephesus around 1170. The large funerary chapel of the Archangel Michael is described by the typikon as a heroon – the shrine of a hero later used for the imperial mausoleum of Constantine and his imperial successors at the Church of the Holy Apostles. By using the term heroon at the Pantokrator, the Komnenian emperors were equating their mausoleum with Constantine and his imperial church. The Icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria - the city’s most revered and popular icon - was brought to the Pantokrator when the deceased members of the Komnenian dynasty were commemorated. The monastery was also important for the cult of the empress Eirene promoted by her son, Manuel I, who was also likely behind her canonization.
The typikon of the Pantokrator Monastery, along with the monasteries of Stoudios and Lips, is unique, in that both it foundation document and the church building have survived. Composed in 1136, it provides a wealth of information about the monastery, including explicit liturgical and ceremonial directions and details about the administration of the monastery. The monastery housed 80 monks, of whom 50 were choir brothers. The monastic complex included a 50-bed hospital with a medical school and gerokomeion (old-age home) for 24 elderly men. In addition, a leprosarium was constructed some distance from the monastery. The monastery was richly endowed with estates in Thrace, Macedonia, the Peloponnese, the Aegean and Anatolia, and six smaller monasteries in the Asiatic suburbs of the capital. A short vita of the empress Eirene, written to commemorate her death on August 13, also survives.
The Pantokrator Monastery served as the Venetian headquarters during the Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261). During this time the Icon of Virgin Hodegetria was kept here, though it was later returned to the Hodegon Monastery following the reconquest of Constantinople. It is also possible that some of the panels of the Pala d'Oro in San Marco originally came from the Pantokrator Monastery. While it was originally ordered from Constantinople by the doge Ordelaffo Falier in 1102, it was reworked following the Fourth Crusade’s sacked Constantinople in 1204. Following the reconquest of Constantinople by Michael VIII in 1261, the monastery was returned to Orthodox monks, following which in maintained its prestige and status in the final two centuries of Byzantine Constantinople.
The complex was converted into a mosque soon after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It served as the first madrasa, with Zeyrek Molla Efendi acting as its first müderris. Several changes were made to the structure following its conversion. In addition to adding a minbar and a mihrab and plastering the walls, the columns supporting the domes of the north and south churches were replaced with Ottoman Baroque piers. The dome of the north church was also altered several times. It was restored many times during the Ottoman era, the most significantly occurred after a fire severely damaged it in the late eighteenth century. The Byzantine Institute investigated and restored Zeyrek Mosque in the 1950s and 1960s, revealing the south church’s opus sectile floor. It was again studied and restored in the 1990s and 2000s, and once again in the 2010s. In the 1990s, forty-one amphorae were uncovered over the apse of the north church Building and on the eastern vault of the south church.
The Monastery of Christ Pantokrator is the largest of the Middle Byzantine churches of Constantinople. The north and south churches both have a cross-in-square plan, with a central dome originally supported by four-column, a nine-bay naos, a tripartite bema (triple apse), and a narthex. They also had galleries over their narthexes that opened toward the naos. During construction of the north church and the chapel, an exonarthex and a courtyard (located to the south) were added to the south church, with the north church having some kind of portico attached to its north facade. Originally it had huge columns of red marble, probably spolia, which are now lost. There is also an outer aisle located south, which communicated with the south church through three doors. Recessed brick, which was covered with pink plaster, was used in the construction of the three structures of the monastery, which tends to be sloppy, incorporating bricks of different sizes. A large number of brickstamps dating from the fourth through sixth centuries suggests that the building materials for the twelfth-century complex are almost entirely reused. It has been suggested that this was the location of the house of Hilara, which the emperor Maurice had given to his daughter.
Fragmentary remains give us a glimpse of its original decoration. The south church has marble revetments in the central apse and an extensive figural opus sectile floor, which includes scenes from the life of Samson and the wheel of the zodiac. Fragments of stained glass, discovered in the early 1960s, likely decorated the windows of the apse window of the south church. The stained glass, which was set in lead, consists of various colors, including blue, amber-yellow, emerald green, and a purple-red. Fragments include various decorative patterns as well as facial features and garments, indicating it had life-sized figures. The date of the stained glass has been the subject of extensive debate, but it possibly belongs to the original decoration of the church and was made in Constantinople.
In the north church large parts of the intricate sculptural decoration, including cornices and capitals, have survived. Cornices in the north church show traces of Armenian bole and gold leaf. Traces of mosaics survive the north window of the north church and the apse window of the chapel. The mosaics of the chapel window, for example, consists of a simple rinceau executed in gold on a dark blue background. Its mosaic decoration survived until the late 18th century. Evidence of painted plaster survives on the interior of the blocked windows of the north and south walls of the exonarthex. The surfaces are similar to the surviving mosaics, but have more color and variety. The vine pattern has a white stem outlined in black, surrounding and enclosing fields of red, blue, and yellow. Spolia from the Church of Hagios Polyeutkos were also used at the monastery, including pieces later used in the Ottoman mimbar (pulpit) and possibly in the iconostasis. The mimbar has additional spolia, including a pair of twisted columns possibly coming from a proskynetarion icon. Its canopy comes from a slightly larger Byzantine canopy. Its interior has remnants of a cornice, panels with crosses and monograms.
The chapel between the north and south church was an apsed hall. It had two bays, each of which was capped by an elliptical dome. It was conceived as a funerary chapel for the Komnenian family. While several arcosolia are still evident in the western bay, the identities of their occupants remain unresolved. The only exception is that of Emperor Manuel I (1118-1180), whose black marble sarcophagus was located in the passageway from the south church to the chapel. It is likely that its two domes had two separate functions, the one in the east serving as the liturgical area, and the western one, where the tombs were located, functioning as a funerary space.
Opus Sectile Floor
Opus sectile floor
The floor of the south church’s naos is elaborately decorated with opus sectile, which can be read as an expression of Komnenian ideology. It is largely secular, following themes associated with imperial palaces, including birds of prey, fantastical beasts, the life of Samson and the zodiac. It belongs to the first phase of construction of the monastery. While the surfaces are now abraded, the figures were originally detailed in a sgraffito technique on white marble, set against a background of flat red or green stone.
The decoration of the central space of the naos is divided into nine squares, with large panels and disks of porphyry and verde antique framed by an interlocking triple band of colored marbles. The large disks, which were removed and used elsewhere, were arranged in a quincunx pattern with rinceaux filled with birds and beasts within the spandrels around each disk. Nonfigural patterns are on the panels to the north and south, while the panels to the east and west have various creatures. Near the main entrance is a large disk surrounded by the wheel of the zodiac and personifications of the four seasons. Near the entrance to the bema to the east is another large disk framed by scenes from the life of Samson. Rectangular panels on each side of the east and west disks have scenes of hunting and farming.
Mosaics in Apse Window of Funerary Chapel
Spolia from Hagios Polyeutkos in mimbar
Cornices in the North Church
From Bode Muesum (No. 6270)
Marble Revetments and Mihrab in the South Church
From Byzantine Topographic Studies by Paspates (1877)
Ebersolt & Thiers (1910)
Şeyh Süleyman Mosque
The Late Antique Şeyh Süleyman Mosque possibly functioned as the monastery’s library
Cisterns of the Pantokrator Monastery
There are several monasteries in the vicinity of the Pantokrator Monastery. The Unkapani Cistern (or the Zeyrek/Pantokrator Monastery Cistern) is much larger than the other cisterns in the area, measuring around 18 x 55 meters, with 2 rows of 11 columns and piers. It is built on the side of the hill, with the exposed wall reinforced with a series of niches. There are two more cisterns west of the Pantokrator Monastery south of İbadethane Street. The closer cistern is smaller, measuring around 11.50 x 11.50 meters, with 3 rows of 3 columns. The second cistern is around 28 x 11 meters, with 2 rows of 6 columns and piers. There is a cistern located north of Şeyh Süleyman Mosque, measuring around 10.5 x 14.5 meters with 2 rows of 3 columns. Another cistern was discovered in 1998 around 50 meters north of the Unkapani Cistern. It consists of two separate structures behind a retaining wall that is 15 meters long. All of these cisterns perhaps date to the construction of the monastery, though the Unkapani Cistern has also been dated to the 6th century.
Plan by Forchheimer & Strzygowski
İbadethane Street Cisterns
Plan by Forchheimer & Strzygowski
Cistern north of the Unkapani Cistern
John Komnenos II and Eirene with the Theotokos
Sarcophagus of Empress (often associated with Empress Irene) at Hagia Sophia
Pala d’Oro in San Marco, Venice
Photo by Daperro
Synaxarion of Eirene
On the same day, commemoration of Eirene, the celebrated and most blessed empress and founder of the venerable monastery of the Pantokrator Saviour Christ, who was renamed as the nun Xene on taking the holy and angelic habit
It was necessary that this most great and supreme city should not just take pride in the beauty of things given over to corruption, and take delight and rejoice in tales of men of old who are renowned for their virtue. Rather, it was right for [Constantinople] to boast of and be embellished by the celebrated empress and founder of the Pantokrator monastery. On the one hand, since the things of old had faded with time, and their beauty was extinguished, they no longer served as sources of delight to their beholders. Not even if they had undergone restoration would they have been sufficient to delight the eye; they still looked neglected. For such were the beauty and brightness of the buildings raised from their very foundations by the celebrated empress, with the consent and approval of the mighty emperor, in glorification and thanks to the Pantokrator our God and Saviour Jesus Christ who glorified them with coronation, that the city was dignified by them, and by the rays that they emitted, they illumined and brightened the buildings that grown old and faded with time. On the other hand, the empress, who had acquired all the virtues from childhood and was a receptacle of all good things – this is why she was joined in marriage to the God-crowned and Purple-born emperor – showed herself to be a veritable ornament, not only to the offspring of the imperial Porphyra raised as emperors, in that she was reckoned to be, as indeed she was, the one who set the seal on all the empresses before her, as well as a root of all good qualities and archetypal mould for those who came after her; she was also an adornment to the Queen of Cities.
This celebrated empress, then, came from parents who were fortunate western kings; from the cradle, so to speak, like the noblest of plants, she showed the way that things would turn out, so that her progress in excellence belied her tender age. For virtue tends to reveal and proclaim those who pursue it, even if they are hidden away in a corner.
When a search for a good-looking and virtuous girl was conducted by the celebrated and pious imperial couple Alexios Komnenos and Eirene, and they found this one brimming with excellent qualities, they joined her to their God-given offspring, the Purple-born emperor; then everything was filled with joy and gladness.
Having borne him male children and as many females to a total of eight, she raised them in a royal and splendid manner, but reckoned the pleasures of life and even the royalty itself at nought, whispering to herself the words of David, ‘What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?’ (Ps. 29,10 [30,9]). She did not desist from ministering to God, by her good intercessions with the imperial power, representing the causes of petitioners, and guiding them in every way.
But she also rejoiced in almsgiving, more than in receiving money. Before her coronation, she gave everything that came into her hands to the poor, and after it she became just as much a protector of orphans and widows, and she enriched monastic dwellings with money. How shall I tell of the rest? Her gentleness, her quietness, her humility, her compassion, her cheerfulness, her approachability, her placid nature, for she was never moved to anger, and neither did she malign or insult anyone. And if ever she ventured a smile, this too was done with modesty, for she was ever grieving and sorrowful in private, because the psalter was ever on her lips. She was distinguished by continence, she delighted in the wasting of the flesh, and partaking of a lowly and simple diet, she lived an ascetic life.
Yet considering all this inadequate to the God-loving purpose that she nurtured, slowly and latterly, after receiving the imperial crown and being elevated to imperial power, she disregarded everything else, and setting at nought all necessary and urgent matters, she established from its very foundations the imperial monastery that is named after the Pantokrator Saviour Christ our God. She erected the beautiful churches that can be seen there now, hostels and old-age homes, all of which in beauty, situation and construction technique take first place among all previous buildings, both old and recent. In everything she was greatly assisted by the most worthy Nikephoros, her most trusted household man, truly a new Beseleel, He fittingly ordered the harmonious design of the buildings, driving the construction work with great energy, so that he neither allowed his eyes sufficient sleep, nor rest to his head.
And thus constructing and establishing the whole complex with his collaboration, she set it up as a delightful embellishment for the imperial city, rejoicing in the beauty of the successful result and giving thanks to God.
Now that she needed a greater helping hand, she found it. For on one occasion, taking her husband the emperor by the hand, and entering the lovely church of God the Pantokrator our Lord Jesus Christ, she suddenly threw herself down, pressing her head to the sacred floor. “Receive, O Lord, the church that God has built for you”, she exclaimed in tears, adding tears to tears and affirming that she would not get up if the thing that she desired did not receive fulfilment. As she washed the sacred floor with her tears, she heard the emperor promise what she wanted, to fulfil every one of her wishes, and to do all that was in his power and more, in every way, in the dedication of sacred vessels and in the donation of landed property, in order to contrive that this venerable monastery should prevail over all others in moveable and immoveable property and in annual revenues, just as Our Lord and God the Pantokrator Jesus Christ, who is honoured and revered therein, takes precedence over all things. Hearing this, she rose to her feet full of inexpressible joy and cheerfulness.
And so the celebrated empress, as if casting off a weight that had been oppressing her, was glad from that moment and rejoiced. Not long afterwards, when she was in the province of Bithynia, she departed to Christ Pantokrator for whom she longed. She was laid to rest in this monastery, which she had raised from its foundations. The promise that she had received from the pious emperor had been fulfilled and the imperial Pantokrator monastery had been extended to take first place over all and among all others. And it was not long before the most pious and celebrated emperor John himself, laying aside the earthly empire, migrated to the Lord and King who is in heaven. His body was laid to rest in the imperial Pantokrator monastery that had been made splendid by him, to the glory of the Pantokrator Christ our true God, for to Him is due glory unto the ages of ages, Amen.
Plan by Marinis
Click to see map of Byzantine Churches of Constantinople
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Hypothetical Reconstruction of Stained Glass in Main Apse of South Church
Fragments of Iconostasis Marble Panels
Possibly early 6th century
Reconstruction of Iconostasis
Fragments of Marble Arch Spandrels from Two Tomb Façades
Late 13th or early 14th century
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Marble Reliquary (first half of 12th century ?)
At Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Verd Antique Panel
Architecture and Ritual in the Churches of Constantinople: Ninth to Fifteenth Centuries by V. Marinis
The Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople edited by Sofia Kotzabassi
Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls: Byzantion, Konstantinupolis, Istanbul by Wolfgang Müller-Wiener
Converted Byzantine Churches in Istanbul: Their Transformation Into Mosques and Masjids by S. Kirimtayif
Byzantine Constantinople: Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life edited by Nevra Necipoğlu
The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context by Michael J Angold
“Study and Restoration of the Zeyrek Camii in Istanbul: First Report” by Ousterhout, Özügül, Ahunbay & Ahunbay
“Study and Restoration of the Zeyrek Camii in Istanbul: Second Report” by Ousterhout, Ahunbay & Ahunbay
“Notes on Recent Work of the Byzantine Institute in Istanbul 1963” by Megaw
İstanbul'da Bizans Dönemi Sarnıçlarının Mimari Özellikleri ve Kentin Tarihsel Topografyasındaki Dağılımı by Kerim Altuğ
Byzantine Churches of Constantinople (Byzantine Legacy Google Map)