Hagia Irene (Aya Irini) Museum: The Elusive Byzantium Church
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Hagia Irene

A cross-domed basilica with great acoustic and iconoclastic mosaics

Best Known for
Mosaics

Built
337

Civilization
Byzantine

Suggested Duration
90 min

Of the many Byzantine-era churches in Istanbul, none has a longer and more complicated history than the Hagia Irene (Greek: Αγία Ειρήνη meaning “Divine Peace”).

Completed 23 years before the Hagia Sophia in 337 A.D, this old piece of architecture has witnessed Istanbul’s rich history unfold around it, from Byzantine rulers and devastating revolts to the Ottoman occupation and, finally, the making of the republic.

Today, the Hagia Irene is the second-largest Byzantine church in Istanbul after the Hagia Sophia. It sits as a museum inside the walls of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, from where it treats visitors to a rich history.

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Of the many Byzantine-era churches in Istanbul, none has a longer and more complicated history than the Hagia Irene (Greek: Αγία Ειρήνη meaning “Divine Peace”).

Completed 23 years before the Hagia Sophia in 337 A.D, this old piece of architecture has witnessed Istanbul’s rich history unfold around it, from Byzantine rulers and devastating revolts to the Ottoman occupation and, finally, the making of the republic.

Today, the Hagia Irene is the second-largest Byzantine church in Istanbul after the Hagia Sophia. It sits as a museum inside the walls of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, from where it treats visitors to a rich history.

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Planning a trip to Istanbul soon? Answer this trip planner and get your FREE quotation within 24 hours.

The History

Architecture

Mosaics

Key Features

Tips & Etiquette

The Hagia Irene has come a long way before becoming the structure we see and love today. Long before it was a church, the Hagia Irene was a small temple dedicated to Venus/Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty). As Christianity spread into the region, the temple became a small church.

When Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire east to Constantinople (Istanbul), the small church was renovated into the Hagia Irene (Aya Irini in Turkish). From then on, the church has endured a couple of unfortunate events:

  • Destroyed by fire from a rebellion in 532 in the Justinian era
  • Destroyed by an earthquake in 740 during the reign of Emperor Leo III

After the earthquake, the Aya Irini was rebuilt by Constantine V using a simple architectural plan with little decorations. During the Ottoman Occupation, the church served as an armory before it was converted into a Military Museum in the 19th century and later an Archeology Museum.

Because it was restored several times by different empires, the church’s architectural features are quite complicated. When the empire Constantine first completed the Hagia Irene in 337, it was a three-nave basilica. During the Justinian era after the fire of 532, the Hagia Irene was reconstructed as a domed basilica. After the destruction by an earthquake (740), the empire Constantine V made several key changes to the structure that turned it into a cross-domed basilica.

Today, the Aya Irini consists of a narthex, an atrium, an abscissa, and three-nave naos. The building materials mainly consist of thin red bricks and mortar.

Before the earthquake and consequent reconstruction by Constantine V, the Hagia Irene is believed to have had rich decorations lining the interior. This was also around the time of the Byzantine Iconoclasm when Emperor Leo III banned the use of religious images and symbols in all churches. The ban destroyed mosaics and frescoes in churches, and hence, the Hagia Irene was reconstructed in a simpler architectural plan.

Nevertheless, the bema arch and the apse semi-dome are still covered with mosaics. These are rare examples of iconoclastic art from the Byzantine period and date back to about the 8th century. An iconic mosaic in the museum is one of a cross in the apse semi-dome. The cross outlined in black and has a gold background, dates back to the reconstruction by empire Constantine V.

There are also inscriptions of bible verses on the inner and outer sides of the bema arch.

The Aya Irini is one of the few Byzantine churches to have never been converted into a mosque after the Ottoman occupation of Constantinople. Instead, it was used to store weapons and spoils of war until it became a military museum and later an archeology museum.

Today, when the building is not awing visitors with its rich history, it serves as a concert hall for classical music thanks to its brilliant acoustic. It has hosted many concerts of the Istanbul International Music Festival and, in 2000, an impressive show by the Turkish designer Faruk Sarac that exhibited robes inspired by Ottoman Empires.

  • If you are visiting on your own, try to purchase a ticket in advance to avoid waiting long hours in the queue.
  • Spare at least 90 minutes when visiting to ensure a full exploration of the Hagia Irene.
  • Book your guide in advance and avoid guides waiting at the entrance of sites and museums. These may be unlicensed and looking for tourists to scam.

Visiting the Hagia Irene

The church of Hagia Eirene has been open to the public since 2014. Since it is not as glamorous or famous as the Hagia Sophia, it is one of Istanbul’s hidden gems. Therefore, it is a spot where you don’t have to navigate through crowds of tourists, and thus, exploring the historic building is a relatively comfortable experience.

Getting to the Aya Irini Museum is quite easy; you head towards Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet, where the church sits in the palace’s first courtyard. The museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day apart from Tuesday, and the entrance fee is 20TL per person.

Although the museum sits inside the Topkapi Palace, you cannot visit it with your Topkapi Palace Museum Ticket; you need a separate ticket for the Hagia Irene. To avoid all these, you can always book a guided tour of the museum. At the entrance, children will be asked to present their passports as proof of age.

Inside, the Hagia Irene does not promise the glory and splendor that has made the Hagia Sophia famous. Its simplistic architecture, iconoclastic mosaics, and rich history make it a bizarre site to explore.

For visitors who want to enjoy the museum’s wonderful acoustics, the best time to visit the Hagia Irene is during the Istanbul Music Festival. The three-week concert treats tourists and locals alike to some of the best music and instrumentals.

Istanbul Tours

What is Nearby

Istanbul is among the world’s most comprehensive and most boundless cultural and historical cities. Hence, Hagia Irene is environed by many other interesting places and historical sites you can cover during the visit. These include the breathtaking Hagia Sophia, the fascinating cisterns, the gorgeous Blue Mosque, and so much more.

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