Late Roman & Byzantine Sites of Istanbul

Part Five: Early Byzantine Churches and Monasteries


37. Monastery of Stoudios

Imrahor Mosque
İmam Aşir Sokak, Mühendis Ali Sokak & Mahsen Sokak, Samatya
Around 460

The Monastery of Saint John the Forerunner at Stoudios was established in around 460 by consul Flavius Studius. Its residents were referred to as the Stoudites. It is probably the most important monastery in the history of Constantinople, and for a long time, it was the biggest in the city.

The most famous person related the monastery is Theodore the Studite (759-826), under whose leadership the Stoudion became a major intellectual centre in the empire, especially when it comes to manuscript illumination, calligraphy, and hymnography. Some of the hymns here created are still used in the Orthodox Church. In the Iconoclast era, the monastery also ardently supported the Iconodules. At that time, it was self-sufficient, having its own lands, gardens, vineyards, mills, workshops, a wharf, and livestock. There were Stoudites who rose to become the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and some Byzantine emperors took monastic vows here. The organization of the monastery was taken as a model by many other monasteries, including some on Mount Athos.

The Stoudion played a lesser role under the Komnenoi, but regained its status as the leading monastery of the city during the Palaiologan rule. Its church was converted into a mosque by the mirahur, or the stable master, of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512).


The only structure that is left of the complex is its katholikon. Though in ruins, it constitutes the oldest surviving church in Istanbul. It was a large basilica with a typical plan: a nave and two aisles, a single apse to the east, and a three-bay narthex and an atrium to the west. The nave was separated from the aisles by green marble columns with Corinthian capitals. The apse had a synthronon (cf. Hagia Eirene). Under the altar was a cruciform crypt.

The church was richly decorated. Its opus sectile pavement, with its depictions of animals and mythological scenes, still survives, although exposed to elements.


38. Church of Theotokos Chalkoprateia

Alemdar Caddesi, Zeynep Sultan Cami Sokak, Salkım Söğüt Sokak & Yerebatan Caddesi, Cağaloğlu
5th century; the chapels – second half of 6th century

This church, located near Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern, may have been built by Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius II, on the site of or near to a synagogue. It probably burned down in around 475 (in the same fire that also destroyed the Palace of Lausus?). It may have then been rebuilt or restored by Verina, the wife of Emperor Leo I the Thracian (457-474). The name Chalkoprateia comes from the neighbourhood of (Jewish) coppersmiths where the church was located.

The church was a three-aisled basilica with a polygonal apse, a narthex, an atrium, and a cruciform crypt. It was fully made of bricks. Today, the only remnants of the main church are part of the sanctuary and the apse.


The church served as the patriarchal seat during the construction of the third Hagia Sophia in 532-537.

Justin II (565-574) and his wife Sophia are known to have repaired and beautified the church. They also added three chapels. The most important of these was the Chapel of Hagia Soros, named after the holy urn which stored the girdle of Virgin Mary. This made it one of the most important churches in the Constantinople, on a par with the other Marian shrines in the city – the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae and the Hodegon Monastery. The names of the chapel and, consequently, of the church itself, were later adopted to refer to a type of Marian icon, in which Mary is depicted without Child Jesus, slightly from the side, with both hands in prayer.

The second chapel was dedicated to Christ, as it housed the miraculous icon of Christ Antiphonetes. The third was the Chapel of Saint Jacob Adelphotheos (James, the Brother of God). It has sometimes thought to be the octagonal structure the ruins of which can be found adjoined to the northern wall of the atrium of the church. The octagon is surrounded by an ambulatory with chambers. There are frescoes in the octagon, possibly from the late 13th or early 14th century. The surviving frescoes depict the Three Magi, the murder of Zechariah, and the Annunciation.

After the Fall of Constantinople the church was turned into a mosque, which, damaged by multiple fires, continued to be in use until the early 20th century.


39. Church of Saint Polyeuctus

Saraçhane Archaeological Park, Fatih

The Church of Saint Polyeuctus was built by noblewoman Anicia Juliana, daughter of Olybrius, one of the last Western Roman emperors (reigned in 472). It stood on the site of an earlier church, built by her great-grandmother Aelia Eudocia, wife of Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), to house the skull of Saint Polyeuctus. It was located on the northern branch of the Mese, between the Forum of Theodosius and the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Hagios Polyeuktos was the probably largest church in Constantinople before the construction of Hagia Sophia (532-537). Its proportions followed precisely those given for the Temple of Solomon in the Bible. It was a basilica with a roughly square plan, with a central nave, two aisles, an apse to the east, and a narthex and a large atrium to the west. It possibly had a transept terminating in semicircular apses. It has been suggested that it had a dome. If this is true, it was the Church of Saint Polyeuctus, and not the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, that first combined the rectangular plan with a dome.

Ruins of the Church of Saint Polyeuctus in Saraçhane Archeological Park




Hagios Polyeuktos was probably the most lavishly decorated building in Constantinople. Its vaults were adorned with mosaics, and polychrome marbles brought from all over the Mediterranean covered its walls. Fragments of ivory, amethyst, coloured glass, and gold have also been found.

Marble column, inlaid with amethyst and green glass, of the altar canopy of the Church of Saint Polyeuctus (Istanbul Archaeology Museum)


The most impressive were the sculpted elements, mostly made of Proconnesian marble, some of which survive. Among them are niche fragments of an entablature, which show a peacock in the centre, with its feathers fanned out proud, surrounded by deeply carved leaves and vines. These pieces were painted in colours which were hard to find, such as certain shades of blue, green, purple, and gold.

Many decorative elements have their roots in the Near East, partly due to the fact that the church directly evokes the Temple of Solomon. These include motifs such as palm trees, pomegranates, and lilies. Many influences come from the Sassanid Persia, a trend that became widespread in Constantinople later in the 6th century. Relief plaques bearing the images of Christ, Virgin Mary, and the Apostles have also been found. These are rare survivals of the Iconoclast prohibition of the 8th and 9th centuries.

On the walls of the church, a 76-line epigram could be found (cf. the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus). In it, Juliana compares herself to Constantine I and Theodosius II as a monumental builder and claims to have surpassed Solomon’s Temple. The church is thus an assertion of Juliana’s imperial lineage and a direct challenge to the authority and prestige of the low-born reigning dynasty. It may be one of the incentives of the reconstruction of Hagia Sophia by Justinian, who, too, upon completion of his church, is known to have claimed, ‘Solomon, I have outdone thee!’

Fragment of a peacock arch of the Great Entablature of the Church of Saint Polyeuctus, with vines, leaves and line 30 of the epigram: “(Even you do not know how many) houses dedicated to God your hand has made.” (Istanbul Archaeology Museum)


Another aspect of Juliana’s antagonism with Justinian is recorded by Gregory of Tours. Shortly after his accession in 527, Justinian called upon the aged Juliana to contribute a part of her large fortune to the state treasury. Upon that request, Juliana, however, had melted down her gold and fashioned it into plates, with which she adorned the interior of the roof of her church, thus preserving it from the emperor’s avarice.

The church existed at least until the end of the 10th century. It must have fallen into decay in the following centuries. Its elements were removed and reused in other buildings in Constantinople, such as the Monastery of Christ Pantocrator (1118-1136). The Fourth Crusaders also took a lot, as some elements have been found from cities such as Barcelona, Vienna, and Venice. The Pillars of Acre, now standing near Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, are thought to have come from the Church of Saint Polyeuctus.

Minbar with spolia from the Church of Saint Polyeuctus
(Monastery of Christ Pantocrator, later Zeyrek Mosque)


Today some old capitals and pieces of columns can be found near the archaeological park. These are probably from the church or the Byzantine mansions surrounding it, including Juliana’s palace, which is known to have stood nearby.




40. Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus

Küçük Ayasofya Cami Sokak, between Sultanahmet, Cankurtaran & Kadırga

According to a legend, during the reign of Emperor Justin I (518-527), Justinian, his nephew, was accused of plotting against the throne and was sentenced to death. The execution, however, was avoided after Saints Sergius and Bacchus appeared before the Emperor, vouching for Justinian’s innocence. When Justinian acceeded to the throne in 527, one of his first decisions was to build a church in honour of the two saints that had saved him.

The church was constructed in the area between the Palace of Hormisdas, where Justinian and his wife Theodora had lived, and the Church of the Saints Peter and Paul. The latter church, located to the north, was a typical palace chapel and a typical Roman basilica. The new church originally served the Monophysites of Constantinople, who, favoured by Theodora, had settled in the Palace of Hormisdas after the imperial couple had moved to the Great Palace. In the 6th century, the two churches had the same narthex and atrium. Some time later the Church of Saints Peter and Paul was abandoned, while the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus became the katholikon of a monastery.


The church is an octagon inscribed in an irregular quadrilateral. It can be seen as the oldest surviving church that attempts to combine the basilica plan with a dome.

The umbrella dome that the church is surmounted by is divided into 16 compartments and is lit by 8 windows. The dome is supported by 8 heavy piers which form an octagon. The space between the piers is spanned by marble columns, with two columns in each bay except for the bema. A two-storey gallery, unique in Istanbul, circles the central space. The columns of the lower gallery carry an architrave, while those of the upper gallery are interlaced with small arches. Columns at the four corners are arranged to form semi-circular niches. These niches are crowned by semi-domes on the upper gallery level.

sergius_and_bacchus (7)

sergius_and_bacchus (4)

The imperial sponsorship is reflected in the superb sculptural decoration of the church. The columns are folded, a Byzantine derivation of the classical Corinthian capital, where the emphasis on the corners and on the centers of the four sides are retained, but the plastic articulation of acanthus leaves and volutes is replaced by a uniform web of leaves and tendrils. Many capitals still bear the monograms of Justinian and Theodora.

sergius_and_bacchus (2)

sergius_and_bacchus (6)

Even more interesting is the thick entablature, where egg-and-dart and bead-and-reel motifs can be seen, together with an acanthus rinceau, a carved frieze, and a bracketed cornice. The frieze bears an inscription in 12 Greek hexameters – a dedication to Justinian, Theodora, and Saint Sergius (Saint Bacchus has been omitted for some reason). The lower side of the architrave is decorated with bold patterned carvings.

sergius_and_bacchus (3)

sergius_and_bacchus (5)

The Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus was built a short time before Hagia Sophia. There are a number of similarities between the two churches, justifying the nickname Little Hagia Sophia of the older church. Its combination of the elements of a longitudinal basilica and a central building is similar to that of Hagia Sophia, as are the molding of space and the manipulation of light. Little Hagia Sophia also has some imperfections, such as different lengths of the sides of the octagon, low proportions, and the clumsiness of the arches. Its architectural plan was repeated, in a more masterly way, in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (completed in 547).