Visitors to Istanbul today cannot miss Justinian’s enormous Hagia Sophia. What most are likely unaware of is that while the Hagia Sophia was always the main church in Byzantine Constantinople, another church which has disappeared today consistently served as the second main imperial church of the city: the Church of the Holy Apostles. Today, its location on the highest hill inside the Theodosian Walls is occupied by Sultan Mehmet II’s Fatih Camii, or Mosque of the Conqueror.
Whereas the monumentality, location, and importance of the Hagia Sophia ensured that it received a great deal of attention from the historical sources, the Holy Apostles belongs to a much dimmer tradition. The first church on the site was founded either in Constantine’s later years or sometime in the reign of his son Constantius II. The evidence is confused on this specific detail, but two important points are clear. The church was to be an imperial mausoleum, and its earliest form was built in the fourth century. In the sixth century, this church received a new foundation by the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). The encomiast of Justinian’s building program, Procopius, stated that he rebuilt the church (Buildings I.iv.9-25). Procopius claims that the earlier church had become decrepit, and as it was likely to fall anyway, Justinian pulled it down and built a new church. He did not fail to mention that the church had served as a mausoleum, and noted that it was still serving that role for emperors and their consorts. Our knowledge of the church during the Byzantine “Dark Ages” is quite obscure, although we do have a reference to it being selected to hold the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 786. This council ended up taking place in 787 in Nicaea, however, as the professional troops in Constantinople who were loyal to the legacy of the iconoclastic emperor Constantine V would not allow the empress Eirene to hold the council. In response, she held it elsewhere although the final sessions still took place in the palace in Constantinople (J. Haldon and L. Brubaker, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, 2011, p. 269-71). While this does not provide much information, it does tell us that the church was significantly grand enough to justify holding an ecumenical council. Given that the show of wealth was an important feature of Byzantine diplomacy and representatives from the west were present, this feature should not be overlooked.
Emperors continued to be buried at the church until it became full in the eleventh century, at which point private family mausolea fulfilled the need to put dead emperors somewhere. The building seems to have faded into obsolescence thereafter. In the wake of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Church of the Holy Apostles was given to the patriarchate which remained in the city. However, within a year the patriarchate asked to be moved elsewhere, as they were concerned about local violence after a dead Turk was found on the grounds. Whether a genuine conspiracy existed, as some have surmised, to evict the patriarchate from a piece of prime real estate is impossible to prove, but the church passed into the hands of the sultan. The church appears to have been in terrible condition by this time, and Mehmed demolished it (J. Harris, The End of Byzantium, p. 246). Whether he chose to do so on account of the church being beyond repair or because he wanted a new mosque to dominate the skyline of the western part of the city is unclear, but the location does make an imperial statement for the triumph of Islam. With Mehmed’s destruction of the church an important artefact of Byzantine civilization perished, to be replaced by what became an important artefact of Ottoman civilization. Still, the site returned to its former importance, however briefly, as the Fatih Camii served as Mehmed’s tomb. However, the demolition of Justinian’s Church of the Holy Apostles does not mean that we know nothing about it.
Procopius (Buildings V.i.6) informed his audience that the Church of the Holy Apostles was very similar to the Church of St. John which Justinian built at Ephesos. The Church of St. John spent some time in the fourteenth century as a mosque, marketplace, and a tourist attraction in which the local Turks charged Christian pilgrims a fee to go in a pray at John’s tomb. Today the church is no longer standing, but its foundations are extant and significant, and they give the impression of a massive structure.
The foundations are so significant that architectural historians have been able to use what textual data they have to draw a theoretical model of what the Church of St. John, and consequently, the Church of the Holy Apostles would have looked like.
A twelfth century illumination on a Vatican manuscript may depict the Holy Apostles, but its identification is uncertain.
Justinian’s Holy Apostles impressed contemporaries enough that it was imitated, and so a copy of the building is still standing as the eleventh-century St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. If indeed the Vatican Codex depicts the Holy Apostles, then at least the façade is remarkably similar to St. Mark’s Basilica.
One could also be forgiven for forgetting that they were in Italy inside of St. Mark’s, as its resemblance to the Hagia Sophia is striking. Although I can say nothing about the decoration, between the churches of St. John and St. Mark, we probably have a good idea as to what the Holy Apostles looked like from an architectural standpoint. The semi-domes covering the apse which lead up the main dome are reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia, although there is no proof that the Holy Apostles had semi-domes leading up the main dome. While the San Marco Basilica may be a copy based on a similar plan, this does not mean that it must follow the earlier church exactly. Despite this important monument no longer being extant, our sources do give us some idea as to what it might have looked like.