To step through the door into Hagia Irene in Istanbul is to step through a time portal back to fourth century Constantinople. Before the more famous Hagia Sofia was built, Hagia Irene served as the main church for the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Hagia Irene also served as a model for the construction of the Hagia Sofia next door.
The original Byzantine church was built by Constantine in 381 AD. He named in honor of the Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace and the church was meant to represent “Divine Peace”. The current version of Hagia Irene was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in 548 AD after the first church burned during a revolt (he is the same guy that built the Hagia Sofia). Though, unlike the Hagia Sofia or the Little Hagia Sofia, the Ottomans did not turn this church into a mosque after they conquered Constantinople in the 15th century. This church became part of the Sultan’s Topkapi Palace grounds, and over the course of its subsequent history, the building was used as an arsenal by the Sultan’s Janissaries (troops of bodyguards and army), and then as a military museum.
Today, Istanbul’s oldest church sits empty, showing the shell of its hefty construction. Time has stripped the building of most of its original decorations, though the apse dome still has the 8th century mosaics, and some frescoes can still been seen on a few of the walls. Maybe because it is devoid of all ornamentation, but as I walked around the empty core, I could feel the weight of the age in this ancient building.
These stones and columns saw the beginnings of the Eastern Orthodox Church when the Second Ecumenical Council met here in 381 AD to define the basic beliefs of what was at that time a fledgling religion. How much history occurred in and around this brick and mortar in 1500 years? Did the builders expect their handiwork to last so long, and what would they think of their construction in our current world today?
Hagia Irene is located in the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace grounds, and most of the time, the church is open for visits as a museum. But occasionally, it is also used as a concert hall for classical music venues because this church also has great acoustics. So if you visit Istanbul, make sure to check if there will be a concert in this unique space while you are there (check the Biletix website and search for Hagia Irene events).
Hagia Sofia may get all the attention, but little Hagia Irene is a much quieter and older experience that should not be missed.
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