The building of the Byzantine church called Myrelaion, now known as the Bodrum Mosque or Mesih Pasha Mosque, is one of the inconspicuous buildings located in the neighbourhood of Laleli in Istanbul. Choked on three sides by ugly apartment buildings, it remains a modest reminder of the former palace complex of the same name. However, its unusual history is worth remembering as an excellent illustration of how confusing and twisted were fates of the inhabitants and the buildings of Constantinople.
When looking more closely at the history of this building, you come across two extremely ambitious characters, separated by over half a thousand years, but somehow strongly connected by their great ambitions, remarkable political careers, and the involvement in the fate of the Myrelaion building. The story begins in the village called Lakape, somewhere between Melitene and Samosata in eastern Anatolia. There, a simple boy from the Armenian peasant family with a rather unusual name Theophylact was born. Hence the later ancestral name of Lekapen was added to the titles of his descendants. Theophylact the Unbearable (Theophylaktos Abastaktos) became a soldier, and his career began with a heroic deed: during the battle of Tephrike (now Divriği) he saved the life of Emperor Basil I. He was awarded a position in the Imperial Guard in Constantinople, a long way from his home.
His son, Romanos, found himself in a privileged position and, despite the lack of education, he quickly climbed the ranks of the military career until he became the admiral of the fleet (droungarios tou ploimou). Shortly after that, a groundbreaking event happened - in 919 Romanos managed to work his way to become a regent until the adulthood of Emperor Constantine VII Flavius Porphyrogenitus, then 14 years old. An expert in political manoeuvres, the fleet commander gave his daughter Helena to the emperor as a wife, and only a year later pushed him to the sidelines, crowning himself as Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos. Constantine VII was downgraded to the role of co-emperor, but even this position was uncertain because Romanos' co-emperors and natural successors were also his three sons. Over the next twenty-five years, Constantine was engaged in scientific and writing activities, outside the mainstream of political life. It must be admitted that he was still fortunate, because he escaped all these turmoils and survived in sound health.
Around the time when he became the emperor, Romanos acquired a palatial residence in the ninth region of Constantinople, near the Marmara Sea, in a place traditionally called Myrelaion. This meant the "place of myrrh" - the fragrant resin that Jesus was to receive from the Wise Men of the East. Romanos' intention was probably to create a new imperial residence in this location, which was to overshadow the Grand Palace and serve as a family tomb at the same time.
However, the history of this building and the plans that Romanos Lekapenos had regarding it are not entirely clear. Some scholars, such as John Wortley, claim that Myrelaion was Romanos' residence before he became the emperor. Moreover, after ascending the throne, he probably moved to the Grand Palace, ordering the transformation of his former household into a nunnery.
What's more, some Byzantine sources, for instance Pseudo-Codinus, tell a legend that is to prove that the building of Myrelaion itself was much older. It supposedly had already existed during the reign of Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos, that is, in the middle of the 8th century. This emperor, whose unfavourable nickname meaning the dung-named was given to him by later Byzantine historians and writers, was one of the greatest iconoclasts. The legend says that when passing the Myrelaion, which had already functioned as a monastery at the time, the emperor asked for its name. When he heard the reply, he retorted maliciously that it would be better to use the term Psarelaion, i.e. fish frying oil. The monks considered this statement as a kind of warning and quickly escaped from the monastery. This legend echoes the actual actions of the emperor, who considered monasteries as refuges for iconodules, the defenders of icons. Constantine V ordered the conversion of many monasteries into warehouses and barracks, as well as forced marriages of monks and nuns.
Whether the monastery of Myrelaion really existed before the 10th century and whether his monks were chased away by Constantine V, remains uncertain. This legend, or at least a fragment of it, telling about the existence of the monastery in this location several centuries before Emperor Romanos Lekapenos, was partly confirmed by archaeological excavations. They were conducted by Talbot Rice in 1930. He discovered that under the church building there were remains of another structure, erected of materials characteristic of the 5th and 6th centuries. On this basis, Rice believed that it was the monastery from the legend of Emperor Constantine V.
Myrelaion Palace was built on the foundation of a huge rotunda from the 5th century, with the outer diameter reaching nearly 42 meters. This meant that it was the second largest building of this type erected in ancient times, after the Roman Pantheon. Despite these impressive dimensions, the original function of the building is still a mystery to historians. However, during Romanos Lekapenos' construction plans, the rotunda was no longer in use. The architects of the palace complex transformed it into a cistern, dividing its spacious interior into smaller sectors using arched vaults supported on at least 70 columns. In this way, a platform was created above the ground, supporting the buildings of the palace complex.
The palatial complex also included a church - the planned resting place of Romanos and his family. Because there was no more space on the circular platform formed by the rotunda, a separate substructure was created, connected to the rotunda from the south-east. In this way, the church was erected on its own high platform to be on the same level as the palace rising of the huge rotunda.
The first person buried in the Myrelaion complex was the wife of Romanos, Empress Theodora, who died in 922. In 931, she was joined in the final resting place by her eldest son, Christopher Lekapenos, who had ruled as a co-emperor for 11 years alongside his father and two brothers. His burial in the Myrelaion Church was a breach of the six-century old tradition of burying emperors in the Church of the Holy Apostles. In 940, Helena, the first wife of Constantine Lekapenos, Roman's younger son, was also buried there. Moreover, Romanos ordered the transfer of three imperial marble sarcophagi from the church of Saint Mammes to the Myrelaion Church. These were the sarcophagi in which Emperor Maurice and his six sons, killed during the rebellion of Phokas in 602, had been buried over 300 years earlier.
Emperor Romanos Lekapenos himself ruled for many years and achieved many successes, both in the military and legislative fields. His most outstanding commander was general John Kourkouas, sometimes called "a Belisarius". He conducted military campaigns in Eastern Anatolia, where he won Dara and Nisibis, paving the way for the even more dramatic reconquests in the middle and the second half of the 10th century. He returned triumphantly from this expedition, bringing to Constantinople the so-called mandylion - the holy towel with a reflected face of Jesus, allegedly sent by Christ to King Abgar V of Edessa. Kourkouas obtained it in Edessa, as a ransom for breaking the siege.
In the later years of the reign of Emperor Romanos, he became increasingly occupied with religious issues such as divine judgment. This was perhaps related to the sense of guilt caused by the seizure of the throne legally belonging to Constantine VII. Moreover, after the death of his eldest son, whom he considered the most competent in matters of state importance, the emperor did not bother to promote his younger sons - Stephen and Constantine - as future rulers. Worried about these developments, the sons decided to take matters into their own hands, and in December 944 they arrested their own father. Romanos was sent to exile to the island of Proti (now Kınalıada) and became a monk.
However, the conspirators failed to seize the throne as they miscalculated their power, not taking into account the mood in the capital, whose inhabitants supported the right to the throne of Constantine VII. Soon Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos joined their father in exile, and the former emperor greeted them ironically. Constantine was later transferred from one island to another, and died between 946 and 948, killed while trying to escape from Samothrace. Romanos died shortly afterwards, in 948. Both the father and the son were buried in the family tomb in the church of Myrelaion. Stephen lived the longest in captivity, also repeatedly transferred before his death on the island of Lesbos in 963. In the meantime, in 961, Helena, the daughter of Romanos and the wife of Constantine VII was also buried in Myralaion.
Before getting back to the history of this building, it is worth mentioning that all these vicissitudes ended well for the rightful ruler, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. After many years of the forced withdrawal from state affairs, he finally began the independent rule. He expressed his attitude towards the usurper and father-in-law in the manual for the rulers "De Administrando Imperio", which he created for his son, the future emperor Romanos II. He bluntly wrote there that Romanos Lekapenos was "an idiot and an illiterate man, neither bred in the high imperial manner". Despite the resentment that he felt for his father-in-law throughout his life, Constantine continued his main lines of internal and external policy. He also initiated extensive scientific and educational activities, giving impetus to the intellectual development of the empire and the revival of Byzantine historiography.
However, this is not the end of the imperial relations with the Myrelaion monastery. In 959, Constantine VII died, and his son Romanos II, named after his grandfather, ascended the throne. This event was not without trouble as it happened among the rumours that he poisoned his father, personally or with the participation of his wife. This was quite an extraordinary woman, as Romanos II he had his father promise him earlier that he would be able to choose his wife by himself. The choice fell on an innkeeper's daughter, beautiful Anastaso, who changed her name to hTeofano after the wedding. There were many rumours about her, and her influence on the imperial husband was enormous. To please her, Romanos II excused his mother, Empress Helena, from the court and forced his five sisters into convents. One of them, Agatha, became a nun at the Myrelaion Monastery.
The monastery certainly functioned also a century later, in 1059, when Emperor Isaac I Komnenos became seriously ill. Thinking that his illness was fatal, he appointed Constantine Dukas as his successor, abdicated, and withdrew to the Stoudion monastery. He did recover, but he did not return to the throne, but instead turned to literature studies. His wife, Issue, also withdrew from public life and entered the Myrelaion monastery under the name Xene. She was accompanied by her daughter, supposedly of great beauty, Maria Komnene.
The entire Myrelaion complex was severely damaged by a great fire that broke out in Constantinople in August of 1203. This event was related to the dramatic events of the Fourth Crusade, which turned against the Byzantine Empire. In July of 1203, Emperor Isaac II Angelos, in negotiations with the leaders of the crusade, agreed to the coronation of his son Alexios IV Angelos as co-emperor. It happened on the 1st of August, 1203, and the Crusaders remained in the camp under the walls of Constantinople, but they gained free access to the city.
The mood in Constantinople was unusually tense, and on the 18th of August, a furious crowd of city residents unloaded their frustration by destroying and setting fire to the Latin Quarter along the Golden Horn. The next day, in retaliation, armed Flemings, Venetians, and Pisans crossed the bay and attacked the mosque on the coast. Muslims stood up to fight, calling for help from their Christian neighbours. The attacking forces retreated behind the water, but the fire they caused to cover the retreat got completely out of control. Extinguishing the fire was said to last more than a week, and the damage was massive. Hagia Sofia barely survived as the fire licked her atrium. Unfortunately, Myrelaion was not so lucky, and his fate was confirmed by archaeological excavations that detected traces of fire from the 13th century.
During the Latin occupation of Constantinople, the area around Myrelaion was plundered by the Crusaders. At that time, among others, a porphyry sculpture from the beginning of the 4th century known as the Tetrarch Group was taken to Venice. It presents two pairs of Roman rulers joined together in a fraternal embrace: Diocletian with Maximian and Constantius Chlorus with Galerius. They who jointly ruled the Roman Empire as so-called Tetrarchs. The sculpture was fixed to a corner of the façade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice, but a careful look at this work of art will reveal the lack of one foot. The heel of this foot was found during the excavations carried out in the 1960s by Rudolf Naumann near the foundation of the Bodrum Mosque, i.e. the former Myrelaion monastery. This valuable fragment is currently exhibited at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. It also confirms the traditional belief that it was from Constantinople that this sculpture came to Venice.
After the fire, the Myraleion complex remained a ruin until the end of the Latin occupation in 1261. Certainly, it underwent renovation during the Palaiologos dynasty rule, at the end of the 13th century, but the work done lacked the grandeur of the ancient times - the empire was impoverished and falling into decline. During this work, a funeral chapel was added to the foundations of the church.
After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, the church was not immediately transformed into a mosque. This happened only around 1500, at the behest of Mesih Pasha. Since then, the Myrelaion is known as Bodrum Mosque (Cellar Mosque) because of its substructure, or Mesih Pasha Mosque because of its re-founder. The irony of fate is the fact that Mesih Pasha was probably the nephew of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos. Because Constantine XI did not leave any descendants, it meant that if the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II did not become the conqueror of Constantinople, the nephew of Constantine could sit on the imperial throne. However, this did not happen, and after the fall of Constantinople this boy, then about ten years old, along with his brother, were raised as pages under the auspices of Mehmed II. They converted to Islam and took new names: Mesih and Hass Murad.
Mesih later made a stunning career in the Ottoman army, the same military formation that destroyed the Byzantine Empire or its modest remains. He became one of the most powerful people in the Ottoman Empire, the emerging power of the region. He was first attested in historical sources in 1470, by which time he was already the sanjak bey of Gallipoli. He later served as kapudan pasha,i.e. commander-in-chief of the Ottoman navy. Although the failure of the fleet to capture Rhodes in 1480 somewhat slowed his progress on the path of the Ottoman career, but in 1499 he took the highest position in the state available to a person unrelated to the family of Osman - he became a Grand Vizier. In this position, during the reign of Sultan Bayezid II, he ordered the conversion of the former Myrelaion church into a mosque. In this way, after more than 500 years, Myrelaion again attracted the attention of a person turning in the highest circles of power at the court in Constantinople. Both Romanos Lekapenos and Mesih Pasha were also commanders of war fleets and skilled politicians, making the best of the given circumstances
Unfortunately, Mesih Pasha enjoyed the position of Grand Vizier for a short time, as it frequently happened in the Ottoman history. In November 1501, he had an accident while putting out a fire in the Galata district and died as a result of injuries. The mystery of the personal participation of the Grand Vizier in firefighting activities remains unsolved. Still, it is known that he did not enjoy the greatest grace of the Sultan at that time. In the spring of that year, he had set out to suppress the uprising of local tribes in the central part of Anatolia, which supported the pretender to the Sultan's throne. Mesih persuaded the tribes to stop supporting this Mustafa, but his return to the capital was not triumphant. In the meantime, the Franco-Venetian fleet invaded Lesbos. Apparently, Sultan Bayezid II was so angry that struck Mesih with his bow. Was his death shortly afterwards only an unfortunate accident? This is not known, but the fact is that he was buried in the Aksaray district, in a mosque built by Hass Murad and completed by Mesih after his brother's death.
The former Myrelaion church, after being converted into a mosque, underwent some modifications to fulfil its new function well. For example, the mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca had to be placed asymmetrically in relation to the general plan of the building. The interior is now covered with plaster and painted with white paint, while the decorative elements are simple, painted inscriptions and geometric elements. A minaret with one balcony was also added in the corner of the building. However, the external appearance of the structure, its brick walls and the small central dome clearly indicate its origins.
It should be remembered, however, that the current appearance of the Bodrum Mosque, is largely the result of renovations. In addition to the huge fire from the time of the Fourth Crusade, it was also damaged by the fires of 1784 and 1911. After that last fire, the building was abandoned and forgotten. It remained partly hidden by the raised ground level as well as debris and stones. In 1930, David Talbot Rice discovered an enormous cistern - the former rotunda and foundation of the palace.
However, it wasn't until 1964-1965 that systematic renovation and archaeological works began, conducted by the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul in cooperation with the German Archaeological Institute. They were aimed at uncovering the former church. Almost all masonry elements were replaced then, but the work was suddenly stopped. Unfortunately, it was only after around 90% of the original masonry was replaced with new concrete bricks. This treatment revised windows and door lines, erased masonry joints, and eliminated the saw-toothed courses which had defined the original lines of the building. In 1965, two excavation projects were also carried out. Art historian Cecil L. Striker focused on the foundation of the former church, and Rudolf Naumann - on the search for the traces of the former palace-monastery of Romanos Lekapenos.
The renovation of the mosque was finished in 1986, and a year later the mosque opened to the faithful. In 1990, the cistern-rotunda was restored as a shopping centre. For some time, this space also served as a prayer room for women, but now it is again a bazaar with numerous stands selling clothing. Unfortunately, the Mirelion Çarşısı bazaar is a rather depressing place. Stalls with various goods hide the original appearance of the structure. Sheepskin coats and leather jackets cover original Byzantine columns with capitals decorated with the symbol of the cross.
Finally, it is worth paying attention to the architecture of the church-mosque. It was built of bricks, on a foundation structure made of alternated courses of bricks and stone. The building has a cross-in-square (or quincunx) plan, with the sides only 9 meters long. These are quite modest dimensions for a building with such an interesting and complicated history.
The central nave, or naos, is topped with an umbrella dome, with a drum interrupted by arched windows. The naves are marked by four massive pillars that replaced the original columns in the Ottoman period. The four side naves are covered with barrel vaults. Above the central part of the building, there is a small dome supported by a cylindrical drum, which also has window openings. From the outside, the building is characterized by semi-cylindrical buttresses that emphasize the wavy appearance of the façade and add to its elegance and harmony.
Under the mosque, there is an underground crypt, with the ceiling is supported by columns with original Byzantine capitals. It is the former foundation of the church, later transformed into a funeral chapel. It is in this crypt that the only fresco of the old church has been preserved, dating to the period of Palaiologos dynasty rule. Its upper part has not survived, but in the lower part, one can see a kneeling female figure in front of the standing Mother of God with the Baby Jesus in her arms. This depiction is called Hodegetria, which means She who points the Way. However, no traces of the decoration of the old church have been preserved inside the mosque. It is known that it was covered with marble slabs and mosaics. Archaeologists found the traces of these decorations in the rubble filling the foundations. The finds included mosaic cubes (so-called tesserae), fragments of ceramic and marble plates, and liturgical furniture.