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Constantinople (İstanbul): Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus

Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Photo Marco Prins.
Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus.
The church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople is dedicated to two Roman soldiers who were tortured to death in 303. According to a legend, Bacchus was flogged to dead first, while Sergius survived and was brought to the fort at Resafa, not far from the Euphrates, where he was again tortured. Here, the spirit of Bacchus appeared to him, and encouraged him to remain steadfast in his Christian beliefs. Sergius was in the end beheaded. The two soldiers were recognized as the patron saints of all soldiers in the Roman and Byzantine armed forces.

This cult was immensely popular in Syria, and soon spread to other parts of the Roman empire. The emperor Justinian was one of the most ardent devotees. As a youth, he had been condemned to death because he was believed to have plotted against the emperor Anastasius I (491-518), but the twin saints had, according to a legend, in a dream appeared to the ruler, who had now understood that Justinian was innocent -or that God had greater plans with the man- and had released the young man., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Capital in the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Photo Marco Prins.
Capital in the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus.

It comes as no surprise that Justinian dedicated a church to SS. Sergius and Bacchus. The grounds on which the new sanctuary was built, were not far from the Hormisdas Palace, where Justinian used to live - a bit to the west, to be precise, on the point where the Sea Walls, would have been broken by the Hippodrome if that would have been longer. Construction started as soon as Justian ascended the throne in 527. The architect was Anthemius of Tralles, who was better known as a mathematician and the author of a book on burning mirrors, the Paradoxographia, (which was to become notorious because it is the origin of the fairy tale that Archimedes had constructed burning mirrors during the siege of Syracuse). 

Exterior. Photo Jona Lendering.
The apse. Photo Jona Lendering.. Exterior. Photo Jona Lendering. Capitals. Photo Jona Lendering.
Two photos of the apse; notice how the main orientation was changed after the church had been rededicated as a mosque
Map of the SS. Sergius and Bacchus
Map of the SS. Sergius and Bacchus

It was a complex project, because a second church, which was designed as a basilica (with three straight naves) was very close to it, and in fact shared the entrance (narthex) with the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. It is not recorded to whom this second church was dedicated, and no traces of it are left. Construction took several years, but the project was finished before 536. The significance of this building is that its octogonal design was later, on a much larger scale, reused by Anthemius when he and Isidore of Miletus built the Church of the Divine Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia. An old description of the SS. Sergius and Bacchus is given by Procopius:

Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Photo Marco Prins.
Pillars on the second floor.

Justinian built a shrine to the famous Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and then also another shrine which stood at an angle to this one. These two churches do not face each other, but stand at an angle to one another, being at the same time joined to each other and rivalling each other; and they share the same entrances and are like each other in all respects, even to the open spaces by which they are surrounded; and each of them is found to be neither superior nor inferior to the other either in beauty or in size or in any other respect. Indeed each equally outshines the sun by the gleam of its stones, and each is equally adorned throughout with an abundance of gold and teems with offerings. In just one respect, however, they do differ. For the long axis of one of them is built straight, while in the other church the columns stand for the most part in a semi-circle. But whereas they possess a single colonnaded stoa, called a narthex because of its great length, for each one of their porches, they have their propylaea entirely in common, and they share a single court, and the same doors leading in from the court, and they are alike in that they belong to the Palace.
[Procopius, Buildings, 1.4.3-7]

Greek Inscription in the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Photo Marco Prins.
A Greek inscription

The dome is very remarkable, because it consists of eight flat and eight concave sections, which rest on eight piers. This is unique, but it might well have become extremely popular. Many churches in this age were very innovative and experimental; the architects were still looking for new forms. Eventually, the dome of the Hagia Sophia was to receive a different design, whoich became the new standard.

The church was converted into a mosque in the first years of the sixteenth century and is now  known as the Küçük Ayasofya, the "Little Hagia Sofia".
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 28 August 2008
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