After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, many of the churches of the city were converted to mosques, beginning with the most important of them, Hagia Sophia. The second most important church, the Church of the Holy Apostles, was demolished, like some others, and the Fatih Mosque was built on its site. Some buildings were just let to stand and fall in ruins.
Despite all this, there are still a great number of Byzantine buildings in Istanbul today that can be admired. Hagia Sophia, Hagia Eirene, the Basilica Cistern, the Theodosian Walls, and the Chora Church are among the most famous surviving structures, but a number of other buildings are equally impressive, especially those dating from the middle and late Byzantine period. The city is also, together with Ravenna, home to one of the best collections of Byzantine mosaics in the world.
In my collection all the major and many minor surviving Byzantine structures of Istanbul are described. I introduce late Roman and early Byzantine structures as well as examples of the middle and late periods of Byzantine architecture, thus covering a time frame longer than a millennium. I have also included information about some disappeared places (Imaginary Istanbul). Because of my passion for Istanbul and its history, the texts are significantly longer than in other portfolios.
The portfolio consists of eight parts:
- Late Roman squares and columns
- Aqueduct and cisterns
- Early Byzantine churches and monasteries
- Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene
- Middle Byzantine churches and monasteries
- Late Byzantine churches and monasteries
I took the photos between December 2015 and January 2016, and between September and November 2018. Three photos of the mosaics of the Chora Church are from September 2014.
Other Byzantine structures in Istanbul that should be visited and researched for this list to be complete include:
- Column of Arcadius
- Martyrion of Karpos and Papylos
- Hagiasma and mosaic on Amiral Tafdil Sokak
- Cistern of Mocius
- Byzantine cistern now known as Sultan Cistern
- Byzantine cistern in Gülhane Park
- Palace of Botaneiates
- Tower of Eirene
- Monastery of Saint Andrew in Krisei (Koca Mustafa Paşa Mosque)
- Monastery of Gastria (Sancaktar Hayrettin Mosque)
- Annex of the Monastery of Hagios Ioannis Prodromos in Petra (Boğdan Sarayı)
- Unknown Byzantine structure now known as İsa Kapı Mosque
- Church of Panagia Kamariotissa
- Byzantine sites of Hebdomon (Bakırköy)
The three Byzantine structures of big importance, with their original buildings replaced by newer structures (and thus included in my list of the post-1453 Greek sites of Istanbul) include the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, the Church of Saint Mary of the Spring, and the Church of Saint Mary of Peribleptos.
You will find the locations of the mentioned sites on the map below.
Part One: Late Roman Squares and Columns
At the beginning of Divan Yolu Caddesi, Cağaloğlu
Early 4th century
The Milion is a small piece of marble that survives of the Milliarium Aureum, or the Golden Milestone, from which all the distances in the Eastern Roman Empire were calculated. It stood near the Augustaion (today’s Aya Sofya Meydanı) at the beginning of the Mese, the main avenue of city (today’s Divan Yolu Caddesi). It probably dates from the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337).
The Milion of Constantinople was much more complex a building than its counterpart in the Roman Forum. It was a tetrapylon, or a double triumphal arch, surmounted by a dome. It was adorned with paintings and statues, such as those of Constantine and his mother Helena, and of Tyche, the goddess of fortune and prosperity. Two equestrian statues also stood nearby. Justinian I (527-565) added an horologion to the structure. Justin II (565-574) endowed it with further sculptures.
2. Column of the Goths
Gülhane Park, Eminönü
3rd or 4th century
Gülhane Park is the site of the Acropolis of Byzantium, where a number of temples once stood, dedicated to Apollo, Dionysus, Poseidon, Artemis, Athena and Aphrodite. Here stands a column with a Corinthian capital. It is made of Proconnesian marble, sits on a pedestal, and is 15 m tall (18.5 m together with the pedestal).
A Latin inscription on the pedestal reads, ‘To Fortune, who returns by reason of the victory over the Goths’. The inscription may suggest that the column was erected either during the reign of Claudius Gothicus (268-270) or that of Constantine the Great (306-337), both of whom are known to have won battles against the Goths.
The earlier dating is more probable. According to Nicephorus Gregoras, a 14th-century Byzantine scholar, the column once carried a statue of Byzas, the founder of Byzantium, a statue which Constantine would have never permitted. He did not erect any monuments in this area, the pagan part of the city, which was left abandoned for centuries until the construction of the Topkapı Palace. Others suggest that the column was topped by a statue of Tyche, goddess of fortune, to whom the inscription also refers.
This column is possibly the oldest monument of the Roman era in Istanbul.
3. Forum of Constantine and the Column of Constantine
In the 320s, Constantine the Great launched a series of major construction works to expand Byzantium into the new Roman capital. As part of that initiative, he built a forum outside the walls of the old city on the Second Hill of the peninsula. This forum was central to the ceremony of the founding of Constantinople, which took place on May 11, 330. Located along the Mese, the main avenue of the city, it soon came to be one of the most important places in it.
The Forum of Constantine differed from Roman forums in that it was oval, while the latter were rectangular. Circular or oval forums are quite rare. Other examples include the forums in Jerash (in today’s Jordan) and Durrës (in today’s Albania). The Forum of Constantine was surrounded by colonnades and had two monumental gates to the east and the west.
In the centre of Constantine’s forum stood his column, a major symbol of the new city. It is one of the most important examples of Roman art in Istanbul and virtually the only remaining trace of the city’s founder, Constantine the Great. It is 35 m high (was originally even higher) and is made of cylindrical blocks of Egyptian porphyry, a highly prized purple stone, reserved exclusively for the members of the imperial family. It is the highest porphyry column in the world.
The column was originally topped by the statue of Constantine in the guise of Sol Invictus, the pagan sun god whose cult had been favoured by emperors since Aurelian (270-275). A globe that the statue carried was said to contain a fragment of the True Cross. At the base of the column stood a sanctuary which supposedly housed a number of important relics, including the rock from which water sprang at the command of Moses, the axe that Noah used to build the ark, the baskets from the miracle of the loaves and fish, the alabaster ointment jar with that Mary Magdalene used to anoint the head and feet of Jesus, nails with which Jesus was crucified, and relics from the crosses of the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus.
The column was damaged by an earthquake in 416. In 1106, a storm brought down the statue of Constantine. Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) replaced the statue with a giant cross. After 1453, the cross also came down. In the 16th century, metal hoops were added around the blocks of porphyry to secure the column against earthquakes. The name Çemberlitaş, meaning ringed stone, by which the column is known in Turkish, possibly dates from this period. In 1779, a fire swept through the neighbourhood, leaving the column soot-blackened. Sultan Abdülhamid I ordered its restoration, during which the lowest level of porphyry was enclosed in a stone plinth.
On the northern side of the forum stood the city’s first Senate House, notable for its huge bronze doors with the depictions of gods and giants at war, possibly brought from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The other Senate House was located near the Augustaion.
On the southern side of the Forum of Constantine was a nymphaeum, a monumental fountain decorated with statues. There were several other statues on the square. The most outstanding of them was a colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos, brought either from Troy or from the Acropolis of Athens and sculpted by Pheidias (in around 456 BC). There was also a sculpture group depicting the Judgment of Paris as well as two bronze female statues.
4.-7. Hippodrome of Constantinople
Reign of Constantine the Great (306-337)
The Hippodrome of Constantinople was a huge open-air stadium where horse and chariot races were organised. It was the biggest hippodrome in the ancient world: 450 m long, 130 m wide and, according to some sources, able to accommodate as many as 100,000 spectators. It acquired such a scale during the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337). The original hippodrome had been built in 203 by Emperor Septimius Severus.
Originally, four teams took part in the races: the Blues, the Greens, the Reds, and the Whites. Each team was sponsored and supported by a different political party in the Senate. The Blues and the Greens eventually absorbed the Reds and the Whites. The rivalry between them often became mingled with political and religious rivalries, and sometimes riots broke out. The most severe of these were the Nika riots of 532, during which an estimated 30,000 people were killed and the second Hagia Sophia church was destroyed.
The hippodrome consisted of various structures. There was a gilded-copper statue of a quadriga, or a four-horse chariot, on the northern entrance gate of the hippodrome. Of an unknown Greek or Roman ancestry, it served as a prototype for many similar statues that came later. The quadriga was taken to Venice in 1204 by the Fourth Crusaders and are now called the Horses of Saint Mark. A copy of them stands on top of Saint Mark’s Basilica, while the original is housed in a museum inside it.
Nakilbent Sokak & Kasap Osman Sokak, Sultanahmet
The elongated central arena was surrounded by a U-shaped tribune. The curved part of the tribune at the southern end of the hippodrome was known as the sphendone. From here started a long corridor that branched off, leading to different sections of the seating. The seats were circled by an outer wall topped with decorative arcading. Only the lower part of the sphendone survives.
The emperor would have watched the races from his private box, or the kathisma, on the eastern side of the hippodrome near the Great Palace. It was endowed with a tunnel, to guarantee that he could escape quickly, if necessary (an important precaution after the Nika riots).
The long stretch of grass that extends from the German Fountain through the centre of today’s Sultanahmet Square was known as the spina. It was adorned with a number of statues and monuments, of which just three remain: the Serpent Column, the Masonry Obelisk, and the Obelisk of Theodosius.
5. Serpent Column
The Serpent Column is a spiral bronze column with a height of 3.53 m. It was originally topped off with the heads of three serpents, which formed a tripod to support a golden cauldron. The shaft of the column is formed of the intertwined bodies of the serpents.
The column was originally part of a sacrificial tripod that stood in front of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. It was built in 478 BC to celebrate the victory of a coalition of Greek city-states over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea the year before. It was supposedly made of the shields of the defeated Persians, and the names of the 31 victorious cities were inscribed on the serpents’ lower coils. It is also known as the Delphi Tripod or the Plataean Tripod.
In 324, Constantine the Great had the monument brought to Constantinople. There is a connection between the removal of the column from Delphi, which was known to the Greeks as the centre of the Earth, and its placement to the new capital of the Roman Empire, which Constantine was in the process of creating. He possibly installed it first on the grounds of the first Hagia Sophia, whence, at a later date, it was brought to the hippodrome and adapted to serve as a fountain.
When Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, in triumph as a conqueror, he shattered a jaw of one of the serpents’ heads. The rest of the serpents’ heads were gone at the end of the 17th century, either chopped off by a drunken Polish diplomat or fallen off during a cirit play. Today, only a small fragment of one head survives and can be seen in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
Head of a serpent of the Serpent Column at the Hippodrome
(478 BC; Istanbul Archaeology Museum)
Legend has it that if the Serpent Column would ever be destroyed, Istanbul would become a Christian city once again.
6. Masonry Obelisk
Erecting an obelisk at the Hippodrome of Constantinople was an attempt to legitimize the status of the new capital. It was a direct reference to Augustus, who, in 10 BC, brought an obelisk from the Temple of Sun in Heliopolis in Egypt and placed it on the spina of the Circus Maximus, to emphasize his defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra as well as his conquest of Egypt.
Unlike the Obelisk of Theodosius, which is a typical obelisk in that it was imported from Egypt and is a monolith made of Aswan granite, the Masonry Obelisk was built on the spot of blocks of limestone ashlar. It probably dates from the 4th century, from the era of Constantine the Great (306-337) or Theodosius the Great (379-395). Another theory has it that was already constructed in the era of Septimius Severus.
Ammianus Marcellinus writes that Constantine the Great had ordered an obelisk to be brought from Karnak to Alexandria and from there to Rome. That obelisk is now known as the Lateran Obelisk, as it is located across the square from the Archbasilica of Saint John in Lateran. According to its inscription (now lost), the obelisk was actually destined to Constantinople, probably for the dedication ceremony of the city in 330. It could be argued, then, that, as the Lateran Obelisk could not be shipped in time for the ceremony, Constantine had the Masonry Obelisk built instead.
It is 32 metres tall, around the same height as the Lateran Obelisk in Rome, which is the tallest standing Egyptian obelisk in the world. The inscription on the base of the Masonry Obelisk compares it to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The obelisk has multiple names: the Masonry Obelisk, the Walled Obelisk, the Knit Obelisk, and the Constantine Obelisk. The latter name comes from Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-959), who repaired it and added the inscription at its base. At that time, the obelisk was covered with gilded bronze plates portraying the victories of Basil I (867-886), the grandfather of Constantine VII. This is testified by numerous holes in the stonework. The bronze plates were removed in 1204 by the Fourth Crusaders in the belief that they were gold.
Traces of lead piping have been found underneath the pedestal of the obelisk, making it probable that it once served as a fountain.
There was also a sphere at the top of the obelisk, similar to the Solare obelisk in front of the Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome. It made it possible to use the obelisk as the needle of a sundial.
In the Ottoman era, young Janissaries liked to climb the obelisk to show their prowess.
7. Obelisk of Theodosius
Mid-15th century BC; the base – 390 AD
The Obelisk of Theodosius, or Dikilitaş in Turkish, is the oldest surviving monument on the spina of the hippodrome. It was carved during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), and it originally stood in the Karnak Temple Complex. It is made of red granite from Aswan, and its four faces have central inscriptions celebrating Thutmose III’s victory over Mitanni on the banks of the Euphrates in about 1450 BC.
The obelisk is named after Emperor Theodosius I (379-395), who placed it here in 390, to commemorate his defeat of the usurper Magnus Maximus and his son Victor two years before. It had been transported from Karnak to Alexandria some time before, possibly by Constantius II (337-361) together with another obelisk. In 357, that other obelisk (now known as the Lateran Obelisk) was brought to Rome and erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus, near another Egyptian obelisk that had been installed there by Augustus in 10 BC (today known as the Flaminio Obelisk). The erection of an Egyptian obelisk at the Hippodrome of Constantinople was a continuation of a Roman tradition and an attempt to legitimize the new capital of the empire.
The Obelisk of Theodosius was originally as tall as the Lateran Obelisk (around 32 m), but a part of it broke off during transit or erection. Its current height is approximately 20 m. It was originally crowned by a bronze pine cone.
Theodosius placed the obelisk on a base of Proconnesian marble with the size of around 7 cubic meters. Between the obelisk and the base there are four small bronze cubes. Under the base there is a wider base, separated from the former by four small granite blocks.
The bases of the obelisk are decorated with reliefs, which are considered to be among the most important dated pieces of late antique sculpture to survive.
Northwestern side of the upper base: Theodosius I, his co-emperor Valentinian II, and his sons Arcadius and Honorius in the kathisma, flanked by officials and guardsmen, and, under the balustrade, kneeling barbarians presenting gifts
On the southeastern side, Theodosius is depicted with the victory wreath in his hand. There are also figures holding the mappa, a piece of cloth that the emperor dropped, to signal the beginning of the chariot race. Under it are two tiers of spectators and female dancers with musicians.
Southeastern and northeastern sides of the upper base
Northeastern side of the upper base: the emperor flanked by the officials in the front row and the Germanic guardsmen in the back row
Southwestern side of the upper base: the usual imperial box, the entourage, and two guards in front of an arched gateway
Two sides of the lower base have figurative depictions as well, while the remaining two sides are covered with inscriptions.
Southeastern and northeastern sides of the lower base
Northeastern side of the lower base: the erection of the obelisk
The southwestern side of the lower base depicts the spina with the obelisks, around which a chariot race is taking place.
On the southeastern side, which faced the imperial Great Palace, there is an inscription of five hexameters in Latin, the official language of the empire. On the northwestern side are two elegiac couplets in Greek, to address the circus factions, who were representatives of the local Greek-speaking population.
Greek inscriptions on the northwestern side of the lower base
The hippodrome was the scene of disturbances until the Ottoman era, and public executions were carried out here. Chariot races stopped in the 13th century, and by the 15th century the hippodrome had fallen in ruins. Its end came in 1609, when the remaining structures were removed to allow for the construction of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
8.-9. Forum Tauri / Forum of Theodosius
Beyazıt Square, Fatih
Reign of Constantine the Great (306-337); reconstruction during the reign of Theodosius I (379-395)
In the 4th century, the largest square in Constantinople was Forum Tauri, located along the Mese, the main avenue of the city, in the area of today’s Beyazıt Square. It was built by Constantine the Great (306-337) and named after the statue of a bull that was its centerpiece.
In 393, Theodosius I rebuilt the square following the model of Trajan’s Forum in Rome. The Forum of Theodosius was surrounded by porticoes. Its most important structures were a victory column and a triumphal arch. Churches and baths also stood nearby.
8. Column of Theodosius
In the foundations of the Beyazıt Hamam, Kimyager Derviş Paşa Sokak 2, Fatih
Reign of Theodosius I (379-395)
The Column of Theodosius stood in the centre of the square or near it. It was made of white marble and was probably around 40 m tall. It was modeled on the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Its shaft was carved with spiral reliefs depicting the emperor’s victorious battles over the Goths in the Balkans. An internal staircase ran to the top, crowned by the statue of the emperor. Like the Column of Constantine, it must have been a symbol of the city as it stood on a high ground and was visible to anyone approaching the city from the Propontis (the Sea of Marmara).
The Column of Theodosius was demolished at the end of the 15th century. Fragments of it were built into the foundations of the Beyazıt Hamam, some which are still visible on its external walls, while others were moved to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.
Fragments of the Column of Theodosius in the foundations of the Beyazıt Hamam
9. Triumphal Arch of Theodosius
Along Ordu Caddesi east of Beyazıt Square, Fatih
The Triumphal Arch of Theodosius stood on the southwest side of his forum. It is the only known monumental arch in Constantinople. It was a triple arch made of Proconnesian marble. Its exact size is unknown even though it has been reported to have been very big.
The columns that supported the structure were decorated with lopped-branch motifs, making them stylistically similar to the hen’s eye column of the Basilica Cistern.
Remains of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius along Ordu Caddesi
The arch was surmounted by a statue of Theodosius, flanked by those of his sons Arcadius and Honorius. The central arch and the statue of Arcadius collapsed in 558. The rest of the arch was destroyed in an earthquake, possibly in 740.
10. Column of Marcian
Kıztaşı Caddesi, Kızanlık Caddesi, Dolap Caddesi & Yeşil Tekke Kuyulu Sokak, Fatih
This column was located on the north-west branch of the Mese, in the middle of a forum not far from the Church of the Holy Apostles (now Fatih Mosque). It is made of granite from Aswan, Egypt and is approximately 10 m tall. It is surmounted by a mutilated Corinthian capital, supporting an impost block with eagles in the four corners.
The column stands on a marble pedestal. The pedestal is decorated on the east and west sides with a Christogram in a wreath and on the south side with a cross in a wreath. On the north side there is a Latin inscription carried by two Nikai, or goddesses of victory. The inscription indicates that the column was erected by Tatianus, the praefectus urbanus of Constantinople, to commemorate the reign of Emperor Marcian (450-457).
The column was originally topped by a statue of Marcian, in continuation of an imperial tradition initiated by the columns of Trajan (113) and Marcus Aurelius (193) in Rome. According to some, the Colossus of Barletta, a large bronze statue of an Eastern Roman emperor (now in Apulia), stood here instead.
The Nikai account for the Turkish name of the column, Kıztaşı, or Maiden’s Stone. According to some, the Turkish name may also be explained by the fact that the Column of Marcian has often been confused with the Column of Venus (now lost), which stood in the neighborhood and was supposed to sway lightly to acknowledge truly virgin passers-by.