The Hagia Irene is a five minute (at most) walk from the back of the Hagia Sophia, just before you reach the gates to the Topkapi Palace. Constantine the Great originally built it but the Nika Riots in 532 largely destroyed it. Rebuilt by Justinian I, it sustained heavy earthquake damage in the 8th century. Iconoclasm being the rule of that day, its repairs included the sole mosaic still in evidence – the plain cross shown above. Even so, the cross seems to float in the air, just off the golden background, a testament to the skill of mosaicists even during iconoclasm.
History of the Area
Today the area between the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene contains dozens of souvenir sellers and food vendors. However, in the 4th century a charitable physician, Sampson, established a hospital in that space. It remained there for over seven centuries until the depredations of the 4th Crusade in 1204. The Sampson Hospital was one of the first hospitals ever established.
Above you can see the apse where the altar stood, just beneath the cross mosaic. Unlike most other Christian churches in Constantinople, the Turks never converted it to a mosque. Instead, they used it as an armory – quite a disconnect from its name of Irene, which means peace.
Nowadays, the site seems rarely visited, but is included on the multisite ticket we bought. It is used for concerts occasionally (I’ve seen a Youtube video of a jazz concert held there a few years ago). I’m not sure how they get rid of the birds that currently nest in its nave.
The arch above shows a bit of the decoration that must have covered its walls.
A close up of a pillar. Notice the cross resembling the mosaic carved into it.
This view is of the back of the church and shows the balcony where the women stood for services. The wooden railing appeared to be of a relatively recent vintage.
At the very back of the church there are doorways (blocked with glass) that look out into this courtyard. In it stand the two porphyry sarcophagi you see above, and the large urn. Nothing lists who was buried in those marble tombs, but given the expense of the purple marble, it was likely someone whose name we can find in history books.
Hagia Irene had an eerie feel to it the overcast day we visited. With only one other visitor there, the birds swooping above us far outnumbered the people. It doesn’t take long to visit Hagia Irene, but if you have the time, I recommend it.