Byzantine Monuments Surviving in Istanbul

[Dating from before ad 800]

This is a history, not a guide book. Readers visiting Istanbul may however like to know what monuments still survive from these early centuries of Byzantium. The following list is not absolutely complete, but it includes all monuments, or remains of them, that could conceivably be of interest to the non-specialist.

*** Buildings of world importance, worth going to Istanbul to see.

** Memorable.

* Interesting, but too small or too ruined for the average short-term visitor.

Unstarred items are ruins or vestiges, listed more for their curiosity value than anything else.

NOTE

This list would have been nowhere near as comprehensive as it is but for the encyclopaedic knowledge of Mr John Freely, whose Strolling through Istanbul (London, 1987) has been of invaluable assistance.

* AQUEDUCT OF VALENS

Built by the Emperor Valens in 375 as part of his new system of water supply to the capital, bridging the valley between the Fourth and Third Hills. It was originally some 1,000 metres long, of which about 900 metres remain.

*CATACOMBS

Behind the mosque of Murat Pasha at the corner of Millet Caddesi and Vatan Caddesi, a number of vaulted chambers only recently discovered and thought to date from the sixth century.

CHURCHES

*** St Sophia The seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Church of the Holy Wisdom was first dedicated by Constantius, son of Constantine the Great, in 360. The present building is the third on the site, redesigned by Justinian after the Nika riots of 532 and dedicated by him on 26 December 537. There have been inevitable restorations, but the Great Church remains structurally much the same as in his day, the principal differences having been occasioned by it's conversion into a mosque after the Turkish conquest of1453.

*** St Eirene Just inside the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace, the Church of the Holy Peace was one of the earliest Christian churches in Byzantium. Rebuilt by Constantine the Great or his son Constantius, it served as the patriarchal cathedral until the building of St Sophia nearby. Like the latter, it was destroyed by fire in the Nika riots but was rebuilt again by Justinian and rededicated in 537. Usually locked, but permission to visit can be sought from the Director of St Sophia. The rewards are great.

*** SS Sergius and Bacchus Now a mosque known as Kucuk Aya-sofya, standing just at the point where the Hippodrome, if projected further along its present axis, would meet the Sea Walls. Begun by Justinian and Theodora in 527, it is therefore earlier than St Sophia or St Eirene.

·         St John of Studium Near the junction of the Land Walls and the Marmara, founded in 462 and thus the oldest church surviving in the city - insofar as it has survived, for it is now a ruin open to the sky. Of the famous monastery, perhaps the greatest spiritual and cultural centre of Byzantium, nothing remains.

·         Martyrium of SS Karpos and Papylos Just below the modern Greek church of St Menas, where it now serves as a carpenter's shop. A large circular domed chamber of brick, dating from the fourth or fifth century.

·         St Polyeuktos Beside the huge Sehzade Basi intersection just west of the Aqueduct of Valens, built between 524 and 527. A ruin, but an impressive one.

·         Theotokos in Chalcoprateia Of the once great and splendid fifth-century church there remains only the aspe and a length of crenellated wall beside Alemdar Caddesi, some 100 yards west of St Sophia.

o    CISTERNS

o    ** The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatansaray) Built by Justinian after the Nika revolt in 532. The grandest and most beautiful of all the covered cisterns in the city, with 12 rows of 28 columns. Now magnificently restored, and not to be missed.

o    ** Binbirderek Off Divan Yolu to the left, about a quarter of a mile from St Sophia. The name means 'The 1,001 columns'; there are in fact 16 rows of 14, the full height being some 14.5 m. The cistern may have been begun in the reign of Constantine the Great, though it was probably enlarged in the fifth or sixth century. Open to the public, but pitch dark, dank and filthy.

o    Open Cistern of Aetios On the Fevzi Pasha Caddesi, just short of the Mosque of Mihrimar. Built in 421 and measuring 224 m by 85 m, it has now been converted into a sports stadium.

o    Open Cistern of Aspar Immediately south-west of the Mosque of Sultan Selim I. Built in about 470 by Aspar, and covering 152 square metres, it is now occupied by a sunken kitchen-garden and farm buildings.

o    Open Cistern of St Modus In the Altimermer district. Built during the reign of Arcadius (491-518) and extending over 25,000 square metres, it is the largest of the early Byzantine reservoirs in the city. Now vegetable gardens and orchards.

·         Covered Cistern of Pulcheria Opposite the south-east corner of the Cistern of Aspar. The attribution is uncertain, but the date is almost certainly fifth or sixth century. Four rows of Corinthian columns. Not open to the public.

·         Covered Cistern of the Studium At the south-east corner of the outer precincts. Now a junk store, but quite impressive with its 23 Corinthian columns in granite.

·         COLUMNS

·         Column of Arcadius On Cerrah Pasha Caddesi, in the second street on the right beyond the mosque. Only the plinth remains of the column erected in 402 by the Emperor, on the model of the Column of Constantine. Inside, a staircase leads to the top of the ruin, where a short length of the column (demolished in 1715) can still be seen.

·         Column of Constantine Erected by Constantine to mark the dedication of the city. Still standing, but in a sorry state.

·         Column of the Goths In Gulhane Park, behind and below the Palace of Topkapi. A granite monolith with a Corinthian capital, bearing the inscription FORTUNAE REDUCI OB DEVICTOS GOTHOS, 'To Fortune, Returned owing to the Defeat of the Goths'. Erected probably by Constantine the Great, but possibly by Claudius II Gothicus (268-70).

* Column of Martian (Kiz Tasi) Some 200 yards south of the Fatih Mosque. Erected, according to the inscription, by the Prefect Tatianus in honour of the Emperor (450-57). It has since been credited by the Turks with the power of telling true virgins from false ones.

** THE HIPPODROME

Now known as At Meydani, this centre of popular life in Constantinople has preserved its essential outline, together with the central spina containing the Obelisk of Tutmose III (1549-1503 BC), the base of the Serpent Column from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the rough pillar of stone which the inscription on its plinth compares, somewhat optimistically, to the Colossus of Rhodes.

* HOSPICE OF SAMSON

All that remains of this charitable foundation described by Procopius is a jumble of ruins (with a few reconstructed columns) between St Eirene and the outer wall of Topkapi Palace.

PALACES

* The Great Palace Built by Constantine the Great, it remained the principal residence of the Emperors until the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Little remains in situ except the ruins of the old marine gate of the Bucoleon, marked by three large windows framed in marble, now part of the Sea Walls. The fascinating **floor mosaics can be seen in the new Mosaic Museum.

Palace of Antiochus Some 300 yards west of St Sophia on Divan Yolu, the ruins are all that is left of the palace of a great fifth-century nobleman. It was later converted into a martyrium for the body of St Euphemia of Chalcedon.

* Palace of Romanus Some 200 yards south of the Tulip Mosque are the ruins of what was once the Bodrum (Subterranean) Mosque, previously a Byzantine church which formed part of the monastery of the Myrelaion. The huge rotunda below the terrace next to it was built in the fifth century as the reception hall of a palace, but never finished.

Later it was roofed over and used as a cistern, on which the palace of Romanus was built.

*** WALLS

The oldest part of the walls which surround the city to the west of the Golden Horn dates from the time of Constantine; but by far the greatest length - including almost all the present Land Walls - is essentially the work of Anthemius, Prefect of the East under Theodosius II, who completed them in 413. The Land Walls and those along the Marmara are continuous; those lining the Horn have largely disappeared.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!
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