December 12, 2007

Little Hagia Sophia

Front view from West as in 2006 and once
Front view from West as in 2006 and once

Little Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Küçuk Ayasofya Camii), formerly the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Greek: Eκκλησία των Άγίων Σεργίου καί Βάκχου εν τοις Ορμίσδου), is a former Eastern Orthodox church converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.

This Byzantine building with a central dome plan was erected in the 6th century and was a model for the Hagia Sophia, the main church of the Byzantine Empire. It is one of the most important early Byzantine buildings in Istanbul. The church was dedicated to the Saints Sergius and Bacchus.


The building lies in Istanbul, in the district of Eminönü and in the neighbourhood of Kumkapi, at a short distance from the Marmara Sea, near the ruins of the Great Palace and to the south of the Hippodrome. It is now separated from the sea by the Sirkeci-Halkalı railway line and the coastal road.


Byzantine period

The edifice was built between 527 and 536 AD (only a short time before the erection of the Hagia Sophia between 532 and 537), during the reign of Justinian Ι, as the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. It lied at the border between the First and Τhird Regio of the city.[1] The location that was chosen for the new church was an irregular area between the Palace of Hormisdas (the house of Justinian before his accession to the throne, when his uncle Justin Was Emperor) and the Church of the Saints Peter and Paul. Back then, the two churches shared the same narthex, atrium and propylaea. The new church became the center of the complex, and still survives today, towards the south of the northern wall of one of the two other edifices. The church was one of the most important religious structures in Constantinople. Short after the building of the church a monastery bearing the same name was built near the edifice.

Due to its strong resemblance to the Hagia Sophia, it is believed that the building has been designed by the same architects, namely Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, and that its erection was a kind of "dress rehearsal" for that of the largest church of the Byzantine Empire.

During the years 536 and 537, the Palace of Hormisdas became a Monophysite monastery, where followers of this tenet, coming from the eastern regions of the Empire and escaping the persecutions against them, found protection by Empress Theodora. [2]

In year 551 Pope Vigilius, who some years before had been summoned to Constantinople by Justinian, found refuge in the church from the soldiers of the Emperor who wanted to capture him, and this attempt caused riots. [2] During the Iconoclastic period the monastery became one of the centers of this movement in the City.

Ottoman period

A particular of the Colonnade
A particular of the Colonnade

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the church remained untouched until the reign of Bayezid II. Then (between 1506 and 1513) it was transformed into a mosque by Hüseyin Ağa, the chief of the Aghas, who were the custodians of the Bab-ı-Saadet (literally The Gate of Felicity in Ottoman Turkish) in the Sultan's residence, the famous Topkapı Palace. At that time the portico and a madrasah were added to the building, while the mosaics which adorned the church were covered with white plaster and painted. To the north of the building a turbe was then built for Hüseyin. [3]

In 1740 the Grand Vizier Hacı Ahmet Paşa restored the mosque and built the Şadırvan (fountain). Damage caused by the earthquakes of 1648 and 1763 were repaired in 1831 under the reign of Sultan Mahmud II. In 1762 the minaret was first built. It was demolished in 1940 and built again in 1956. [3]

The pace of decay of the building, which already suffered because of humidity and earthquakes through the centuries, accelerated after the construction of the railroad. The laying down of the railroad caused parts of St. Peter and Paul to be demolished to the south of the building. Other damage was caused by the building's use as housing for the refugees during the Balkan Wars. [3]

Due to the increasing threats to the building's static integrity, it was added some years ago to the UNESCO watchlist of endangered monuments. After an extensive restoration which lasted several years and ended in September 2006, it has been opened again to the public and to worship.


The Apse of the former Church with the Mihrab. The Minbar is seen in the foreground
The Apse of the former Church with the Mihrab. The Minbar is seen in the foreground

The masonry adopts the usual technique of that time in Constantinople, which uses bricks sunk in thick beds of mortar. The walls are reinforced by chains made of small stone blocks.

The building, the central plan of which was consciously repeated in the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and served as a model for the famous Ottoman architect Sinan in the construction of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, has the shape of an octagon inscribed in an irregular quadrilateral. It is surmounted by a beautiful umbrella dome, built with light material, which stands on eight pillars. The narthex lies on the west side, opposed to an antecorus. Many effects in the building were later used in Hagia Sophia: the exedrae expand the central nave on diagonal axes, colorful columns screen the ambulatories from the nave, and light and shadow contrast deeply on the sculpture of capitals and entablature.[4]

Inside the edifice there is a beautiful two-storey colonnade which runs along the N, W and S sides, and bears an elegant inscription in twelve Greek hexameters dedicated to the Emperor, his wife, Theodora, and Saint Sergius, the patron-saint of the soldiers of the Roman army. The lower storey has 16 columns, while the upper has 18. Many of the capitals still bear the monograms of Justinian and Theodora.

In front of the building there is a portico (which replaced the atrium) and a court (both added during the Ottoman period), with a small garden, a fountain for the ablutions and several small shops. North of the edifice there is a small Muslim cemetery near the Turbe of Hüseyin Ağa, the founder of the Mosque. The Ottomans also added a minaret, modified the windows and the entrance, rose the floor level, and plastered and painted the interior.

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