Hagia Irene Museum History and Architecture

Hagia Irene is the building with the longest history among the Byzantine churches in Istanbul. When Istanbul was declared the capital of the Roman Empire under the name of Constantinople, there was already a church here. This little church was rebuilt by Emperor Constantine.

The church, which was destroyed in a fire during the Nika Revolt, was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in 530s. However, due to the earthquake in Istanbul in 740, it was destroyed again. In this article, you can find detailed information about the history and architecture of Hagia Irene, one of the oldest buildings in Istanbul.

Hagia Irene (or Hagia Eirene) serves as a museum today and is located inside the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey.

Hagia Irene Museum History and Architecture
Church of Hagia Irene (or Eirene)

Photo Credit: By Alexxx1979 from Wikimedia

History of the Hagia Irene Church

The history of Hagia Eirene Church is as old as the history of Christianity in Istanbul. In order to give enough information on this subject, we will have to talk a little bit about the history of Istanbul.

Foundation of Byzantium and The Early Temples

Istanbul was founded by a group that migrated from Ancient Greece in 660 BC. The Acropolis, established in Seraglio Point, a hill overlooking the city, was named Byzantium in memory of the founder Byzas.

Byzantium existed as a small city until 195 AD, and was later conquered by the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. Septimus expanded the city and rebuilt it with a Roman architectural style. The most important building added to the city was a Hippodrome where races would be held.

At that time, there was a temple dedicated to Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess of beauty, in the place of Hagia Irene. With the spread of Christianity on the Roman territory, this temple was turned into a church.

Constantine’s Hagia Irene Church

Emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire to the east. For this purpose, he started to reconstruct the small city Byzantium. The works that started in 324 AD were completed in 330 AD and the new capital Constantinople was opened with a ceremony. The first thing that Constantine did was to build the Great Palace, where he would live. Next to the palace, he built a much larger Hippodrome than Septimus Severus had created.

Other iconic structures of the city included the Forum of Constantine and the Church of the Holy Apostles. Constantine also renovated the Hagia Irene Church. As I mentioned above, this was a small church built on the Temple of Venus. This modest church was enlarged and its name was changed to Hagia Irene (aka Hagia Eirene), which means “the Holy Peace”.

The construction of the first Hagia Sophia was also completed in the period of Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great. The neighboring Hagia Irene and Hagia Sophia were separated from each other by only one courtyard. Both churches were included in the complex called Megale Ekklesia (The Great Church).

Justinian’s Hagia Irene Church

532 was the fifth year of the Emperor Justinian on the throne. Justinian, the most powerful emperor in Byzantine history, had not yet been able to achieve full control. Blues and Greens competing in chariot races in the hippodrome were not happy with the emperor’s policies. These teams, with tens of thousands of supporters, functioned like non-governmental organizations. They were organized against the emperor.

A huge riot broke out on January 13, 532, when Justinian followed the races from the imperial lodge (kathisma). The rebellion that started from the hippodrome spread to the whole city in a short time and turned into plunder. Fires broke out in many parts of the city. Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene also suffered from this disaster. Both structures were burnt down.

The Nika Rebellion was suppressed by General Belisarius. However, 30,000 people were dead. Justinian wanted to establish a new order after this great disaster. He wanted to rebuild the city’s largest structures to repair his shaking authority. The most important architectural work in the Byzantine history, the 3rd Hagia Sophia was built in this process. Hagia Irene was also rebuilt in the same way. But it had a much simpler style than Hagia Sophia.

The architecture of the Hagia Irene Church in the Justinian period resembled the Church of the Saint Polyeuktos, one of the important structures in the city. It had a central dome carried by four arches, and the parts of the nave outside the dome were vaulted.

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Hagia Eirene Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

The Byzantine Iconoclasm

The beautiful church, built during the Justinian period, was destroyed by an earthquake in 740. The iconoclasm, which was effective in the 8th century in the Byzantine Empire, shaped the architecture of the church to be rebuilt. Starting with Emperor Leo III, this trend lasted for a century and caused all images related to religion to be destroyed.

The Byzantine Iconoclasm resulted in the destruction of mosaics, frescoes and icons found in all churches within the imperial borders. A simple architecture was preferred in all churches built during the iconoclasm period, and the interiors were decorated only with geometric motifs.

A simple architectural plan was preferred in the reconstructed Hagia Irene Church and several modest figures were engraved on its walls. It is possible to see the traces of this simplicity in the church, which can still be visited today. There is no other decoration element on the walls of Hagia Irene other than a cross that you can see on the apse.

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Interior of Hagia Eirene Church

The Church during the Ottoman Period

Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans in 1453. Mehmed II, the first Sulan in the city, decided to build a new palace for himself. This palace, which can be visited as Topkapi Palace Museum today, is a building surrounded by walls. Since Hagia Irene was within these walls, her integrity with Hagia Sophia had ended.

Although Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, Hagia Irene was never used as a mosque. It also did not function as a church. The Ottomans used Hagia Irene as an arsenal for a long time. In the 19th century, when its cultural activities developed, it started to serve as the Military Museum and then the Archeology Museum.

With the initiatives of the famous Turkish painter Osman Hamdi Bey, historical artifacts collected from all over Anatolia started to be exhibited in Hagia Irene. With the construction of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, the works were moved there. The new Archeology Museum is still within the borders of Topkapi Palace today. It is located between Topkapı Palace and Gulhane Park.

The Hagia Irene Museum in Istanbul

Hagia Irene Museum, which has been affected by earthquakes and fires throughout history, is a structure that could not preserve its former glory. It has never attracted attention like Hagia Sophia or other Byzantine churches in Istanbul. For this reason, the desolation that has spread on the walls of the building is still felt.

While many Byzantine buildings that later turned into museums or mosques give a colorful and lively impression, Hagia Irene promises a different kind of experience to its visitors. It is up to you to enjoy visiting Hagia Eirene Museum using your imagination.

History of Hagia Eirene Church By Serhat Engul

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