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Archaeology and Art

I spent several years living and working in Istanbul (Constantinople) and expended most of my free time studying churches and other historic sites within the city.

The oldest Church is that of Studius, near Yedikule, to the south west of the city, it was dedicated to John the Baptist in 463. While now in ruins it has several interesting architectural features.

The church is believed to have been founded on an earlier structure, but I am not aware of the nature of the building.

It is of particular interest as it was built before church art and architecture was subject to legal restraints - for purely political reasons in 724 CE during the Iconoclast period. The Orthodox Church claims that the body of John the Baptist was taken from Jerusalem and stored in this church before being fragmented and distributed to various Orthodox churches. Part of the skull and arm are still kept in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul today.

One strange feature is a void, which is to be found below where the altar stood. It is described as a confessional or store for holy objects in a history magazine. The author of that work was possibly not aware that Greeks organise their confessions privately with their priests and do not use voids below altars for this purpose. The latter sounds more probable.

A fountain is in the garden and a large water storage tank to the side of the church. The historic magazine describes the mosaics, which include mythical creatures, griffins and the like. Strange indeed to find in a church, especially as they were reportedly added after 1242 when artistic expression was not generally quite so free.


Avrupa cinemasi, Taksim.

Note griffins above entrance.

Emek Binasi, Taksim, note devil's head and angels, central, griffins above side windows.

Both buildings date for the 19th century.


Mosaic from Justinian's palace c. 550 CE.

19 century bank, Karakoy, detail of griffin.


The inclusion of griffins in various locations in Istanbul as architectural features over the centuries is interesting, as they were the creature which were meant to pull the sun god's chariot through the sky. We see them in the Great Palace, the mosaics having been made in the reign of Justinian (527-565), right up until recent times. Angels also figure surprisingly commonly and resemble characters depicted from classical mythology.


The Church of SS Sergius and Bacchus.

Another interesting church is that of SS Sergius and Bacchus. It is reportedly dedicated to two martyrs and was completed around 536. It is sometimes only referred to as the church of Sergius. A student of Art History at Istanbul University brought to my attention the fact that around the dome are depicted stylised grapes; perhaps the Bacchus to which it was dedicated is none other than Dionysus the god of wine. Interestingly these are almost the only decorative features to survive its conversion into a mosque. Bacchus is the Latin name for the Greek god Dionysus. I suspected that it may have dated from the time of Julian the Apostate, an adherent to Dionysus and grandson of Constantine, but it was built after is reign.

The lower moulding shows stylised grapes.


Chora Church.

One strange feature is to be found in Chora Church or the Church of the Saviour Outside the City. Built in the 11th century this building is on the site of a much older church. Whilst it is now within the city, prior to Theodosius (408-450) the original church was outside the city wall. It is now a museum, but also served as a mosque, however much of its art was simply covered, not destroyed. The one interesting feature, here too, is the void under the site of the altar.

When I asked an official tour guide what lay below the cover, he told me a spring, though he couldn't understand why. I immediately jumped to a conclusion why: springs are sacred in Pagan tradition and to the ancient Greeks. Oracles were sometimes built over springs for example. Add to this, other 'Christian' sites (the ayazma of Blachernae, Zoodochos Pege, Panaghia Peribleptos - the all seeing - and the Church of Haghios Nikolaos) which also incorporate springs, and the conclusion is startling. I had later to reconsider this feature at Chora though not for the other sites.

Probably in Chora it was simply a store for holy relics, as at Studius, a custodian at the museum assured me there was a tunnel, not a spring. Without lifting the cover myself, nothing is conclusive, as there are simply too many conflicting reports.

There could be some truth in the story as I clearly saw the entrance to the tunnel at the ayazma of Blachernae, the entrance is next to it's holy spring, the attendant assured me it led to the Sancta Sophia, a distance of several kilometres. Unfortunately, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch prohibits photography in the church.

Of the three old sites built on the location of springs, (the spring by the Sancta Sophia appears no longer visible) two are still in Greek hands whilst one - Panaghia Peribleptos - was passed to the Armenians by the Turkish Sultan in 1458. The Armenian Patriarch had been based in Bursa but with the capture of the city, Fatih Sultan Mehmet invited the Patriarch to Istanbul and gave him this church. Later it moved to another location but a school, a church and a small underground chapel housing the spring remain. The water from it is still used for baptisms. Again, there is a story of a tunnel leading to the Sancta Sophia.

Zoodochos Pege was founded over a spring in the reign of the Emperor Leo (457-74); it has remained in Greek hands despite the conquest of the city and is about 500m beyond the city walls. The present church dates from 1833. An interesting legend surrounds the spring: it is said that a monk was frying fish there when he was told the city had fallen. He commented that there was as much chance of the city falling to the Turks as his fish jumping back into the water, at which the half fried fish leapt from his pan into the water ! Fish still swim there today, though the half fried one has not been spotted.


It is interesting that the Turks respected this religious site despite it being 500m outside of the city's defences and left the monks to their business, including frying fish. Fatih Sultan Mehmet ordered his men to leave churches where there was no resistance, though many were closed in the years following the conquest.

The photo shows a section of the wall close to Zoodochos Pege. Even at the time of the siege in 1453, the walls were in a bad state of repair.


Panaghia Mouchliotissa

Despite over 500 years of Ottoman rule, which led to the closure or conversion to mosques of many churches, these remain. Only one original Byzantine church is still in Greek hands. Kanli Kilise or Panaghia Mouchliotissa - St Mary of the Mongols. Unfortunately, its renovation leaves a lot to be desired. The two Greek churches housing springs have been reconstructed.

It remains strange, however, that several very old churches were constructed outside of the city, a dangerous location indeed, three being sited on holy springs. Why were the springs sacred ? There was another one within the city, by the Sancta Sophia its self. Were these churches built on the site of pre Christian temples ? Clearly, the sites were of some importance.


The Sancta Sophia today, taken at sunset. The Golden Horn is in the background. The Embolos Holy Well was to the bottom left.

The Sancta Sophia was the greatest cathedral in Christendom. The first church on this site was completed about 360, but burnt down in 404, the second was completed in 415 but burnt in 532. The present building was dedicated to God on 26 December 537. Interestingly the apse is aligned some 33 degrees south of east, aligning with sunrise on the winter solstice, the date when it was inaugurated. To which god is it dedicated ? It is aligned with sunrise on the sun god's birthday ! (Note that the date of the solstice moved back due to an inaccuracy in the Julian calendar.)

To the south east of the building was the Embolos of the Holy Well. Written there was the inscription 'NIPSON ANOMEMATA ME MONAN OPSIN' - wash your sins, not you face, note that it reads the same in both directions. Springs clearly had some importance to the early church in Constantinople. The emperor himself would pass this spring and perhaps sample its water before entering the church through a special gate in the east bay of the south aisle.


There is now a Turkish fountain build to the south east of the Sancta Sophia, it was constructed at the command of Ahmet III and is possibly on the site of Embolos of the Holy Well, though there is no evidence to support this assumption, other than its geographical location.


In addition, with regard to the Sancta Sophia, the Emperor Theophilos (829-842) had a beautiful bronze gate from a pagan temple in Tarsus transported and erected there. He was the last Iconoclast emperor and it was said liked ancient artefacts. The gate was constructed in the second century BCE and had inscriptions added to it about 900 CE, including the monogram of Mikhael Niketor, the son of an emperor.

The Iconoclasts greatly restricted the Church, largely for political reasons, they wanted to limit its wealth and influence. Monasteries were closed, the church was prevented from producing icons as these were a magnet, attracting visitors and brought fame and wealth to churches.

But why was the gate from a non Christian temple included into the Sancta Sophia ? Was it simply because of its artistic merits, a love of history and culture, protest against the Church, or a love of the older religions ?

The final point to consider is the very image of Jesus himself. He is often portrayed with a halo, as in this Greek Orthodox icon, but could the halo perhaps represent the sun's disk? Could this image of Jesus come from the sun gods of the ancients?


A modern artist's idea of the statue/

Whose face is it anyway ? The Statue of Zeus at Olympus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It's temple was destroyed by an earthquake, but the enormous statue was carried to Constantinople where it stood for about 80 years. It was eventually burnt in a riot, being build of wood, covered with ivory and gold. However, in a sense it lives on.

As the majority of the population couldn't read, churches were decorated with pictures from the Bible. The faces were standardised: Paul, balding with a hooked nose, Peter with grey curly hair and a beard, so people could immediately recognise them. But Jesus ? His face was taken from this 900 year old statue of Zeus. Legend has it the original artist's hand was withered for portraying the face of Zeus on Christ in a church, but that a saint came and healed him - approving of the adoption of Zeus' image.



The temple of Apollo/Zeus at Didem, Aegean Turkey housed an oracle and a sacred spring.

It is not surprising that churches were built on the sites of the temples of other religions but what is unusual is that churches were not only built on the sites of holy springs, but actually incorporated them into the focus of the church. Three being outside the protection of the city walls. They were obviously something of great importance.

The greatest shock is the alignment of the Sancta Sophia, which was the world's greatest cathedral for centuries, with the sun rise on the sun god's birthday.

As we have seen with other aspects of Christianity, the old remained and appears to have been simply embodied into the new universal state religion of Constantine and later emperors.



History and the First Church

Constantine and the Church

The Bible and the Early Church


About the Author

Selected Bibliography

Contact the Author