Istanbul is well-known for its many beautiful mosques as well as architectural marvels from the Ottoman Empire. Under their reign, peoples from many different ethnicities and religions flourished in Istanbul. Pockets of this diverse past remain in richly decorated Istanbul churches and other religious buildings still in use today.
There are hundreds of Armenian Churches tucked away in corners of Istanbul. As the Armenian population of Istanbul has become smaller, the number of Armenian churches in use has shrunk. One still in operation is the Surp Garabed Armenian Church (Church of St John the Baptist) that I stumbled across on my way to Çinli Camii in the Murat Reis neighbourhood of Üsküdar. Although the construction date of the church is not known, it is one of the oldest Armenian churches in Istanbul, and has existed at least since the year 1555. The church was originally erected as a small, wooden temple at the firman or royal decree of the sultan. It was to be used by Armenian workers, most of whom had migrated from Muş or Van to work on the construction of many public buildings, including the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, also in Üsküdar. The church has been rebuilt several times following fires, and the current church was built in stone following the great Yenimahalle Fire in 1888, and is still open for church services today.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has been on the same site since about 1601, although the present Church of St George only dates from 1720. Like all churches built in Istanbul after the conquest of 1453, it is small in size as Christians were forbidden to build churches with domes or masonry roofs. Although its present congregation numbers only a few thousand, it is still the centre of the Orthodox Church. In its heyday the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople dominated the religious affairs of the entire Eastern Christian world.
Known in Greek as the Megali Scholio, or the Great School, the Özel Fener Rum Lisesi (Fener Greek Orthodox College) was founded before the conquest of Istanbul. It remained the principal Greek institution of secular education throughout the course of Ottoman history. The present building was designed by the Ottoman Greek architect Konstantinos Dimadis in 1881 and continues to educate pupils today, providing a full Turkish curriculum as well as a thorough grounding in Greek language, literature and religion.
In Byzantine times, there were at least three monasteries on Heybeliada (Saddle Bag island), then known as Halki. Today, only the Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity) monastery remains, standing on the crest of Ümit hill. With a long history that predates the conquest, the building housed the main Greek Orthodox theological seminary in Turkey until it was closed in 1971. To this day a former teacher of mathematics visits the school every Wednesday to take tea and reminisce about his former colleagues and pupils.
Meryem Ana (Church of the Virgin Mary) in Karaköy, was built in 1583 by Tryfon Karabeinikov. It is more popularly known as Santa Maria de Kaffa (Panagia Kaphatiani) because it was founded by the Greek community of Kaffa (Crimean Greeks). It is now the headquarters of the Patriarchate of the Turkish Orthodox Church whose origins can be traced back to the Greco-Turkish War. In 1922 a pro-Turkish Orthodox group was set up consisting of the Turkish-speaking, Orthodox Christian Karamanlides population of Anatolia who wished to remain both Orthodox and Turkish. The group has had a turbulent history and religious services ceased to be held in the church in 2008.
You can learn more about life in modern Istanbul in my collection of short essays called Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.