Strolling down the busy Istikal Caddesi, as every day 1-2 million people do, you might not notice a small chapel hidden behind the walls of the Dutch Consulate General, part of the intriguing history of Istanbul, city of Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Ottomans.
This beautiful chapel on the Consulate grounds is not only a church, but is also used as a multifunctional and flexible working place. Almost every day meetings, events and workshops take place, all in all a few 100 every year.
With its traditional church interior, the chapel is a beautiful place to work. In 1978 Dutch artist Theo Mols created two stained glass windows for the church and in a more recent renovation six more windows in a similar style were added by Turkish glaziers. The chapel even had an organ (part is now incorporated in the building) from the Cavaillé Coll factory with a rose window above it. A modern projection screen is hidden in a wooden ornament on which is stated in Dutch: ‘De Heere is groot en zeer te prijzen’.
The chapel has a long history. It was built in 1711 as a fire resistant warehouse, because the palace and surrounding buildings were made of wood. The Dutch protestant community used the chapel as their place of worship. The Ottoman laws allowed embassies to build their own churches, but only for personal use. Because the chapel was not a real church building but a warehouse, the Ottoman authorities tolerated the use of the chapel by the Dutch congregation. In 1831, after the wooden palace burned down for the second time, the warehouse was reconstructed into a real chapel.
In 1857, Minister Resident J.A. Van Zuylen van Nijevelt offered the Union Church the use of the chapel. The religious Minister Resident wanted the chapel to be used again, after the Dutch community stopped using it. The invitation has been renewed to this day. On Sundays, the Union Church of Istanbul, the oldest known protestant community of Istanbul, uses the chapel for services. They have been doing so for more than 150 years and after each service the Dutch Head of State is thanked personally and if the Consul General attends a service, he is thanked as well. Presently, the church provides two services in English, a bilingual service in English and Turkish.
It’s very interesting that the Islamic rulers of the time gave permission to use the warehouse as a church and later to build an actual church. Imagine a mosque being built in Amsterdam in that period… The Ottoman Empire showed a remarkable level of tolerance towards Christians and Jews. This policy of tolerance started long before 1711. When about 150.000 Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and later from Portugal, several of them ended up in the Dutch Republic. The larger share, however, came to the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Beyazid the 2nd send his navy to Spain to evacuate many of the Jews and he gave them Ottoman citizenship. Big Jewish and Christian communities lived in the Ottoman Empire till its last days
Of all the working places at the Dutch consulate I am most fond of the church. I am glad that we can respect its religious character and that it continues to play its role in the Protestant community in Istanbul. There is room for diversity in this house of God, where one day we organize a seminar on LGBTI rights, another day receive Islam business people from Central Anatolia or critical students groups from Holland. Or we just show a movie or enjoy a concert.
Our Chapel reflects the spirit of Istanbul, divers, sometimes contradictory, but viable in its own way.