Some Churches of the Once Christian and Roman City of Constantinople

The great city of Constantinople -- or what has become known now as Istanbul -- is a city of no little intrigue and mystery. Its former identity as a Christian and Roman city can today be very difficult to imagine in a skyline now dominated by minarets. Even the architectural gem of the city, Hagia Sophia, can be difficult to so imagine, though if we digitally remove the later architectural additions before it and around it, we might end up with some akin to this:

As for the interior is concerned, we've already discussed this at length in our article, The Historical Christian Arrangement of Hagia Sophia, so we shall simply point you there rather than repeat it here. 

But while Hagia Sophia is well enough known, what of the rest of the formerly Christian city? Focusing on Hagia Sophia alone would be a bit like thinking of Christian Rome and only showing St. Peter's Basilica. Admittedly this task is rather more convoluted in the case of Constantinople given its historical conquest by a non-Christian power that naturally shaped the city in its own image in the same way that Christians re-shaped Rome from a pagan city to a Christian one. 

Fortunately, however, we do have some remnants. 

Beyond Hagia Sophia itself, we have Hagia Eirene. This church is the only extant Christian church in Constantinople that wasn't converted into a mosque in fact -- mainly for reason that it had been converted for centuries to another purpose, first as an armoury and today it serves as a concert hall and a museum.  

If you are wondering about the naming of the church and its proximity to Hagia Sophia's name, it is not an accident. The emperors built three churches in Constantinople dedicated each to a divine attribute: Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace) and Hagia Dynamis (Holy Power).  In fact, the name is not the only proximity Hagia Eirene has to its more famous counterpart, Hagia Sophia, which can be seen here behind to the left:

Hagia Eirene is said, in fact, to be older than Hagia Sophia in its origins, being originally completed in the fourth century and considered amongst the first Christian churches of the city.  Just as in Rome itself, churches of this antiquity have seen their share of restorations over the centuries, in the first instance being rebuilt in the year 548 by the Emperor Justinian after it had been burned down. 

The interior is set into a fairly typical Roman basilica plan but it is also of historical interest insofar as it contains remnants of the art of the Byzantine iconoclastic era.  The apse finds itself decorated solely by a very plain cross. 

One can see here the classic arrangement showing the columns going down the nave, with two outer aisles, in typical basilica fashion. Within the apse, beneath he plain, iconoclastic era cross is the synthronon where the bishop and his clerics would be seated. Before it would have been an altar with a ciborium, likely separated off from the nave by a balustrade. 

We mentioned there were three churches in Constantinople dedicated to a divine attribute. Regrettably the third, Hagia Dynamis, seems to be lost to the mists of time.  The same may be said of another renowned Christian church of Constantinople, Holy Apostles, which was already by the time of the Ottoman conquest falling into ruin and would ultimately be demolished. Our only sense of it now comes from illuminations such as this one.

The relics of St. Luke

After the fall of Constantinople, Holy Apostles was used for a time as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch before switching only a few years later to the Church of the Theotokos Pammakaristos (Church of the All Blessed Mother of God) and fortunately this one remains. This church is thought to have been built in the eleventh or twelfth century, right around the time of the Great Schism. In 1591 it was converted into a mosque but the structure still stands to this day.

In fact, despite having been converted to a mosque, it contains one of the most significant collection of mosaics from the Byzantine period  within Constantinople. 

Originally the interior had marble revetments that were covering the lower walls, but these have for the most part been removed. The interior mosaics contains various figures, most prominently Christ the Pantocrator as well as the Blessed Virgin, St. John the Baptist and various Old Testament prophets. 

The final church we'll consider on our brief tour is known as the Chora church, or more properly, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora -- "in chora" meaning "in the country," so named because it originally fell outside the borders of the city, much in the same way that we refer to certain Roman churches as "fuori le mura" (outside the walls). The church was founded in the early fourth century as part of a monastery erected by the Emperor Constantine but the majority of the fabric of the building as you see it today dates from the mid eleventh century. 

In the early fourteenth century the church was decorated with the frescoes and mosaics you may now see today. Fifty years following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoaman's it was converted into a mosque and so it remained until 1945 when it was turned into a museum -- though as recently as 2020 it is once again being used as a mosque. During its first period as a mosque, the mosaics and frescoes were covered in a layer of plaster which fortunately have allowed them to be substantively preserved down to our own time, thus giving as a fairly good glimpse of Christian Constantinople as it would have looked and felt just prior to the Ottoman conquest of the city. 

With that, we will close out this little tour of just a few of the churches of Constantinople that are noteworthy and retain enough of their historical Christian remnants to give us a sense of what was once, the great Christian city of the Eastern half of the Roman empire; Constantinopolis, city of Constantine. 

[For those interested in this topic, a resource you may wish to look into is In Search of Constantinople: A Guidebook through Byzantine Istanbul and Its Surroundings by Sergey A. Ivanov and The Byzantine Churches of Istanbul by Thomas F. Matthews.]

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