While Istanbul is mainly known for hosting countless Islamic historical sites from the Ottomans, visitors of the city should not overlook its grand Byzantine history. Though a good number of them were either closed or converted into mosques during the Ottoman Empire’s reign, you can still find many churches in the city. If you are interested in these magnificent places of worship, here are the greatest historic churches in Istanbul.
Church of St. Anthony of Padua
Easily one of the most popular and important historical churches in Istanbul, Church of St. Anthony of Padua is impossible to miss during your walk on Istiklal Avenue in the Beyoglu district. It is the largest Roman Catholic Church in the city, both in terms of the building and community size. It is also one of the few catholic churches in Istanbul. But the building we see today is not the original one, which was built in the year 1725 and later taken down. The current church was finished in 1912 and the adjacent apartments were built simultaneously with the church. Designed by the Levantine (Christian Ottomans of French descent) architect Giulio Mongeri, the church still functions today. Even though it is run by Italian priests, masses happen in a variety of languages, such as Turkish, English, Italian and Polish.
Also known as the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, this building is one of the most known Orthodox churches in Istanbul. The current building was built at the end of 13th century by Michael Tarchaneiotes Glabas. After Glabas died, his wife Maria built a parakkleison (a type of side chapel) next to the church and buried her husband there. When she passed away, she was also buried here. After Ottomans took Istanbul, this church served as a nunnery and held the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate from 1456 to 1597. When Ottomans conquered Georgia in 1601, they converted the church into a mosque and renamed it “Fethiye Mosque” (Mosque of Conquest). After the proclamation of republic in Turkey, both the parakkleison and the mosque was mostly neglected. But in 1949, Byzantine Institute of America and Dumbarton Oaks restored the complex and discovered the many amazing mosaics inside. In 1955, the parakkleison became a museum and in 1960, the mosque part was reopened. They remain as it is today.
Inside, you can find many beautiful and historical Christian art pieces such as Christ and the twelve prophets on the main dome, bishop portraits, Christian inscriptions, old crosses, and various mosaics. The most prominent mosaic is the Baptism, in which you can see Saint John, four angels and a man baptizing Christ in the Jordan River.
Hagia Irene Church
Though it does not function as a church anymore, Hagia Irene is still considerably famous and has a grand history behind it. “Hagia Irene” means “Holy Peace in Greek, and according to a legend, this name of the church originates from a woman called Penelope. Allegedly, this woman was tortured when she invited people to Christianism in Constantinople. But miraculously, she was not harmed in any way. When the people of Constantinople saw her miracle, they accepted Christ and the city became more peaceful than ever before. Seeing this, Constantine the Great made her a saint, gave her the name “St. Hagia Eirene” and ordered the construction of a church in her name.
But the church we see today is not the original one. It was damaged, destroyed and rebuilt many times, especially in the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries. After the conquest of Istanbul, Mehmet the Conqueror respected the church and did not convert it to a museum. It was mainly used as an arsenal. In 1726, Hagia Irene became the first Ottoman museum and had many weapon collections for display. But during 1970s, the weapons were transferred to Turkish Ministry of Culture. Today, it serves under the name Hagia Irene Museum and occasionally hosts art exhibitions and music concerts. You can find it very close to the Topkapi Palace.
Bulgarian St. Stephen Church
Located next to the coast of Halic (Golden Horn), this famous Bulgarian Orthodox church is known for the material used in its construction: iron. While it looks like the church was made of ordinary stone from the outside, its exterior is in fact made of cast iron. Originally, there was a small, wooden church on the spot of this church. But a fire took down the wooden building and this magnificent church was made on its place. Bulgarian Orthodox Christians wanted to leave the Fener the Greek Orthodox Patriciate, and this church was born. Designed by the Armenian architect Hovsep Aznavur, the 500 tons of prefabricated iron parts of the church were shipped from Vienna to Istanbul via the Black Sea. The result was – and still is – one of the most beautiful churches you can see in Turkey. It was designed with heavy neo-gothic influences, which is especially visible on its interior design and it is definitely one of the most beautiful Orthodox Churhes in Istanbul.
Aya Yorgi Church
Aya Yorgi Church is not only one of the most important churches of Istanbul, but is also a great reason to get a Prince’s Island tour Its monastery part dates as back as 1751, but its church was built in 1905. It is located on the biggest island in the Princes’ Islands archipelago, Buyukada, and this Greek church gets its name from Aya Yorgos, also known as the Saint George. Because it is built on the highest hill of the island, it has a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus.
Today, many Christian still visit this beautiful church regularly. The church sees the greatest number of visitors on 23 April (St. George’s day) and 24 September (The commemoration day of Aya Thekla). In these two days, visitors perform a special ritual. At the start of the hill that leads to Aya Yorgi Church, also known as the “path of torment”, visitors take their shoes off and walk to the church, never speaking a single word along the way. A religious story is the basis of this tradition. In this story, while Buyukada was under siege, priests buried sacred religious objects to the spot where the church is today. Many years later, a shepherd saw Saint George in his dream, telling him to climb the hill and dig when he hears the sound of bells. The shepherd did just that, and did not speak a word. At the top of the hill, he heard the bells and dug, finding the buried religious objects.
Inside this small and mesmerizing church, you can find many religious icons, paintings, monuments and motifs, including Aya Yorgi’s own icon.