5 Amazing Byzantine Sites to Visit in Istanbul
1. Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is a magnificent monument that has stood for centuries. It has a rich history, from being a church to a mosque and now a museum. The Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Turkey, and it is not hard to see why. In this article, we will delve into the history of the Hagia Sophia and what makes it such an iconic and impressive structure.
The Hagia Sophia, which means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek, was first built in 537 AD during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The original structure was built as a church, and it served as the primary church of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years. It was the largest church in the world at the time of its construction and remained so until the Seville Cathedral was built in the 16th century.
The Hagia Sophia was an architectural masterpiece, and its construction was a massive undertaking. The building is a mix of Roman, Greek, and Byzantine architecture, and it was constructed using the latest building techniques of the time. It was built with a massive central dome, which at the time was the largest in the world. The dome was supported by four large pillars, and the walls were decorated with intricate mosaics and frescoes.
Over the centuries, the Hagia Sophia underwent several renovations and repairs. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the church was looted and damaged by the Crusaders, and it was later restored by the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. The Ottomans added minarets to the building, and the mosaics and frescoes were covered with plaster.
The Hagia Sophia served as a mosque until 1935 when it was converted into a museum by the Turkish Republic. In 2020, it was converted back into a mosque by the Turkish government, sparking controversy and criticism from around the world.
The Hagia Sophia is a unique and impressive structure that blends various architectural styles from different eras. The building is rectangular in shape, and it has a central dome that is supported by four large pillars. The dome is 56 meters high and has a diameter of 32 meters, making it one of the largest domes in the world. The dome appears to float on top of the structure, and it is one of the most recognizable features of the Hagia Sophia.
The interior of the Hagia Sophia is equally impressive. The walls are decorated with intricate mosaics and frescoes that depict scenes from the Bible and the life of Jesus Christ. The mosaics and frescoes are some of the oldest and most well-preserved in the world, and they provide a glimpse into the art and culture of the Byzantine Empire.
The Hagia Sophia also has several unique features that were added during its conversion into a mosque. The Ottomans added minarets to the building, and they covered the mosaics and frescoes with plaster. They also added a mihrab (a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca) and a minbar (a pulpit from which the imam delivers the sermon) to the interior of the building.
2. Chora Church
The Chora Church, also known as the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, is a Byzantine-era church. Originally built in the 5th century as a small chapel, the church was rebuilt and expanded several times over the centuries, with the current structure dating back to the 14th century. The Chora Church is considered to be one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture and art, and is known for its beautifully preserved frescoes and mosaics.
The Chora Church is located in the district of Edirnekapi, just outside the old city walls of Istanbul. The name “Chora” means “country” or “rural” in Greek, and refers to the fact that the church was originally located in the countryside outside of the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Today, the church is situated in the heart of a bustling residential neighborhood, surrounded by houses and shops.
The first chapel on the site of the Chora Church was built in the 5th century, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II. This chapel was dedicated to St. Mary, and was a popular destination for pilgrims. Over the centuries, the chapel was expanded and rebuilt several times, with the most significant changes taking place during the 11th and 12th centuries, when the church was part of a monastery.
In the 14th century, the Chora Church was rebuilt once again, this time under the patronage of Theodore Metochites, a prominent Byzantine statesman and scholar. Metochites oversaw the construction of a new nave, narthex, and exonarthex, as well as the addition of several chapels and a large refectory. The church was also decorated with beautiful frescoes and mosaics, many of which survive to this day.
One of the most striking features of the Chora Church is its beautiful frescoes and mosaics, which cover nearly every inch of the interior walls and ceilings. The frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ, as well as various saints and biblical figures. Many of the frescoes are accompanied by inscriptions in Greek, which provide important historical and religious context.
The mosaics at the Chora Church are equally impressive, and are considered some of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaic art in existence. The mosaics depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, as well as various saints and martyrs. One of the most famous mosaics at the Chora Church is the “Anastasis” or “Resurrection” mosaic, which shows Christ breaking the gates of hell and pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs.
In addition to its beautiful art and architecture, the Chora Church has an interesting and complex history. During the Byzantine period, the church was an important center of learning and scholarship, and was known for its extensive library and scriptorium. The church also played an important role in the political and cultural life of the Byzantine Empire, and was the site of many important ceremonies and events.
In the centuries that followed, the Chora Church went through many changes. During the Ottoman period, the church was converted into a mosque, and many of its frescoes and mosaics were covered up or destroyed. In the 20th century, the church was turned into a museum, and an extensive restoration project was undertaken to uncover and preserve its many treasures.
3. The Theodosian Walls
The Theodosian Walls are a series of defensive walls that encircled the city of Constantinople, from the 5th to the 15th centuries. These walls were named after Emperor Theodosius II, who was responsible for their construction. The Theodosian Walls were among the most impressive defensive fortifications ever built and were instrumental in protecting Constantinople from invaders for over a thousand years.
The first walls of Constantinople were constructed by Constantine the Great in the early 4th century, shortly after he founded the city in 324 AD. These walls were initially made of wood and earthen ramparts, but they were later replaced with stone walls under the rule of Emperor Theodosius I in the late 4th century. However, the original walls were relatively weak and could not withstand the assaults of barbarian invaders.
Emperor Theodosius II commissioned the construction of new walls in 412 AD to replace the aging walls built by his predecessor. The new walls were built on a much larger scale, encompassing a much wider area around the city and providing a much stronger defense. The Theodosian Walls were constructed using a combination of brick and limestone blocks, with a thickness of up to 5 meters and a height of up to 12 meters.
The walls were designed to withstand attacks from all sides, with towers and gates strategically placed throughout the fortifications. The walls were also surrounded by a moat that was filled with water from the nearby Sea of Marmara. The Theodosian Walls were so formidable that they were only breached twice in their entire history, both times by the Ottomans during the final siege of Constantinople in 1453.
One of the most impressive features of the Theodosian Walls is the Gate of Charisius. This gate is located on the southern wall of the city and was one of the main entrances into Constantinople. The gate was protected by two massive towers and a series of gates that could be closed to prevent enemy forces from entering the city. The Gate of Charisius is considered to be one of the most beautiful and well-preserved sections of the Theodosian Walls.
Another important feature of the Theodosian Walls is the Golden Gate, which was located on the eastern side of the city. The Golden Gate was originally built by Theodosius I in the late 4th century, but it was later rebuilt by Theodosius II to make it even more impressive. The Golden Gate was protected by a series of towers and gates, and it was decorated with a variety of elaborate sculptures and mosaics.
The Theodosian Walls were not only a testament to the military might of the Byzantine Empire, but they were also a symbol of its wealth and cultural sophistication. The walls were adorned with beautiful sculptures and mosaics, many of which have survived to this day. These artistic works provided a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the Byzantine Empire and served as a source of inspiration for generations of artists and architects.
Today, the Theodosian Walls are one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul. Visitors can walk along the top of the walls and explore the many towers and gates that protected the city for over a thousand years. The walls are also illuminated at night, providing a spectacular view of the city and its many landmarks.
3. The Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace is a sprawling complex that served as the residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly four centuries. But the palace’s history goes back much further, to a time when Istanbul was known as Constantinople and was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, many of the palace’s most important buildings and features have their roots in the Byzantine era, when the complex was known as the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The Great Palace was originally built in the 4th century AD by Emperor Constantine the Great, who founded the city of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire. Over the centuries, the palace grew and evolved, with successive emperors adding new wings, courtyards, and buildings. One of the most important additions came in the 5th century, when Emperor Theodosius II built the massive Theodosian Walls to defend the city against barbarian invasions.
Despite the walls’ formidable size and strength, Constantinople was eventually sacked by the Crusaders in the 13th century, and the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Great Palace was largely destroyed in the process, but some parts survived and were incorporated into the new Ottoman complex that was built on the site. These surviving elements include the Palace of Porphyrogenitus, the main palace gate, and the ruins of the hippodrome.
The Palace of Porphyrogenitus, also known as the Red Palace, was originally built in the 10th century and served as the residence of the Byzantine emperors’ families. It was later used as a treasury and a prison before falling into disrepair in the Ottoman era. Today, it is one of the best-preserved Byzantine buildings in Istanbul, with intricate brickwork and a distinctive red color that gives it its name.
The main palace gate, known as the Imperial Gate or the Gate of Salutation, dates back to the 5th century and was the main entrance to the Great Palace. It features a large marble arch and two towers topped with golden eagles, and was decorated with mosaics and sculptures of various emperors. Today, visitors can still see the gate, which serves as the entrance to the Topkapi Palace Museum.
The hippodrome, which once hosted chariot races and other spectacles, was the social and political center of Byzantine Constantinople. It was home to several important monuments, including the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpentine Column, and the Column of Constantine. While the hippodrome itself no longer exists, the ruins of these monuments can still be seen in the square that now occupies the site.
While the Ottoman additions to the Topkapi Palace are impressive in their own right, it is the Byzantine remnants that give the complex its historical significance.
4. The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern, also known as the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Turkish, is a remarkable underground structure. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, and has been featured in many movies and TV shows, including the James Bond film “From Russia with Love” and Dan Brown’s “Inferno”. The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, and is located in the heart of the city, just a few steps away from the famous Hagia Sophia.
The cistern was built to store water for the city, and it is estimated that it could hold up to 100,000 tons of water. The cistern is made up of a vast network of columns and arches, which are supported by a forest of columns made of different types of marble. The columns are arranged in rows, and there are 336 of them in total. The cistern covers an area of 9,800 square meters, and is about 8 meters deep.
The cistern is named after the Basilica that once stood on the site, which was one of the largest churches in Constantinople during the Byzantine period. The church was destroyed during the Nika riots in 532, and the cistern was built in its place a few years later.
The Basilica Cistern was forgotten for many centuries, and was rediscovered by chance in the 16th century by a scholar named Petrus Gyllius. The cistern was then restored and renovated by the Ottoman Turks, who used it as a water source for the Topkapi Palace and other buildings in the city.
One of the most striking features of the cistern is the two Medusa heads, which are located at the base of two columns in the northwest corner of the cistern. The heads are believed to have been brought from a pagan temple, and were placed upside down in the cistern to ward off evil spirits. The heads are carved from white marble, and are believed to date back to the 2nd century AD.
Another notable feature of the cistern is the eerie atmosphere that is created by the dim lighting and the sound of dripping water. Visitors can walk along a raised platform that runs through the cistern, which allows them to get a closer look at the columns and arches.
In addition to its architectural and historical significance, the Basilica Cistern has also been used as a location for many artistic and cultural events over the years. It has hosted concerts, art exhibitions, and even fashion shows, and continues to be a popular venue for special events in Istanbul.
5. The Hippodrome
The Hippodrome of Constantinople, also known as the At Meydanı or “Horse Square” in Turkish, was a stadium that once stood in the heart of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Built by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in AD 203, it was expanded and renovated several times throughout its long history, serving as a center for entertainment, politics, and religion.
The Hippodrome was located in the heart of Constantinople, just a few steps from the imperial palace. It was shaped like a U, with the long axis measuring about 450 meters and the short axis measuring about 130 meters. The arena was surrounded by seating areas, divided into sections for the different social classes. The lower sections were reserved for the emperor and the nobility, while the upper sections were open to the general public.
The Hippodrome was the site of many important events in Byzantine history. It was the center of public life and entertainment, hosting chariot races, games, and other spectacles. It was also the site of important political events, such as coronations, imperial proclamations, and public trials. Many important religious ceremonies were also held at the Hippodrome, including processions and the distribution of alms to the poor.
One of the most famous events to take place at the Hippodrome was the Nika Riot of AD 532. The riot began as a protest against the rule of the Emperor Justinian I, but quickly escalated into a full-scale rebellion. The rebels burned down many of the city’s buildings, including the Hagia Sophia, and besieged the imperial palace. The riot was eventually quelled by the military, with thousands of rebels being killed or imprisoned.
Over the centuries, the Hippodrome fell into disrepair. The seating areas were dismantled and the arena was filled in, leaving only a few fragments of the original structure. However, several important landmarks still exist on the site, including the Egyptian Obelisk and the Serpentine Column.
The Egyptian Obelisk is a 20-meter tall granite monument that was originally erected in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. It was brought to Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius I in AD 390 and placed in the Hippodrome. The obelisk is decorated with hieroglyphics that tell the story of the pharaoh who commissioned it.
The Serpentine Column is a bronze monument that was originally erected at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece. It was brought to Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine I in AD 324 and placed in the Hippodrome. The column is made up of three intertwined serpents, and originally supported a golden tripod.