Byzantine Monuments

Istanbul, Turkey

"Even had its Empire never exist, Byzantium would surely have impressed itself upon our minds and memories by the music of its name alone, conjuring up those same visions that it evokes today: visions of gold and malachite and porphyry, of stately and solemn ceremonial, or brocades heavy with rubies and emeralds, or sumptuous mosaics dimly glowing through halls cloudy with incense."
John Julius Norwich

The Hippodrome

This unassuming retaining wall is actually one of the walls from the ancient Hippodrome of Byzantine Constantinople. This immense structure (basically a giant chariot racing track) was begun in 203 CE by the Emperor Septimius Severus, back when Constantinople (now Istanbul) was called Byzantium.

Constantine I ("the Great") enlarged it to seat 100,000 spectators. At that time it was approximately 480 meters long and 117.5 meters wide.

In January 532, thirty thousand rebels were trapped and slaughtered in the Hippodrome by the general Belisarius (on the orders of Justinian).

The so-called Serpent Column is one of the ancient monuments on the spina, the central line of the Hippodrome. This bronze statute, depicting three serpents, originally stood in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It commemorates the defeat of the Persians in the Battle of Plataea (479 BCE) by thirty-one Greek city states (the base of the monument was uncovered in 1920, revealing the names of the cities which were inscribed on the lower coils of the snakes). Legend states that the bronze serpents were made from the shields of Persian soldiers.

Constantine took the column from Delphi and planted it in the courtyard of Haghia Sophia, where it stood for some time before being moved to the Hippodrome. One of the serpent heads is located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

One of the newest additions to the Hippodrome is this domed fountain which commemorates the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamit II). This obelisk, built for Pharaoh Thutmose III (ca. 1500 BCE), original stood at Deir el Bahri in Upper Egypt. It recounts his Syrian campaigns and his crossing of the Euphrates. The obelisk was brought to Constantinople in the 4th century because an emperor (possibly Constantine himself) thought it would make a nice decoration for the Hippodrome. Unfortunately, they managed to break it in the process.

Although the current obelisk is almost 60 feet high, it was originally thought to be almost 180 feet high and weigh 800 tons. Broken, it sat on the beach, unused until Theodosius II ("the Great") erected it in 390 CE. The base of the obelisk (now well below street level) depicts (among other things) the Emperor Theodosius watching the chariot races and erecting the obelisk.

Underneath the Egyptian obelisk is a marble base with reliefs depicting Emperor Theodosius II ("the Great") and his family in the imperial box in the Hippodrome. Curiously, there are inscriptions on the base in Latin and Greek explaining that thirty and thirty two days, respectively, were required to erect the obelisk. This is the sphendone, the semi-circular southern end of the Hippodrome. Its enormous vaulted substructures are clearly visible from the streets below (on the Marmara slope of the First Hill). In 1550 the remaining decorative columns from the outer wall were dismantled and used for other buildings.

This section of the ancient Hippodrome now forms a retaining wall for the Sultanahmet district. Perched atop the ruins is a modern Turkish school.

This rather unassuming building is the modern entrance to the the remarkable Yerebatan Sarayi (Sunken Palace). Sometimes called the Basilica Cistern (for it was once underneath the Stoa Basilica), this vast water storage tank was built by Justinian around the time of the Nika Revolt (532 CE). It is 140 meters long and 70 meters wide and has 336 columns, mostly scavenged during construction from various ancient buildings. The French scholar Pierre Gilles (aka Petrus Gyllius) "rediscovered" the lost cistern in the 1540's:
"The whole area was built over, which made it less suspect that there was a cistern there. The people had not the least suspicion of it, although they daily drew their water out of the wells that were sunk into it. By chance I went into a little house where there was a way down to it and went aboard a little skiff. I discovered it after the master of the house lit some torches and rowed me here and there across the pillars, which lay very deep in the water. He was very intent upon catching his fish, with which the Cistern abounds, and speared some of them by the light of the torches."
At the start of the modern Divan Yolu stood an archway called the Miliarum Aureum, the Golden Milestone (the present stone is all that remains of the great arch). From this point all of the great roads from ancient Constantinople started and from which all distances were measured. This algae-covered medusa head is from the Basilica Cistern. Since the cistern was never meant to be seen, its builders plundered earlier monuments in search of building materials. This medusa head (which is actually upside-down and propped underneath a pillar that was shorter than its neighbors) probably came from a nymphaeum, a pagan shrine to the water nymphs.
While walking around the backstreets in the Sultanahmet area, I found a small sign under a modern office building which said "Justinian's Cistern." Taking a flight of stairs to the basement, I entered a short hallway (completely deserted) which led to the massive subterranean chamber pictured.

In Turkey, it is quite typical to find such ancient monuments lying completely open to anyone who wanders by. It appears that this ancient cistern is undergoing some sort of renovation, perhaps to be officially opened in the near future.

If you look at the wall to the right of the picture, you will see that the structure continues past the bricked-up wall further into the darkness.

It is quite possible that this connects to the enormous Basilica Cistern (built by Justinian), portions of which were bricked off centuries ago. On the other hand, Binbirdirek Sarnici (the Cistern of 1001 Columns) is perhaps closer, but it dates to the 4th century (well before Justinian's time).

Had I waterproof shoes and a flashlight, I would have investigated further.

Mosaic Museum (Ruins of the Great Palace)

The Great Palace was built during the reign of Constantine (306 - 337) and its remains lie beneath the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. After being partially destroyed during the Nika Revolt (532 CE), the complex was rebuilt by Justinian (527 - 565). The Mosaic Museum houses a number of mosaics, unearthed during the 20th century, which lined a great colonnaded hall leading from the palace to the Hippodrome. Many of these mosaics (such as the one pictured) feature scenes from everyday life. This mosaic depicts a number of animals and what appears to be a hunter. The battle between the snake and eagle is a typical motif, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness. For instance, it appears frequently on funerary stele and on Roman standards.
This mosaic depicts an animal, now extinct. Originally, the winged horned tiger ranged over most of the Eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia. It is now thought to have gone extinct sometime during the imperial period. The last known specimen is believed to have been slaughtered in the Flavian Amphitheater during the reign of Domitian (81 - 96 CE). In this mosaic, two boys ride on a dromedary. The first boy is clearly a member of an aristocratic house, for he has a wreath upon his head and a pet bird.

The preceding remarks concerning the tiger are nonsense.

When the Palace of Blachernae was built by Alexius I Comnenus (1081 - 1118), the great palace largely fell into disrepair by the end of the 12th century. Its massive vaults and substructures were used as prisons during the 14th and early 15th century before Sultan Ahmet I (1603 - 1617) replaced the ruins of the Daphne and Kathisma palaces with the Sultan Ahmet mosque complex (known commonly as the Blue Mosque). Two men, armed with spears, attacking a tiger. They appear to have badges on their tunics, probably indicative of their schola.

The emperors lived in the Great Palace for nine hundred years, until the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. After reclaiming the city from the invaders, the Great Palace was abandoned in favor of Blachernae Palace.

Another mosaic dating from the reign of Justinian I (527 - 565 CE). Another mosaic dating from the reign of Justinian I (527 - 565 CE).
Another mosaic dating from the reign of Justinian I (527 - 565 CE). Another mosaic dating from the reign of Justinian I (527 - 565 CE).

Kariye Museum (Chora Monastery)

A few blocks from the great Land Walls lies the former Church of St. Saviour in Chora. The term in Chora means "in the country," for the ancient monastery at the site stood outside the original Constantinian walls of Constantinople. Although later enclosed by the Theodosian walls, the name remained.

The building is most well-known for housing some Istanbul's best preserved mosaics and frescoes from the late-Byzantine period.

The present structure was built between 1077 and 1081 by Maria Doukaina, the mother in law of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118). An extensive remodeling was carried out by her grandson, the Sebastocrator Isaac Comnenus (third son of Alexius I).

After the Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261), the inner narthex was rebuilt and an outer narthex and parecclesion (side chapel) were added.

Just inside the main door is the famous image of Christ Pantocrator (which can be seen in many guide books). The text reads: "Jesus Christ, the land (country) of the Living," a reference to the name of the church and to Psalm 116:9: "I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living."

The mosaics are product of this period 1315-1321 and were undertaken by the Grand Logethete Theodore Metochites (who was originally interred in the parecclesion). The building was converted to a mosque by Atik Ali Pasha in the early 1500's. At that time the mosaics and frescoes were covered by plaster, leading to their remarkable preservation.
The mosaic at the lower left depicts King Herod ordering the deaths of all children under two. We can also see a soldier slaying a mother and child. The mosaic, mostly destroyed, on the main dome depicts Christ performing a miracle. This mosaic depicts the Virgin Mary being sanctified by priests (the three men seated). At the bottom, we see her being attended to by her parents. The two peacocks (lower corners) are variously claimed to either represent incorruptibility or to be allegorical symbol for the parents' joy.
The magnificent frescoes date from 1320-21, during the last phase of Metochites' restoration. This scene depicts the Anastasis, known in English as the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is depicted as having broken the gates of Hell and can be seen pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs. Behind Adam are St. John the Baptist, David, Solomon, and other kings. Standing behind Eve is Abel and several others. The painting in the dome depicts the Virgin Mary with various angels. The four angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael hold spheres in their hands. In the pendantives, various authors are depicted. Among them are St. Cosmos, St. Damascene, St. Joseph, St. Theophanes, and Melchizedek.
This mosaic, in the southern dome of the inner narthex, depicts the ancestry of Christ and his ancestors. In particular, Adam through Jacob are listed, along with the sons of Jacob. This mosaic depicts the the Virgin Mary and Jesus, along with sixteen kings of the house of David.
This mosaic depicts the presentation of Virgin at a temple. The marble panels in the nave illustrate the classic technique of splitting a large slab of marble down the thin side to form two panels which are nearly mirror-images of each other.

The mosaic depicts the Virgin lying dead on her bier. Christ stands behind, holding her soul (represented as a baby). Hovering above are various apostles, evangelists, and early bishops.

Kucuk Ayasofya (Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus)

This mosque (Kucuk Ayasofya Camii, or "Little Haghia Sophia Mosque") was formerly the ancient Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Construction of the church began in 527 CE, just prior to that of Haghia Sophia. Due to its radically new design, similar to that of Haghia Sophia and Haghia Eirene, it is widely believed that the architects were Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, who constructed Haghia Sophia a few years later. The building is essentially an irregular octagon inscribed in a crooked rectangle. The asymmetry is possibly due to the fact that the church was once squeezed between the Church of SS. Peter and Paul and the grand Palace of Hormisdas. Both of these buildings are now long gone, but the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus still remains.
SS. Sergius and Bacchus were Roman soldiers martyred in 303 CE during the reign of Maximian (reigned 286 - 305). They later became patron saints for Christians in the Roman army.

It seems that the young Justinian I ("the Great," reigned 527 - 565) was accused of plotting against the emperor Anastasius (reigned 491 - 518), but Sergius and Bacchus purportedly appeared in a dream to Anastasius to intercede on behalf of Justinian. In light of this, Justinian survived and ordered the construction of the church in 527, immediately after becoming emperor.

Being an imperial church, no expense was spared. According to Procopius:
"By the sheen of its marbles it was more resplendent than the sun and everywhere it was filled profusely with gold."
The columns are of verd antique and red Synnada marble. The capitals and friezes feature the deeply recessed patterns typical of early sixth century imperial architecture.
The frieze consists of a lengthy inscription, consisting of twelve hexameters (in Greek), in honor of the founders of the church, Justinian and Theodora, and of St. Sergius. Curiously, St. Bacchus is not mentioned in the dedication. Most capitals had a monogram of Justinian and Theodora, although many have been defaced in the intervening centuries. Justinian probably chose this site due to the fact that his former residence, the Palace of Hormisdas, was right next door. Hormizd was a Persian prince who was imprisoned by his brother-in-law, King Shapur II ("the Great," reigned 309 - 379 CE). He escaped and found his way to Constantinople, where Constantine I ("the Great," 324 - 337) provided him with a palace by the Marmara. This palace later became the home of the future emperor Justinian.
In the early 16th century, the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus was converted into a mosque (the minbar is pictured here). The patron of the new mosque was Huseyin Aga, the Chief of the White Eunuchs during the reign of Beyazit II (reigned 1481 - 1512). Huseyin Aga now lies in a tomb in the garden north of the present structure. Embedded in the wall at left, one can see a sixth century capital. This indicates the position of an ancient doorway which was bricked up centuries ago.