Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Searching for traces of Byzantine Empire in Modern Istanbul

View from the Golden Gate, 2012
 "When I was subsequently dwelling in the "City of the Sultan", and that reality had succeeded to anticipation, much of the mist of romance, indeed, rolled away: but the fair face of the landscape suffered little from its absence, for Constantinople needs no aid from the imagination to make one of the brightest gems in the diadem of nature:  its clear calm sky, its glittering sea, its amphitheatre of thickly-peopled hills... its surpassing novelty, tend to make every day and every hour in that gorgeous scene, and under the sunny sky, a season of intense enjoyment"
                                            - Miss Julia Pardoe, The Beauties of the Bosphorus (London 1839)

Being already somewhat familiar with the "City of the Sultan," in coming to Istanbul this time, I was hoping to discover the "City of the Byzantine Emperors".  I aspired to visualize Istanbul as the Roman city it once was which is challenging in spite of Hagia Sophia's indisputable and iconic presence.

Knowing Constantinople was celebrated as the "New Rome" for more than a thousand years, beginning with the 11th of May of the year 330 by Roman Emperors with all their displays of imperial magnificence adorning the environs of the city, might be cause for expectation on one's part. Although it is possible to still hear the humming of the distant tunes from bygone eras around every corner in Istanbul, finding tangible traces of Byzantium can be a perplexing endeavor.   Even with the few remaining monuments dispersed throughout the city, uninterrupted habitation combined with the change of ideology of the consecutive empires has caused Istanbul to metamorphose into a totally unique entity.

As far as the residents of this glorious megalopolis are concerned, encountering the remains of ancient civilizations regularly seems to evoke an immunity to their charms. As they go about their daily lives no one seems to think to look up or around and register the significance of the column or the wall that (still) stands on the side of the road or the public parking lot.  In some instances this is done quite easily... involuntarily... I am ashamed to admit, even by individuals interested in history (as this author claims to be...)  I plan to start with sharing my first forays to discover Istanbul's Byzantine monuments here which proved to be an enlightening experience in regards to not only what remains but my own ignorance as well... before I get started I would like to beg for your tolerance...

Tip of the Historic Peninsula, Topkapi Palace (Left); Hagia Sophia (Right)

As I began to study the Byzantine empire and especially Constantinople, my first realization was that my beloved city, the only city in the world that literally connects two continents, where the sun rises and sets like in no other, "one of the brightest gems in the diadem of nature" was actually an ancient Greek city "Byzantion" before it was ever the capital of the Roman or the Ottoman empires.  Where Topkapi Palace sits today was the Acropolis of the Greek city, a fact that, whether due to lack of actual ancient findings or just plain ignorance, would not be within the general scope of a Turk or an Istanbul resident.

View from the Golden Gate, Constantine's Column (L); Hagia Sophia (R)

Unfortunately, there is not much left of Constantine's city either except for the porphyry column, sans monumental statue atop, so this is a natural place to start exploring the Roman past of Istanbul.  Constantine's column which was situated in the middle of his forum is called "Cemberlitas" (Hooped Stone - due to the metal brackets around it) and it stands on Yeniceriler Caddesi behind the Nuruosmaniye Mosque. To accommodate the throng of shoppers, there is a big public parking lot behind the Mosque since one of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar is right behind it -  and this is where I had my first sighting of the Column of Constantine.

According to Chronicon Paschale 284-628 AD, Constantine:
"... also built a Forum which was large and exceedingly fine; and he set in the middle a great porphyry column of Theban stone, worthy of admiration, and he set on top of the same column a great statue of himself with rays of light on his head, a work in bronze which he had brought from Phyrigia." 
Since the literary sources from this period are scarce, how exactly the emperor was depicted is still a matter of contention. What is known, however, is the abundance of statues Constantine collected from all over Asia Minor to decorate his city.

Column of Constantine, 330 AD

Reconstructive Drawing by Gurlitt, 1912

As far as the walls of Byzantion that Constantine is supposed to have rebuilt and the Great Palace complex, nothing has survived to this day.  Of all the extensions to the Great Palace almost the only remains is the seaside pavilion of the Boukoleon Palace, which sits along the remnants of the walls that run parallel to the shore road, along the Marmara Sea. These ruins on the shore road that go from Bakirkoy (ancient Hebdomon) towards the Golden Horn is one of the major routes that I have passed by all my life without ever questioning what they were beyond being a part of the Byzantine walls. Luckily, today besides the translations of contemporary texts, there are those who work to recreate Byzantium in the year 1200 which can help even the most unimaginative soul to comprehend what it must have been like back then.

Recreation of the Boukoleon Palace, Byzantium1200

Boukoleon Palace, 2012

The Boukoleon Palace is also known as the "House of Justinian" maybe due to the monogram of Justinian, which is still supposed to be visible on the capital of a single surviving column but emperor Theophilos rebuilt and expanded the palace in the 9th century (the marble window frames visible in the photographs is supposed to be 9th c.)  Today, habitation on and around some parts of the walls still continues in the form of old wooden houses and even little teahouses with lovely views looking out to the Marmara Sea.  This situation points to the organic nature of the city of Istanbul;  all through the centuries, people have settled along its shores, built and rebuilt using the natural as well as man-made resources contributing to the layers of history that we have to dig through to discover the variety of stories that were played out under "its clear calm sky, its glittering sea, its amphitheatre of thickly-peopled hills... its surpassing novelty, (which) tend to make every day and every hour in that gorgeous scene, and under the sunny sky, a season of intense enjoyment"

Map of Constantinople, 1422, Cristoforo Buondelmonti


Julia Pardoe, and W. H. Bartlett, The Beauties of the Bosphorus, London:  Published for the Proprietors, by G. Virtue, 1839 (link)

John Freely, and A. S. Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul, Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2004

Michael Whitby, and Mary Whitby, Chronicon Paschale 284-628 AD. Liverpool:  Liverpool UP, 1989

Paul Magdalino, "Byzantium = Constantinople," A Companion to Byzantium, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p. 43-54



  1. Hi Sedef -- Fascinating! Really! I've always been somewhat annoyed at the re-use of materials -- taking stones away from an old building to build something new -- but your post has made me re-think that. Why not re-use materials? It sustains the historic connection between the new and the old (or the "new" and the old). How cool. And I'm fascinated with Constantine's Column -- when we came across it (intentionally) on our way to the Grand Bazaar, I was really surprised -- it was not at all what I expected. Your photo of it, and of everything else, is amazing. I feel a bit overwhelmed about it all -- there's so much to Istanbul -- where to begin? I'm sure you know about this book, but I'm finding it to be a good guide -- thorough enough for me at this point: Sumner-Boyd and Freely's Strolling Through Istanbul. Any other suggestions? Thank you so much for this intro to this part of Istanbul -- as usual, you've left me wanting to know more!
    Take care -

  2. Hi Karen,

    I agree with your frustration about recycling old buildings to build new ones but we must not forget that the value they assigned to most "old" buildings were probably not even close to what we assign to them today. As life progresses so do people and their needs... having said all that... when I am out exploring (especially) Byzantine monuments my head hurts in trying to conjure them up.
    Currently I am reading Freely and Cakmak's Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul and I am loving the history books on Byzantium (who would have thought?) Will let you know of any others I can think of.


  3. A fascinating article Sedef! However have you also captured the glorious Byzantine mosaic from the Great Palacr Mosaic Museum near Arista Bazaar? Please do the write up on that too :)

    1. Raja,

      A wonderful suggestion! I will try to oblige as soon as I can. Thanks for the suggestion.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...