Essential Architecture-  Turkey

Monastery of Manuel, Kefelé Mesjedi




Istanbul, Turkey






Brick, originally tile roof, later lead roof.


Present-day Mosque, former Church



The mosque known as Kefelé Mesjedi, in the quarter of Salma Tomruk, is commonly supposed to represent the monastery founded by Manuel, a distinguished general in the wars with the Saracens during the reign of Theophilus (823-842). This opinion is doubtless based upon the circumstance that the monastery in question stood in the vicinity of the cistern of Aspar, (the large open reservoir to the east of the Gate of Adrianople), near which Kefelé Mesjedi is also situated. But that circumstance alone cannot be regarded as sufficient ground for the identification of the two buildings. There are at least five other monasteries mentioned in Byzantine history, all distinguished by the mark of their proximity to the cistern of Aspar. And at a short distance to the west of Kefelé Mesjedi, and nearer to the cistern of Aspar, we find the remains of an old church, now Odalar Mesjedi, which might with equal force claim to represent the monastery of Manuel. The commonly received identification may, however, be correct as a happy conjecture. Mr. Siderides, indeed, considers the identification of the monastery of Manuel with Kefelé Mesjedi a mistake. According to him, that monastery was a reconstruction or enlargement of the ancient monastery of SS. Manuel, Sabel, and Ishmael, which stood on the heights above the Phanar, now crowned by the mosque of Sultan Selim. To the objection that there it would not be near the cistern of Aspar, Mr. Siderides replies by denying the correctness of the identification of that cistern with the open reservoir (Tchoukour Bostan) to the east of the gate of Adrianople, and in the vicinity of Kefelé Mesjedi. In Mr. Siderides' opinion the cistern of Aspar is the beautiful covered cistern, generally known as the cistern of Puicheria, to the south-west of the mosque of Sultan Selim. But the dimensions of the cistern ascribed to the famous sister of Theodosius II. do not accord with the size of the cistern of Aspar. The latter was 'a very large cistern, while the former is only m. 29.1 long by m. 18 wide, with a roof supported on four rows of seven columns—not a large cistern as works of that class went in Constantinople. But if the cistern of Aspar was not situated in the district now marked by the mosque of Sultan Selim, neither could the monastery of Manuel have been there. Mr. Siderides, moreover, identifies the monastery of Manuel with that of Manoueliou (τοῦ Μανουηλίου) which appears in the Proceedings of the Synod held at Constantinople in 536 under Justinian. This, however, does not agree with the statement that the monastery of Manuel was originally the private residence of the well-known general of that name in the ninth century. Furthermore, it is always dangerous to assume that the same name could not belong to different buildings, especially when the name occurs at distant intervals in the history of the city. Many mistakes in the topography of Constantinople are due to this false method of identification. As a matter of fact, the monastery of Manuel near the cistern of Aspar was not the only House of that name in the capital of the East. Another monastery of Manuel stood beside the Golden Horn, in the Genoese quarter, between the gate of the Neorion (Bagtché Kapoussi) and the gate of Eugenius (Yali Kiosk Kapoussi). It had a pier, known as the pier of the venerable monastery of Manuel,  Paspates is consequently wrong in associating that pier with Kefelé Mesjedi.

S. Theodore. The Outer Narthex, looking north.

S. Theodore.
The Outer Narthex, looking north.

S. Theodore. Capital to the north of the Door.

S. Theodore.
Capital to the north of the Door leading from the Outer to the Inner Narthex.

Mordtmann accepts the identification of Kefelé Mesjedi with the monastery of Manuel as correct, but he identifies it also with the church and monastery which Gerlach found in this neighbourhood, and describes under the name of Aetius. When visited by Gerlach in 1573, the church had been converted into a mosque, and was a beautiful building in excellent preservation. If all that remains of it is the bare structure of Kefelé Mesjedi, the city has to mourn a great loss.


Manuel, the founder of the monastery, was the uncle of  the Empress Theodora, wife of the Emperor Theophilus, and proved a loyal and devoted servant of the imperial family. Twice at the peril of his own life he saved the emperor from capture, if not from death, during the wars with the Saracens. Nevertheless, being accused of treason he fled to the court of Baghdad and took service under the Caliph Mutasim, until assured that Constantinople would welcome him back.


He was one of the three counsellors appointed by Theophilus to assist Theodora during the minority of Michael III., and so highly was he esteemed, that he was acclaimed emperor by the populace in the Hippodrome, and might have worn the crown but for his fidelity to the little prince. Silencing the shouts raised in his favour, he exclaimed, 'You have an emperor; my duty and highest honour is to defend his infancy and to secure for him, even at the price of my blood, the heritage of his father.' In the iconoclastic controversy Manuel supported the policy of Theophilus, and therefore found himself in a difficult position when Theodora decided to restore the use of eikons. The story is, that while he lay dangerously ill at the time, monks of the Studion assured him that recovery was certain if he vowed to uphold the orthodox cause. The vow was taken, and upon his restoration to health Manuel favoured the measures of Theodora. Probably he felt that the current of public feeling on the subject was too strong for him to oppose. But the task of working in harmony with his colleagues in the regency, Theoctistus and Bardas, was soon found impossible, and rumours of a plot to blind him and remove him from the administration of affairs led him to retire to his house near the cistern of Aspar. For some time, indeed, he continued to appear occasionally at the palace, but at last he quitted for ever that scene of intrigue, and converted his residence into a monastery, where he might spend the closing days of his life in peace and finally be laid in a quiet grave.


S. Theodore. The Interior, looking east.

S. Theodore.
The Interior, looking east.

S. Theodore. The Interior, looking east (Upper Part).

S. Theodore.
The Interior, looking east (Upper Part).


The building which Manuel bequeathed was reconstructed almost from the foundations, a large and beautiful edifice, by the celebrated Patriarch Photius. It underwent extensive restoration again at the command of the Emperor Romanus Lecapenus (919-945), in token of his friendship for Sergius, the abbot of the monastery, a nephew of Photius, and eventually an occupant of the patriarchal throne for twenty years (999-1019). In it the Emperor Romanus Argyrus (1028-1034) confined Prussianus, a relative of the Bulgarian royal family, on a charge of treason; and there Michael VII., nicknamed Parapinakes (the peck-filcher), because he sold wheat at one-fourth of its proper weight, and then at an exorbitant price, ultimately retired after his deposition. The connection of so many prominent persons with the monastery implies the importance of the House.


Architectural Features


Kefelé Mesjedi is a large oblong hall, m. 22.6 long by m. 7.22 wide, with walls constructed in alternate courses of four bricks and four stones, and covered with a lofty timber roof. It terminates to the north in an arch and a semicircular apse in brick. Two niches, with a window between them, indent the walls of the apse, and there is a niche in each pier of the arch. The building is entered by a door situated in the middle of the western wall. Originally the eastern and western walls, which form the long sides of the building, were lighted by two ranges of round-headed windows, somewhat irregularly spaced. The upper range is situated a little below the ceiling, and forms a sort of clearstory of ten lights; the lower range has five windows, except in the western wall, where the place of  one window is occupied by the entrance. The southern wall is also lighted by two ranges of windows, the lower windows being much larger than the higher. At some time buttresses were built against the eastern wall. Under the west side is a cistern, the roof of which rests on three columns. In view of all these features it is impossible to believe that the building was a church. Its orientation, the absence of lateral apses in a structure of such dimensions, the position of the entrance, are all incompatible with that character. We have here, undoubtedly, the refectory and not the sanctuary of the monastic establishment. It resembles the refectory of the Laura on Mt. Athos, and that of Daphni near Athens. It recalls the 'long and lofty building,' adorned with pictures of saints, which formed the refectory of the Peribleptos at Psamathia.


There is a tradition that the use of the building was granted at the conquest to the Armenian colony which was brought from Kaffa in 1475 to repeople the capital, Hence the Turkish name of the building.


The Refectory of the Monastery of Manuel, from the west.

The Refectory of the Monastery of Manuel, from the west.

The Refectory of the Monastery of Manuel, from the south-east.

The Refectory of the Monastery of Manuel, from the south-east.

To face page 258.


As Gerlach's work is rare, the reader may wish to see his description of the church of Aetius in the original (Tagebuch, pp. 455-56):—Nicht weit hiervon [the church of S. John in Petra] ist eine sehr schöne Kirche, da vor Zeiten ein sehr gross und weites Closter gewesen seyn und viel Häuser der Lehrer und Lernenden in sich gehabt haben solle. Jetzt wird nichts mehr davon gesehen als das zerfallene Gemäuer einer herrlichen Pforten und eine trockene Ziternen, darinnen die Juden die Seiden spinnen, zwirnen und bereiten (serica nectunt fila). Vor der Kirchen ist ein weiter Hoff, rings aber umb denselbe herumb ein bedeckter Gang (porticus), welcher mit schönen auff vergüldten viereckichten gläsern Taffeln künstlich gemahlten Figuren auss dem Alten und Neuen Testament, und mit griechischen Überschrifften gezieret ist, aber alte Gesichter derselben aussgekratzet sind. Die Wände dieser Umbgänge sind mit Marmel von allerhand Farben bekleidet. Hat auch 3 oder 4 hohe Crepidines oder Absätze mit der Propheten, Apostel und Christi Bildnüssen von Gold. Der Hauss- oder vielmehr Bau- herr oder auch der Stiffter, und sein Weib, sind da auch gemahlet in einem  Habit, fast wie man heut zu Tage gehet, aber mit einer ganz fremden Hauptzierde (capellitii genere), class man darauss abnehmen kan, er sey einer aus den vornehmsten Käyserlich Bedienten gewesen, dann diese Zierde siehet auss fast wie ein Hertzogs Bareht von Seiden and Beltzwerck, der Bund oder das Umgewundene (cinctura) von mancherley Farben, wie heut zu Tage die Juden und Armenier weiss und blau durcheinander tragen. Sein Weib hat einen Schleyer (peplum) fast wie die Griechinnen. Der bedecte Gang und die Kirche sind ein Gebäu (porticus muro etiam templi continetur), und gehet man durch zwey hohe Pforten hinein, welche 4 Theil in sich begreifft, oder in 4 Theil abgetheilet ist. 1. der bedeckte (Porticus) Gang, dessen Wände mit Marmelstein biss auff die Helffte bekleidet sind. Der Obertheil, da die Schwibbögen (Laquearia) anheben, hat er wie auch die Schwibbögen selber die Gemählde. In diesem Gang oder Halle (porticu) stehen die Weiber, und kommen nicht in die Kirchen hinein, wie auch in andere Kirchen nicht, als wann sie zum Abendmahl gehen. 2. ist die Kirche für sich so mit Türckischen Deppichen (aoreis) beleget und hat nur ein Thor. Ist ein hohes Gewölb (laquearia) und wie auch die überige 2 Gewölbe (laquearia) ganz vergüldet und übermahlet, und die Wände von unten an biss an die Schwibbögen mit dem schönsten Marmelstein bekleidet. Auss diesem gehet man 3. durch einen niedern Crepidinem in dem dritten Theil der Kirchen, da der Bauherr oder Stiffter mit andern sehr schönen Bildnüssen mit Gold gemahlet stehen, mit einem etwas niedern als der vorige Schwibbögen (laquearia). Auss diesem gehet man in den 4ten gewölbten auch gemahlten aber etwas finstern und viel kleine Fenster in sich haltenden Ort. Aussen an der Kirchmauren stehet diese Schrift.


Vor dem Vorhoff  dieser Kirchen zeigte mir Theodosius den Ort, da der letzte Christliche Käyser Constantinus als er bey der Türckischen Eroberung der Stadt fliehen wollen, von Pferde gestürtzet, und tod gefunden seyn solle.


'Not far from here is a very beautiful church where there is said to have been in times past a very large monastery with many houses for teachers and scholars within its walls. Nothing of all that is to be seen now except the ruins of a splendid gate and a dry cistern in which the Jews spin, throw, and prepare silk. In front of the church there is a large court surrounded by a covered passage (porticus), which is adorned with beautiful figures from the Old and New Testaments painted on gilded quadrangular glass cubes with Greek inscriptions; but the ancient faces of these (figures) are scratched out. The walls of this passage are covered with marble of different colours. It has also three or four high crepidines or vaulted compartments (?) with the pictures of the prophets, of the apostles, and of Christ in gold. The master of the house, or rather the builder, or perhaps the founder, and his wife are also painted there in a costume very much the same as is worn to-day, but with a very strange head-ornament, from which we may conclude that he was one of the most distinguished of the imperial staff, for this ornament looks almost like a duke's biretta of silk and fur; the belt (cinctura) is of different colours, such as nowadays the Jews or Armenians wear, white and blue mixed. His wife has a veil (peplum) almost like that which Greek women have. The covered passage and the church form one building (porticus muro etiam templi continetur), entered by two high gates, and comprising four parts, or divided into four parts. 1. The covered passage (porticus), the walls of which as far as half their height are covered with marble. On the upper part, where the arches begin, and on the arches themselves are the paintings. In this passage or hall stand the women, and do not enter the church as they do not enter other churches, unless they go to the Lord's supper. 2. Is the church, as such, covered with Turkish rugs, and has only one gate. It has a high dome, which, like the remaining two domes, is entirely gilded and painted, and the walls up to the arches are covered with the most beautiful marble. From this one enters 3. through a low vaulted compartment, with a somewhat lower arch than the foresaid arches, the third part of the church, where the founder with other very beautiful portraits (pictures) is painted in gold. From this one enters 4. a vaulted and also painted, but rather dark place, with many small windows. On the outside of the walls of the church there is this inscription—


In front of the porch, vestibulo, προπιλίῳ of this church Theodosius showed me the place where the last Christian emperor Constantine, intending to flee at the Turkish conquest of the city, is said to have fallen from his horse and to have been found dead.'

Monastery of Manuel,Plan of the Refectory-Monastir Mesjedi, Plan of the Church—Cross Section.

Figs. 88 and 89.

Text quoted from-
Byzantine Churches in Constantinople, Their History and Architecture.
MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited, London, 1912.
by Alexander Van Millingen and Ramsay Traquair and W. S. George and A. E. Henderson.