Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was the first architectural work of the famous Byzantine emperor Justinian in Istanbul. During the early years of Justinian’s reign, he had conflicts with the Roman aristocracy and built this church as a show of strength.
Built under the joint reign of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, this church had very innovative architecture for its period. It should be added that its architect was Anthemius, who would later build Hagia Sophia.
Dedicated to two Christian martyrs, Sergius and Bacchus, the church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period. Its name was Little Hagia Sophia Mosque because of its resemblance to Hagia Sophia.
This old Byzantine structure is located in Sultanahmet, one of the most touristic districts of Istanbul today. Known as “Kucuk Ayasofya Mosque” in the local language, the building has a history of 1500 years.
In this article you can find information about this hidden gem that is mostly overlooked by tourists visiting Istanbul. As a local tour guide, I strongly recommend you to visit the building, which is 10 minutes walking distance from the Blue Mosque.
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Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus
The period between 527 and 565, when Emperor Justinian reigned, was the period when the Byzantine Empire made an architectural breakthrough. The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, now known as the Little Hagia Sophia, was also built during the early years of Justinian. Dedicated to two early Christian martyrs, Sergius and Bacchus, it is one of the oldest Byzantine churches in Istanbul.
The church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period and was named Little Hagia Sophia Mosque. In order to comprehend the history of this Byzantine structure, it is necessary to start from the reign of Emperor Justin I, the predecessor of Justinian.
1. The Roots of the Justinian Dynasty
When Emperor Anastasius died, an officer named Justin, commander of the palace guards, ascended the throne. After emigrating from a village in Thrace to Constantinople, Justin rose rapidly in the army. Although he was a good soldier, he was uneducated and low born. In the turmoil that Anastasius died without leaving an heir, Justin became emperor with the support of the soldiers and the people.
Emperor Justin I, who did not have the intellectual background to lead the state, needed help. His nephew, Petrus Sabbatius, had the intelligence and intellectual knowledge the Emperor needed.
Petrus, who had received a very good education thanks to the influence of his uncle Justin in Constantinople, became the heir to the throne by taking the name Justinian. He was soon promoted to the rank of “Caesar” by his uncle and became the next heir to the throne.
2. Anicia Juliana’s Challenge
Noble families of the capital followed these developments with concern. Anicia Juliana, daughter of the former Western Roman Emperor Olybrius, was one of them. Anicia’s son (named Olybrius as his grandfather) was married to the daughter of the former emperor Anastasius. For this reason, he was expected to take the throne. Justin’s proclamation of Justinian as an heir caused Anicia to lose hope.
The fact that her family had no claim to the throne left Anicia a disappointed, heart-broken woman. On top of all this, it was unacceptable that Justinian married a dancer (Theodora). Anicia Juliana chose a glorious way to protest these events. She spent her family fortune on a church dedicated to a soldier named Saint Polyeuctus, a martyr for Christianity.
3. Retaliation of Justinian and Theodora
The construction of the Church of Saint Polyeuktos began in 524 and ended in 527 when Justinian came to the throne. The construction of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus began in 527 in response to Anicia Juliana’s challenge and was completed in 536 (one year before the construction of Hagia Sophia)
Justinian was the secret force behind the power of his illiterate uncle. Previously lived in the Palace of Hormisdas, Justinian and his wife Theodora had built a church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. However, after Justinian became emperor and moved to the Great Palace, Hormisdas Palace was converted into a monastery with the church inside.
In response to Anicia Juliana’s church dedicated to Polyeuctus, the construction of a church dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus began. Two Roman soldiers, Sergius and Bacchus, were killed for their beliefs when Christian faith was banned in the Roman Empire.
Built as a response to the arrogance of the aristocracy, the new church brought a new dimension to Byzantine architecture with its octagonal dome in a square structure. This church, one of the most beautiful buildings created by Justinian, has survived to the present day. Some historians argue that the construction of the Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus is a rehearsal of the architecture of Hagia Sophia.
Now Little Hagia Sophia Mosque
The church was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1509. Due to its similarity to Hagia Sophia; It was called Little Hagia Sophia Mosque. Porticos and minaret were added to the building afterwards. The wall decorations inside the mosque were also made during the Ottoman period.
On the other hand, the antique column capitals inside the building and the inscriptions embroidered on the wall above the columns are from the Byzantine period. These writings describe Sergius and Bacchus’ stance against the persecution of Christians and the piety of Justinian and his wife Theodora.
There is a handicraft market in the garden of the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque. After visiting the mosque, you can take a look at the marbling works in this bazaar and have a tea break. Away from the crowds and noise around the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, Little Hagia Sophia is a place that embraces the visitor and provides peace.
There are many structures in Istanbul from the Byzantine period. These include churches, palace ruins, columns and cisterns. Each of these structures has its own stories, just like the Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus.
As a private tour guide in Istanbul, I made a detailed list of these structures. You can find most of them in the article called Byzantine sites in Istanbul. In this article, you can trace the legacy of Byzantine Istanbul.
Written by Serhat Engul