Late Roman & Byzantine Sites of Istanbul

Part Four: Palaces


32.-34. Great Palace of Constantinople

328; rebuilt and renovated until 11th century and beyond

The Great Palace of Constantinople was an extensive collection of palaces of the Byzantine emperors. Its construction was launched by Constantine the Great in 328 as an attempt to provide a counterpart for the palaces of the Palatine Hill in Rome.

The complex was built on six terraces stretching down from the Hippodrome to the Sea of Marmara. The hillside on which the palaces stood descends nearly 33 m, which necessitated the construction of large substructures and vaults.

The main entrance to the Great Palace was at the Augustaion, an important square located on the south side of the Hagia Sophia. Since the 5th or 6th century it was a closed courtyard surrounded by porticoes. Here stood the Milion, the mile marker from which all distances in the empire were measured. It was from here, too, that the Mese, the city’s main street, began (corresponds to today’s Divan Yolu Caddesi). The Mese was 25 m wide and lined with porticoes with shops. It was the route of the imperial processions through the city at least until the Komnenian times. The emperor entered the city through the Golden Gate in the Theodosian Walls and followed the Mese to the Great Palace. The popular Baths of Zeuxippus were also here (now the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı ).

Remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople in the Sultanahmet Archeological Park


Entrance to the Great Palace was through the vestibule known as the Chalke Gate (the Bronze Gate). The gate got its name either from its bronze portals or from the gilded bronze tiles of its roof. It was lavishly decorated with marbles and mosaics and its façade featured a number of statues. Above its main entrance stood an icon of Christ (the Christ Chalkites), one of the city’s major religious symbols. The removal of that icon in 726 or 730 by Emperor Leo III the Isaurian sparked a violent riot in the city and marked the beginning of the prohibition of the veneration of icons in the Empire (the first Byzantine Iconoclasm).

Immediately behind the Chalke Gate were the barracks of the Scholae Palatinae (the palace guards). These were followed by the 19 Accubita (’19 couches’), the reception hall.


32. Palace of Magnaura

Kutlugün Sokak 33-35, Sultanahmet

Somewhere east of the Augustaion lay the Palace of Magnaura. It was one of the two buildings that housed the Byzantine Senate, the other being located at the Forum of Constantine. Later an educational institution operated in it.

The underground space that can be accessed through the courtyard of a café on Kutlugün Street is said to have been the reception room of the Palace of Magnaura.





On the site of Sultan Ahmet Mosque stood the Palace of Daphne. Being the main imperial residence, it was the most important wing of the Great Palace in early Byzantine times. From here, a passage led directly to the kathisma, the emperor’s lodge at the Hippodrome.

More to the south was the Chrysotriklinos, the main ceremonial hall from the late 6th to the 10th century. It was probably an octagonal building with a dome, similar to other 6th-century buildings, such as the nearby Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus and the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. It was also the prototype of Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen (792-805).

Near the Chrysotriklinos stood the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos, the main chapel of the Great Palace. It got its name from a lighthouse (pharos) standing next to it, and it held an important collection of holy relics. To its north lay the Palace of Triconchos, accessible through a semicircular antechamber known as the Sigma.

To the east of the palace stood the Nea Ekklesia (‘New Church’). Built in 876-880, it was the first monumental church built in the city after Hagia Sophia, marking the beginning of the middle period of Byzantine architecture. It had five gilded domes, and it was lavishly decorated. A polo field known as the Tzykanisterion separated it from the sea walls.

A ramp tower of the Great Palace of Constantinople (at the junction of Akbıyık Caddesi and Bayram Fırını Sokak)




33. Palace of Boukoleon

Kennedy Caddesi, east of the Çatladı Kapı bus stop, Cankurtaran
First half of 5th century; restored in 9th and 10th centuries

South of the other buildings of the Great Palace was the Palace of Boukoleon. On its site (or near it) stood originally the House of Hormisdas, named after a persecuted Persian prince who had been given refuge by Constantine the Great in 323. A new palace was built on this site during the reign of Theodosius II (408-450). That palace was the private residence of Justinian I before his accession to the throne.

The name Boukoleon was probably attributed to the palace in the 6th century, when a small harbour was built in front of it, featuring a colossal statue of a bull (‘bous’) being attacked by a lion (‘leon’).

A lion from the Palace of Boukoleon
(probably 6th century; Istanbul Archaeology Museum)


The Palace of Boukoleon was extensively restored during the reign of Theophilos (829-842). Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), who erected walls around the Great Palace, made the Palace of Boukoleon a part of the complex. It became increasingly important by the 10th century, at which time it was the main palace of the Byzantine court.

Ruins of the Palace of Boukoleon
(probably 9th century)




34. Great Palace Mosaics

Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Arasta Bazaar, Sultanahmet
Around 6th century

The best-preserved element of the Great Palace is the mosaic floor of a peristyle courtyard from the south-western part of the complex. The mosaics here are made up of an estimated 75-80 million tesserae made of limestone, marble, coloured glass, brick, and gemstones. They may have been built at the time of Justinian I, who is known to have renovated the Great Palace after the Nika riots in 532. Others suggest the reigns of the emperors preceding or following him.

The pavement of the peristyle consists of an inner area and friezes surrounding it. The inner area contains depictions of subjects and scenes unrelated to each other on a white background: children playing, hunting scenes, village life and bucolic landscapes, animals, fantastic creatures (e.g., griffins), and mythological scenes (e.g., a chimera being attacked by Bellerophon). They objects are arranged in three strips, with some objects such as palm trees occupying two strips. The bigger frieze consists of a scroll work of acanthus leaves. These are interrupted by heads of men, possibly representing the four seasons or the sea creatures, as well as by animal and fruit illustrations. The world of Dionysus thus depicted is surrounded by thinner friezes, showing colourful geometric shapes. The fact that the mosaics have a peaceful and domestic content makes it likely that the courtyard was part of the private apartments of the emperor.

The subject of the mosaic below can be seen in several places on the peristyle floor of the Great Palace. One of the boys has a crown on his head, referring to his noble origin, and a pet bird in his hand. The depiction of shades on the children’s clothes is masterful.

Two boys riding a dromedary with their guide

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A boy playing with geese

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A male griffin attacking a fawn

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A female griffin with a lizard and a boy with a dog

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Horses grazing, a shepherd milking a goat and a child with a milk tank

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Some commentators believe that the colour of the children’s clothing in the mosaic below was intended to evoke the Greens and the Blues, the fiercely competitive chariot teams that vied with one another at the nearby hippodrome and that also had different opinions in politics. There are two metae, or return columns, on the stage, meaning that the children are playing on a racetrack.

Children rolling hoops

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In Christianity, date palm trees were a symbol of resurrection and eternal life. In the mosaic below, however, the palm tree is void of any hidden meaning.

Children, animals, trees and a frieze

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A frieze fragment with a mask

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A mask on a frieze fragment with other objects

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The Great Palace remained the main imperial residence until the 11th century. Then, the Byzantine emperors moved to the Palace of Blachernae further in the west, but continued to use the Great Palace as the primary administrative and ceremonial centre. During the Latin occupation, the complex was used by their emperors, but they lacked money for its maintenance. In 1261, when the city was reconquered by the forces of Michael VIII Palaiologos, it was found in disrepair. The Palaiologan emperors largely abandoned it, ruling from Blachernae and using the vaults of the Great Palace as a prison. Much of the complex was demolished during the general rebuilding of Constantinople at the beginning of the Ottoman era. In 1609-1616, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque was built on its territory.


35. Palace of Antiochus / Martyrion of Hagia Euphemia

Divan Yolu Caddesi, Atmeydanı Caddesi & İmran Öktem Caddesi, Sultanahmet
429-433; conversion into a church – 6th century; northern structures – mid-5th century

One can find a number of ruins between the Sultanahmet Square, the Divan Yolu Caddesi and the Binbirdirek Cistern. These constitute a rare surviving example of an aristocratic villa in Constantinople.

These ruins belong to the Palace of Antiochus. It was named after a Persian eunuch who became a tutor of Emperor Theodosius II, soon rose to the status of the praepositus sacri cubiculi (the Grand Chamberlain of the Great Palace), and was finally given the rank of patricius. His big influence over the emperor caused his downfall by the latter’s sister Pulcheria, and his palace became an imperial property at some point.

The palace consisted of a semicircular courtyard and a hegaxonal hall. The courtyard had a diameter of 60 m. It was paved with marble and surrounded by a portico. The hexagonal hall had a diameter of 20 m. Its each side had an absidal niche, which provided space for a semicircular bench and a dining table, indicating that the hall functioned as a triclinium. There was a marble pool in the centre of the hall, possibly connected to the Cistern of Philoxenos. Other rooms were between the apses and along the outer curve of the portico.

During the reign of Justin I (518-527) the hexagonal hall was transformed into a church. An altar and a synthronon were added to the eastern niche, while an opening was made in the western niche of the hexagon. Some remains this structure survive.

An inlaid column and other remains from the church of the Palace of Antiochus
(6th century; Istanbul Archaeology Museum)


At the beginning of the 7th century, the church became the Martyrion of Hagia Euphemia, as her bones were transferred here from her church in Chalcedon (Kadıköy), after the Persian conquest. In the late 13th century, the church was decorated with frescoes depicting the life and martyrdom of Euphemia. Another surviving fresco, depicting the unique theme of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, can be from a slightly later period.

North of the Palace of Antiochus are the ruins of another structure. Until recently it was identified as the Palace of Lausus, named after another praepositus sacri cubiculi. That palace was renowned for the owner’s vast and diverse collection of statues from eastern temples, such as the Statue of Zeus at Olympia (Phidias, ca 435 BC) – one of the Seven Wonders of the World –, and the Aphrodite of Knidos (Praxiteles, 4th century BC). This attribution is now abandoned. The Palace of Lausus is, sometimes, positioned further away, north of the Mese, and it has been suggested that the other buildings south of the Mese were part of the complex of the Palace of Antiochus.

The northern building originally consisted of a large rotunda with a diameter of 20 m. It may have been an audience hall of Antiochos. A C-shaped portico opened to the street along the Hippodrome, south of which the ruins of a small bathhouse have been discovered. Later in the 5th century, an elongated apsed hallway was added to the rotunda in the west, accessed by a vestibule with two apses. In the 6th century, three apses were added to each of the long sides of the vestibule. The shape, again, points to its use as a triclinium.

The palace was probably destroyed in fire in 475. The presence of hydraulic mortar indicate it functioned as a cistern later.

Some ruins of both the rotunda and the long hall of the northern palace are still visible. Parts of the hexagonal hall of the Palace of Antiochos proper survive as well, but are currently fenced off.




Palace of Blachernae

In the 4th to 11th centuries, when the main imperial residence was the Great Palace, the emperors also sometimes used the Palace of Blachernae. That palace possibly dates back to the second half of the 5th century. It had a central courtyard flanked by several triclinia, or halls, such the Hall of Soros, the Hall of Anastasius I, the Hall of the Ocean, and the Hall of the Danube. The latter communicated, through a series of staircases, with the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae. By the 10th century, the complex consisted of separate structures lying on multiple terraces, much like the complex of the Great Palace.

In the late 11th century, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos made the Palace of Blachernae his main imperial residence. With moving to the immediate vicinity of the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, which was one of the most important churches in the city, he, the first emperor of the Komnenos family, wanted to highlight his and his family’s role as God’s early representatives. The Palace of Blachernae remained the main imperial residence until the end of the Palaiologan era.

Today almost nothing remains of the Palace of Blachernae proper. However, a separate structure of the complex, known as the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, still survives.


36. Palace of the Porphyrogenitus

Tekfur Sarayı
Hoca Çakır Caddesi and Şişhane Caddesi, Edirnekapı
Late 13th century in its current form

The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus was located in the southern part of the complex of the Palace of Blachernae. The name Porphyrogenitus means ‘Purple-Born’ in Greek, referring to children born to a reigning Byzantine emperor. It was first built in the Middle Byzantine period, and was reconstructed at the end of the 13th century. The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus is the best preserved Byzantine palace to survive in the city and one of the few relatively intact examples of late-Byzantine secular architecture in the world.

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The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus has three floors. On the side that faces the courtyard is an arcade on the ground floor and five large windows on the first floor. The second floor has narrower windows on all the four sides and a balcony supported by corbels on the opposite façade. On the other sides the lower two floors have no openings,  which emphasises the defensive qualities of the structure. The palace is connected to the last tower of the Theodosian Walls, and it lies between two layers of walls. Essentially a tower-house palace, it can be compared to the aristocratic fortified residences in rural Anatolia.

The façades of the palace are decorated with elaborate geometric motifs made of red brick and white stone, a feature typical of Late Byzantine architecture.

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The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus suffered extensive damage during the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans. Soon after, it became to be known as the Tekfur Sarayı (the Palace of the Sovereign in Turkish). The structure was later used for a variety of purposes. In the 16th and 17th centuries, its cistern housed a menagerie of exotic animals, after which it has been reported to have been turned into a brothel. Since 1719 it housed the Tekfur Sarayi workshop, producing tiles in a style similar to Iznik pottery, but more influenced by European trends of the era. By the end of the 18th century, the production of ceramics had ceased, and the building soon functioned as a poor-house for the Jews of the city. In the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century it housed a factory producing glass.