Istanbul’s Kariye Museum, the former Church of St Saviour in Chora, is after the Hagia Sophia, the greatest surviving example of Byzantine heritage in the city once known as Constantinople that was taken over by the Ottomans in 1453. Amid the glittering portrayals of Christ and the saints that have made this building revered around the world, one face that for me has always stood out. The face of a pious, devoted and beautiful woman, hands clasped out in devotion and wearing some kind of wimple.
This could be the face (and only existing likeness) of Maria Palaiologina, better known now as Maria of the Mongols, whose life story is one of the most extraordinary examples of globalisation in the mediaeval world and also an inspiration for the cross-cultural influences from east and west that still influence the city of Istanbul today.
Maria was the illegitimate daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII. With such a status, she probably had little idea of what life had in store for her in the imperial city. But her fate turned out to be more dramatic than anyone could have imagined.
The Mongol Empire, at this time at its zenith, was on the defensive, fighting down insurrections in Iran and the Middle East as it tried to advance westwards. It had managed to maintain good relations with just one power, the Byzantine Empire. It was in this spirit that Michael agreed to dispatch his daughter to marry the Mongol Ilkhan Hulegu, the grandson of Genghis Khan. One can only imagine the apprehension the young woman would have felt as she stepped out thousands of kilometres in 1265 on the most arduous of journeys to the east. Today, Turkish Airlines, which flies to more destinations than any carrier (including the Mongolian capital Ulaanbataar), is Istanbul’s greatest asset in making the city a global hub. The Byzantines, of course, just had the horse.
Hulegi was one of the outstanding figures of Mongol history. He ruled the Ilkhanate — that included most of today’s Iran — of the Mongol Empire, the biggest continuous imperium the world has ever seen. Hulegu led a military campaign to expand the empire further westwards capped by the siege and sacking of Baghdad in 1258, which ended with the caliph being rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses.
His mother Sorghaghtani Beki was hugely influential. Her cultural and political importance is often compared by mediaeval historians to that of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the French-born duchess who married King Henry II of England, lived to her 80s and for a time was the de-facto ruler of England. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of the Mongol Empire is the importance of women. A Nestorian Christian, Sorghaghtani Beki pushed for greater links to Christian powers in the West. Fanciful promoters suggested she was the daughter of the legendary, and entirely mythical, Christian king of the east, Prester John.
Maria was joining a surprisingly cosmopolitan society but also a highly polygamous one and she was to have been just one of several wives of Hulegu. His favourite wife Doquz Khatun, was also a Christian.
One can also only imagine Maria’s reaction when having travelled all that way, she discovered that Hulegu had died in 1265, while she was en route. With the entourages on both sides apparently not deterred, she ended up marrying his son and heir Abaqa Khan instead.
His reign was marked by civil war and botched attempts to push further into Syria, as the once invincible Empire began to show signs of decline. But although he was not her intended spouse, Maria remained his wife until Abaqa Khan’s death. She took over the matriarchal role from Doquz Khatun, who also died in 1265, becoming known as Despina Khatun.
But when Abaqa Khan died in 1282, Maria did something remarkable.
She went back home.
She retraced every pace of the arduous journey that she had made two decades before as a young woman. Rejecting entreaties to marry again to another Mongol prince, Maria made the final remarkable step of of a remarkable life by deciding to become a nun and then founding the Church of St Mary. She became abbess of the nunnery attached to the church. It is tempting to imagine her sitting by candlelight at night and relating to astonished listeners her stories from a distant land of which they could only have the slightest comprehension.
Situated on the banks of the Golden Horn, the church is tricky to find and inconspicuously marked amid the warren-like lanes of the Fener district. It’s a steep climb up the hill in a district dotted with Byzantine remnants and which still houses the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the first among equals of the Orthodox church.
In Greek, it’s known as the Panaghia Muchliotissa church. But today the only sign outside its door is in Turkish — Meryem Ana Rum Ortodoks Kilisesi. Once located, it is conspicuous with its russet-coloured exterior. In Turkish it is known as Kanli Kilise — Bloody Church — apparently because it was here that the Byzantines made a final and desperate act of resistance in 1453.
Famously, it is the only church in the city never to have been converted into a mosque and in continuous religious service to the Orthodox community ever since the 1453 invasion. Both Mehmet II and Beyazid II issued a firman (decree ) confirming its ownership by the Greek community. Confusingly, the church is dedicated to the virgin Mary and Maria herself was never canonised. It’s now best known as the Church of St Mary of the Mongols.
Back to the Kariye Museum. There is some confusion over the famous mosaic which shows the woman as a donor before Christ. The legend above reads “Lady of the Mongols” but some speculate that this could be Euphrosyne Palaiologina, another illegitimate daughter of Michael VIII, who also married a Mongol chieftan, Nogai Khan of the Golden Horde.
But given it’s our only chance of having any likeness of this incredible woman, whose story is faintly traced but largely lost in the mists of time, I would very much like to believe it is her. Mary of the Mongols, the woman who travelled out to the east and then came back home.