Friday, June 1, 2012

Little Hagia Sophia Mosque, Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church

It is next to the railway when one goes down the Sultanahmet Square in Kumkapı. Other side of the railway is the coastal road and the sea. It is nearly 100-150 meters ahead when one takes the first left when going down the railway and through the tunnel to enter Kumkapı from Eminönü coast. (

Little Hagia Sophia Mosque, Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church

Emperor Justinianos and his wife Empress Theodora had it constructed in 536 in the name of Saint Sergius and Bacchus. Its architect is unknown but it is likely that it was constructed by the architects of Hagia Sophia, Isidorus from Miletos and Antemius from Tralles to whom it owned its Turkish name, as it had been constructed just before Hagia Sophia and resembled it so much regarding exterior appearance (its interior structure is quite different). Ignoring the differences in its internal structure, it is quite reasonable that it had been a preliminary “etude” of Hagia Sophia whose construction started five years later. In “Istanbul Travel Guide” Murat Belge told how “fertile” the interesting dome standing on a square-like base and the architecture of the church were: The plan of San Vitale Cathedral, which was famous for the mosaics Justianos had them made in Ravenna in 547 after his expedition to Italy is a one-to-one equivalent of the Little Hagia Sophia Church. Since the plan of Aachen Cathedral, which the Great Charl (Charlemagne) had it made in 805 was a true copy of San Vitale’s plan, it is the same as the Little Hagia Sophia. But more interestingly, the Selimiye Mosque constructed by the Architect Sinan in Edirne in 1574 also had the same plan with the Little Hagia Sophia. It is surprising that, the Aachen Cathedral and Selimiye Mosque, which were constructed in two distant corners of the World and which belonged to two different cultures derived from this small modest church, though they don’t resemble each other regarding exterior appearance.

Emperor Justinianos /
San Vitale Cathedral mosaics
Let’s look at the story of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which is much more interesting than the church’s story in my opinion: Sergius and Bacchus were two senior Roman officers in the army of the Emperor Galerius Maximianus. They were secret Christians at first. But when they rejected participating in a ceremony in Jupiter temple, this was revealed. They were fettered and made wear women’s clothes and wander in the city in the first place. But they didn’t accept to convert from their religion. They lost their lives under great tortures and became religious martyr saints.
It was constructed in the garden of Homicides Palace, in which Justinianos had stayed before coming to the throne, and his step-brother, the Persian Prince Hormizd, who took shelter in Constantine in Constantinople stayed when he was taken prisoner by the Persian King, Sapura; and it took its name from that palace. One monastery was added to the structure in time, and together with Hagia Sophia, it became one of the most important religious structures of Constantinople.

Saint Sergius and Bacchus

Justinianos was born in Toresuim village (today’s Costanzia) in a plain peasant family. When he was young, he was imprisoned for the reason that he had attempted to conspire against the Emperor Anastasius (in some sources, this event is told to have passed between him and his uncle, Justin, but I don’t think it passed between him and his uncle, who was stated to have supported him all his life, but between him and the previous Emperor, Anastasius), but Anastasius forgave him and he went out of the prison. So, here is the story: Anastasius saw Saint Sergius and Bacchus in his dream at night. The saints told the Emperor that Justinianos was innocent and he forgave him the following day. This event was actually a milestone in Emperor Justinianos’s life. He went out of prison and narrowly escaped death. Then he became the emperor. But he wasn’t an ordinary emperor. As agreed by most historians, he became one of the greatest emperors of the late antiquity. When he died, he left the Hagia Sophia Church, which would possess the highest dome of the world for nearly 1000 years, the Roman Civil Code (Corpus Juris Civilus) which formed the base for today’s law and an empire which almost surrounded all the Mediterranean. According to the historian, Prokopius; the struggle he gave in order to get married to her “belly dancer” wife who had been a prostitute (in spite of all rejections, he removed the clause stating that “the emperor cannot choose a wife from a sub-class” from the Code), his life-long loyalty and love is an individual subject of writing. 
The extent of the “friendship” of these two fellow soldiers saints who were protectors of the soldiers in the army and who were especially taken up seriously by the Syrian and Arabic churches, was quite negotiated, and they were claimed to have an emotional bond beyond friendship. In the adjoining icon, they portrayed the saints rather meaningfully.

Let’s turn back to our church. The monophysites being exposed to pressure from all over the empire stayed in this Saints Sergius and Bacchus church under the protection of the Empress Theodora, who possessed the monophysite belief contrarily to her husband who was a Diophysite that adopted the Chalcedon (Kadıköy) Council decisions of 451 which were a milestone in Christian theology, most likely with the influence of the years she had lived in North Africa.

The status of the church remained the same for a while after the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. In the period of Beyazıd the II., it was transformed into a mosque by the eunuch of the palace, Hüseyin. It was given the name; Little Hagia Sophia Mosque and the pictures and mosaics inside it were covered by paint. It was damaged in the earthquake experienced in 1600s.  The Grand Vizier, Hadji Ahmet Pasha had it repaired in 1740 and its first minaret was added in 1762.  Its biggest problem today is the vibrations created by the local train passing nearby. 
As it is still used as a mosque, there aren’t any mosaics or pictures inside it. But one can tell from the marbles of its columns and the magnificent column capitals that, it came from a totally different time, it had been a unique and such a beautiful thing before. The delicacy and beauty of the stone work is fascinating. You can’ t help but imagine its days in Justinianos and Theodara’s times, when it was ornamented with colorful mosaics from the ground to the ceiling like Chora Church.

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