Exploring Byzantine Constantinople in the modern day Istanbul is a fascinating journey of discovering Ancient Rome in the cultural center of the Ottoman Empire, of moving back through time into the deeper layers of the city’s history.
While the history of Istanbul goes as far back as the 7th century BC, when the Greeks from Megara and Athens settled on the European side of the Bosphorus, it was the Roman Emperor Constantine who truly put the city on the map. In a fateful move in 337 AD he relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantion and then promptly renamed the city after himself.
Starting with Constantine, young Byzantine Empire saw a number of powerful rulers in reasonably quick succession who continued to build and expand the capital. Theodosius II built the defensive land walls around the city, Valens built the network of aqueducts and Justinian gave Constantinople Haghia Sophia and the Basilica cistern. Constantinople became a legendary city, known all across the ancient world.
The power centre of Constantinople comprising of Haghia Sophia, the Hippodrome and the Great Palace was located in the modern day neighborhood of Sultanahmet. This is where most of the remnants of the city’s former glory can be found today.
Perhaps the most iconic image of Constantinople is the magnificent Haghia Sophia – the church of the Holy Wisdom. It is more than 1,400 years old, and the very fact that it is still standing today is a testament to the power and sophistication of the 6th century Byzantine Empire. Designed by a physicist and a mathematician, it has been the largest church in the world for nearly a thousand years.
Standing in the dimly lit interior of Haghia Sophia it is impossible not to be amazed by the sheer scale of the building. It feels larger than life. The lofty central dome seems to be frozen in mid-air almost 56 meters above, which is about the height of a 15-storey building. That dome is supported by two great semi domes, which in turn rest on smaller semi domed porticos. Such unexpected cascade of domes creates an impression of a surrealistic structure that shouldn’t be able to exist.
The immense nave of the church is flanked by monolithic green and purple columns that support the upper gallery where most of the surviving mosaics are found. Unfortunately, the gallery was closed during my visit. Though I still managed to see a couple of mosaics that miraculously survived to this day despite being painted over when the church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman rule.
Almost immediately behind Haghia Sophia there is another Byzantine church that now lies on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. Haghia Eirene, the church of the Divine Peace was, according to tradition, one of the first Christian churches in the old town of Byzantium. It has off course been re-built a number of times, with the current building dating back to 537, same year when Haghia Sophia was re-dedicated by Justinian. Interestingly, Haghia Eirene was never converted to a mosque by the Ottomans.
Another Byzantine relic, the Church of SS Sergius and Bacchus is tucked away on the other side of the Hippodrome, near the shore of the Marmara Sea, where Imperial Port and Bucoleon palace used to be. Known as Little Haghia Sophia this church has an unusually irregular shape that gives an impression that the architects could not decide what style to follow. Perhaps it was an early experiment with a domed structure, prior to the construction of Hagia Sophia.
One of the most interesting Byzantine churches in the city however, is the Church of St. Savior in Chora. It is located further from the city center and takes a little more effort to reach, but it is definitely worth the trouble. (A very handy Trafi app provides detailed information on public transport options in Istanbul and the portable Alldaywifi is a very useful device for using your phone’s GPS on the road).
The Chora church is interesting not so much for the building itself, which happened to be hidden behind the scaffolding when I visited, but for the stunning mosaics that it preserves within its walls. It was built in an effort to restore the glory of Constantinople, after the city was sacked by the Latin soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and it appears that no effort or expense had been spared in the creation of this masterpiece. The mosaics in Chora are jaw-dropping beautiful. And they are old. They immediately draw you in. And this beauty is all the more remarkable for the surprise you feel from finding it in such an out-of-the-way location, so far away from the splendor of Sultanahmet.
While Haghia Sophia was the centre of the religious life of Constantinople the Hippodrome was the heart of the city’s social and sporting activities. Built as the venue to house chariot races, it had the capacity to hold a hundred thousand spectators.
Sadly, all that now remains of the Hippodrome are the three pillars that used to be part of its spina – the central line around which the chariots raced. The rest of the relics of this great structure are buried about 2 meters below the current street level. The bases of the pillars, sunken deep into the pavement, give a good indication of how thick is the layer of human civilization that has accumulated on top of the ancient foundations of the Hippodrome.
The most impressive of the remaining structures is the Egyptian Obelisk. It was constructed in the 16th century BC and originally stood in the Karnak temple in Egypt. While it looks quite intact, it is thought to be only about 1/3 of its original size. Off course no one would have expected anything less from Ancient Egypt.
Next is the Serpent Column, that originally stood in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The legend has it that the serpents were cast from the shields of the fallen Persian soldiers after the battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The heads of the serpents are now missing, though one of them can be seen in the Archaeological museum.
The origin of the third column is not known for certain. It is referred to as the Walled Obelisk and was originally covered in bronze plaques, that were stolen by the Crusaders in 1204.
Just past the northern end of the Hippodrome there is another ancient column – the Milion, which in fact is not a column at all, but the remnants of the Byzantine triumphal arch from which all roads in the empire were measured.
When I first arrived in Istanbul my body clock was still on Australian time, which was great for going on pre-dawn walks to explore the city. The morning that I walked around the Hippodrome I made two friends – a couple of street dogs that tagged along with me on the walk through the back streets of Sultanahmet. Istanbul’s free-roaming dogs are quite different from your run of the mill strays. They are clean, well fed and have ear tags, which I assume, means that they have been vaccinated, de-sexed and treated for diseases. My two friends were instantly loyal and proved this by growling at the very occasional passersby. Such devotion earned one of them the inclusion in the image above as the modern representative of Hippodrome’s history.
The Column of Constantine
The oldest monument of Constantinople – the Column of Constantine is as old as the city itself. It was dedicated by Constantine in 330 AD to commemorate the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire. One and a half thousand years later it is still an imposing structure standing half way between the Sultanahmet Park and the Grand Bazaar. It is the only remnant of the Forum of Constantine that used to mark the centre of the ancient city.
Originally the column was topped by the statue of Constantine and its base supposedly contained all sorts of interesting early Christian relics, such as a fragment of the True Cross. But off course, whatever relics there were, they were plundered by the Crusaders.
Cisterns and Aqueducts
Like everything else in Constantinople, its water supply system was built on a grand scale. The original 150km-long water channel was commissioned by the emperor Valens and took nearly 30 years to build. It brought water into the city from the surrounding countryside along underground tunnels and colossal stone aqueducts. One of these aqueducts towers over the Atatürk Bulvarı in modern day Istanbul.
To store the water in the city emperor Justinian I built the network of underground cisterns. Basilica Cistern just across the park from Haghia Sophia is one of the most interesting examples of Byzantine architecture in Istanbul and one of my favorite places in the city.
It has such an unassuming entrance that it is easy to miss. But walk a couple of flights of stairs down from the street level and you enter a different world. The Cistern is essentially a subterranean cavern filled with endless rows of ancient columns that support a vaulted ceiling reflected in the still dark water below. The first few ranks of the colonnade are lit by the spot lights that bathe them in soft red light, allowing the back rows to melt into the darkness. The sounds of the water dripping in the dark and of wistful Turkish classical music in the background give the place an air of mystery and solitude.
It truly is a fascinating structure. The columns, of which there are 336 in total, are all mismatched and it is most likely that they have been recycled from old Roman ruins throughout the empire. The two Medusa heads that are used to support the columns in the far end of the cavern were probably brought from an early Roman pagan temple, quite possibly from the Forum of Constantine.
Walls and Palaces of Constantinople
One of the main reasons why Constantinople survived as long as it did, outlasting the western Roman Empire by a thousand years is that since its founding the city has been surrounded by the defensive walls on all sides . Initially Constantine built the walls around the early Constantinople and as the city outgrew its boundaries Theodosius II built the colossal land walls that survive to this day.
A decent portion of the the land walls survives near the Chora Church in Edirnekapı neighborhood. The neighborhood in fact takes its name from Edirnekapi Gate that you have to go through to get to the church. This neighborhood is one of the poorest in Istanbul and the remnants of the walls are often inhabited by squatters. Because of that the guide books do not recommend visiting this area independently. I didn’t have any problems walking around, even though I managed to get lost and had to ask for directions a few times. But the inner fortifications of the wall do have a rather unpleasant smell to them.
The most interesting part of this section of the wall is the remnants of the Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Saray in Turkish). This palace became the Royal Residence of Constantinople in the 12th century when Manuele moved the permanent residence of the imperial court here from Bucoleon palace, on the shore of Marmara Sea. Unfortunately, not much is left of the palace and to add insult to injury, what’s left of it was closed during my visit. So all I have to show for my efforts of getting there is an image of a single wall that was the facade of the palace in the better days.
The Sea Wall, especially the Propontis Sea Wall that follows the shore of Marmara sea is much easier to access. It wraps around the Seraglio Point below the Topkapi Palace and runs along Kennedy Avenue – the road most taxi drivers take from either Sabiha Gökçen or Atatürk airports to Sultanahmet. It can be reached by a stroll along the back streets of Sultanahmet past the church of SS Sergius and Bacchus.
Not far from the church are the remnants of Bucoleon Palace. Part of the Great Palace of Constantinople complex, Bucoleon was the power seat of the early Byzantine emperors. Now all that remains of the palace is a fragment of a single wall pierced by enormous windows with marble frames and some traces of a balcony that looked out to the sea.
The last defensive installation of Constantinople was the great iron chain that could be stretched out across the Golden Horn to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbor. The northern end of the chain was anchored at the original Galata Tower that was destroyed during the sack of Constantinople in 1203. The chain, or rather a part of it, can still be found in the Archaeological museum in Istanbul.
Later, in the fourteenth century the new Galata Tower was built on the northern side of Golden Horn. This tower has survived to this day and has become one of the most iconic landmarks of Istanbul.
At the end of the day, despite the best efforts of the Crusaders and the Ottomans, there are enough Byzantine relics left in Istanbul to re-create the image of The legendary city. Standing on the shore of the Marmara sea I could easily imagine the view that greeted the ancient seafarers as they arrived at the port of Constantinople. The magnificent Bucoleon palace rising right out of the sea framed by the monolithic walls, the great dome of Haghia Sophia towering above them. Inside those walls the city was not dissimilar to the ancient Rome with its grand Hippodrome, public forums and mammoth aqueducts – colossal structures reflecting the awesome power and riches of the ‘god-appointed’ emperors.