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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Hagia Irene in Istanbul

What is Hagia Irene?

Hagia Irene is an orthodox church located in the first (outermost) courtyard of the Topkapi Palace, formerly in use as an arsenal and now a concert hall.


Hagia Irene

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Hagia Irene History

The year is 2019. Before the congregation gathers in the Justinian-era Hagia Irene church, music begins to play: the signature guitar riff from Turkish alternative rock group Mor ve Ötesi’s punk-laced anti-Iraq War hit, ‘Cambaz’. Later, the stone of the church’s structure reverberates to the bass progression of the band’s 2008 Eurovision entry, ‘Deli’.


That the Hagia Irene should now be the altar of Turkish musical royalty rather than an active place of worship is not altogether surprising given its location, enveloped by the outermost courtyard of the Ottoman seat of government since the late 15th century, the Topkapi Palace. However, its current embodiment as a concert hall for (mostly) classical music performances, including as a frequent host to the Istanbul International Music Festival, is somewhat of a reprieve given the sorry state in which it spent much of the Ottoman Era in Istanbul, serving as a janissary arsenal from around the 15th to the 19th century.


The Hagia Irene (or ‘Sacred Peace’ in Greek) was in fact the first church completed in Constantinople, predating its grand neighbour the Hagia Sophia by at least two or three decades. It was commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine I before the end of his reign in 337 and was the city’s cathedral until the first Hagia Sophia was completed in 360. Together with the Hagia Dynamis, the three churches were shrines to three revered attributes of Christ: Irene (or Peace), Sophia (or Wisdom) and Dynamis (or Strength).


Like the Hagia Sophia, this church was at various stages damaged during earthquakes and rebellions. The 6th-century Nika Revolt saw the Hagia Irene burned down, to be rebuilt by Emperor Justinian I in 548. The 740 earthquake also damaged the church, and it was again restored under Constantine V. In this era, it was redecorated with new mosaics and frescoes. Some of those visible today date back to that time. Constantine V, like his father Leo III before him, was a fervent supporter of Byzantine Iconoclasm – the belief that religious images should be destroyed rather than venerated – ironically giving the church a somewhat Islamic feel, its embellishment depicting psalms and verses rather than people.


The Ottoman period saw the Hagia Irene become one of the few pre-1453 Istanbul churches that was not converted for use as a mosque, instead becoming the palace arsenal. It then became a military museum in 1726, this use of it continuing until the 1970s. After coming into the possession of the Turkish Ministry of Culture, its value was recognised as a music venue for its acoustics and atmosphere. The Hagia Irene is also now used as an exhibition space for various historical and cultural displays.


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