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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of Little Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

What is Little Hagia Sophia?

Little Hagia Sophia was one of the first buildings commissioned by Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, which set the tone for a reign full of grand architectural projects.

Little Hagia Sophia

Little Hagia Sophia History

The Emperor Justinian has something of a reputation problem. He and his wife Theodora are mostly remembered for their corruption and sexual excesses. In the notoriously gossipy Secret History, the writer Procopius goes on at great length about Theodora’s pre-imperial past, when she worked as a courtesan and was famous for her unusual sexual performances, most scandalously in a stage act in which slaves scattered grains of barley on her private parts for geese to then eat. Salacious as these stories are, it’s hard to know how much of this to believe: pick up almost any Roman imperial historian and you’ll find yourself wading through countless accusations of indecent sexual appetite and depravity amongst the ruling elite. It’s sometimes hard to believe these families ever found the time to govern at all.

On the other hand, however, Justinian was one of the most militarily successful of emperors; Byzantium would never be as large again as it was under him. Perhaps more than any other emperor, he shaped the landscape of Byzantine Constantinople. The same historian, Procopius, also wrote a whole book dedicated to the lengthy and detailed praise of Justinian’s many building projects. In Constantinople alone, Justinian built or rebuilt the Church of the Holy Apostles, the Hagia Irene, the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, and, most famously, the Hagia Sophia.

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus is now commonly known as the Little Hagia Sophia because it was once thought, erroneously, to be a prototype for Justinian’s grander and more famous cathedral. However, this little church is a gem in its own right. Built within the precincts of the Hormisdas Palace, where Justinian lived in the period immediately preceding his ascension to the throne, it was an extraordinarily grand building, particularly considering it was housed within a private palace. Sadly, the depredations of time and its conversion into a mosque have removed the original splendid furnishings of marble and mosaic, however you can still appreciate the magnificent scale and architecture of the building.

Imperial church building was a competitive business in a city where a number of different dynasties contended for the throne. Both Justinian and his uncle Justin had risen through the army from a relatively obscure Balkan family to become emperor, and they must have seemed like upstarts in a city awash with aristocrats with grand imperial pedigrees. Foremost among the aristocrats was a woman called Anicia Juliana, daughter of a Roman emperor and great-granddaughter of the Emperor Theodosius II and his wife Eudocia. In the 520s, Anicia Juliana rebuilt the now lost Church of St Polyeuctus, originally built by her great-grandmother. The church was soon regarded as one of the glories of the city. Recently, it has been suggested that the Little Hagia Sophia was built while Justinian was emperor-in-waiting, as a response to the Church of St Polyeuctus. There were countless stylistic affinities between the two churches which both had famously fine-spun, delicate carvings.

When you enter the Little Hagia Sophia, pay close attention to the glorious columns and the dedicatory inscriptions above them. They make reference to the lesser efforts of ‘other sovereigns’ when constructing buildings, which is likely a veiled reference to Polyeuctus. Even before Justinian ascended to the throne, it’s clear that whatever he lacked in lineage he more than made up for in bravado and lavish spending.

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