Byzantine İstanbul in 10 iconic monuments
As the Roman Empire became larger and more unwieldy, it was on this eastern city that the eyes of Emperor Constantine alighted in 330. Given his stamp of approval, it was renamed Constantinopolis and went on to become the heart of the Byzantine Empire that evolved out of the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.
Today traces of the Byzantine era litter Old İstanbul inside the battered old land walls. The most conspicuous and most visited of those traces is, of course, the great church of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) that bestrides Sultanahmet Square. But with many of the old buildings given new uses (specifically the churches as mosques) and with no museum devoted to the city's Byzantine history, it can be hard for the casual visitor to imagine how things once were. Click on www.byzantium1200.com to find out more about the Byzantine city, then head straight for these great sites to dream of the distant past.
Hagia Sophia Museum (Aysofya Cami)
Why? Finest surviving monument to early Byzantine era
Unmissably large, Hagia Sophia looks as if it must always have been part of the scenery. In fact, the building you see today was the third church on the site and owes its existence to a riot in 532 between the supporters of opposing chariot teams in the nearby Hippodrome that makes the more recent troubles in Gezi Park look like a storm in a teacup. By the time the dust had settled, not just the second Hagia Sophia but also two other Byzantine churches had been burnt down.
The great emperor Justinian moved fast to make good the damage, commissioning Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to build a replacement so imposing that no one would remember what had gone before. Completed in 537, it boasted the largest dome in the world, which quickly fell victim to an earthquake in 558 and had to be rebuilt. That dome and its sturdy supporting pillars created a great sense of space that is harder to appreciate now that the scaffolding required to “restore” the building has been reinstalled in the nave.
No visitor to Hagia Sophia will be able to forget the glittering mosaics dating from the ninth to the 13th centuries that are dotted about the interior. The church stands mainly, though, as a monument to the grand ambitions of an emperor who left his mark in buildings scattered all over Western Anatolia and Thrace.
Chora Museum (Kariye Cami)
Why? Finest monument to the 13th-century Byzantine Renaissance
Built on a far more petite scale than Hagia Sophia, Chora Church, out near the Land Walls at Edirnekapı, was built in the 11th century when this part of the city was still rural. Expanded in the 13th century, it was given a lavish interior decoration scheme by a wealthy statesman called Theodore Metochites whose preposterous taste in headgear was immortalized in one of its many mosaics.
Today Chora is the best place to come to inspect the evidence of a Byzantine artistic renaissance that took root in the city after the Latins who occupied the city from 1204 to 1261 were finally turfed out. Visit soon since the building is scheduled to close for extensive restoration.
Why? Second only to Chora Church as a place to admire late Byzantine mosaics
Should you be thwarted in your efforts to visit Chora Church, then head east along Draman Caddesi in search of the Fethiye Cami, which started life in the 12th century as the Monastery of the Theotokos Pammakaristos but, like the Chora Church, acquired a lavishly decorated extension in the 13th century. Nothing here can quite match the staggeringly lovely frescoes of the Chora's Parecclesion chapel, but the dome mosaics depicting the Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary are a stunning reminder of the glory that was Byzantium.
Monastery of the Pantocator (Zeyrek Cami)
Why? Burial place of some later Byzantine emperors
High on a bluff above the Golden Horn at Unkapanı, the Byzantine Monastery of the Pantocrator has been under restoration for so many years that most people have probably forgotten what it used to look like. That work looks as if it may finally be nearing its end, which means that visitors will once more be able to appreciate a basically 12th-century monastery that grew in increments to become one of the most important in the city and the burial place of some of the Komneni emperors. The monastery owed allegiance directly to the emperor rather than the patriarch and possessed a famously rich treasury until it was raided by Crusaders in 1204. Some of their booty now forms part of the altarpiece of St Mark's Basilica in Venice.
Küçük Ayasofya Cami
Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus (Küçük Ayasofya Cami)
Why? Oldest intact Byzantine church in city
It would be easy to assume that Hagia Sophia was the oldest surviving intact church in İstanbul, an honor that actually falls to the much smaller Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus, on the shore of the Sea of Marmara downhill from the Arasta Bazaar. Built in 527, the interior of the church featured a two-storey octagonal colonnade embellished with wonderful capitals and lengthy inscriptions that mention Sergius but not Bacchus. Some people object to recent restoration work inside what is now a mosque; others will be too stunned by the beauty of the colonnades to complain.
St Mary of the Mongols
Why? The only city church that never became a mosque
On the hilltop near what was once the vast redbrick Greek High School for Boys in Fener, St Mary of the Mongols is worth visiting not because it is the most beautiful of the city's surviving Byzantine churches, but because it was the only one that was never turned into a mosque, courtesy of Atık Sinan, the architect who worked on Fatih Cami for Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror; a copy of the decree permitting its survival hangs on the wall. The church is open on Sundays. At other times ring the doorbell for admission.
Great Palace Mosaics Museum
Why? A glimpse at the glory of the Byzantine Great Palace
While coachloads of tourists descend on beautiful Topkapı Palace it's hard to remember that an even bigger Byzantine palace, or collection of palaces, once stood in what is now Sultanahmet/Cankurtaran. Bits of it crop up whenever new building work is carried out but the single most stunning reminder of what has been lost can be seen in the Great Palace Mosaics Museum, beside the Arasta Bazaar. Not only do the mosaics shown off in situ suggest the lost splendor of the palace building, but they also hint at the way of the life of the Byzantines too with men shown hunting, fishing and farming, while children dressed in the colors of the most revered chariot teams play games.
Why? Most impressive reminder of the Byzantine water system
Today it may be one of İstanbul's most atmospheric sights, but the popular Yerebatan Sarnıçı (Cistern) was once just a prosaic piece in the complex jigsaw of aqueducts and reservoirs required to bring water from the Thracian forests into the city. People may gawp in awe now at the upside-down carving of Medusa used as a column base, but its position shows that the builders saw it merely as reusable rubble for their latest project. The Aqueduct of Valens that straddles Atatürk Bulvarı was another piece in the same puzzle.
Why? Constantinople's protection until 1453
Coming in from Atatürk Airport visitors catch a passing glimpse of the great walls that once ringed the Byzantine city and protected it from its enemies right up until 1453 when Mehmet the Conqueror punched his way through them with the help of a Hungarian-built cannon. With time on your hands, you might like to walk the length of the walls from Mermerkule on the Sea of Marmara to the soaring towers at Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn. In doing so you will pass the renovated shell of Tekfur Sarayı, part of the lost Blachernae Palace to which the Byzantine emperors retreated after they recovered the city from the Crusaders in 1261. The walk is best done in company.
Church of St John the Baptist of Studion
Why? Battered remains of a once hugely productive monastery
Today only the outer walls survive in Samatya (Kocamustafapaşa) of what was once one of the most important monasteries in all of Byzantium, with a scriptorium in which monks produced some of the finest illuminated manuscripts. The church is slated for restoration. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could be turned into a museum of Byzantine history?