Istiklal Caddesi, the queen of Istanbul’s avenues, overflows with a number of internationally-renowned landmarks. Royal consulates, venerable mosques, and world-class shops all compete for attention along the cobbled street. There exists a relatively inconspicuous institution, however, that nevertheless plays a prominent role in the historical life of the city. Although often hidden from view, the churches along Istiklal represent major gems within the cultural landscape of Istanbul.
Istiklal Caddesi follows a mainly straight path from Taksim Square to Tünel, save for one prominent curve near the halfway point. Between that curve and the nostalgic passage called Çiçek Pasajı, a narrow street called Sahne Sokak branches off to the right. The entrance to the Armenian Church of Three Altars, immersed amongst hordes of competing street vendors, is located on this street.
Known in Turkish as Üç Horan Ermeni Kilisesi, the Armenian Church of Three Altars is barrel in shape and features an impressive foundation of marble. Fourteen large portraits – twelve of the apostles and two of angels – grace the sidewalls of the nave, which are delicate pink in color. The church, which dates back to 1805, is situated in a peaceful courtyard that also houses the tomb of Çuhalı Hagop, a traveler who died in Istanbul in 1680. Üç Horan Ermeni Kilisesi maintains an overall atmosphere of enchantment, one whose beauty is further emphasized by the twenty chandeliers, each a different size, that softly illuminate the main chamber.
Following the curve on Istiklal, the next church to appear is arguably the avenue’s most prominent. St. Anthony of Padua, or Sent Antuan Kilisesi, is a brick-lined basilica designed by the renowned architects Giulio Mongeri and Edoardo de Nani in the beginning of the twentieth century. Constructed in the form of a Latin cross, St. Antoine reflects neo-gothic and Tuscan-Lombard styles; the crypt, situated below the main sanctuary, is of Romanesque origin. The Roman Catholic Church is filled with various works of art, including a gilded wooden statue of St. Anthony by Luigi Bresciani, and two mosaics that depict the Baptism of the Lord and the Supper at Emmaus. It is situated behind an ornate, triple-archway whose expressive architecture is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.
To spot the avenue’s next sacred gem, one must actually look downward. Santa Maria Draperis, located between the Dutch and Russian Consulates, sits lower than its neighbors due to a former law that forbade non-Muslim religious buildings to impose themselves on the skyline. An impressive staircase lined with colorful flowers leads to the doors of the church, which is of Roman Catholic origins. Inside the main chamber, a grand chandelier lies suspended in front of a pink altar made of Carrara marble. The ceiling reflects a magnificent array of shapes and designs steeped in royal blue and golden hues. The church takes its name from Mrs. Clara Bertola Draperis, who was financially responsible for the construction of the original building in 1584.
Christ Church, located near Istiklal’s termination at Tünel, is situated on a peaceful street amongst an assortment of colorful apartments. Although the Anglican Church has only been open since 1991, its chaplaincy has been based on various sites close to the current location as far back as 1582. The narrow, tall interior of the nave features an umber- and black-checkered floor, simple wooden chairs with cushions, and a side chamber with a baptismal fountain. A beautiful pulpit composed of white, red, and blue-green shades of marble stands in front of the altar. The Church was constructed as a memorial to those who died in the Crimean War, and today it is respected as a source of hospitality for homeless refugees.
Together, these four churches embody the colorful diversity and historical richness for which the city of Istanbul is known. Although they represent a mere slice of Christianity’s presence in the city, each is equipped with its own story, its own peculiarities, and – above all – its own sense of space and time.