The first three churches of Constantinople, Hagia Eirene, Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles have not survived in their original form. Therefore, our knowledge of the early Byzantine Churches in Istanbul consists of what we know about the early Christian churches. The first churches of Christianity were inspired by the Basilica, an ancient Roman structure.
Christianity, a belief suppressed by the authorities of the Roman Empire for centuries, was finally freed by the Edict of Milan issued by Emperor Constantine. This new religion, which already had a very strong organization, started to spread rapidly. With the increase of the Christian population, the churches needed to gain an institutional character. This led to the conversion of the basilicas into churches.
The basilica was a rectangular structure that allowed people to gather in pre-Christian Rome. In essence it was not a place used for religious purposes. In Christian Rome, the Basilica was not only converted into a church, but also inspired the architecture of the newly built churches.
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Byzantine Churches of Constantinople in Istanbul
The majority of the Byzantine Churches of Constantinople still exist in present-day Istanbul. However, Stoudios Monastery and Church of St Polyeuktos have become ruins and are not open to visitors, while Church of the Holy Apostles is completely destroyed.
1. Church of the Holy Apostles
Emperor Constantine made Byzantium, a former Greek colony, the second capital of the Empire under the name of “New Rome”. The Roman Emperors would now live in this city called Constantinople in honor of its founder. The new capital was adorned with buildings such as the Hippodrome, the Great Palace and the Forum of Constantine. In addition, the Church of the Holy Apostles was built to emphasize the Christian identity of the city.
According to the authors of the period, the Church of the Holy Apostles was a very high-domed basilica. Its roof was adorned with bronze plates shining like gold. The interior had marble slabs rising up to the ceiling. The church, which burned down in the Nika Revolt erupted in 532, was rebuilt during the reign of Justinian.
The church where many famous emperors such as Constantine and Justinian were buried has not survived. The building, which was heavily damaged during the Sack of Constantinople of 1204, was destroyed by the Ottoman period. Today, Fatih Mosque rises above its foundations.
2. Hagia Eirene
Hagia Eirene was the city’s bishopric church before Byzantium became the Roman capital. Emperor Constantine expanded this church as he rebuilt the city. Hagia Eirene, which means Holy Peace, was the oldest church in Constantinople.
The church, which was destroyed during the Nika Revolt, was rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian. The new Hagia Eirene was built with a simple plan that could not rival the Hagia Sophia, the masterpiece of Justinian.
However, the church of Justinian was also destroyed by an earthquake in 740. Since the present structure was built during the iconoclastic period, Byzantine mosaics are not seen in the interior. Despite its simple style, it is one of the most mystical Byzantine Churches in Istanbul.
Hagia Eirene is located in the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul today. You can visit the building known as the Hagia Irene Museum by buying a ticket. Classical music concerts are held in the church in spring.
3. Stoudios Monastery
Stoudios Monastery is the oldest church in Istanbul that has survived since the Byzantine period. It was built in 462 by a Roman patrician who lived in the city. Located very close to the Golden Gate, the most important entrance gate of the city, the church carries the traces of antiquity with its elegant architecture.
Famous for its Corinthian columns, mosaics and geometric decorations, it was a monastery dedicated to John the Baptist. This was the most effective of the 80 monasteries in Constantinople. Stoudios’ senior monks were the most influential clerics after the Archbishop of Constantinople. The influence of the monastery in politics was most felt during the 700s when it stood against the Byzantine Iconoclasm.
The monastery, which was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1486, was named Imrahor Mosque. The monastery tradition was maintained in a sense with the Tekke (Islamic Monastery) added to the mosque. In an earthquake of 1766, the columns on the right were destroyed and in 1908 the roof collapsed, making the mosque unusable. Although the walls surrounding the structure are still standing, the Stoudios Monastery is not open to visitors.
As of 2024, the Istanbul Governor’s Office announced that the building will be restored in accordance with its original form. If this happens, the Imrahor Mosque (former Stoudios Monastery), which has been out of use for a century, will become active again.
4. Church of St. Polyeuktos
The remains of Church of St. Polyeuktos were found near Valens Aqueduct during an excavation in the 1960s. Although the church is a ruin today, it sheds light on the history of the Church of Sergius and Bacchus, which we will cover in the next topic.
The patron of the church, Anicia Juliana, comes from a Roman aristocratic family. His father, Olybrius, was a former Western Roman Emperor. Juliana’s son was married to the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I and heir to the throne. However, when Anastasius died, Justin, the commander of the palace guards, became emperor. Old Justin chose his adopted son Justinian to succeed him.
The fact that Justin, an Illyrian peasant, took over the throne disappointed Juliana, a member of a noble family. She chose a glorious way to protest these events. She spent her family fortune on a church dedicated to a soldier named Polyeuktos, a martyr for Christianity.
As of 2024, Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality is carrying out a major excavation at the site of this church. More remains of the Church of St Polyeuktos will soon come to light.
5. Church of Sergius and Bacchus
The construction of the Church of St Polyeuctus began in 524 and was completed in 527 when Justinian came to the throne. The Church of Sergius and Bacchus was built between 527 and 536 in response to the challenge of Anicia Juliana.
During the reign of his uncle, Justinian first became Consul and then Caesar. He was the secret force behind his uncle’s administration. Justinian and his wife Theodora first lived in the Palace of Hormisdas and they built a church dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. After Justinian became emperor, they converted the Hormisdas Palace into a monastery with the church inside.
In response to Anicia Juliana’s church dedicated to St. Polieuktos, the construction of a church dedicated to two legendary martyrs Sergius and Bacchus was initiated. The new church was a response to the arrogance of the traditional Aristocracy. Therefore the traditional basilica plan was not implemented.
The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus opened a new chapter in the church architecture as a square structure covered with an octagonal dome. The church, which was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1509, was renamed the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque because of its resemblance to Hagia Sophia.
6. Hagia Sophia
The construction of the first Hagia Sophia was completed during the reign of Constantius II (the son of Constantine the Great). The building, which was then called Megale Ekklesia (the Great Church), was a basilica.
At the end of the 4th century, John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople) harshly criticized Empress Aelia Eudoxia for her lifestyle. As a result of a series of events, John was exiled from the city. The departure of the famous preacher led to a rebellion. The first Hagia Sophia was set on fire during this turmoil and became unusable.
Emperor Theodosius II rebuilt the church. But the second church shared the same fate. The Theodosian Hagia Sophia was burned during the Nika Revolt that erupted against Justinian I.
Emperor Justinian, one of the most powerful rulers in Byzantine history, decided to build a magnificent structure to regain his reputation. Anthemius and Isidore, the most brilliant architects of the period, took part in the new project. In less than 6 years one of the most important architectural monuments in history was built.
After being a church for about 900 years, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453. The building, which remained a mosque for about 500 years, served as a museum since 1930. However, it was turned back into a mosque in 2020.
Meanwhile, the upper floor galleries of Hagia Sophia, which have been closed since 2020, will be reopened to visitors as of January 15, 2024. Thus, it will be possible again to see the unique Byzantine mosaics.
Of course there is a lot to be told about Hagia Sophia. However, it is not possible to fit all the details in a few paragraphs. If you want to go into detail on this subject, you can also review my articles on Hagia Sophia architecture and Hagia Sophia mosaics.
7. Constantine Lips Monastery
Constantine Lips Monastery was built in 907 by Constantine Lips, the admiral of Emperor Leo VI. It was located in the valley of the Lykos River, which passes through the city and flows into the Marmara Sea. It is the oldest monument representing the medieval architecture of the Byzantine Empire.
The architecture of the Monastery of Lips is different from the early Christian works we have mentioned so far. The church was built with a Greek cross plan and had five domes and four chapels. Instead of the large gathering spaces offered by an imperial church, it had small sections where the elites would come together.
While the interior was designed to get plenty of light in the previous churches, the interior is more dim and mysterious in Lips, where the influence of the Middle Ages is felt. In addition, the dome was supported by bricks instead of marble-carved columns. Thus, more space is created on the walls of the interior, where mosaics or frescoes would be exhibited.
In the 13th century, another church was added to the south of the building by Theodora, the wife of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. Theodora designed the church where the Paleologos dynasty would be buried. The church, which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period, became known as the Fenari Isa Mosque.
8. Monastery of Myrelaion
Monastery of Myrelaion was built by Romanos Lekapenos as a burial chapel for his family. The rise and fall of the Lekapenos in Byzantine history is an interesting story.
Theophylaktos, the father of Romanos Lekapenos, saved the life of Emperor Basil I in one battle and was promoted to palace guard. The family was enriched by the Emperor’s grant of vast lands. Romanos, who ruled the Lekapenos dynasty founded by his father, rose to the naval command of Emperor Leo VI.
Romanos became even stronger when her daughter Helena married Emperor Constantine VII (son of Leo VI). He began to build a palace in the heart of Constantinople. At the site of the palace was located a 42-meter diameter rotunda. Romanos filled the interior of the rotunda with 80 columns and turned it into a cistern. While the palace was built in this land, a family church was added to it.
The Myrelaion Church was built on a high platform to align it with the palace rising on the rotunda. The fact that it was adjacent to a rotunda of unknown past has given the church a unique character.
The Greek cross plan at Lips Monastery is also seen here. However, Myrelaion is much brighter than Lips. Unlike Lips, Myrelaion does not have side domes. Its single dome makes the Greek cross more visible.
Since the completion of the church in 922, members of the Lekapenos dynasty were buried here. The period when Romanos Lekapenos and his two sons became co-emperors with Constantine VII (Porphyrogenitus) became the peak of family power. However, the fall of the family was as fast as the rise.
The church was converted into a mosque (Bodrum Mosque) by the Ottoman general Mesih Pasha in the 1500s. Mesih Pasha was one of the commanders of Greek origin who grew up in the Enderun school at Topkapı Palace.
Myrelaion is located at the most central point of the city among the Byzantine churches in Istanbul. The building is located just a few minutes’ walk from places such as Laleli Tram Stop and Yenikapi Marmaray Station in the Old City.
9. Monastery of Christ Pantepoptes
The rise of the Byzantines during the Macedonian Dynasty peaked during the reign of Basil II. Since Emperor Basil II did not like extravagance, he did not build expensive structures in the capital. However, his conquests and economic reforms filled the imperial treasury with gold. Thanks to his savings, his successors were able to spend generously.
During the 150 years following the construction of Lips and Myrelaion, very important Byzantine churches were built. But none of them survived. Within a century and a half, the empire’s center of power shifted from the aristocracy of Constantinople to the land-rich families in Anatolia. The Monastery of Christ Pantepoptes (Christ the All-Seeing) was the oldest surviving work from the Komnenos Dynasty, which represented the Anatolian aristocracy.
The church was built by Anna Dalassene, the mother of the famous Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. While Alexios was trying to secure the borders of the declining empire, he left the administration in the capital to his mother, whom he declared empress. After completing her mission, Anna retired to this church. The church is located in the valley descending from the Valens Aqueduct to the Golden Horn.
Due to its strategic location, the church was used as headquarters by Emperor Alexios V Doukas during the Siege of Constantinople (1204). During the Ottoman period, it was converted into a mosque called Eski Imaret Mosque.
10. Church of Hagia Theodosia
It is rumored that when the Ottoman soldiers entered the city in 1453, they found the Church of Hagia Theodosia equipped with roses. Therefore, when the church was converted into a mosque, it was renamed Gul (Rose) Mosque.
In fact, the roses were placed to commemorate Saint Theodosia who was martyred while resisting the destruction of the icon of Holy Jesus during Iconoclasm. Church of St. Theodosia is one of the most important buildings to be seen during my Fener Balat walking tour in Istanbul.
Although the exact construction date of the church is not known, it is estimated that it was built at the end of the 11th century. According to some historians, it was built by Ioannes Komnenos, nephew of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.
Built with a Greek cross plan, the church has a dome with a diameter of 8.60 meters. The wall decorations, which were renewed during the Ottoman Empire, attract attention with the Star of David.
Although Church of Hagia Theodosia is a little known place, it is one of the best preserved Byzantine churches in Istanbul.
11. Monastery of Christ Pantokrator
The feudal division of Byzantine society began to manifest itself in the capital. Strong families, together with their supporters, established palaces and monasteries in various districts. During the Komnenos dynasty, the emperors abandoned the traditional Great Palace and lived in the Palace of Blachernae. The tradition of burying the Emperors in the Church of the Holy Apostles ended.
With this movement, the Komnenos family designed a church with an underground cemetery where members of the dynasty would be buried. In this church called the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator, dozens of priests and monks would live.
The Monastery of Christ Pantokrator consists of three adjacent structures. The first church, built in 1118, was dedicated to Jesus Christ. In 1136 another church dedicated to Virgin Mary was built. In the middle of these two churches was the central building where the Komnenos would be buried.
Although this structure lacks integrity, it is quite impressive with its majesty. The Pantokrator Church continued to be the burial chapel of the imperial family until the last years of the Byzantine Empire. The last person to be buried here was Helena Dragaš, mother of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos.
The building was converted into a mosque under the name “Molla Zeyrek Mosque” during the Ottoman period. Pantocrator Church stands out as one of the most picturesque Byzantine churches in Istanbul.
12. Theotokos Kyriotissa
There are various claims regarding the history of the monastery of Theotokos Kyriotissa. The main reason for this is that the church was composed of structures constructed in five different periods. The first of the findings is a bath showing that the history of the church dates back to the 4th century. The second is an old church dating back to the 7th century.
The apse of today’s church belongs to a structure built during the Iconoclasm (726-842) period. Diaconicon dates from the 10th century, while there is also a chapel dating from the 11th century. The main structure that brings all these structures together is dated to the Komnenos Dynasty at the end of the 12th century.
The most striking detail about the church was its allocation to the Franciscan monks during the Latin Empire of 1204 to 1261. The Diaconicon section was decorated in 1250 with frescoes depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. During the Ottoman period it was converted into a mosque called Kalenderhane Mosque.
Theotokos Kyriotissa has the most mysterious history among Byzantine churches in Istanbul. The church has both Orthodox and Catholic relics, and its architecture bears traces of a millennium.
13. Church of Panagia Mouchliotissa
When Michael VIII Palaiologos reclaimed Constantinople, which had been occupied by the Crusaders for 57 years, the city had become a ruin. The Palaiologos dynasty embarked on a desperate task of rebuilding the city.
They began the most urgent works by renovating the Palace of Blachernae and repairing the city walls. Then it was time to make renovations for the Byzantine churches of Constantinople.
The most striking feature of this church is that it is the only active church that was built during the Byzantine period and did not turn into a mosque. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, who built the Fatih Mosque after the conquest, issued a decree upon the request of Atik Sinan, the Greek architect of the mosque, and ensured the existence of this very church.
It is rumored that this church was built by Maria Palaiologina, daughter of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, who married the Mongolian ruler. Maria was married to Abaka Khan to form an alliance between Byzantine and the Mongol Empires. After 15 years of marriage, Maria returned to Constantinople and spent her last years in this monastery.
Church of Panagia Mouchliotissa is located in the Fener neighborhood. It is very close to Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which is the most important stop of Fener Balat walking tours. It is popularly known as the “Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols”. The edict written by Sultan Mehmed II can still be seen on the wall of the church.
14. Pammakaristos Church
Members of the Palaiologos dynasty, like the Komnenos, competed with each other to build religious structures and monasteries. Pammakaristos Church, which was originally a building dating back to the Komnenos period, was greatly damaged during the Latin occupation. Michael Tarchaneiotes, a nobleman of the Palaiologos period, repaired this church.
After Michael’s death, his wife Maria Doukaina built a burial chapel (Parekklesion) to the south of the church in honor of her husband. Adorned with the most beautiful works of art of the period, Pammakaristos is home to wonderful Byzantine mosaics.
Pammakaristos was used as the Patriarchate building between 1455 and 1586. It was converted into a mosque during the reign of Sultan Murad III and began to be called Fethiye Mosque. Parecclesion section of the church is open to visitors as Fethiye Museum.
Unfortunately, Fethiye Museum has been closed since 2020 due to renovations. However, the mosaics in the upper floor galleries of Hagia Sophia will be be visited again in 2024, and similarly, we expect Pammakaristos to open soon.
15. Chora Church
Chora Church was a monastery outside the Walls of Constantine. When the city walls were expanded during Theodosius II, the church remained in the city. The archaeological findings of the present church indicate that it was built during the Komnenos dynasty. The present church was built between 1077 and 1081 by Maria Dukaina, mother-in-law of Alexios I Komnenos.
It was the Byzantine treasurer Theodore Metochites who decorated the building with mosaics that would make it famous. Thedoros rebuilt the main dome of the church between 1315 and 1320. As in Pammakaristos, he added a burial chapel called Parekklesion. Finally, he added a series of mosaics depicting the life of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary.
Chora is one of the most important Byzantine churches in Istanbul. It contains the most beautiful mosaics inherited from the Byzantine period. Meanwhile, those interested in Byzantine history can visit a Byzantine palace very close to Chora. The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus now serves as a museum.
It should also be noted that Chora was a church, just like Hagia Sophia, and became a mosque during the Ottoman period. After serving as a museum from 1930 to 2020, it was converted back into a mosque in the recent past.
Unfortunately, Chora Church has been closed for renovations since 2020. However, the mosaics in the upper floor galleries of Hagia Sophia will be visible in 2024, and we hope that Chora will open in a similar way.
Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul
Hello, my name is Serhat Engul. I have been working as a private tour guide in Istanbul since 2004. One of the most interesting of my tours is the Byzantine history tour. If you are interested in the details in this article, you can go on a historical journey with me to get to know Byzantine Constantinople.
While writing The Byzantine Churches of Constantinople in Istanbul, I benefited from the work of a famous historian in Turkey. Constantinople: Istanbul’s Historical Heritage book by Stefanos Yerasimos (1945-2005), a professor of history at Istanbul University, is the academic source of this article.
Byzantine Churches in Istanbul by Serhat Engul