Church of the Holy Apostles (Constantinople)

The Church of the Holy Apostles was the second largest church in Constantinople (Istanbul) during the Byzantine period. The most important emperors in Byzantine history were buried in this church. The church dedicated to the Holy Apostles was destroyed during the Ottoman period and Fatih Mosque was built in its place.

In this article you can find information about the history and architecture of the Church of the Holy Apostles. We will have to go on a journey through Roman history to tell the story of the church in all its details.

Church of the Holy Apostles in Istanbul
Church of the Holy Apostles on an Old Icon

Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity spread all over the world by the disciples after the death of Jesus. The apostles went to cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome, which were the most important cities of Antiquity. This rapid rise of Christianity greatly disturbed the Roman bureaucrats. This new faith based on solidarity gave great hope to the poor and slaves. So it spread quickly.

In the Roman Empire, the polytheistic religion was intertwined with the state administration. Emperors were considered to be the representative of Jupiter on earth. This order, which had been maintained for centuries, was under great threat. Therefore, strict measures were taken against the spread of new faith. Death sentences were given to deter people. Despite all this, the organization of Christians could not be prevented.

Emperor Constantine the Great

Anatolia was one of the main habitats of early Christians. Christians who wanted to hide from Roman authorities preferred geographies suitable for hiding, especially Cappadocia.

The 300-year period of persecution peaked during Emperor Diocletian. But salvation was soon. During the reign of Emperor Constantine, who was victorious from the civil war, oppression ended.

Constantine became the only emperor at the end of the Tetrarchy Rule. He was a strong character who won all the wars he fought. For this reason, he was highly respected by both the army and the Roman Senate. Using this power, he decided to make a series of reforms.

The Edict of Milan and The New Capital Constantinople

The first was to free Christianity with Edict of Milan. The second was to leave the old capital Rome and build Constantinople. The ancient capital of Rome was no longer the place of residence of the emperors. Constantinople would be the new capital of the empire.

Constantinople, which was completely rebuilt between 324 and 330, was equipped with many monumental buildings. The main ones were the Great Palace, Hippodrome, Forum of Constantine and The Church of the Holy Apostles, dedicated to the 12 apostles of Jesus.

Church of the Holy Apostles in a Byzantine Mosaic

Church of the Holy Apostles of Constantinople
The Church of the Holy Apostles

Unfortunately, we do not have a clear picture depicting the Church of the Holy Apostles. For this reason, we have to use the mosaics in which the church is depicted without scale. In the mosaic above, we see the burial of John Chrysostom, one of Istanbul’s most famous patriarchs in history. The Holy Apostles Church is depicted in the background. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Early Churches in the Roman Empire

There were no monumental churches at the time when Christianity was accepted in the Roman Empire. There were cave churches in hidden places such as Ihlara Valley in Cappadocia. So the Romans began to recruit new churches from an already existing building. These were rectangular structures called “Basilica”. These buildings, which did not have any religious function, had been used as a courthouse or meeting room.

Basilicas were not only converted into churches but also inspired the architecture of newly built churches. All the churches were built with a basilica plan for 200 years until the reign of Emperor Justinian.

Justinian’s Architectural Revolution

Determined to build unique structures, Justinian first started by building Church of Sergius and Bacchus. He achieved his ultimate goal by building Hagia Sophia, an unprecedented structure. Of course, these architectural developments took place in the 200 years following the construction of the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople

The Church of the Holy Apostles was exactly like the early Christian churches we have described so far. It was a basilica planned building and it was the largest church in Constantinople. Until Hagia Sophia was built, it remained the most important church in Istanbul.

1. History of The Church of the Holy Apostles

The construction of the Church of the Holy Apostles began in 330. It was designed as the largest church of Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire. When Emperor Constantine died in 337, it was completed by his son Constantius II. Constantius buried his father in this new church.

The aim of Emperor Constantine was to make this new church the center of Christianity. He wanted to bring together the relics of all the apostles in the city of Constantinople, which he gave his name, and be buried with them.

However, according to historical records, only relics of three apostles could be brought to The Church of the Holy Apostles. These were Saint Andrew, Saint Luke and Saint Timothy.

2. Architecture of The Church of the Holy Apostles

The Church of the Holy Apostles had a Basilica planned architecture. Considered within its period, it was a building befitting the magnificent capital of Constantine the Great.

It was noted that the first generation church had high ceilings and its walls were covered with giant marble slabs. In addition, its roof was covered with bronze plates and was in golden color.

It was a magnificent building with its high walls and shining roof. It was one of the most spectacular structures of the early Roman churches. However, it was not built very solidly.

The new capital, Constantinople, was full of majestic and weak buildings that were hastily built. Moreover, they were located in Istanbul, which was an earthquake zone.

3. The New Church by Emperor Justinian

The Church was demolished and rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Representing the peak period of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian had accomplished great works in terms of architecture. For example, the churches of Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene in Istanbul and the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus were rebuilt with a new architectural approach in his time.

After the 6th century, the largest church of Constantinople became Hagia Sophia. Although the Church of the Holy Apostles was smaller than Hagia Sophia in size, it had great spiritual importance. Because the monumental tomb of Constantine, the founder of the capital Constantinople, was in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The tradition started by Constantine continued for centuries and all his successors were buried next to him.

However, during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the Church of the Holy Apostles was badly damaged. The Crusaders, who invaded Constantinople, ransacked the whole city. All treasures were stolen from the city’s most important churches and palaces. A Latin Kingdom was established in the heart of Byzantium, which would last between 1204 and 1261. When the city was taken back, little remained from Constantinople, the most magnificent city of its time.

The Byzantines undertook a major repair work after taking the city back. However, it was not possible to completely repair some structures. After this date, we see that the two buildings could not return to their glorious days. One of them was the Great Palace, and the other was the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The most important church of the city, Hagia Sophia, was partially repaired. Emperors started to live in the Palace of Blachernae, near the Theodosius Walls instead of the Great Palace.

Many small monastery churches were built during the decline of the Byzantine Empire. Of course, these were not monumental structures such as Hagia Sophia or Church of the Holy Apostles. Monastery of the Pantocrator and Pammakaristos Monastery were such structures. Dynasty members were now buried in small chapels in these monasteries.

4. The Church in the Ottoman Period

After the conquest in 1453, Hagia Sophia, the biggest church of the city, was turned into a mosque. Sultan Mehmed II wanted to preserve the Orthodox Patriarchate, the religious center of Christians in the East. For this purpose, he offered them to continue their activities in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople remained in the Church of the Holy Apostles for a while. However, the presence of the church started to create security problems due to the fact that Muslim families started to live in the center of the city.

In order to understand this issue better, the lifestyle of that period should also be examined. Members of every religion in the city preferred to live in their own neighborhoods. There were certain districts where Muslims, Christians and Jews gathered.

The Church was now in the middle of the Muslim neighborhood. Moreover, it was about to collapse because it had not been repaired for centuries. The Sultan, who intended to build his own mosque, chose that area to build the Fatih Mosque.

The Church of the Holy Apostles, located in the heart of the Historic Peninsula, was destroyed and a mosque dedicated to Mehmet the Conqueror was built. When the Sultan died, he was buried in his tomb here.

Sultan Mehmed‘s choice of this place for his new mosque might had a symbolic meaning. He removed the tomb of Emperor Constantine, the former founder of the city, and built a mosque and a monumental tomb representing the new order.

With the demolition of the Church of the Holy Apostles, the patriarchate was also displaced and moved to the Pammakaristos Monastery. However, after 150 years, this place was converted to Fethiye Mosque, and the Patriarchate moved to its current place, Church of St. George (aka Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate).

With the patriarchate moving to the Fener neighborhood, Ottoman citizens of Greek origin settled in this neighborhood and lived here for centuries.

History of Church of the Holy Apostles by Serhat Engul


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