On the level tract beside the Sea of Marmora, to the south of the Hippodrome stands the ancient church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. It is commonly known as the mosque Kucuk AyaSofia, Little Hagia Sophia, to denote at once its likeness and its unlikeness to the great church of that name. It can be reached by either of the two streets descending from the Hippodrome to the sea, or by taking train to Koum Kapou, and then walking eastwards for a short distance along the railroad.
Thee inscription on the entablature of the lower colonnade in the church proclaims the building to be a sanctuary erected by the Emperor Justinian and his Empress Theodora to the honor of the martyr Sergius. The building stands, moreover, as Sergius and Bacchus stood, close to the site of the palace and the harbor of Hormisdas.
No other building expresses the personal taste of Justinian and his actress wife Theodora as this one does. Justinian and Theodora were celebrities in their time who set the standard for sophistication in dress, personal style and interior decoration. As a former - and famous - actress Theodora knew what sophisticated fashion was - the popular colors, trends and lifestyle choices made by celebrities of the time. They lived in an extraordinary luxuriousness and splendor that was both admired and envied by Byzantine society. This Imperial couple set the standard in everything they did. The design, spaciousness, color and grand intimacy of Saint Sergius and Bacchus - much more than Hagia Sophia - is the personal statement of Justinian and Theodora.
Before she became Justinian's wife Theodora lived in a world of famous sports stars dominated by figures like charioteers, boxers and wrestlers who were just as famous and rich then as now. Beautiful women - like Theodora - were the ornaments, trophies, of important male celebrities. One of the assets in a female consort to an important man was the ability to entertain and charm others. Theodora excelled at being a professional courtesan. Justinian really fell for her, it was a love match.
When Justinian ascended the throne in 527 AD Theodora became co-ruler, and participated in all aspects of Justinian's rule and authority - and had her own personal court. Sergius and Bacchus shoule been seen as an extension of Theodora's power in her own right. She entertained in the galleries above the nave that were attached to her personal quarters and hid her favorite Monophysite monks and bishops here.
In spite of Justinian being Chalcedonian Christian, Theodora provided shelter in her palace for Monophysite leaders. A Monophysite Christian believes that in the person of Jesus Christ there is only one nature (wholly divine or only subordinately human), not two, as a Chalcedonian Christian does.
Anthimus, a Monophysite, had been appointed Patriarch of Constantinople under her influence, and after his excommunication he was hidden in Theodora's quarters for twelve years, until her death. When the Chalcedonian Patriarch Ephraim provoked a violent revolt in Antioch, eight Monophysite bishops were invited to Constantinople and Theodora welcomed them and housed them here in the Hormisdas Palace giving them this church to use in secret.
The foundations of this church were laid in 527, the year of Justinian's accession and its erection must have been completed before 536, since it is mentioned in the proceedings of the Synod held at Constantinople in that year. According to one historian, the church and the neighboring church of Peter and Paul were founded after the massacre in the Hippodrome which suppressed the Nika Riot.
Above the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox church stands in the exact place where he would have during services when it was a church.
The church did not stand alone. Beside it and united with it, Justinian built also a church dedicated to the Apostles Peter (Peter was Justinian's baptismal name) and Paul, so that the two buildings formed a double sanctuary, having a common atrium and a continuous narthex. They were equal in size and in the richness of the materials employed in their construction, and together formed one of the chief ornaments of the palace and the city. There was, however, one striking difference between them; Sergius and Bacchus was a domical church, while Saints Peter and Paul was a basilica.
The saints to whom the church was dedicated were brother officers in the Roman army, who suffered death in the reign of Maximianus, and Justinian's particular veneration for them was due, it is said, to their interposition in his behalf at a critical moment in his career. Having been implicated, along with his uncle, afterwards Justin I, in a plot against the Emperor Anastasius, he lay under sentence of death for high treason; but on the eve of his execution, the saints Sergius and Bacchus, appeared to the Emperor in a vision and commanded him to spare the conspirators. Thus Justinian lived to reach the throne. In his devotion to Sergius and Bacchus he erected other sanctuaries to their honor around the Empire. Still this church, founded early in his reign, situated beside his residence while heir-apparent, and at the gates of the Great Palace, must be considered as Justinian's special thank offering for his crown. There is more about Sergius and Bacchus in the right column.
With the church of Sergius and Bacchus was associated a large monastery known, after the locality in which it stood, as the monastery of Hormisdas, ἐν τοῖς Ὁρμίσδου. It was richly endowed by Justinian.
This picture above shows the scale of the building, which is vast, but still human. There are two significant things which have altered the interior, how it would have appeared in Byzantine times. The original floor was 3+ ft lower, the lower walls would have been sheathed in rare colored marbles, and the vaults would have been full of plain gold mosaic. The vast vaults of gold mosaic in such a brightly lit church would have magnified the light throughout the building, The polychrome, highly veined marble columns are almost entirely in light-colored stone, which also adds to the freshness and brightness of the church. I suspect the stones used were specifically chosen for this effect. Sergius and Bacchus can actually give us an idea of what many of the early halls and audience chambers of the 6th century Great Palace might have looked like.Here is a modern view of the church you can see how much the ground level has risen. When you enter the church you take more steps down.Here is a plan of the church. It looks off-center because it was built between two other buildings. On the south the original church opened onto the Church of Peter and Paul, which has vanished without a trace, leaving behind ghostly openings in the wall of the church, that have been filled in, which are easy to see.Travelers on the Orient Express would pass right by the church. All those years of heavy trains moving nearby did not bring down the vaults of the church. What a surprise. In 1877 it was reported that bricks and stones fell from the facade every time a train passed and that gaping holes were opening up in the wall. These train tracks went right through parts of the Boukoleon Palace, Great Palace and the Mangana. Building them destroyed the apse foundations of the Church of St. George of the Mangana.Another 19th century view of the train tracksThis is a very interesting 19th century view of the church as it would have been seen from the Sea of Marmora and how the dome could be seen over the sea walls. The Church of Peter and Paul filled the space between the church and the sea wall.Here is another picture from the 19th century showing the area of the Great Palace. The openness gives you an idea of how the church might have looked when this area was more garden-like.Here's a view from around 1900 showing a beautiful Turkish porch erected under Beyazit II (1481-1512). Originally there was a narthex stoa, an atrium and a great propylea - all shared with Church of Peter and Paul. From here you take steps down into the church - maybe six feet lower. Saint Eirene is also deep in the earth now. Imagine what could be found if the plaza in front of the church was ever excavated. It would be full of remains of the churches and palaces that stood here. You can reach down into the dirt and pull up gold mosaic cubes and fragments of rare marbles.