Church of St. Polyeuctus

GPS coordinates: 41.014000, 28.953000
Church of St. Polyeuctus
Church of St. Polyeuctus


This text is a fragment of a guidebook to Istanbul: "Byzantine Secrets of Istanbul".

In the very centre of the Fatih district in Istanbul, near the seat of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, in a small park there are modest ruins of a building that in its heyday was the largest church of Constantinople, erected to resemble the Solomon Temple in Jerusalem. The tale about this building is connected with the histories of two people: Saint Polyeuctus, to whom it was dedicated, and Anicia Juliana - its founder.

According to Christian tradition, Saint Polyeuctus of Melitene (now Malatya) was a wealthy officer in the Roman army who, under the zealous persuasion of his friend, Saint Nearchus, decided to be baptized. Simeon Metaphrastes, the author of the lives of saints, writing many centuries later, noted that "Inflamed with zeal, Saint Polyeuctus went to the city square, and tore up the edict of Decius which required everyone to worship idols. A few moments later, he met a procession carrying twelve idols through the streets of the city. He dashed the idols to the ground and trampled them underfoot."

The edict mentioned by Simeon was issued in 250 by Emperor Decius. He ordered all the citizens of the empire to make sacrifices to the traditional Roman gods. It is true that this law was not aimed directly at Christians, but its provisions mainly hit their communities because in the empire only they and the Jews recognized absolute monotheism.

Polyeuctus' open hostility to the Edict of Decius did not win him friends among the Roman authorities. In 259, he was arrested and tortured. He did not yield to the pressure and did not reject the Christian faith, totally ignoring the tears and protestations of his wife Paulina, his children, and his father-in-law. Faced with such a stubborn attitude, the authorities had him executed by beheading. His friend Nearchus suffered an equally cruel fate as he was burned.

Polyeuctus was buried in Melitene, where a church dedicated to him was built. Another church dedicated to this saint was built in Constantinople by Anicia Juliana in the years 524-527. She was the daughter of the West Roman Emperor Olibrius and Placidia - the youngest daughter of the Western Emperor Valentinian III. During the rule of the Leonid dynasty the rise of the later Justinian dynasty, Anicia Juliana was the most prominent representative of the two previous dynasties: Valentinian and Theodosian.

Anicia married Flavius Areobindus Dagalaiphus, an East Roman general and politician, who served as consul in 506. During the riots in 512, he was even proclaimed emperor by the crowd, but remained hidden and died shortly afterwards. The son of Anicia and Areobindus, Flavius Anicius Olybrius Iunior, already as a child held the position of consul. He later married Irene, the niece of Emperor Anastasius I who wanted to strengthen his position by binding himself with the descendants of the previous rulers of the empire. Olybrius, despite the great hopes his mother had placed in him, was never proclaimed emperor.

Anicia Juliana was a deeply religious person, as well as a declared opponent of Monophysitism. She used her enormous fortune for pious purposes, such as building many churches in Constantinople, including Saint Euphemia and Saint Polyeuctus.

The Church of Saint Polyeuctus was planned with great panache as a work worthy of a descendant of imperial families with the goal of highlighting Anicia's illustrious pedigree. It was erected in a prominent location within a district called Constantinianae, on Anicia Juliana's extensive family estates, during the last three years of her life. It was also to be used as a storage place for a valuable relic - the skull of Saint Polyeuctus, which was later transferred to the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Before the erection of the new Hagia Sophia by Emperor Justinian in 537, the Church of Saint Polyeuctus was the largest temple in Constantinople. What's more, in addition to introducing decorative elements referring to Persian architecture as a novelty, this church probably started a new architectural style - as a dome-covered basilica.

The laudatory 76-line epigram, once inscribed on the walls of the church, compared Anicia Juliana to the former emperors - Constantine I and Theodosius II - as the person financing monumental buildings in the capital. It also stated that the church surpassed Solomon's Temple, the dimensions of which it was said to have been modelled on. Such phrases exalted Juliana and her family and posed a specific challenge to the prestige and power of the ruling dynasty of that period. It was started by a peasant from Thrace, Justin, who made a stunning military career and at the end of his life was proclaimed emperor. It was certainly a blow to Anicia Juliana, who saw her son, Olybrius, on the imperial throne.

According to Gregory of Tours, the rivalry between Juliana and Justin's successor, Emperor Justinian, was bitter and fierce. Soon after ascending to the throne, Justinian was to summon the elderly Juliana to transfer a large part of her property to the state treasury. Juliana decided to play for time, and then ordered the golden valuables to be melted down and fashioned into plates with which she ordered to cover the roof of the Church of Saint Polyeuctus. This way, she avoided sponsoring Justinian's ambitious plans. However, just a few years later, Emperor Justinian took up Juliana's challenge, erected Hagia Sophia, and reportedly exclaimed: Solomon, I have surpassed you! However, Anicia Juliana did not witness this triumph as she had died a decade earlier.

Despite its huge dimensions and interesting history, little is known about the exact appearance of the Church of Saint Polyeuctus. Most of the information comes from the above-mentioned inscription stating that the church was supposed to be a replica of Solomon's Temple. A direct reference to the Jerusalem temple was the use of such decorative motifs as palm trees, pomegranates, and lilies. The novelty was the reference to the Sassanid Persian style, including decorative motifs such as friezes of running palmette and pomegranate leaves as well as symmetric geometric and floral patterns.

The interior of the church was richly decorated and the walls were covered with marble slabs. Ivory, amethysts, gold, and coloured glass were also used, as evidenced by the fragments discovered during the excavations. Certainly, the church was decorated with mosaics, and the most sensational discovery were the reliefs with portraits of Jesus, Virgin Mary, and the apostles. They survived the turbulent period of iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, when the human representations were systematically destroyed.

One of the best-preserved architectural fragments of the church are the niche-head pieces decorated with figures of peacocks. There are inscriptions along the arches, and realistically carved grape vines and leaves above them. Originally, they were painted with vivid colours, blue, green, and purple. Peacocks, animals associated with the goddess Hera in ancient times, became a symbol of renewal and rebirth for Christians.

The Church of Saint Polyeuctus was abandoned in the 11th century, when it became an easily accessible source of building materials. It was used by both the inhabitants of Constantinople and the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade who occupied the city at the beginning of the 13th century. Therefore, the fragments of this temple can now be found in Istanbul, for example in the Zeyrek Mosque, the former Monastery of Christ Pantocrator. Moreover, parts of the building are located in Vienna, Barcelona, and Venice, where the so-called Pilastri Acritani (Pillars of Acre) adorn St. Mark's Basilica.

During the Ottoman period, the ruins of the church were gradually built up with residential buildings and a mosque. In the 1940s, these buildings were demolished, and in the 1960s the intersection of Șehzadebași Street and Atatürk Boulevard was rebuilt. It was then that the remains of the church were uncovered and excavation works began. Brick vaults, fragments of marble sculptures, and a monumental laudatory inscription were found, broken into many parts but then reconstructed. It was its content that made it possible to identify the ruins as the Church of Saint Polyeuctus. In addition, this identification was confirmed by references to the location of the church in the texts from the Eastern Roman period concerning imperial processions along the Mese because the church stood on its northern branch, between Forum Tauri and the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Archaeological work was carried out in 1964-1969 by Nezih Firatli from the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and Richard Martin Harrison from the Dumbarton Oaks Institute. Harrison proposed a reconstruction of the church, according to which it was a basilica on a plan close to a square with sides about 52 meters long. It had a nave and two aisles with a narthex, and was preceded by a spacious atrium 26 meters long. To the north of the atrium, the traces of another building have been discovered, the identification of which is unclear - perhaps it was a baptistery or the palace of Anicia Juliana.

The oval substructure in the centre of the building indicates the location of the ambon, and the strong foundations suggest, according to Harrison, that the church was covered with a dome and was over 30 meters high. If the Church of Saint Polyeuctus really had a dome, it would mean that it was this building, and not Justinian's churches of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and the Hagia Sophia, which first combined the traditional model of a basilica with a dome. It is known from the laudatory inscription that the interior of the church had two floors, surrounded by galleries and colonnades.

Now, when visiting Istanbul, you can see the unearthed remains of the Church of Saint Polyeuctus, but only through the fence surrounding and protecting the site. Several architectural fragments from this building are on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, including fragments with a laudatory inscription, column capitals decorated with palm leaves, and a richly carved column.

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Church of St. Polyeuctus
Church of St. Polyeuctus
Church of St. Polyeuctus
Church of St. Polyeuctus
Church of St. Polyeuctus
Church of St. Polyeuctus