Robert Ousterhout writes: The fame of this building has recently been surpassed by that of the smart restaurant next door, which at least means that taxi drivers can find it. The restaurant offers a great view of the east façade, and an even better one of the Golden Horn. Once the central church complex of the Pantokrator monastery and the most important imperial building project of the twelfth century, it is three churches side by side. Inside there are a few surprises. Marble revetments and painted capitals survive in the south building, which now functions as the mosque. The guardian will lift the carpet to reveal a tiny portion of the inlaid marble floor, showing Samson smiting the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.
In his article Divine Restoration (Cornucopia 36), Ousterhout discusses the challenges of restoring the Zeyrek, including the bricks themselves: ‘Brick and mortar are somewhat more difficult to come by. The standard modern bricks are hollow and the wrong size. Even worse are teh bricks made of coloured concrete that are now finding their way into restorations. A typical Byzantine brick is solid, measures about 38cm square by about 4.5cm thick and weighs close to 10 kilos – that is, more than your hand luggage. For the work at the Zeyrek Camii, a kiln in the northern Anatolian town of Merzifon supplies the brick, produced to match the historic materials, including the clay source, so that the bricks are the right colour when fired.’
In Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul John Freely and Ahmet Çakmak describe the complex – the original charter, they say, is preserved in the library of the seminary on Heybeliada: ‘The Pantokrator is a composite building that originally consisted of a monastery with two churches and a funerary chapel between them. The whole complex was built in the period 1118–36. The monastery and the south church [closest to the Golden Horn] were built by the empress Eirene and dedicated to Christ Pantokrator. After Eirene’s death, the emperor John erected a second church a short distance to the north of hers: this was dedicated to the Virgin Eleousa (the Merciful or Charitable). When this was finished, John decided to join the two churches with a third church, dedicated to the Archangel Michael. This was designed to serve as a mortuary chapel for the Comnenus dynasty.’
If, as the saying goes, God is in the detail, then historic preservation is a divine occupation. It follows that the best practitioners approach their work with a missionary zeal. As with any religion, there is the right way, or no way at all. Compromise and haste, usually products of a treacherous conspiracy involving politicians and contractors, are the cardinal sins of historic preservation, which can threaten the very soul of the monument in question. Working on the restoration of the Zeyrek Camii in Istanbul over the past decade has made me a convert.
I have spent much of the past five years on the roof of the Zeyrek Camii. It was a mess, but the view was fabulous. To the east, the panorama spans the Aqueduct of Valens to the Süleymaniye Camii, to the Golden Horn and Galata. To the west, the view is dominated by the Fatih Camii and the Selimiye Camii. Closer at hand are the remains of a dilapidated neighbourhood of wooden houses and the foundations of an Ottoman konak now converted into an upscale restaurant. It is easy to get lost in the view and forget that beneath one’s feet was one of the most significant and threatened monuments in the city’s history.