As you come up from Gülhane Park on your way to Topkapı Palace there is a building tucked off to the right that to me at first glance looked very unassuming.
If it wasn’t for my cousin’s curiosity I would have just passed it by but instead, we decided to go in. We paid for our ticket and walked through the door and down a ramp to the main floor. It was quite cool inside and dark.
There was the distinct smell of wet stone and all around us, there was scaffolding. The building was under repair and the only lighting there was, came from harsh spotlighting. It took time for my eyes to adjust before I could make out the shape of the building.
The little that I could see was quite impressive especially the carved columns and the bronze coloured stone floor tiles. Little did I know that I was standing in the Hagia Irene, the first church built in Constantinople. It was later used as an armoury and warehouse by the Ottomans when it was incorporated into the Topkapi Palace complex.
Other then the large cross over the main narthex, the church lacks religious iconography.
What is special about the Hagia Irene is that its synthronon – with its five tiers of seats – is the only one that has survived in the city from the Byzantine era.
Synthronons are rows of built-in benches that are arranged in a semicircle in the apse. During Divine Liturgy, this is where the clergy would sit.
Hagia Irene is also one of the few churches in Istanbul that has never been converted into a mosque. It is the third building to be erected on what is thought to be the oldest site of Christian worship in Istanbul.
It was commissioned in the 4th century by the Roman Emperor Constantine I and served as the church of the Patriarchate until the Hagia Sophia was completed in 537.
Today the Hagia Irene operates as a museum and concert hall due to its extraordinary acoustics and space.