Right behind the Hagia Sophia, as soon as you have entered the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, you can see the beautiful Hagia Irene - or Aya Irini in Turkish - to your left. Often overseen in the shadow of its big famous sister it is a true gem.
One of the historical buildings in Istanbul it was the first church completed in Istanbul (then Constantinople), before the Hagia Sophia. However, the church we see nowadays is not the original building since it burned down in 532. The groundbreaking of the "modern" Hagia Irene was in the same year. It's built with brick and stone in the Byzantine style and if you don't look closely it resembles its big sister a bit.
However, it lacks all the stunning interior decor of the Hagia Sophia. No mosaics, no tiles, no chandeliers. Just walls. But those walls are impressive.
It hasn't always been like this. There used to be mosaics and frescoes and you can still see some of it.
However, I do like the bare walls. Just think how old they are! If these walls could talk, what would they tell us? They sure got their share of wars, prosperity and desperate times. But they're still here after almost 1500 years. Can you imagine our modern buildings still being here in 1500 years? I sure can't. We certainly don't build for eternity anymore.
Even though Hagia Irene is rather "bare" there is much to discover. It turned out to be my favorite historical building in Istanbul. Its simplicity holds a lot of fascination for me. It has a very special atmosphere - a bit mystical, a bit dark, a bit mysterious. A hidden gem.
Nowadays, Hagia Irene mainly serves as a concert hall for classical music performances because of its excellent acoustic and the unique atmosphere. I would have loved to listen to a concert here - I can just imagine the music rising up to the dome, sounding back from the walls, surrounding the breathless audience. What an experience this must be.
Oh, and of course it has some permanent residents here...
I could have stayed much longer within these walls. This is a place I go back to in my mind over and over again.