Lucia Marchini explores sacred sites in the sultan’s city.

The Byzantine church and Ottoman arsenal Hagia Irene stands in the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace, in close proximity to the more famous Hagia Sophia, whose dome appears in the background of this picture. (Image: Alexxx Malev [CC by SA 2.0])

The year AD 532 was an eventful one in the history of Constantinople, and one it is still easy to revisit through some of the sites in the modern city of Istanbul. Spurred on by the rival charioteering factions the Blues and the Greens, fierce riots broke out in the hippodrome in January. Over the course of a week, much of city burnt to the ground. As well as securing his place on the throne, the emperor Justinian set out to repair the damage of the Nika riots and rebuild the city from the ashes.

The hippodrome today is a hive of activity, and a convenient reference point for navigating the sites clustered around it. It was first built by Septimius Severus at the start of the 3rd century, after his punitive attack on the city for backing the wrong horse in the civil war, but it was Constantine who made the racing ground such a major feature. For his Nova Roma, he enlarged it (managing the steeply sloping topography with supporting walls to do so), built an imperial palace on its eastern side, and erected a bronze serpentine column taken from Delphi. The palace is no longer standing, but the impressive Sultan Ahmet Mosque (or Blue Mosque) was built at the same important location early in the 17th century, and the (now headless) serpentine column is still in the hippodrome, along with two later additions – an obelisk of Thutmose III re-erected by Theodosius in the late 4th century, with a marble pedestal featuring the emperor with his court and a chariot race, and the Walled Obelisk that towers over the southern end of the hippodrome.

The pedestal of the Obelisk of Theodosius depicts the transport of this ancient Egyptian monument.

At the other end of the hippodrome is the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, and the crowning glory of Justinian’s post-riot rebuild. The earliest known Christian church on the site was built under Constantius II in the 4th century, then rebuilt by Theodosius II early in the next century. It was this second structure that was engulfed in flames during the Nika riots. As you queue to get into Hagia Sophia, marble fragments of carved reliefs and columns on the lawn offer a glimpse of the fine craftsmanship lost in the fire, but Justinian set out to do even better. And, according to his contemporary the historian Procopius, he certainly succeeded. Procopius gives a gushing account of this masterwork by architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus in his Buildings:

the church has become a spectacle of marvellous beauty, overwhelming to those who see it, but to those who know it by hearsay altogether incredible… And it exults in an indescribable beauty…

Of this spectacle no one has ever had a surfeit, but when present in the church men rejoice in what they see, and when they leave it they take proud delight in conversing about it.

Such words may seem excessive (and this is just a small part of the rather lengthy description), but they ring true. With golden mosaics, lofty arches, vaulted ceilings, an abundance of windows, and a mighty dome (repaired several times since), the building is an intricate archaeological wonder, and one that, judging from written accounts and architecture elsewhere in the city, has made its mark on countless other visitors throughout history. Some have even returned the favour: up in the galleries, we see a graffito translated simply as ‘Halvdan was here’ and thought to have been left by a Viking mercenary in the 9th century. There are traces of the crusaders too, such as the gravestone of Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, who commanded the Fourth Crusade.

Important monuments like the Serpentine Column and the Obelisk of Theodosius were erected in the hippodrome. Minarets of the Blue Mosque can be seen on the right, and those of Hagia Sophia in the distance. The former race track still has a place in modern Istanbul’s sporting scene: the white tents remain from the city’s marathon.

Twists of fate

Unlike the two preceding structures, Justinian’s Hagia Sophia has stood the test of time. It served as a church until the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453, when it was converted into a mosque, and since the 1930s the building has been regarded as a museum. You don’t even need to go inside to see the influence of the sultans: four minarets stand at the corners of Hagia Sophia at a dizzying height of 60m, and the nearby Blue Mosque, which also dominates the skyline around the hippodrome with its six minarets, clearly borrows from the Byzantine design. Inside, though, there are many more features showing the building’s later usage, including attempts to cover up the chi-rho, vast dark green panels with gilt calligraphy around the dome, and two huge Hellenistic marble urns from Pergamon, which were introduced in the 16th century by Sultan Murad III to serve sherbet to the public at celebrations.

One other grand Byzantine church is that of Holy Peace, Hagia Irene. It is within shouting distance of Hagia Sophia, and although people constantly pass it as they flow through the Imperial Gate to the sultans’ sumptuous Topkapı Palace, it was entirely empty on our visit. Admittedly, Hagia Irene is less showy than its glittering neighbours, but nonetheless it is an impressive structure boasting, not unlike Hagia Sophia, a dome, harmonious arches, and a multitude of windows. Constantine commissioned his first church in the city here, but this too was razed to the ground during the Nika riots. Justinian duly rebuilt the church, and earthquake damage in the 8th century led to restorations and new decorations under Constantine V. Some of the mosaics and frescoes ordered by Constantine V survive in situ, as do a synthronon (a set of semicircular tiered benches in the apse) and column shafts of varying heights, but overall Hagia Irene looks rather more austere than the glamour of the surrounding sites, partly because of its use after Mehmed II’s conquest. Hagia Irene was enclosed within the walls of the first courtyard of the Topkapı, where, with a touch of irony, it served as an arsenal and then a military museum (now elsewhere). An altogether different fate for one of the city’s finest Byzantine churches.

This article appeared in issue 88 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.