The Monastery of St. John of Petra, Istanbul
The Monastery of St. John of Petra, Istanbul

By Jessica Varsallona | Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern Greek Studies – University of Birmingham


Most of the information about the monastery of St. John of Petra dates to the Middle Byzantine period (843–1204). However, some legends suggest an early date for its foundation in connection to the Egyptian hermit, Baras, who arrived in Constantinople possibly during the Theodosian era (according to his enkomion written by John Mauropous in the 1070s). Other written sources refer to two subsequent major interventions on the monastery. The first one is John Neusteutes’ testament. John possibly re-founded the monastery between 1084 and 1095, with the support of Anna Dalassene, the mother of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I (r. 1081–1118). According to the enkomion of John Neusteutes, which Patriarch Kallistos (1350–53 and 1355–63) wrote, we know that the aristocrat John Ioalites enlarged the monastery, perhaps during the mid-12th century.

In the Palaiologan period (1261–1453), St. John became one of the most famous monasteries of the Byzantine capital. After the fire of 1308, the Serbian King Milutin (r. 1282–1321) restored it and its hospital. In his letter, dated March 1381, Patriarch Neilos I Kerameos (1380–1388) stated that St. John of Petra was the most important patriarchal monastery of Constantinople, after St. John of Stoudios and St. George of Mangana. The link between Serbia and the monastery of St. John (established by Milutin) endured until the last years of Byzantium, when the Serbian wife of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391–1425), empress Helena Dragaš, made a donation to the monastery and the hospital, which, in the meantime, had also become a vital centre of humanistic culture.


The existence of a neighbourhood in Istanbul called Kesmekaya – literally ‘cut rock’ – has suggested scholars of Constantinopolitan topography that the area was the Byzantine quarter of Petra (literally ‘stone’), where the monastery of St. John lay. In the area of Kesmekaya, several Byzantine structures partially survive or are well documented. The most prominent ones are the ruins of Odalar Camii, Kasım Ağa Mescidi, the cistern of İpek Bodrum, and Kefeli (or Kefevi) Mescidi. Also the Boğdan Sarayı is located in this area.

At Odalar Camii, archaeologists identified two main phases of the building: one possibly dated to the 9th or 10th centuries and the second to the mid-12th century. The damages of the fire of 1203 might have instigated the rebuilding of the upper church of Odalar Camii. Thus, archaeological data is, to a certain extent (e.g. two main phases), compatible with the history of the complex of St. John of Petra known from written sources, although not entirely. Certainly, Odalar Camii was in use during the Palaiologan period. Fragments of mural paintings and sculptural evidence suggest use, and this might strengthen the identification with one of the dependencies of the monastery of St. John of Petra.

Because of its peculiar architectural features, which are not akin to other Constantinopolitan churches, the nearby Kasım Ağa Mescidi has been interpreted as the tower of the monastery of Petra, which was in close connection with the hypothetical katholikon of the monastery, the Odalar Camii. The core of Kasım Ağa Mescidi has been dated to the Palaiologan period, according to its masonry. Contemporary sources, such as Clavijo’s account or a Short Chronicle, describe the tower of the monastery of St. John of Petra, its use for the preservation of the most precious relics, and the burials of aristocrats below the bell tower.

In addition, the nearby İpek Bodrum cistern has been analyzed with a focus on its sculptural elements, such as columns and capitals. The dating of the cistern is contemporary with Anna Dalassene’s refurbishment of St. John of Petra (1084–95), which included water management, supporting the identification of Odalar Camii, İpek Bodrum cistern, and Kasım Ağa Mescidi as parts of the complex of St. John of Petra.

Not far from this closely related group of buildings, there is Kefeli Mescidi. The word ‘Kefeli’ might refer to the Caffa homeland of the previous ‘owners’ who occupied the Latin church of ‘San Nicola’ and ‘Santa Maria di Costantinopoli’ (long identified as Kefeli Mescidi and Odalar Camii respectively). In the 19th century, scholars first identified Kefeli Mescidi as part of the Byzantine ‘Monastery of Manuel’, but then they proposed its identification as the church (or a dependency) of St. John of Petra. Based on its rectangular plan and its orientation toward the north, it is difficult to propose that Kefeli Mescidi was a church. More probably, this building, the masonry technique of which suggests a Palaiologan dating, was a monastic refectory (dining hall). It is impossible to determine at the moment which monastery it served. If we accept that the Odalar Camii was the katholikon of St. John of Petra, then Kefeli Mescidi might not be its refectory, since refectories are generally located in close proximity to the main church.

In sum, scholarship has not entirely accepted the identification of Odalar Camii as the katholikon of the monastery of St. John, and Kefeli Mescidi has often been taken into consideration in relation to the identification attempts of St. John of Petra. It is worth noting that the monastery of St. John was very prosperous and sizeable. It probably included, to the south, the area from the Aetios reservoir and, to the north, the actual Kesmekaya area, including both the Odalar Camii and the Kefeli Mescidi. Thus, it is likely that it embraced more than a church within its perimeter. Perhaps, Odalar Camii was one of them, but not necessarily its katholikon. Moreover, in the area of Petra, there were other famous churches, such as St. Mary of Petra, the precise location of which has not yet been identified.

In conclusion, though the identification of the single edifices is still unclear, the buildings of the quarter of Kesmekaya encourage reflections on the articulation of a Byzantine monastery within the city of Constantinople during the late centuries of Byzantium. They also encourage further study into the complicated afterlives of these buildings in the post-Byzantine period.

Further Reading

Asutay-Effenberger, Neslihan. “Das Kloster des Ioannes Prodromos τής Пέτρας in Konstantinopel und seine Beziehung zur Odalar und Kasιm Ağa Camii.” Millennium 5 (2008): 299–325.

This study identifies Odalar Camii and Kasım Ağa Mescidi as parts of the monastery of St. John of Petra.

Barsanti, Claudia. “Una ricerca sulle sculture in opera nelle cisterne bizantine di Istanbul: la Ipek Bodrum Sarnicı (la cisterna n. 10).” In Vie per Bisanzio: VII Congresso Nazionale dell’Associazione Italiana di Studi Bizantini, Venezia, 25-28 Novembre 2009, edited by Antonio Rigo, Andrea Babuin, and Michele Trizio, vol. I, 477–508. Bari: Edizioni di Pagina, 2013.

This publication offers a survey on the cistern İpek Bodrum.

Cassin, Matthieu and Marie Cronier. “Du Prodrome de Pétra à la Sainte-Trinité de Chalki. Jean le Jeûneur, Georges Doukas Nestongos et l'histoire du Prodrome après 1453.” Revue des études Byzantines 76 (2018): 5–71.

This article details information about the monastery of St. John of Petra after the Ottoman siege of Constantinople. 

Dark, Ken and Ferudun Özgümüs. Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byantine Megalopolis: Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998-2004. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013.

This book includes a recent survey of the area (pp. 61-62).

Grossmann, Paul. “Beobachtungen an der Kefeli-Mescid in Istanbul.” Istanbuler Mitteilungen 16 (1966): 241–249.

This paper explores the architecture of Kefeli Mescidi.

Janin, Raymond. La Géographie Ecclésiastique de l’Empire Byzantin, Première partie, Le siège de Constantinople et le patriarcat Oecuménique, Tome III, Les églises et les monastères. Paris-Limoges: Imprimerie A. Bomptemps, 1953.

This book offers a starting point for the history and topography of the monastery of St. John of Petra (pp. 435–453).

Malamut, Elizabeth. “Le monastère Saint-Jean-Prodrome de Pétra de Constantinople.” In Le sacré et son inscription dans l'espace à Byzance et en Occident, edited by Michel Kaplan, 219–233. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2001.

A study of the history of St. John of Petra.

Müller-Wiener, Wolfgang. İstanbul’un Tarihsel Topografyası. 17. Yüzıl Başlarına Kadar Byzantion-Konstantinopolis-İstanbul [1977]. İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2016.

Topographic notes on the buildings mentioned here (pp. 164–168, 188–189).

Westphalen, Stephan. Odalar camii in Istanbul. Architektur und Malerei einer mittelbyzantinischen Kirche. Tübingen: Wasmuth, 1998.

A monographic study of the Odalar Camii (identified as the Theotokos Kecharitomene).

M. Živojinović, Mirjana. “L’hôpital du Roi Milutin a Constantinople.” Zbornik radova Vizantološkog instituta 16 (1975): 105–117.

A study of the hospital that King Milutin founded at Petra.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.


Jessica Varsallona, "The Monastery of St. John of Petra, Istanbul," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,