Three days in Istanbul: Hagia Eirene

This building could have featured in my previous post on finding ancient (Eastern) Rome in Istanbul, as it was the first church to be built by Constantine the Great in his new capital city, and was the main place of worship until Hagia Sophia was built in the 360s.

Now it stands within the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace – in Ottoman times it found itself used as an arsenal, and then more recently as a military museum,

The original building has been damaged by fire and earthquakes. What we see today is from the 8th Century. It is fixed in a very particular moment in time: the basic decoration (a large cross instead of icons) dates from the days of iconoclasm, and would have been relatively unusual either before or after that date.

The site is slightly below ground level and is basically built to replicate the form of a traditional Roman basilica.


Its dome has seen better days and netting hides its splendour (and the birds above)…



The site may even be the final resting place of Constantine himself – peeking through the window into a sunlit internal courtyard, I saw the porphyry tomb to the left and remembered Simon Sebag Monteffiore’s recent programme (Byzantium: a tale of three cities) where it was suggested that this might be the emperor’s tomb. Not such a ludicrous suggestion as only members of the Imperial family were allowed to use this material. And is the Chi-Rho symbol a clue?


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