Byzantine Constantinople was one of the most beautiful, crowded and mystical cities in history. Founded by Constantine the Great as the co-capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople was the heir to the Roman cult.
In this article, I will tell a story that starts from 330, when Constantine founded the city, and continues until 1453, when Constantinople fell. I will try to fit a story long enough to fill a thick book into a blog post.
You will witness the short history of the Byzantine Empire and its eternal capital, Constantinople, through historical buildings. It is possible to see many of these structures in Istanbul today.
Table of Contents
Short History of Byzantine Constantinople
Byzantine Constantinople was the most populous city in the world during late antiquity and much of the middle ages. Istanbul was located at the center of the trade routes of the Eastern Mediterranean and preserved this feature until geographical discoveries.
Constantinople was declared a co-capital at a time when the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse and suddenly became the most important city of the empire.
Constantine the Great saw a potential in Byzantium, an ancient Greek city, and rebuilt it between 324 and 330, turning it into a “New Rome”. The city was later named Constantinople in honor of its founder.
The Latin cult also moved with the emperors from Rome to Constantinople. However, since Byzantium was a city with ancient Greek heritage, it Hellenized the Roman emperors over time.
In this article, I have listed various churches, palaces and monuments in order to give a brief history of Constantinople. Although the Roman structures in the article generally follow a chronological order, I made minor changes in some of them.
Some structures (for example Hagia Sophia) were built more than once. On the other hand, some of them gained importance in certain periods of the empire. And others identified with important characters in the city’s history.
In general, this article will be a guide for those who want to see the Byzantine sites in Istanbul. So you can easily understand where these structures stood in the history of the Byzantine Empire.
Most of the blue-colored links in the article give links to more detailed posts describing the relevant Byzantine structures. On the other hand, most of the links to historical characters go to Wikipedia.
1. Forum of Constantine
Forum of Constantine was one of the places that best describes the great transformation of the Roman Empire in the 300s. During the reign of Emperor Constantine, Christianity was on the rise and the center of Rome shifted to the East.
There had to be a transition period to accustom society to these major reforms. Embracing Christianity but still pagan, Rome was embodied in the Statue of Constantine erected in the Forum of Constantine.
In the square in the heart of Constantinople, the statue of Constantine, who looked like the sun god Apollo, but holding a cross in his hand, was rising. The Christianization of the empire would take half a century from Constantine I to Theodosius I, both referred to as “the Great”.
2. The Great Palace
The Great Palace was a place to reflect the splendor of the Roman Empire. Emperors had lived here for almost a millennium. There was a corridor leading from the palace to the imperial lodge in the Hippodrome.
The Great Palace was abandoned from the 13th century, and the late Byzantine emperors lived in the Palace of Blachernae on the shores of the Golden Horn. Some of the floor mosaics adorning the palace can be seen today in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.
3. The Mese
The Mese was a Roman road that flowed like a river through Constantinople. The Mese started from the Million Stone, very close to Hagia Sophia, and extended to the Golden Gate, the main entrance to the city.
The Mese used to pass through the most important squares of the city, the Forum of Constantine and the Forum of Theodosius. The victorious emperors would enter the city through the Golden Gate and proceed as far as Hagia Sophia by this road.
Throughout the history of Constantinople, the biggest celebrations were held in the squares on this road. When the emperors died, they were moved from Mese to the Church of the Holy Apostles and were buried there.
4. Church of the Holy Apostles
The Church of the Holy Apostles was an iconic structure built by Emperor Constantine. The church was a powerful symbol of the Christianized Rome and had the relics of some of the apostles.
When Emperor Constantine died, he was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. His famous successors Anastasius, Justinian and Heraclius were also buried here.
The Church of the Holy Apostles remained the largest church in Constantinople until the 3rd generation Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century. Some of the important patriarchs of the city were also buried here.
5. Valens Aqueduct
The Valens Aqueduct was a structure that gave life to Constantinople, which had limited water resources. The construction of the aqueduct was completed during the reign of Emperor Valens, who died fighting the Goths.
In the first four titles of the article, we have listed the early period structures that form the core of Constantinople. Now we will be talking about what happened in the city after Constantine the Great.
When Constantine declared Byzantium the new capital, the Roman aristocracy flocked here and the population of the city suddenly increased. However, water resources in the city were scarce. A huge construction project had begun to bring water to the city.
During the reign of Emperor Valens, Constantinople got enough water. However, due to the death of the emperor on the battlefield, Rome was in crisis and was about to collapse.
6. Column of Theodosius
Column of Theodosius is actually an Obelisk brought from the Temple of Karnak in Egypt. On the granite column, there are hieroglyphic inscriptions describing the victories of Pharaoh Thutmose III.
The Egyptian Obelisk was actually 35 meters tall and was broken while being brought to Constantinople from the port of Alexandria. The 20-meter upper part of the column can be seen in Istanbul today.
I have added this Obelisk of Theodosius to the list to mention Theodosius the Great, who saved Rome from collapse. Because it was he who ended the chaos after Valens’ death and brought stability to Rome.
The Christianization of Rome accelerated during the reign of Theodosius. The church hierarchy established with the Council of Nicaea was also consolidated. However, this time, the pagans began to experience the difficulties that Christians had in the past.
Theodosius was also the last emperor of a united Rome. After his death in 395, the Roman Empire was permanently divided into East and West. (Theodosius’ two sons would rule)
Arcadius was the first emperor of Eastern Rome (aka Byzantine Empire). His other son, Honorius, was the ruler of Western Rome. But when the Western Roman Empire soon collapsed, Constantinople remained the sole power.
7. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia was first built during the reign of Constantius II, son of Constantine the Great. At that time it was part of a complex that included Hagia Irene and was called Megale Ekklesia, meaning “Great Church”.
Hagia Sophia was definitely the most precious structure of Byzantine Constantinople. However, the first generation Hagia Sophia was burned and destroyed during the first of the great rebellions in the city’s history.
The revolt was caused by the exile of John Chrysostom, the most influential clergyman in the history of Constantinople. The famous archbishop had criticized the lifestyle of Emperor Arcadius’ wife, Aelia Eudoxia.
Although John Chrysostom died in exile, the legacy he left was not forgotten throughout the history of Constantinople. He was an early church father who left a great mark with his sermons during the years when Christianity spread like wildfire in Rome.
8. Theodosian Walls
Theodosian Walls were the most important part of the defense system that ensured the existence of Constantinople for a thousand years. When these walls were demolished with the developments in artillery, the city became history.
Today, the part of Istanbul where Byzantine Constantinople existed is known as the Historical Peninsula. Surrounded by water on three sides, the city was open to enemy attacks from only one side.
Emperor Constantine had decided to make Byzantium the capital during the Battle of Chrysopolis, the last of the civil wars of the Tetrarchy period. He was inspired by the defense of his opponent Licinius in Byzantium.
The barbarians, who were the main enemies of Rome at that time, did not have a navy and Byzantium would be completely closed to enemy attacks with a strong wall to be erected in the West.
However, the legendary walls of Constantinople were built several generations after the reign of Constantine, during the reign of Theodosius II. The walls built in the early 400s withstood Hun, Avar, Arab and Bulgarian attacks.
9. Theodosius Cistern
Theodosius Cistern was one of dozens of cisterns that supplied water to Constantinople. The reason I particularly noted this cistern is that it has recently been turned into a museum.
Emperor Theodosius II was a ruler who made important architectural contributions to Istanbul. During his reign, Theodosius Cistern and the city walls were built. In addition, Hagia Sophia was completely rebuilt.
The second Hagia Sophia that he built was destroyed in another rebellion and could not reach the present day. However, some contributions of Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria to the Byzantine Constantinople have survived to the present day.
10. Church of Sergius and Bacchus
Church of Sergius and Bacchus was built during the reign of Justinian, the most famous emperor of Byzantine Empire. The reason for the construction of this church was one of the power struggles that continued throughout the history of Constantinople.
Even though Justinian’s predecessor Justin I was not a noble, he succeeded to the throne because he was the commander of the Excubitors (Imperial Guard). This was unacceptable to the Valentinian dynasty, one of the noble families of the city.
Anicia Juliana of the house of Valentinian had a legendary church built in Constantinople to protest Justinian’s accession to the throne. Although the Church of St Polyeuktos has not survived, it was magnificent.
Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora responded to Anicia Juliana’s challenge by building the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Some of the techniques used in this building set an example for the last Hagia Sophia. That’s why this building is known as “Little Hagia Sophia” in Istanbul.
11. Hippodrome of Constantinople
Hippodrome of Constantinople was the entertainment center of the Byzantine capital for a thousand years. The chariot races held here were watched by about 50 thousand people.
The Hippodrome was originally built during the reign of Constantine the Great and was one of the first structures of Constantinople. However, the most important incident in the history of the Hippodrome took place during the reign of Emperor Justinian.
The biggest revolt in the history of Constantinople began here on January 13, 532. During the uprising against Justinian, the most important structures of the city were set on fire by the angry crowd. These included iconic structures such as the Hagia Sophia and the Baths of Zeuxippus.
The rebellion took place in the 5th year of Justinian, who would rule for 38 years. Belisarius and Narses, the most famous Byzantine generals in history, were able to suppress the rebellion by putting 40 thousand people to the sword.
Although the Nika Revolt was a terrible incident, it triggered a major architectural transformation in Constantinople. Hagia Sophia was rebuilt for the third time and has survived to the present day.
12. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern was built during the reign of Justinian to supply water to the Great Palace and the surrounding royal buildings. It was the largest of the Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul.
The Basilica Cistern is so beautiful that Istanbulites call it the Sunken Palace. The cistern was part of the great rebuilding process that Justinian initiated in Constantinople after the Nika Revolt.
13. The Column of the Goths
The Column of the Goths is located in Gulhane Park next to the Topkapi Palace. Although this column is not known by the majority of tourists visiting the city, it represents the peak period of Byzantium.
Emperor Justinian was an Eastern Roman emperor and considered himself heir to Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Constantine. A Roman Empire without Italy was of course unacceptable.
Justinian and his generals Belisarius, Mundus, and Narses embarked on an expedition to reconquer Western Europe in the 6th century. After long struggles, Italy and even southern Spain were recaptured.
The defeat of the Goths and the recapture of the ancient capital Rome was a great success. In order to celebrate this, the Column of Goths was erected in one of the most beautiful places in Constantinople.
14. The Golden Gate
The Golden Gate represented the most glorious times of the Byzantine Empire. When Belisarius re-conquered Rome, he entered the city through this gate, and festivities were held in his honor.
Heraclius, on the other hand, entered the city through this gate when he defeated Rome’s arch-enemy, the Persians. All the warrior emperors of Byzantium proudly entered the city through this gate.
However, the bubonic plague that struck the city in the last years of Justinian had done great damage to the empire. Although Byzantium had temporarily recovered during the reign of Heraclius, the decline had begun.
15. Chora Church
Chora Church was right next to the Theodosian Walls, which protected Byzantine Constantinople. Originally a monastery, Chora Church is home to some of the most beautiful surviving Byzantine mosaics.
During the decline of the Byzantine Empire, the city was besieged many times by Persians, Arabs, Avars and Bulgarians. At such times, the Hodegetria (Icon of Mary) in the church was taken around the walls and boosted the morale of the soldiers.
When the Arabs came to the gates of Constantinople, it was the Walls of Constantinople that provided the physical defense of the city. However, it was the Virgin Mary, who was believed to be the protector of the city, and her holy icon, which provided spiritual defense.
16. Stoudios Monastery
Stoudios Monastery was one of the most powerful religious institutions in the city. The abbot of the monastery was the second most influential person after the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The period in which the Stoudios Monastery was most influential in the history of Constantinople was Byzantine iconoclasm. While Leo III and his successors declared war on the Byzantine monasteries and their icons, Theodore the Studite was the strongest force against them.
The ongoing wars with the Arabs and large territorial losses in the 600s had exhausted the Byzantine Empire. Emperors targeted monasteries that overshadowed the authority of the state during this period.
The monasteries’ fortunes were confiscated and icons were banned throughout the empire. The struggle of iconoclasts and iconophiles marked the 8th century. The Stoudios Monastery, on the other hand, reached the height of its power.
17. Hagia Irene
Hagia Irene was one of the oldest churches in Constantinople. However, it was burned several times in riots and destroyed in earthquakes. The church, which has survived to the present day, reflects the architecture of the Iconoclasm period.
Located very close to Hagia Sophia, the church was completely rebuilt during the reign of Constantine V, when iconoclasm reached its peak. For this reason, it contains nothing but a plain cross figure.
The Byzantine Empire was famous for its religious mosaics in history. Iconoclasm destroyed the early art of the empire. But in the end, after more than 100 years of struggle, iconophiles won.
Thus, we can see Byzantine mosaics that have survived to the present day in historical buildings in Istanbul. You can see the story of the most famous of these mosaics in my article called Uncovering the Mosaics of Hagia Sophia.
18. Monastery of Myrelaion
Monastery of Myrelaion was one of the churches built during the Macedonian Dynasty. Built for Romanos I and his family, the church is one of the fine examples of late Byzantine architecture.
The Macedonian dynasty began with Basil I in 867 and gave Byzantium its last heyday until Basil II‘s death (1025). Military and economic successes during this period triggered the Byzantine renaissance.
The Macedonian dynasty gave life to Byzantium, which was exhausted from fighting first the Persians and then the Arabs. In addition, Byzantine art, which had declined during the Iconoclasm period, was revived.
19. The Palace of Blachernae
The Palace of Blachernae was the residence of the late Byzantine emperors. Located on the shores of the Golden Horn, the palace was adjacent to the Theodosian Walls.
Eastern Roman emperors had lived in the Great Palace for centuries from the time of Constantine. However, from the 11th century onwards, the Great Palace became obsolete and fell out of favor.
The walls of this new palace were decorated with reliefs, and the columns were decorated with gold and silver. The magnificence of the palace was extolled by the historiographers of the period.
20. Panagia Mouchliotissa
Panagia Mouchliotissa is one of the small churches from the Byzantine period. This is the church dedicated to a Byzantine princess named Mary, who was a bride to the Mongolian ruler Hulagu Khan.
The Byzantine Empire entered a period of slow but steady decline after the Macedonian Dynasty. After fighting the Persians and Arabs for centuries, Byzantium now had a new and very dangerous enemy. The Seljuk Turks marched into Anatolia, the heart of Byzantium, following the Battle of Manzikert (1071).
The Byzantines, who wanted to form an alliance with the Mongols against the Seljuk Empire, gave a bride to the great khan. After her husband died, Mary returned to Constantinople and went into seclusion in her own church.
Church of St Mary of the Mongols, as it is called in the local language, is one of the highlights of my Fener Balat walking tour in Istanbul. This tour is recommended for those who want to get to know the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul.
21. Monastery of Christ Pantokrator
Monastery of Christ Pantokrator was the third largest church in Byzantine Constantinople. The church consisted of three separate buildings and was the burial chapel of the late Byzantine emperors.
This church was built in the 12th century, when the Komnenian Dynasty ruled. The Komnenos ruled Byzantium in the years when the first Crusades took place. With the help of the Crusaders, they took back many places in Anatolia from the Turks.
But the alliance with the Crusaders meant playing with fire for the Byzantine Empire. The wise Komnenos family managed to keep the Crusaders away from Constantinople. But during the Fourth Crusade, the inevitable happened.
22. Theotokos Kyriotissa
Theotokos Kyriotissa is a very old church with buildings from five different periods. I would like to tell about the Latin Empire in Constantinople through this church, which is believed to date back to the 4th century.
The Crusades were triggered by the Turks’ entry into Anatolia. The Byzantine Empire maintained its territorial integrity in the first three Crusades and, with the help of the Latin armies, regained the lands it had lost to the Seljuk Turks.
However, the Fourth Crusade brought disaster to Byzantium. The Crusader commander, Enrico Dandolo, Duke of Venice, was an enemy and took advantage of the turmoil in Byzantium to sack the capital.
The sacking of Constantinople took place in 1204. Founded on this date, the Latin Empire continued to exist until 1261. The Byzantines eventually recaptured their capital, but the city was now a wreck.
There are some frescoes in the Church of Theotokos Kyriotissa (now Kalenderhane Mosque), which are thought to have remained from the Latins. These works, which describe the life of Francis of Assisi, are believed to belong to the period when the church was used by Franciscan priests.
23. Galata Tower
Galata Tower was a watchtower built by the Genoese colony on the shores of the Golden Horn. Today, this tower is one of the most iconic historical monuments of Istanbul.
Venetian and Genoese colonies existed in Byzantine Constantinople for centuries. While the Orthodox peoples lived within the walls of Constantinople, there were Catholics on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn.
Since Constantinople was the central port of eastern Mediterranean trade, goods from the Silk Road would arrive here first and be exported to Europe with the help of the Italians.
However, due to the disaster in the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians were expelled from the city. After all, the invading Crusaders were led by the Duke of Venice. On the other hand, the Genoese were given extra privileges.
The Galata district, which controlled the port of Constantinople, now belonged entirely to the Genoese. The Genoese also increased their military presence by building places such as Galata Tower and Yoros Castle.
The Genoese did not fail the Byzantines’ trust in them. They defended Constantinople when Istanbul was besieged by the Ottomans. However, although the first Ottoman attempts were repelled, the end was inevitable.
24. Rumeli Fortress
Rumeli Fortress is not actually a Byzantine structure. But to talk about the fall of Constantinople, I had to include it on the list. Because this castle on the shores of the Bosphorus changed the course of history.
When Mehmed II was still a young prince, he saw why his father (Murad II) had failed. For this reason, he built a giant fortress on the Bosphorus to prevent aid from the Black Sea.
The giant cannons placed in the Rumeli Fortress prevented the Venetian ships from coming to help from the Black Sea. This made it possible for the Ottomans to take Constantinople in 1453.
25. The Golden Horn Chain
The Golden Horn chain was one of the most iconic pieces of Byzantine Constantinople. The chain prevented Persian, Arab and Turkish navies from besieging the city for centuries.
However, in the final siege in 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror drove the Ottoman galleys overland on oiled sledges and lowered them to the Golden Horn. This terrified the people of Constantinople, who believed that angels were guarding the city.
Having resisted countless sieges for more than a thousand years, Constantinople fell on May 29, 1453. The Ottomans declared Constantinople the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Constantinople was once again the capital of a rising empire. During the Ottoman period, the city did not immediately become “Istanbul”. It was known as Konstantiniyye (Turkish version of the name) for many years.
In this article, I tried to introduce you to the history of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, through its most important structures. It is worth writing a separate article for each of these structures, and you can find posts about some of them on the site.
I can’t say that this article followed a perfect timeline. Since I try to tell the history of the city through the buildings, there are big gaps. However, I think it will be enjoyable for those who know the timeline of Byzantine history.
I have been working as a professional tour guide in Istanbul since 2004. If you are a history buff, you can join my private guided tours of Istanbul. Among these tours, the Byzantine history tour specifically focuses on the history of Constantinople.
Written by Serhat Engul