Constantinople- The Queen of Cities and its many Byzantine Secrets

Posted by Powee Celdran 

If the earth were a single state, Constantinople would be its capital” -Napoleon Bonaparte



Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! I haven’t posted in quite some time but now this article will be the second travel article in this blog site, thus another special edition article as on the other hand, my travel articles are in my other blog site Far and Away. Recently I have travelled, and this time I had the chance to go to Constantinople (Istanbul), once the center of the Byzantine world itself! Now because of travelling to Constantinople, I do deserve to make an article on the “Queen of Cities” and the center of the Byzantine world for over 1,100 years (330-1453) and of the Ottoman world for almost 500 years from 1453 to 1922. The Istanbul of today is a busy, crowded, but very much alive metropolis with interesting sites to see in almost every corner but the sites you see in Istanbul today are all mostly from the Ottoman era such as the mosques and bazaars making the landmarks that were once there in the Byzantine era before the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 look like very rare sites. However, since the Byzantines (Eastern Romans) had Constantinople as their capital for over 1,000 years, you would of course obviously see the Byzantine remains of the city and not only the famous Hagia Sophia. When the Byzantines had Constantinople as their capital, it was the most spectacular city of the middle ages and everywhere had large and impressive landmarks, paved roads, forums, fountains, sewers, cisterns, markets, and harbors and today it is not hard to find all these things that had been there centuries ago during Byzantine times but you need sharp eyes to locate them as many of it are in ruins as the structures built during the Ottoman era dominate the city’s skyline. In history, Constantinople has been the seat of 3 empires; first being the Byzantine Empire from its founding in 330 up to the city’s capture by the 4th Crusade in 1204, then the capital of the Latin Empire from 1204 to the reconquest of 1261 by the Byzantines making it their capital again up to the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453 and from then till the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, it was their capital. Under both the Byzantines and Ottomans, Constantinople was a world capital known as the “City of the World’s Desire” and in the rules of both these empires, grand structures were built to increase the city’s prestige but for the short period of time as the capital of the Latin Empire after the 4th Crusade that looted and burned most of the city, Constantinople did not progress and instead was only left in decay that when Byzantine rule was restored in 1261, the old glory days of Constantinople could never return only until the empire fell and the Ottomans took over it in 1453. The location of Constantinople (Istanbul) is actually more ancient than you think that it has existed even longer before the time of the Byzantine Empire as it began as a Greek colony named Byzantium (Byzantion in Greek) founded as early as 667BC, way longer before the Roman Republic itself was founded (509BC). The name Byzantium which was the original name of the Ancient Greek colony before it became Constantinople comes from its alleged founder, the Greek hero Byzas of Megara who established a colony on the European side of the Bosporus Sea across the Asian side to look for a new life for the Greeks living in the crowded cities of Megara and Athens. The colony of Byzas became known as Byzantion in Greek and became an important trading town due to its location in the only entrance to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean and over the centuries it fell under the rule of the Persian Empire, Sparta, Athens, Alexander the Great’s Macedonia, then the Roman Republic later becoming the Roman Empire. The only time Byzantium played a crucial role in Roman history was during the civil war of 193-194 when it took sides with the rival emperor Pescennius Niger against the emperor Septimius Severus but with the side of the rival Niger defeated, Severus punished Byzantium by razing it to the ground but eventually the emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt it. Byzantium would once again return in the 320s at the time of the Roman Tetrarchy after the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great of the west wins the civil war against his rival Licinius of the east and decides to restart Rome again by reestablishing the capital of the Roman Empire which would be Byzantium. Constantine the Great now ruling the whole massive Roman Empire himself decided it would be better to start Rome anew by having Byzantium as its new capital and only within 6 years from 324 to 330 did the town of Byzantium grow into a large and busy metropolis, but of course Constantine the Great did not entirely build everything from scratch but instead moved several important treasures from all over the Roman Empire to his new city in which he modelled it after Rome itself as Byzantium too had 7 hills just like Rome. After Constantine the Great’s death in 337, Byzantium actually did become Rome’s new capital receiving the title “The New Rome” and in Constantine’s honor, after his death Byzantium was renamed Constantinople (Konstantinoupolis in Greek) meaning “Constantine’s city”. Now for the next 11 centuries under the rule of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire), Constantinople due to its strategic location in the only entrance to the Black Sea rapidly grew in wealth and importance, although despite its perfect location that would be important for trade, its major flaw was that it was in an active seismic zone that was prone to earthquakes and throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople had faced many devastating earthquakes. On the other hand, we all know the name of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople after the time of Constantine the Great as the “Byzantine Empire” but during the 1,100 years that the Byzantine Empire ruled from Constantinople, the term Byzantine was never used by the Byzantines themselves or even by outsiders as this Byzantine Empire was actually called the Roman Empire itself back then even if not having control of Rome as well as the Roman Empire of the ancient days being long gone. The name “Byzantine” which would be used for this empire based in Constantinople would only be used a century after the empire fell beginning with the German historian Hieronymus Wolf in the 16th century as to the west, this empire in the east could not be called anymore the Roman Empire as it did not control Rome anymore and ended up eventually speaking Greek instead of Latin. Meanwhile, if westerners did not refer to the Byzantine Empire as the Roman Empire, eastern people especially the Muslim Arabs and Turks did refer to it as the Roman Empire while people from the north, primarily the Nordic Varangians referred to Constantinople as Miklagard meaning “The Great City”. Over the course of centuries, under both Byzantine and Ottoman rules, Constantinople did have a great importance of the world that people from all over the known world mostly saw it as the capital of the world and even in the early 19th century, the Emperor of France Napoleon I Bonaparte even said “If the earth were a single state, Constantinople would be its capital”. When the Ottomans took over Constantinople in 1453, the people referred to their new capital as Istanbul but it was only officially renamed to Istanbul in which it’s called today in 1930; its name today though comes both from the Turkish name Islambol meaning “City of Islam” and Eis tin Polin meaning “To the City in Greek” which shows that even up to now, both Byzantine Greek and Turkish influences have shaped Istanbul. Now in this article, I will primarily focus on what has been there since the time of Byzantine Constantinople before the Ottoman conquest if 1453 together with stories behind these important landmarks that took place in Byzantine times. The landmarks and attractions I will feature in this article will include one of the most influential buildings of world history which is the Hagia Sophia which was once the Church of Holy Wisdom dating back to the 6th century, the Hippodrome which was the center of attraction of the city during Byzantine times, the Forum of Constantine which was the main square of Byzantine Constantinople, the powerful walls of Theodosius II that surround the city, the archaeological museum, the Great Palace and Blachernae Palace, and of course some hidden secrets of Istanbul including the Greek quarters of Fenerand Balat, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate,and the Princes’ Islands outside the city in the Sea of Marmara. And of course behind all these locations I will mention, there will be some interesting stories revolving the emperors of the Byzantine era that have made an important mark in the city’s history including Constantine I the Great, Theodosius II, Justinian I the Great, Leo III, Empress Irene, Basil I the Macedonian, Constantine VII, John II Komnenos, Isaac II Angelos, Michael VIII Palaiologos, the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, and many more. And out of these Byzantine rulers, the one who the biggest impact in constructing the most landmarks in Constantinople was not other than Justinian I the Great as well as the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II who conquered it in 1453, which means in this article there will be a lot of mentions of Justinian I and Mehmed II. Now when in Istanbul, Byzantine landmarks are actually quite common that when you spot ancient structures made of red brick or marble columns, you could immediately tell they came from the Byzantine era but many of these however are in ruins. Now this article will once again be a special edition one as it is a travel related one and compared to last travel article I made which was on the mosaics of Ravenna in Italy, this one will be so much longer and more detailed as it this one is not about a city conquered and richly decorate by the Byzantines and only held by them for 2 centuries but the imperial city itself that was the center of the Byzantine world for 11 centuries and of the Ottoman world for 5 more centuries. Now this article may be a bit inconsistent as in some parts I will use the words “Constantinople” or “Istanbul” for the city as well as use the Greek, Latin, and Turkish terms for some places as this city was a big melting pot of these 3 languages and cultures and many more as well. To make it simpler to read, you can read by part and skip to other parts as it will be divided into 5 parts (the Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome area, Hagia Eirene and Topkapi, the area of the walls, and the Princes’ Islands) and most of it will be focusing on the Byzantine backgrounds of Istanbul’s landmarks and areas including what was there in Byzantine times.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Reconstruction of Byzantine Constantinople from above


Key Years in the History of Constantinople:

667BC- Founding of Byzantium by Byzas of Megara

195- Roman emperor Septimius Severus destroys old Byzantium and rebuilds it with the Hippodrome

324-330- Construction of Byzantium into the new Rome and renamed “Constantinople” by Constantine I the Great who becomes the first Byzantine emperor

395- Eastern and Western Roman Empires fully divided, Eastern Empire becomes Byzantium

476- Collapse of the Western Roman Empire, survival of the Eastern Roman Empire

532-537- 5 years in the reign of Justinian I where the Hagia Sophia is built into the structure it is today and other projects constructed as well, first golden age of Byzantium

626- Unsuccessful siege of Constantinople by the combined armies of the Sassanid Persians, Avars, and Slavs

674-678- First unsuccessful siege of Constantinople by the Arab Umayyad Caliphate

717-718- Second unsuccessful siege of Constantinople by the Arab Umayyad Caliphate

726-843- Period of Byzantine Iconoclasm

867- Beginning of the reign of Basil I and start of the Macedonian Dynasty and new golden age for Byzantium

1096- First Crusade armies pass through Constantinople

1204- 4th Crusade captures Constantinople and establishes the Latin Empire in it

1261- Byzantines of Nicaea recapture Constantinople ending the Latin Empire and beginning the rule of the Palaiologos Dynasty

1453- Ottomans successfully capture Constantinople under Mehmed II making it their capital, end of Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque

1922- End of Ottoman Empire, replaced by the Republic of Turkey

1928- Constantinople officially renamed “Istanbul”

1935- Hagia Sophia transformed into a museum


Other Byzantine Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect (special edition article)

The Complete Genealogy of Byzantine Emperors and Dynasties (special edition article)

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantine Fashion, Architecture, and Arts

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Byzantine Science and Technology

Articles from my other site, Far and Away:

Byzantine and Ottoman Palaces of Istanbul

Travelling the Byzantine World

Byzantine Mosaics in Rome

Moscow- The 3rd Rome and its Highlights

Watch this for a summary of the Byzantine Empire’s history (from Ted-Ed).


The Hagia Sophia 

Layout of the Hagia Sophia

Watch this to know more about the Hagia Sophia and its story (from Ted-Ed).

The first location I will feature in this article is of course the most spectacular and most iconic landmark of the city, the Hagia Sophia Museum which was the main cathedral of the Byzantine capital and the seat of the patriarchate of Constantinople and after the conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was converted into the main mosque of the city. The name Hagia Sophia is Greek for “Holy Wisdom” as in Byzantine times it was called the “Church of Holy Wisdom”, Sancta Sophia in Latin, and Ayasofya in Turkish and the most spectacular feature of the Hagia Sophia that impressed everyone over the centuries is its very high dome rising at 55m above the ground with a diameter of 33m and it has been this size ever since the 6th century.  This has been the world’s largest cathedral for almost 1000 years until the Seville Cathedral in Spain was completed in 1520. The Hagia Sophia structure was originally planned by the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) after he inaugurated Constantinople in 330 but construction of the first structure which was only a stone church with marble columns and a wooden church began under his son and successor Constantius II (r. 337-361) in 360 and its name back then was still “The Great Church” as it was larger than all other churches built in the city. Following some riots that took place in the early 5th century during the reign of Arcadius (395-408), the original church largely was largely burned down and in 415 a new church structure was rebuilt over it by Arcadius’ son and successor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) and his sister Empress Pulcheria in the same stone structure with a wooden roof but a bit larger than the first one. In 532, the massive Nika Riot that broke out in Constantinople completely burned down in the 2nd church structure which led to the emperor at that time, Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) after suppressing the riot to have the whole church fully rebuilt into the grand structure it is today with its dome. The Hagia Sophia structure seen today dates back to the 530s and was one of the major construction projects of Emperor Justinian I, Byzantium’s most influential and over-achieving emperor and despite its massive size inside and out, it only took 5 years to complete (532-537) which is mainly because there were 5000 workers per shift involved in the building of it and the construction of it went on 24 hours each day but also the construction was carried out very quickly because the emperor hired the 2 best architects of his time which were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to lead the project, as the emperor wanted this impressive cathedral to be completed before he dies. Construction of the new Hagia Sophia began on February 23, 532 and finished on December 27, 532 and when the emperor Justinian I entered it for the first time he was so impressed saying “Solomon, I have outdone thee” meaning his work has surpassed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The emperor Justinian I was known for the best people according to their skill which included the architects of the Hagia Sophia but the emperor himself in fact lived for almost 3 more decades after the cathedral was completed but in these next decades, the church would continue to be lavishly decorated with mosaics, columns, and important relics coming from all parts of the empire in which during his reign reached its height spanning from the north coast of the Black Sea to Egypt from Southern Spain to Syria. The Hagia Sophia in the latter part of Justinian I’s reign however suffered a few unfortunate events including a massive earthquake in December of 557 and in 558 the dome split in half and completely collapsed, and only in 562 was the church fully completed at least 3 years before Justinian I’s death (565) at age 83. With the new cathedral completed, the first emperor to be crowned in it- as emperors before were crowned in the older church- was Justinian I’s nephew and successor Justin II (r. 565-574) and at the ground floor, the site in which the emperors were crowned by the patriarchs as the emperor stood over a large shield lifted by the soldiers can still be seen today which is a large marble circle surrounded by other circles known as the Omphalion. The mosaics in the Hagia Sophia were first assembled during Justinian I’s reign and completed during Justin II’s but the mosaics seen today are mostly from the 10th to 12th centuries as the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm from 726-843 beginning with the reign of Leo III the Isaurian (717-741) destroyed the original mosaics as the emperors of this time did not want to see images of people but when the veneration of icons were restored, a new set of mosaics were added to the church. However, after the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 and turned the Hagia into a mosque, all the mosaics were covered under a layer of plaster that was painted over, but still, if you saw the Hagia Sophia before 1453, it would have looked so spectacular with every corner and space filled with mosaics with gold as the dominant color as for now it can be seen that almost all the mosaics here have a gold background. The first mosaic added to the Hagia Sophia following a century of the Iconoclast period was the apse mosaic found in one of the apses supporting one of the 2 semi domes supporting the main dome which depicts a full body mosaic of the Virgin Mary dressed in dark blue on a throne holding the Child Jesus Christ dressed in gold and with a gold background showing a strong contrast of colors; this was inaugurated in 867 by the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios I, the emperor Michael III (r. 842-867), and his co-emperor Basil I who would become the sole emperor that same year after assassinating Michael III. During the reign of Basil I the Macedonian (867-886), the Hagia Sophia underwent many renovation in order to restore it to its former glory before the Iconoclast emperors which meant the addition of more mosaics, relics, and treasures. In the ground floor, the entrance now was actually in Byzantine times the imperial entrance which was the gate reserved for the emperor only and above the door of the imperial entrance is a still intact ornate mosaic which shows Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912), the son and successor of Basil I bowing down to Christ who is seated on a jeweled throne holding an inscription in Greek letters saying “peace be with you, I am the light of the world” and on the upper left side of Christ is the Virgin Mary in a circle and on the upper right circle is St. Gabriel the Archangel. In the ledge above the main hall of the Hagia Sophia are the unreachable mosaics of the patriarchs of Constantinople in white robes including St. John Chrysostom and St. Ignatios the Younger and the 4 pendentives that support the main dome depict images of seraphim. Meanwhile, above the door of the southwest entrance of the Hagia Sophia which is now the exist is another intact mosaic with gold background and at the center of it is the Virgin Mary on a throne with the Child Christ on her lap and on her right you can see the iconic mosaic of emperor Constantine I the Great in full imperial robes presenting a model of the city while on the left of the Virgin Mary is the emperor Justinian I the Great in full imperial robes presenting a model of the Hagia Sophia, this mosaic here shows the 2 greatest emperor of Byzantium presenting their greatest contributions to Byzantine society, the city itself and its main church which would be the world’s largest church for a long time. At this entrance where this mosaic is, you will also see a large ornate iron door known as the Nice Door which was originally part of a Pagan Temple in Tarsus, Turkey dating back to the 2nd century BC but was incorporated into the Hagia Sophia in 838 by the emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842).

In the upper floor of the Hagia Sophia on the other hand, you will see more impressive treasures and even more mosaics as the ceilings and even hidden corners and arches of this part are decorated even more with symmetrical patterned mosaics but using the same color combinations of gold and dark blue but the mosaics and elements found in the upper part have more interesting stories. First of all in the upper floor of the Hagia Sophia, you will find the Loggia of the Empress which was once the spot where the empress and court ladies were positioned in during services as the lower floor was only reserved for men but from above the empress could watch the emperor during events including coronations, the throne of the empress however cannot be seen today but circle marker marks the spot where the empress’ throne was. In the upper floor, you will find the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge or ruler of the Republic of Venice that led the 4th Crusade in attacking Constantinople first in 1203 and afterwards sacking it in 1204 ending Byzantine rule temporarily and establishing the Latin Empire in it. For 57 years from 1204 to 1261 when Constantinople was under rule of the Latins (Western Europe), the Hagia Sophia and many other churches were converted into Catholic churches and ironically the man who led the attack on Constantinople was buried in the main cathedral and even after the Byzantines took it back in 1261, his body was never removed and it was only removed in 1453 by the Ottomans who at least did justice to Byzantium by throwing his bones to be eaten by the dogs mistaking him for a saint. As Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines of the Empire of Nicaea from the Latins in July of 1261, Michael VIII Palaiologos was crowned here in the Hagia Sophia in August and the Hagia Sophia once again returned to its original function as an Orthodox cathedral and to mark the end of the Latin occupation and the return of the cathedral to Orthodoxy, the mosaic known as the Deësis in the upper floor was made which is a panel that depicts Christ at the center flanked by the Virgin Mary on the left and St. John the Baptist on the right and when looking at it closely it seems that the eyes of Christ will follow you as you move left or right. However, when the Byzantines returned in 1261, the Hagia Sophia was also left in ruin like the rest of the city as the Crusaders previously sacked it and without much money left, the Byzantines weren’t able to reconstruct the Hagia Sophia to its former glory. Close to the Deësis is a unique but also quite bizarre find within the Hagia Sophia which is very obvious to spot, which are 2 runic inscriptions which were graffiti made probably by the Varangian Guards, the Viking mercenaries from Scandinavia that served as the imperial bodyguard beginning in 988 under Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty (r. 976-1025), it is not clear however what year these runes were carved but it appears that there are 2 separate runic inscriptions carved into the stone of the balcony of the upper floor and the longer inscription was said to be carved by a mercenary named Halfdan due to being bored during the church service taking place here. Meanwhile just near it is a section that depicts 2 not very large but interesting mosaic panels divided by a window; the first one of the left depicts an image of Christ in a dark blue robe flanked by the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) on his left offering a bag of coins which is his donation to the Church and on the right is Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita of the Macedonian Dynasty, the emperor’s wife and co-ruler and also the niece of Basil II; here both are in their full imperial robes and crowns and it is said that in the face of the emperor Constantine IX was changed 3 times but the body remained the same as the empress Zoe was married 3 times, first to Emperor Romanos III (r. 1028-1034), then to Emperor Michael IV (r. 1034-1041), and then to Constantine IX who outlived Zoe as she died in 1050. On the right side of the window is the mosaic panel depicting the Virgin Mary carrying the Child Christ and flanked by the emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) on the left and his wife Empress Irene of Hungary on the right and connected to it in the adjacent right corner is a mosaic of John II’s son and co-emperor Alexios depicted as a young man; here the 3 are seen donating gifts and money as they donated a lot to help the Church and also the empress is seen having orange hair showing that she is of Hungarian descent. Now in the less decorated area of the upper floor, all alone tucked in a dark alcove between the 2 arches high above the ground is a full mosaic of the emperor Alexander of the Macedonian Dynasty (r. 912-913). Alexander was the younger son of Basil I and the younger brother and successor of Leo VI the Wise who only ruled for a year till his sudden death but was not a very skilled and likeable ruler and was also a drunk who ruined the Byzantine state in short reign is why he deserved to be in that dark corner all alone. When the siege of Constantinople took place in 1453, during the night of Monday May 28, the last liturgical service took place within the Hagia Sophia and here for only one moment, both Orthodox and Catholic faiths were united putting aside all their differences but at the next day, the city fell and when the young Ottoman sultan Mehmed II rode into the city, when seeing the great church in as state of ruin he immediately ordered the Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque and all the mosaics be covered by plaster that would be painted over with geometric patterns and over the centuries of Ottoman rule, the Hagia Sophia was again richly decorated though as a mosque this time. In the lower floor, you will see a handprint high above a wall as it was said that the sultan rode into the Hagia Sophia and leapt so high from his horse; though Mehmed II had also stopped his men from killing people in the Hagia Sophia as he wanted to continue in making the city a great imperial city but an Islamic one, and legend too says that the priests in the Hagia Sophia melted into the walls when Mehmed II rode in. By the 19th century however, the Ottoman sultan Abdulmecid I allowed most of the mosaics to be restored by the Swiss-Italian brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati who discovered mosaics hidden behind the plaster that were damaged or not completed which included mosaics of the patriarchs of Constantinople, other saints, and emperors like John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1391) in which they made colored sketches of. If you look carefully in the Hagia Sophia, you will see a couple of Easter Eggs including a glass rod that measures earthquake damage in the staircase that has been there since Byzantine times, the original church bell of the Hagia Sophia, the marble door, large tablets with writings on them inscribed in Greek, and ornate mosaic patterns almost everywhere. During the Ottoman period beginning 1453, a lot more were added to the Hagia Sophia including the 8 large shields in the main nave containing Quran inscriptions, many structures outside which are mausoleums of sultans, and of course the 4 minarets in which 3 are made of stone and 1 made of brick and when looking carefully, you will see at facades of the 2 supports 2 sun symbols which was once the symbol of the Ancient Macedonian Empire showing that elements from all over the Byzantine world were added to this monument. When it comes to mosaics, for me I honestly think the ones in the San Vitale Church and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna are far more impressive but the ones in the Hagia Sophia are more interesting as the mosaics here are not only spectacular works of art but have more fascinating stories behind them and even more, the Hagia Sophia itself has been one of the world’s most influential landmarks as it had a dome so high and large that many especially foreigners thought it was a miracle that it even existed that they even thought that the dome was hanging from a chain from heaven, also foreign guests had also thought that because of the impressiveness of the Hagia Sophia, they say “this is where God lived”, and after the Ottoman conquest, Istanbul’s mosques’ architectures were patterned after the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia is probably one of the few buildings in the world that has such as fascinating story where almost every object in it has a story as it went such a long way from being the greatest church early in the Middle Ages, to being looted and desecrated, loosing its value and falling into despair, and then becoming a lavish grand mosque, before turning into a museum, but for the longest time it had been a place of worship for 2 faiths sharing the same God.

The Hagia Sophia, structure since the 6th century
Mosaic of Emperor Leo VI bowing before Christ at the imperial entrance
Entrance mosaic of the Virgin Mary and the Child Christ flanked by Emperor Justinian I (left) presenting the Hagia Sophia and Emperor Constantine I (right) presenting Constantinople
Deësis mosaic (1261)
Mosaic panel of the Virgin Mary flanked by Emperor John II Komnenos (left) and Empress Irene of Hungary (right) with their son co-emperor Alexios (right corner)
Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator flanked by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (left) and Empress Zoe (right)
Emperor Alexander mosaic tucked in a dark corner
Ground floor of the Hagia Sophia including the Omphalion viewed from the Empress’ Loggia


The Hippodrome, Great Palace, and Forum of Constantine 

Map of the imperial quarter of Byzantine Constantinople and its landmarks

Just a short walk south of the imposing landmark of the Hagia Sophia is a large elongated public square now completely paved in stone; it may not look like much today but in Byzantine times, this was the main public gathering of the city where some of the most important events of Byzantine history took place, the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The Hippodrome (Hippódromos tes Konstantinoupóleos in Greek) was the main social center of the city where for a long time the horse races took place in which the rival factions- the blues, greens, reds, and whites- bet on their charioteers and fought against each other. The Hippodrome on the other hand happens to be one of the city’s landmarks that dates back to the original city of Byzantium before the founding of Constantinople by Constantine the Great as the Hippodrome itself dates back to 203 as one of the new structures the Roman emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt when he completely rebuilt Byzantium after he razed it down; and a fun fact about this, when he rebuilt the city he renamed Byzantium into Agustina Antonina after his son who would succeed him as Emperor Caracalla. Now when Constantine the Great rebuilt Byzantium into the metropolis of Constantinople to be the “New Rome”, he also expanded the original Hippodrome to make it larger than the Circus Maximus in Rome and when completed, it was 450m long and 130m wide with a large racetrack at the center surrounded by cascading seats in a U-shape able to hold 100,000 spectators. The Hippodrome today may not look like much but back then it was one of Constantinople’s largest landmarks standing strong and able to be seen from almost everywhere in the city center. Today, the seats that once surrounded it rising above the ground are gone which makes the once massive Hippodrome look a lot smaller but in fact the ground of the Hippodrome today was raised by a few feet, while its original ground level can be seen only in the holes where the 3 columns still stand. The only pieces in the Hippodrome square today that are from the Byzantine era are the 3 columns which came from different parts of the empire in order to make Constantinople have the best treasures of the Eastern Roman Empire and these 3 columns include 2 obelisks that came from Egypt and the Serpent Column found between the 2 obelisks which was the Tripod of Plataea that was originally made in 479BC to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians ending the large scale Greek-Persian Wars and originally this column was in Delphi in Greece but in the 4th century was brought to Constantinople to further decorate the new city, however today only the cast iron spiral bottom part can be seen as the top of it which featured 3 snake heads came off in 1700 during Ottoman times. The first marker coming from the north is the Obelisk of Thutmose III which dates all the way back to 1490BC during the reign of the pharaoh Thutmose III in Egypt and till this day it is still in perfect condition. This obelisk was originally found in the Temple of Karnak in Egypt and brought to Constantinople in 390 by Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395); at the pedestal of the obelisk you will still see intact sculptures of the events such as races and cheer squads that took place in the Hippodrome, as well as spectators at the benches, and a carving of the emperor Theodosius I himself offering a laurel crown to the victor of one of the races; beside Theodosius I are his sons Arcadius and Honorius who would rule the formally divided Roman Empire after Theodosius I’s death in 395, wherein Arcadius ruled the east which then became the Byzantine Empire and Honorius would rule the Western Roman Empire that would collapse less than a century later in 476 where the east would live for almost 10 more centuries. The 3rd and southernmost column in the Hippodrome is known as the Walled Obelisk which is not in really good condition now as it appears to be severely damaged, although its date of construction is unknown but the plaque at the base of it says it was constructed by the intellectual 10th century emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of the Macedonian Dynasty- who will be discussed more later-and his time it was reported that it was decorated with bronze plaques with sculptures depicting the victories of the emperor’s grandfather, the emperor Basil I; though during Ottoman times the obelisk’s stones were damaged as the janissaries (elite soldiers) scaled as part of their training. At the northern end meanwhile is something much newer which is the German Fountain built in a Neo-Byzantine style with mosaics as well which was an object given as a gift to the Ottoman sultan in 1900 from the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II during his visit to Constantinople. In Byzantine history, the most important events that took place here was of course the Nika Riot of January 532 that started here when the rival blue (venetoi) and green (prasinoi) factions united causes after the races to overthrow the emperor Justinian I saying the Greek word “nika” meaning “conquer”. The blues and green were the 2 major factions in Justinian I’s reign and supported 2 different causes as the blues supported the aristocrats and people of the city while the green supported the lower classes and merchants as well as provincials but since both factions disliked the corrupt and sadistic people the emperor appointed to run the empire’s finances and laws, the rose up against the emperor threatening to kill him. Justinian I however at the imperial box escaped to the Great Palace just next to it where he remained as the riots damaged most of the city burning it including the old Hagia Sophia as well as proclaiming an old man named Hypatius as the new emperor but shortly after, the massive riot suppressed by the urging of the empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian I who ordered the generals Belisarius, Mundus, and Narses to slaughter all the 30,000 rioters that were in the Hippodrome. Triumphal processions wherein generals marched after their victorious conquests carrying along with them spoils of war and captives ended in the Hippodrome such as the one of Belisarius in 534, 2 years after the Nika Riot and following his complete reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals and here the captured king of the Vandals submitted to Justinian I himself. Meanwhile, before these events, early in 475 the emperor Zeno (r. 474-491) was deposed here after discovering a plot by his rival Basiliscus to kill him causing him to flee the city though he returned a year later to become emperor again after overthrowing Basiliscus (r. 475-476), then in 743 the emperor Constantine V after returning to power publicly blinded the deposed rival emperor Artavasdos here, in 802 the palace ministers and senators met and deposed the empress Irene here, and in 1185 the mob beat up the tyrannical emperor Andronikos I Komnenos to death here. The Hippodrome too had many more objects and structures before including a gate with 2 towers and above the gate a bronze statue of 4 horses which was however looted in 1204 by the 4th Crusade and taken to Venice where it is now. Following the 4th Crusade and the Byzantine reconquest of 1261, the Hippodrome had fallen into ruin and during Ottoman rule beginning 1453, the Hippodrome’s original function disappeared only becoming the ground for minor imperial ceremonies. Another part of the original structure seen today is the remains of where the elevated seats were found in the slopes at the south side of it; although there were structures here much grander and technologically advanced in that time including the Kathisma or the imperial box where only the emperor and imperial family could sit which once had a secret tunnel that leads directly to the Great Palace found just right next to the Hippodrome in the east.

In what is now the massive but impressive 17th century Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque with 6 minarets was one where the Great Palace of the Byzantines stood which was connected directly to the Hippodrome and the palace itself was not merely one structure but a complex of palace structures for the imperial family, libraries, churches, and the senate hall built over the centuries. Today, the area where the complex once stood is now boarded up with streets, buildings including the 4 Seasons Hotel, and mostly restaurants but below them, you can see that the old structures of the palace have been excavated including the famed Magnaura or great hall of the palace that was said to have the imperial throne wherein foreign ambassadors from Italy saw the throne rise up from a mechanism behind it with 10th century emperor Constantine VII seated on it as well as a golden tree that had a mechanism powering it. The complex of the great palace also included a grand church built in 880 by the emperor Basil I which was the Nea Ekklesia church and was the next grand scale church to be built in the city after the Hagia Sophia in the 6th century, but after the Ottoman conquest it became a gunpowder storage which blew up completely in 1490 then right next to the complex to east of it, though not existing anymore today was once the Tzykanisterion or the imperial polo field in which the emperor Alexander died in 913 of a heart attack after playing polo in a hot summer day. The palace complex too extended further south to the shores of the Sea of Marmara which was in Byzantine times where the coastal Bucoleon and Hormisdas palaces once stood which were once built along the sea side in the sea walls itself. The remains of the Bucoleon can still be seen today but with the main road in front of it, it no longer touches the sea, though it was in this palace where the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) of the Macedonian Dynasty was assassinated in his sleep in a December night of 969 by the general John Tzimiskes who would succeed him as emperor. Overall, the whole area south of the Hagia Sophia which includes the Hippodrome, the palace complex, and the Little Hagia Sophia Church or Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus was actually where all the grand buildings of the Byzantine Empire stood and even more extend to the west of it along what was once the former main street of the capital known as the Mese.

Today it is hard to imagine that the street heading west from the Hippodrome where the 6th century Basilica Cistern and the Milion stone which measured distances where the tram now passes was once the main street of the city lined with colonnades known as the Mese. Now down the road from the Hippodrome is another iconic Byzantine landmark, the Column of Constantine dating back to 330 built by Constantine the Great to commemorate the founding of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire. The Column still stands today at 35m but appears to be burnt which is why it is called the “Burnt Pillar” or Çemberlitas in Turkish and it is found in an elevated location which is in one of the 7 Hills of Istanbul and the square where the column is happens to be the back entrance to the famous Grand Bazaar which had already been a major market area during Byzantine times. The column still retains its original porphyry blocks in which it was made of but these blocks appear burnt and partially damaged which is why the blocks are supported by unattractive iron bands but at least it still stands today making it a landmark even older than the Hagia Sophia that is still intact as the Hippodrome which is much older can hardly be seen in its original form. In the previous article on natural disasters in Byzantine history, I have mentioned the story of this column and how it survived over the centuries; first of all it used to be standing at 50m high with a large golden statue of Constantine the Great above it as the god Apollo and in the orb it was holding was said to hold a fragment of the true cross of Christ overall putting together Christian and Pagan elements, although in 1106 a strong wind knocked out the statue destroying it so some years later, the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) replaced the statue above with a large cross but after the Ottoman conquest of 1453, the cross was removed and in the following years, the Ottomans would restore what was left of the column. This square however today because of it retaining a spacious area around the column is not hard to imagine that it was once the busy main square of the city built as a circular forum surrounded by colonnades like the forums in Rome.

Location of the Byzantine Hippodrome of Constantinople
The Hippodrome today
Illustration of the Hippodrome in Ottoman times
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) former site of the Great Palace
3D map of the Great Palace Complex in the Byzantine era
Porphyry Column of Constantine (Çemberlitas) today
Column of Constantine during the 12th century after Manuel I’s reign


Hagia Eirene and Topkapi

The Augustaion in the Byzantine era

As I continue the article, I haven’t yet mentioned a few areas in today’s Istanbul which were once vital to Byzantine Constantinople and many of these parts are located close to the main church, the Hagia Sophia are found surrounding it. Of course, these impressive sites since Byzantine times include the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish) which was the largest of the many cisterns beneath Constantinople that stored the water supply of the city and this one dates all the way back to the 6th century, also built under Emperor Justinian I. Now right beside the Hagia Sophia at the south of it which is now the square of the Hagia Sophia that now has a large fountain at the center of it was in fact back in Byzantine times also another square or forum. This forum located next to the Hagia Sophia was once a large colonnaded square forum called the Augustaion (Augustaeum in Latin), which was one of the original squares built by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus before Constantine the Great rebuilt the city into a metropolis. This square however was mostly built up and updated by the emperor Leo I (r. 457-474) but after being destroyed in 532 by the Nika Riot, Justinian I rebuilt it in a much grander scale the same way the Hagia Sophia was built within it, in 543 he erected an ornate column with carvings surrounding it depicting his victories patterned after Trajan’s Column in Rome and above it an equestrian statue of him with a large crown. The column may have disappeared today but at least the square still survives and it is the best place to see the 6th century grandeur of the Hagia Sophia up close. Meanwhile, what many of us do not know is that in the street right next to the Hippodrome on the west was once in Byzantine times the Pornai Street or the street of prostitution which were streets that have been around since Ancient Greek times, and here the historian Procopius of the 6th century puts that the empress Theodora who was Justinian I’s wife worked as a prostitute here before marrying him, however this was not true and was only a myth created by Procopius to put her down cause in reality, Theodora originated as a dancer and performer but still performed some erotic acts, but as empress she was influential behind Justinian though she died in 548, 17 years before he did. Also, beside today’s Hippodrome itself, if you look carefully you will see the ruins of what was the 5th century Palace of Antiochos, a minor round Byzantine palace where the influential eunuch Antiochos of the 5th century emperor Theodosius lived and part of the remains you will see is the martyr’s shrine of St. Euphemia which was once a church.

Meanwhile, between at the north of the Hagia Sophia between it and the Hagia Eirene churches is now an open space with only a small wall separating them but in Byzantine times this space was once where the Hospital of St. Sampson was located which was dedicated to the 6th century St. Sampson the Hospitable, a doctor who had even healed the emperor Justinian I from a sickness. Now north of the Hagia Sophia, right inside the walls of the Topkapi Palace complex is the former church of Hagia Eirene, in which its structure is the same age as the Hagia Sophia as well but not as grand as the Hagia Sophia but even before the 6th century, the church structure of the Hagia Eirene has already existed ever since the reign of Constantine the Great as he commissioned this church and was alive to see it completed before his death in 337. However before the church was constructed, this was once the site of a Pagan temple dating back to Ancient Greek times when the city was still called Byzantium, though because of the Nika Riot of 532m the original Hagia Eirene was destroyed and afterwards, Justinian I had it rebuilt the same time he had the Hagia Sophia rebuilt. After the Constantinople earthquake of 740, when the emperor Constantine V (r. 741-775) came to power, he redecorated the Hagia Eirene that had been damaged by the earthquake but in redecorating it, he stripped it off of its mosaics and icons replacing it with simple symbols such as the large cross on the apse as he was the 2nd Iconoclast emperor after his father Leo III and turned out to be the most fanatical Iconoclast emperor who totally wanted to do away with anything depicting faces of Christ or the saints, also using the word “saint” angered him; however, the name of the Hagia Eirene means “Holy Peace” and does not use anyone’s name just like Hagia Sophia which means “Holy Wisdom”. Fast-forward to 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II entered Constantinople conquering it, he unusually chose not to convert the Hagia Eirene into a mosque the same way he did to all other churches, this was mainly because the main mosque of the city which was the Hagia Sophia was just right next to it, instead the Hagia Eirene became the arsenal for the Ottoman army, particularly the janissary unit. The large area north of the Hagia Eirene is now the museum that was once the Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi in Turkish), the main palace of the Ottoman sultans beginning in 1465 with Mehmed II and ending in 1853 with Abdulmecid I who moved the palace to Dolmabahçe along the Bosporus. In Byzantine times, the hill where Topkapi stands which is one of the 7 hills of Istanbul called the Seraglio Point did not have much except for the Hagia Eirene and a few monasteries, although in Ancient Greek times this was the acropolis of the city where the temple was placed, which then became the Hagia Eirene, then in Byzantine times the rest of the palace today was just an open park area, although within the Topkapi palace complex itself, you will still see some remains of Byzantine columns that once stood there. When Mehmed II conquered the city, he decided not to use the old Great Palace the Byzantines used beside the Hippodrome as it was largely outdated and in ruins so in 1459 he decided to build his new palace above this hill at the peninsula and was completed in 1465 and it was also a perfect spot as it was a promontory overlooking 3 bodies of water: the Golden Horn to the north, the Bosporus to the east, and the Marmara Sea to the south. Now to the west of Topkapi at the slopes of the hill is the large and sprawling Gülhane Park meaning “Rosehouse Park” where you can see one object dating back to early Byzantine times, the Goth Column from the 4th century and in this area too is the large Istanbul archaeological museum dating back to the 19th century during the late Ottoman period. The collections inside the museum however were only collected in the 19th century in order to showcase all the precious historical finds from within the Ottoman Empire which means inside you will see the ornate blue ceramic mihrab from Karaman in Turkey, a large portion of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the intact Treaty of Kadesh from Egypt which is the first recorded peace treaty made on stone as a peace agreement between the Egyptians and Hittites in 1269BC, and another impressive find inside the museum is a fully intact Ancient Greek sarcophagus said to be the Tomb of Alexander the Great from the 4th century BC taken from Alexandria as the carvings in the tomb’s surface depict the victories of Alexander the Great over the Persian Empire. The museum too features treasures of the Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Greek, and Roman civilizations which all thrived in the areas that became under Ottoman rule but of course, you will also see Byzantine treasure in the museum, particularly the still intact porphyry sarcophagi of the Byzantine emperors from the 4th to 5th centuries in the museum’s courtyard, although the 3 sarcophagi outside are unnamed so it’s not clear which of the emperors are buried in them as these were taken from the Church of the Holy Apostles in the west side of the city where the emperors were once buried before it became the Fatih Mosque.

Hagia Eirene, structure since the 6th century
View of Istanbul’s Asia side from the Topkapi gardens


Fatih, Fener, Balat Districts and the Walls of Constantinople 

View of Istanbul and the Golden Horn from the Tekfur Palace

Now at this part we head to the western districts of Istanbul which are the hilly districts of Fatih, Fener, and Balat west of the Forum of Constantine which of course have already been up and alive in the time of Byzantine Constantinople. In one of the 7 hills found in the Fatih district is the Istanbul University and the square outside the main campus called Beyazit Square was once a forum originally built by Constantine the Great and later enlarged in 393 by Emperor Theodosius I creating the Forum of Theodosius, although where the Column of Theodosius once stood is now in the middle of the main road next to the square, which is where in 1204 after the 4th Crusade captured the city, the deposed Byzantine emperor Alexios V was thrown off from above the column as a form of execution. Further west from the Beyazit Square up the road is a Saranchane Park where it looks like Byzantine remains have been excavated and it was here where probably many Byzantine era mansions of the nobility were located such as the one of the Angelos family where in 1185, Isaac Angelos escaped from killing the man sent to arrest him before he convinced the people of Constantinople that he is the rightful emperor and not the sadistic Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185). From this small park, you can see right ahead of you the gigantic Aqueduct of Valens build over the highway which was originally built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century but finished by the emperor Valens (r. 364-378) later that century as the main water supply source for the city in both Byzantine and Ottoman times in which the water here was brought all the way from a forest kilometers outside the city; it remains one of the largest and most impressive landmarks of the Byzantine city aside from the Hagia Sophia, Cistern, Forum of Constantine, the walls, and Hippodrome but aside from a water source, it was also a place for enemies to sneak as in 705, the emperor Justinian II with the help of the Bulgarians returned to power by sneaking into the city through it as he had been deposed from power 10 years earlier. Down the road heading south from aqueduct will take you back to the Sea of Marmara in which the south side of the city faces and further west will take you to the Fatih Mosque (Fatih Camii in Turkish) which was once the Church of the Holy Apostles and burial site of most Byzantine emperors until in 1453 when Mehmed II converted it into a mosque immediately after the conquest; the Basilica San Marco in Venice too was modelled after the original Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles. To the northwest of this part is the Fener district of Istanbul which is where to see what would have looked like of Byzantine Constantinople today but not entirely because all the houses here are relatively new but it still has the Byzantine atmosphere of the city mainly because this became Istanbul’s Greek quarter after the Ottomans took over the city. This part although has some of the most picturesque colorful houses in the city and are mostly made of wood and what makes the area more charming is that is built in the slopes again of one of the 7 hills of the city, also one of the most impressive buildings here is the Phanar Greek Orthodox College which is a large and tall red brick building that surprisingly dates back to 1454 a year after the Ottoman conquest even if it looks new, this was built to be the school for those who remained Greek Orthodox Christians after the conquest of the Muslim Ottomans. This part of Istanbul where you can see Greek style wooden houses and narrow streets extends as well to the Balat District right below and beside the waters of the Golden Horn. Here, you can see at least what the actual Byzantine city had looked like, although this part is only a recreated Byzantine world and not an original one which is the complex of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate today. It is quite strange though that the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church is not Greece but in Turkey but of course, back in the centuries the Byzantine Empire ruled, the patriarch who headed the Greek Orthodox Church (mainly the Byzantine Church) was of course based in Constantinople but in Byzantine times at the Hagia Sophia. After the Ottoman conquest of 1453, the patriarchate still remained but was moved to the Church of the Pammakaristos also in the Fener area but after the Pammakaristos was turned into a mosque by Sultan Murad III, the patriarch moved his office here in 1597 which was an old Byzantine convent and from then on the patriarchate was based here. The complex includes peaceful walkways lined with trees and Byzantine style wooden houses with 2nd floors protruding, and even Byzantine symbols carved or placed into the walls of these houses, but they were of course not built in Byzantine times but only made to recreate the Byzantine look in the now Ottoman city, also the trees still remaining in this area suggests that the Fener area was actually the forested part of the city as it was said to be in Byzantine times. The center of attraction in the complex is the St. George’s Cathedral, which is actually despite its small size the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church the same way St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church; though the reason why the cathedral which is the cathedral that is the seat of Greek Orthodoxy despite being a major religion looks so small and subdued is because in Ottoman times, the laws of the sultan stated that places of worship such as churches had to be smaller than the mosques they built in order to still be kept running as the Ottomans allowed the Christians to still practice their faith but did not have as much privileges as Muslims did. The cathedral’s exterior however is very simple and only one straight line and it only dates back to the 17th century long after the fall of Byzantium, though the inside is still quite stunning not in terms of grandeur but having a dark but very holy and mystical atmosphere. Though the cathedral may be new, its interiors such as the icons in the iconostasis are original Byzantine pieces and the important things inside are the relics of the 4th century Patriarch of Constantinople St. Gregory Nazianzus and the 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom, also a fragment of the pillar of the Flagellation of Christ is found here too attached to a column.

Meanwhile, further up from the Fener area (Phanar in Greek) is already the walls of Constantinople which were the Walls of Theodosius II that have been there since the 5th century and is still mostly intact but in the area near the walls is another important Byzantine landmark, the legendary Church of Chora (Chora in Greek meaning countryside) as when it was built all the way back in the reign of Justinian I in the 6th century, this part of the city was less populated already having a rural setting and in the last years of Byzantium, farms could already be found within the city walls which was probably in this part due to the heavy damage the Crusaders left on the city leaving no more money for the Byzantines to rebuild these parts. A few years ago when I went to Istanbul I’ve seen what the inside of the legendary but difficult to locate Chora Church which is now a museum looked like and the mosaics and frescos inside dating to the later Byzantine period were very impressive; the art inside though was only added in the 14th century by the Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites during the time of the Palaiologos emperors, the last ruling dynasty of Byzantium. Although not being able to go to Chora this time, I saw something new and equally interesting as well which is the Tekfur Palace also known as the Palace of the Porphyrogennetos which was part of the larger Blachernae Palace complex in the northwest corner of the Walls of Constantinople; this area is called the Blachernae district which even though within the walls was in Byzantine times already the suburb area of the city but even though it was a suburb area, the emperors still chose to build palaces here probably to be away from the city center. The walls itself here are very old dating back to the 5th century but the large palace structure build along it known as the Palace of the Porphyrogennetos actually dates back only to the late 13th century built by Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos after the reconquest of 1261 and the main building of it which is a 3 floor building is quite impressive and still intact up till now that it is even enclosed with a roof and glass windows with a museum inside it on Turkish ceramics from Iznik (formerly Nicaea). It is however commonly thought that this palace was named after the 10th century emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959) and that the purple room with porphyry walls where the Porphyrogennetoi or imperial heirs were born as way to legitimize their claim to power stood here. Constantine VII of the Macedonian Dynasty however was an influential intellectual Byzantine emperor who although lived an unfortunate life surrounded by plots against him since childhood succeeded in ruling the empire and promoting it as a cultural power, though he is the only emperor to use the title Porphyrogennetos which is Greek for “purple born” but all other imperial heirs were born in the purple room too, though this was at the Great Palace. This palace on the other hand was made centuries after Constantine VII’s death and is ironically named after another Porphyrogennetos or imperial heir named Constantine, the son of Michael VIII who however did not succeed his father as emperor as he was the third son, it was the eldest son Andronikos II Palaiologos that succeeded his father in 1282. This palace on the other hand is an architectural marvel with its alternating layers of red and white brick as well as red and white arches and from the third floor you can get spectacular views of the Golden Horn to the north and the hills outside the city. A quick walk north along the walls from here is the actual Blachernae Palace itself in also built along the walls but at the corner of the massive land walls and the lower sea walls at the shores of the Golden Horn; in Turkish the palace is called Vlaherna. The Blachernae Palace was constructed all the way back in 500 under Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518) but it only became the actual imperial residence in 1081 when Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) became emperor and built during the reign of Alexios I on this spot was the dungeon building known as the Prison of Anemas named after Michael Anemas its first inmate in this deep and dark dungeon, later the emperor Isaac II Angelos would be imprisoned here in 1195 after being overthrown by his older brother Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) and with the arrival of the 4th Crusade, Isaac II was released from this dungeon and put back in power until he was overthrown again and executed the next year by a revolution. Then in the 1370’s, the son of the emperor John V Palaiologos Andronikos IV was imprisoned here too but after being released and overthrowing his father in 1376, John V and his 2 other sons the future emperor Manuel II and Theodore had their turn to be imprisoned here as well until 1379 when they escaped and John V returned to power; then at the final siege of 1453, John V’s grandson and Manuel II’s son, the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos defended the city from the Ottomans at the palace walls itself as the Ottomans were attacking from this side. In the final years of Byzantium, the emperors turned out to be mostly based in this part of the city where the formidable land walls were.

Stretching for 5.7km north to south from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara is the formidable land wall of Constantinople commonly called the Walls of Theodosius II (Teodos II Surlari in Turkish) was the formidable and impossible to penetrate walls of Constantinople that had 2 layers of walls and a moat, siege engines and traps, 192 towers for extra protection, and 11 gates. The original walls of Constantinople were built by Constantine the Great in the city’s founding but were smaller and not as powerful so in the early part of the reign of the young Theodosius II, from 412-422 these new and extremely effective walls were constructed 2km west of the old walls, although the one really responsible for the construction was Theodosius II’s regent Anthemius but the walls were named for the emperor who ruled a long reign till his death in 450. The walls however were damaged over the centuries by many earthquakes but many of the emperors over the centuries kept on repairing and adding more defenses to it, but more than that, it survived numerous sieges and was only successfully breached in 1453 by the Ottomans. These walls had successfully defended Constantinople against Atilla the Hun in the 450s; against a massive siege of the combined armies of the Sassanid Persian Empire, the Avars and Slavs in 626 during the reign of Heraclius while he was away fighting against Persia; against the 2 massive land and naval sieges of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, the first from 674-78 during the reign of Constantine IV and the second from 717-718 at the beginning of Leo III’s reign; then against the Bulgars in 813, and 3 times against the Rus and all failed as they did not have technology advanced enough to break walls these large and strong. The army of the 4th Crusade were only able to successfully breach into Constantinople the easy way as they did not break open the massive walls but instead scaled the lower sea walls along the Golden Horn breaking into the city; then when the Byzantine army of Nicaea in 1261 led by the general Alexios Strategopoulos reconquered the city, they broke in by sneaking under the walls but were met with little resistance by the Latins as their army was weak and ineffective and in only one day, they took the city back. Between 1390 and 1453, the Ottomans failed 3 times to breach the walls of the city and only in 1453 they were successful all because of a massive cannon that battered the walls countless times before creating a whole for the army to storm in, though this siege took many days but at the end the Ottomans led by Mehmed II were able to successfully capture the city on Tuesday May 29, 1453 thus fulfilling the long dream of Islam ever since its rise in the 7th century to take Constantinople. The land walls no matter how strong also had its weak points including the small River Lycus that once flowed through it, though it had dried up now.

Aqueduct of Valens from Sarachane Park
Interior of St. George’s Cathedral
Palace of the Porphyrogennetos (Tekfur Palace)
Reconstruction of Byzantine era Blachernae Palace


Princes’ Islands 

Map of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara

Now to the last section of this extremely long article, which will be a location away from the city center itself on the Sea of Marmara (Propontis) to the southeast of the city, this location then is the Princes’ Islands, an archipelago of 9 pine-forested islands having 4 large islands and 5 small ones. To get here, you have to board a ferry from the Kabatas area along the Bosporus near the Dolmabahçe Palace which was said to be in 1453 the location wherein Mehmed II ordered his men to drag their ships across land from the Bosporus to the Golden Horn to surprise the Byzantine navy defending the Golden Horn during the final siege. While at the ferry, you can see the Bosporus and Marmara Seas itself and look back at the days of the Byzantine Empire and the naval battles that took place where you could get the picture of how the Byzantine navy successfully defended the capital with the use of their ultimate naval weapon, Greek Fire. On the other side of the Bosporus, you will see the side of Istanbul that belongs to Asia that in Byzantine times were the suburbs of Scutari (now Üsküdar) and Chalcedon (now Kadiköy) before arriving south at your destination, the scattered Princes’ Islands, called Prens Adalari or simply Adalar in Turkish. Out of the 9, the most visited and the one that is the largest and most developed is the Büyükada Island or “Big Island” (Prinkipos or Prote in Greek) and like the other islands in this archipelago in the Marmara, this was one of the islands important Byzantines were exiled to. During the centuries the Byzantine Empire ruled, opposition was common and many emperors and empresses were overthrown and as a result of this, they were exiled but to live in a less luxurious and less comfortable life and in order to live this life, many of them were exiled to these islands to live as nuns or monks and never permitted to return to Constantinople, and because of an extreme change of lifestyle, death came to them sooner than expected due to stress. The convent found in the Big Island is where the empresses Irene in 802, Theophano in 969, and many others were exiled to after being removed from power; also, in 1929, Leon Trotsky from Soviet Union Russia was banished here and lived here until 1933. This island though first appears in the scene of Byzantine history as early as 569, when the emperor Justin II, Justinian I’s nephew and successor built a palace and monastery here but today you will mostly see large Ottoman era mansions which happen to be mostly home to Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Other than that, the Big Island is plainly a relaxing area to enjoy nature not too far away from Istanbul as here you can get the feeling of a quiet Greek island within Turkey but you can also get the feeling of the drastic change of life the empresses went through after being deposed from the busy city to a peaceful and boring island. Meanwhile the other 8 islands particularly the Kinaliada Island were where the deposed Byzantine emperors were exiled to such as Michael I Rangabe in 813 after being overthrown by the rebellion of the general Leo the Armenian who became Emperor Leo V, Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) who was exiled here by his sons in 944 before Constantine VII returned to power a year later exiling Romanos’ sons here as well to be with their father, and Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes in 1071. The Sea of Marmara on the other hand where these islands are found turns out to be the world’s smallest sea and it is also found within the Istanbul area but despite being the world’s smallest sea, it is also one of the world’s most important waterways as it is the only connector from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Strait of the Bosporus in the north and the Strait of the Dardanelles in the south.

Skyline of Constantinople from the Marmara
Büyükada (Prote) Island


Well, now this finishes my travel article on Byzantine Constantinople. The city itself may now look quite lost and inconsistent as all forms of architecture may be seen side by side with each other making you think that the city does not follow one kind of architectural style most cities do. However, its inconsistency makes Constantinople unique as it was an imperial city for more than a thousand years and many cultures had met and settled here, thus making their mark which is why my article was inconsistent with the use of Greek, Turkish, and Latin terms and even using both names of the city in the same article. Constantinople was not only the imperial center for the Byzantines and Ottomans, it was where people from all over the empire settled making it a city with a cosmopolitan society as it had Varangians or Norsemen, Jews, Armenians, Turks, Arabs, Egyptians, Latins, Slavs, and many more living in the same city doing their business and Constantinople was one city that allowed all sorts of cultures to live in it. Although when going to Istanbul today, it seems that it is impossible to see the grandeur and splendour the city had when the Byzantines had it as their capital if not for the Hagia Sophia, but this not true as all you need is a close look at the smallest details of the city and with some imagination when seeing what is left of the massive Hippodrome, palaces, and forums you can end up seeing for yourself how spectacular this city was. For many centuries, Byzantine emperors especially Justinian I had decorated and built up the imperial city at its grandest scale and for centuries it has amazed anyone who saw it for the first time or any foreigner who came for business as now other city in Europe was as large and technologically advanced as Constantinople with the Hagia Sophia’s large size and dome, fountains, cisterns, forums, mechanisms, universities, and intellectual people. However, one event would change everything fully for the Byzantines, which was the attack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and after this, the grand imperial city was looted and left in ruin, although even the Crusaders when looting it were amazed to see how big the city was and because it was so large and grand, it took days to loot it. When Byzantine rule returned in 1261, it was too late as the damage the Crusaders brought to the city was too much and the Byzantines at this point have grown too weak financially to bring the city back to its former glory and in less than 200 years, Constantinople fell in the final siege to the Ottomans. Though when the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captured the city, he once again restored it to its former glory but under new management, which was the Ottoman Empire, but even with a new power and totally different culture taking over, Byzantine elements remained as their style inspired the many new mosques the Ottomans built. Only less than a hundred years after the Ottoman conquest, Constantinople would again be the great imperial city with the grandest of landmarks during the reign of the sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent in the 16th century. Now Constantinople really shows how an imperial city lasted for so many centuries and continued to have the grandest landmarks for so long but it is not so much the kind of the city to admire for its exterior beauty as it may look inconsistent, but rather it is the kind of the city to see its great legacy and the glory it once had from inside, the same way you look at the Hagia Sophia. Other than Constantinople, there was no other imperial city this grand and significant than Moscow which had eventually became called “The New Constantinople” and “Third Rome” after the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 for Russia was the one to actually inherit the culture and legacy of the Byzantine Empire when the Ottomans took over Constantinople. Meanwhile, back to Constantinople, its walls which may still look intact had played a very crucial role in history as it defended the great city against countless invasions for about a thousand years and till this day, because the walls still stand, it looks like they were built to last. Byzantine remains of the city may be a thing of the past that have been buried in time but some areas like the Patriarchate in the Fener area even if not dating back to Byzantine times would at least still show you what the Byzantine era city may have looked like. Lastly, the Princes’ Islands is an alternative place to go in the city to see a totally different side wherein you will feel like somewhere else even if still in the city area, which is how probably the emperors who were exiled there felt. Now, this concludes my special edition article on Constantinople, the “Queen of Cities” and surely I could say it is the “Queen of Cities” as no other city had such a long history of grand landmarks being built over centuries in which many still last till now. Since this article is done, there is one more big article I will do before the year ends and it will be my ultimate Byzantine article, which are the 12 turning points in Byzantine history! Well, this is all for now… thanks for viewing!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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