At the end of June, the 40th Istanbul Music Festival was on, and my friend Eva suggested that we go to a concert, primarily because some of them would be held in the nearly-impossible-to-get-into Aya Irini (also spelled Hagia Eirene), which she wanted to see.
Aya Irini was the first church built in Constantinople, in the fourth century; that version burned down though during the Nike revolt, and the current building dates from the sixth century. It's not open to the casual visitor, though apparently you can go as part of a group of at least 10 if you arrange permission, and of course, it's been opened for events. (Having said that, Cagatay and I were at Topkapi Palace one day, and the doors to Aya Irini were wide open to the public, seemingly because there was an exhibit on. So we got to go inside, easy-peasy.) But as a result of the limited entry, I feel like there's a lot of hype around it because it's so difficult to get into -- but I'm not sure it's deserved. There's almost nothing to see inside. It's completely devoid of ornamentation, except for a simple mosaic of an outlined black cross on a gold background, dating from the Iconclast era, when figurative art was forbidden (and destroyed).
Eva and I ended up choosing a concert featuring Milos, a young Montenegran musician who's made a splash in the last couple of years playing the Spanish guitar, as the program included one of my favorite musical pieces, Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. The concert also featured the Milli Reasurans Chamber Orchestra, who started the night with Rodion Shchedrin's phenomenal arrangement of Bizet's Carmen suite and ended it with Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin.
I was concerned that Eva would be disappointed in the experience after she'd specifically wanted to go to see the venue, but the music paired with the setting was AMAZING. I will never say another bad thing about Aya Irini again -- sitting in there under that huge dome, I was just overwhelmed by the history of the building, and the music was so beautiful, and so clear with the acoustics. (There's a video that comes next; I've noticed that it doesn't show up on Google reader.)
I've heard recently, though, that they are no longer allowing Aya Irini to be used for events, though I don't know if this is a permanent decision. If it's to protect the building, it's probably a good thing, though the concert was so magical that I wish everyone could enjoy the experience. :) [Update, 9/26: It appears that my trusty source was wrong; Aya Irini is listed as the venue for the kickoff concert for the 2012-2013 State Opera and Ballet season this Saturday.]