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December 18, 2018

Consecration of the Church of the Theotokos in Chalkoprateia

On this day, the 18th of December, was performed the Consecration of the revered Temple of our Most Glorious Lady the Theotokos in the Chalkoprateia.


The sanctified tent is now consecrated,
By he who consecrated the nature of mortal men.

The Church of Theotokos Chalkoprateia (later known as Acem Agha Mosque) was once one of the most important churches of Constantinople dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was located about 100 meters west of Hagia Sophia, a short distance from the Basilica Cistern. It was constructed entirely out of brick and was a three-aisled basilica with a polygonal apse, a narthex and an atrium. The church complex had other structures, including a surviving octagonal structure with fragmentary frescoes.

Starting in the Early Byzantine Era, there were three important churches dedicated to the Theotokos located in Constantinople: the churches of Hodegetria, Blachernai and Chalkoprateia. These churches were part of the growing emphasis on the veneration of the Theotokos, which was connected to an effort to gather her relics in the capital. Some sources suggest that all of these churches were built under the patronage of Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II (408-450). We are told that, due to her efforts, the relics of the Theotokos - her shroud (robe), girdle (zoni) and an icon of her painted by the Evangelist Luke - came to reside permanently in Constantinople. However there is some confusion about her shroud, housed at Chalkoprateia and her maphorion (veil) better attested at Blachernai. In establishing these three churches dedicated to the Theotokos, she set the location for her public veneration of the Theotokos and instituted weekly liturgies with processions, images, candles, and chanting of hymns. While the Theotokos Chalkoprateia was not very big, especially when compared to its counterpart in Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore, it was nonetheless a very important Constantinopolitan church.

There are reasons to doubt Pulcheria’s connection to the Theotokos Chalkoprateia, since Byzantine sources on this church are contradictory. We are also told both churches at Blachernai and Chalkoprateia were built under the patronage of Verina, wife of Leo I (457-474). It has been suggested that Pulcheria’s church was destroyed in a fire in 476 and subsequently rebuilt or restored by Verina, although this has also been questioned. It was built in the district Chalkoprateia (“copper market”), whose name is said to derive from Jewish coppersmiths who lived there. The church was supposedly built near or over an older synagogue.

It was used as the patriarchal seat for five years (532-537) following the destruction of Hagia Sophia in the Nika Riots. During this period, the Synod of 536, which condemned the Monophysites, was held here. Justin II (565-578) and his wife Sophia reportedly repaired the church, adorning it with gilded coffered ceiling and doors made of silver, electrum and gold. Three chapels were also added: the Hagia Soros, which housed the girdle of Virgin Mary, the chapel of Saint James the Adelphotheos (or James the Brother of the Lord) and a chapel dedicated to Christ, which housed the miraculous icon of Christ Antiphonetes. The Chapel of Saint James Adelphotheos housed the relics of the Holy Innocents, Saint Zecheriah (the father of John the Baptist), Saint Simeon, and Saint James, the brother of the Lord.

Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita (1028–50) reportedly commissioned a copy of the icon of Christ Antiphonetes in the Church of the Theotokos Chalkoprateia. Michael Psellos, a contemporary historian, describes her fervent piety towards this icon. He reports that she foretold the future with this icon, as it was capable of responding to questions by changing color. The icon of Christ Antiphonetes also appeared on her coins.

Theotokos Chalkoprateia was repaired during the reign of Basil I (867-886), during which a school (didaskaleion) was added to the church complex. It is also possible he added a dome above the church. Its relics appear in the West during the Latin occupation of the city when Franks controlled the church. The church probably was restored in the late 13th or early 14th century, during which time the remaining frescoes in the octagon date. It was converted into a mosque by Lala Hayreddin around 1484. Its waqf was established by Lala Hayreddin and expanded by Acemi Ahmed Agha.

It was damaged by a series of fires in the 18th and 19th centuries, but continued in use until the early 20th century. To date, only part of the church has survived. Private residences and other buildings were erected above the foundations of the church. A cruciform crypt and an octagonal structure adjoined to the north wall of the church’s atrium were discovered in the 1960s.

It has been argued that the octagonal structure, now located beneath a hotel, is a baptistery or the Chapel of Saint James Adelphotheos. An examination of the Late Byzantine frescoes in the 1950s strongly suggests the latter identification. These frescoes included traces of the Three Magi and the murder of Zecheriah (suggesting a cycle of paintings on the infancy of Christ) along with the Annunciation, which was identified by its inscription. 

The octagon has a row of five unlit chambers to the southwest, a larger room to the northwest and another room to the southeast. It consists of a vaulted ambulatory surrounding a central octagonal pier. The eight walls of the ambulatory have semicircular niches and recesses leading to the adjacent chambers. Each outer wall of the octagonal chamber has a small barrel vault, as wide at the outer wall as the width of the niche openings, which penetrates the annular vault of the ambulatory.