Hello, I am Serhat Engul, a historian and tour guide based in Istanbul. In this article, I would like to share information about the Byzantine sites in Istanbul. You can find Byzantine churches, museums, walls and cisterns that you can see today in Istanbul. Towards the end of the article, I briefly mentioned the Byzantine palace ruins.
The Names of Istanbul Throughout History
With its history dating back to 660 BCE, Istanbul is one of the most important cities in the world. Istanbul came to life as an ancient Greek city named Byzantium and it was named as Constantinople during Roman and Byzantine eras, and it was called Konstantiniyye and Dersaadet during the Ottoman Empire. The city has been officially called Istanbul only since the republic period.
The official history of Istanbul dates back to 2700 years ago and its historical depth is too deep even for the people living in it let alone the visitors. For this reason, a few days of visit will not be enough to comprehend the history of Istanbul.
Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul
Before starting the article, I want to draw attention to a subject. Those who will travel to Istanbul may have found the post for this purpose. If you want to go on a Byzantine history tour in Istanbul, you can book the tours of the licensed guide Serhat Engul. A private guided tour of Byzantine sites in Istanbul will give you insight into the history of the city.
You may check availability and cost from our CONTACT page.
Byzantine Empire Sites in Istanbul
Byzantine sites in Istanbul are located in Fatih district, now known as the Historical Peninsula. The Historical Peninsula, surrounded by the walls of Constantinople, became the administrative center of the empires that ruled Istanbul for centuries. For this reason, most of the monumental structures of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires are located here.
The legacy of the Byzantine Empire in Istanbul consists of churches, palaces, aqueducts, cisterns and a hippodrome. The monumental Byzantine buildings in Istanbul still continue to inspire historians.
Hippodrome is located right in the heart of Sultanahmet and it’s where chariots raced before 50,000 spectators in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine Empire.
Chariots were vehicles that had 2 wheels pulled by 4 horses and riding these chariots would require a great amount of skill. The chariots would accelerate on the even part of the track and they would skid badly on the corner and the skills of riders would be tested on this part of the track.
Emperor would watch these races himself in his lodge and these races would also witness some important events. The biggest rebellion in Istanbul, the Nika Revolt, started here and it spread to the whole city.
Little is left of the Hippodrome‘s past glory. However, even the surviving Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpent Column and Walled Obelisk has a very rich history. Especially Obelisk of Theodosius, an obelisk brought from Egypt, is 3500 years old and is the oldest historical monument of Istanbul.
With all these features, Hippodrome is still one of the most important Byzantine sites in Istanbul, although most people are not aware of it.
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia was built after the Nika Revolt, which destroyed many buildings in the city. Emperor Justinian survived the rebellion that claimed the lives of 30,000 people and he began to build majestic monuments to restore his reputation. Thus, Anthemius and Isidore, whom the Emperor put in charge, built the biggest and most beautiful sanctuary in the world.
Built in 537, Hagia Sophia was such an architecturally superior building that it took 1000 years to construct structures that could be compared with it. In Europe, such monuments began to built in the Renaissance. And in the East, Mimar Sinan built mosques that could be compared to Hagia Sophia one thousand years after Hagia Sophia was built.
3. Hagia Irene
Hagia Irene stands out as one of the monuments where one of 7 ecumenical councils met, which founded the base of Christianity. During its hundreds of years of history, this structure witnessed the most magnificent periods of both Byzantine and Ottoman era.
You reach the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace when you pass by the monumental gate named Bab-i Humayun. This amazing structure from the Byzantine era will be the first monument to welcome you.
Hagia Irene was built twice by the Emperors Constantine and Justinian. However, both buildings were destroyed in earthquakes. The third Hagia Irene is far from its former glory because it was built during the Byzantine Iconoclasm. However, it is still one of the most impressive Byzantine sites in Istanbul.
4. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is one of the most mysterious places in Istanbul. You can be sure that you will have goosebumps when you visit this cistern, which is now a museum.
Istanbul faced a lot of sieges in its long history. Constantinople was one of the most magnificent cities in the Middle Ages and it boasted richness that attracted various civilizations and barbaric tribes.
The famous Walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Walls) were built in the 5th century and they managed to protect the city for centuries. There are only two instances when the city defense failed, the Sack of Constantinople (by Crusaders in 1204) and the Fall of Constantinople (by Ottomans in 1453).
The most essential need of this city that was sieged numerous times and stayed under siege for months was drinking water. As there was no natural water source under the Old City in Istanbul, cisterns, where water was stocked, played an important role. Therefore, Istanbul’s underground was dug numerous times and tens of cisterns were built.
The most famous cistern among many others is Basilica Cistern. This cistern was built with the reused columns from the ancient Greek era. The mysterious atmosphere of Basilica Cistern is a place of attraction for movies that are narrated in Istanbul. Many famous movies such as James Bond and Inferno used Basilica Cistern to shoot parts of the movies.
There are four more Byzantine Cisterns in Sultanahmet area apart from Basilica Cistern. The first two of these cisterns are the Cistern of Philoxenos (Binbirdirek Sarnici) and Theodosius Cistern (Serefiye Sarnici) that has been renovated and opened to visit recently.
There is a Byzantine Cistern in Sultanahmet, which is used as a restaurant. It’s called “Sarnic Restaurant”. In addition, an old Byzantine cistern under Nakkas Rug Store serves as a private museum. Please note that these two establishments are managed by private companies.
If you want detailed information about all these cisterns, I recommend you to read the Byzantine Cisterns in Istanbul article, which I wrote for this site.
5. Valens Aqueduct
Valens Aqueduct stands in the center of the Historic Peninsula in the middle of a busy boulevard. This 1700-year-old Roman aqueduct is like a witness to the history of Istanbul.
Roman Efforts to Bring Water to The City
When Istanbul was founded as a Greek colony (Byzantium), it was a small city and it had the chance to meet the water need of its citizens by temporary methods.
However, after the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Istanbul as the new capital of the empire, the population of the city grew quickly. The Romans were unable to find water sources nearby and they managed to bring drinking water to Istanbul by constructing the longest water aqueduct of history.
This aqueduct would provide water to the city continually due to its inclined structure. And the need to stock a high level of water required building tens of cisterns. Valens Aqueduct continued to be used during the Ottoman era and it began to be called “Bozdogan Kemeri”.
However, the Ottomans didn’t fill the cisterns with the water from the aqueduct. Instead, they build monumental drinking fountains and they made access to drinking water easier.
Valens Aqueduct is one of the most picturesque Byzantine sites in Istanbul.
6. Chora Church
Chora Church has a special place among other structures from the Byzantine era in Istanbul. The reason why it’s special is the finest example works of mosaic art can be found in this church.
You can see tons of Byzantine mosaics at Hagia Sophia too, but the mosaics at Kariye Museum (aka Chora Church) are both better preserved and they are more interesting as there is a story behind them.
Chora Church’s main hall is quite simple and there is only one mosaic panel there. However, the mosaics in the interior and outer corridors of the church are invaluable works of art. These mosaics depict the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Although they have been damaged by earthquakes, they are still in great condition.
Chora was a monastery and it was outside Emperor Constantine’s Istanbul. This was where monks secluded themselves. However, when Emperor Theodosius II extended the walls, this monastery stayed within the borders of the expanded city. The monastery is still known as “Chora” which means “outside the city” and it also served as a mosque for a short period of time.
The person who was the one helping this monastery gain importance is a Byzantine statesman and scholar named Theodore Metochites. He spent his wealth on decorating this church and he was buried in the section named “parekklesion”, a side chapel built later.
This Byzantine museum is visited by both local and foreign visitors and it’s definitely one of the works of art in Istanbul that are worth visiting.
7. Monastery of the Pantocrator
Monastery of the Pantocrator is located in Zeyrek, one of the historical neighborhoods of Istanbul. This church had been closed for long years due to restoration and it stands out as the biggest monument after Hagia Sophia among Byzantine sites in Istanbul.
This monument used to serve as the mausoleum of late Byzantine emperors and it was a prominent sanctuary of its time. Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Apostles, and Monastery of Christ Pantocrator were the holiest sites in Constantinople.
In order to enjoy the majestic architecture of Zeyrek Mosque (now known by this name), you need to see it from the Golden Horn. When you look at the Old City from the metro bridge on the Golden Horn, it’s one of the most visible Byzantine sites in Istanbul.
8. Walls of Constantinople
Walls of Constantinople are the most important element of a thousand years of Byzantine history. If these walls did not exist, the city would have long been lost to the barbarian tribes, Persians, Arabs or Bulgarians. The ancient city walls that have protected the city for millennia are still visible today.
Walls of Constantinople (aka Theososian Walls)
Istanbul became the capital of Rome by Emperor Constantine’s order in 330 AD and the borders of ancient Byzantium quadrupled. Thus, the population of Istanbul boomed as Constantinople became the most important city of the East and the walls of the city had to be extended as a result.
Theodosius II wanted to solve the city’s capacity problem as a young emperor and for this purpose he started building the walls. The wise statesman Anthemius, who guided the child emperor, had a great role in the design of these magnificent walls.
The newly built city walls surrounded Constantinople and made the city impenetrable. Constantinople remained as the capital of the Byzantine Empire thanks to the strength of the walls and the security layers of these walls.
It was possible to penetrate these city walls that stretched from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara only after the invention of huge cannons. The army of Sultan Mehmet II used these new cannons in the 15th century and they opened a space on the walls, which made the conquest of the city easier.
In order to study the features of Byzantine Walls, you have to drive to the outskirts of Old City. It might be a difficult task but definitely worth it. This medieval wall is definitely one of the most striking Byzantine monuments in Istanbul.
9. Forum of Constantine
Forum of Constantine was one of the first iconic buildings of Rome’s new capital. Built by Constantine the Great, this square was the center of Constantinople.
Where is The Forum of Constantine Today?
The main road of the city in Emperor Constantine’s era was known as “Mese”. The victorious Roman armies returning from a campaign would march on this street, which also housed the square named the Forum of Constantine. Today, this square is known as “Cemberlitas” and it has a porphyry column which was erected by Constantine.
Two squares were the heart of the Byzantine Istanbul. One of which was the Forum of Constantine and the other one was the Forum of Theodosius. Mese still remains as one of the main road in the Old City and it’s known as “Divanyolu Street”, on which the tram runs. The reason why it’s named as Divanyolu Street in the Ottoman Empire era is that this road would end up at Divan-i Humayun (Imperial Council) in Topkapi Palace.
If you have a chance to see how the Forum of Constantine used to look, you will realize instantly how exciting it was and it used to be a symbolic center like Taksim Square (the heart of modern Istanbul) today.
10. Hagia Theodosia Church
Hagia Theodosia Church was dedicated to a woman who died while trying to protect the icon of Jesus from the soldiers during the Byzantine Iconoclasm. (the period when sacred visuals were destroyed)
This beautiful Byzantine structure in Istanbul serves as Gul Mosque today. Although not well known, it is one of the most impressive Byzantine sites in Istanbul.
About Fener and Balat Walking Tours
Participating in a Fener Balat walking tour has become a popular activity in recent years. These two neighborhoods can be visited on foot in a few hours and you can also take a break at recently opened great boutique cafes opened here. These tours mostly start at Cibali and cover Fener and Balat, but some may extend to Ayvansaray.
We can easily say that Gul Mosque (formerly known as Hagia Theodosia Church) is one of the most beautiful monuments that you will see in your Fener and Balat walking tour.
This church was dedicated to a deeply pious woman who was martyred during the Byzantine period. She was believed to have a healing power on people. Therefore, sick people, even on their beds, would be taken to this church for prayers.
The church was decorated with roses on ferial days and the Ottoman army found this church covered with red flowers when they entered the city. Therefore, this place began to be called Gul (Rose) Mosque after it was converted to a mosque.
11. Church of Saint George
Church of Saint George is the most important place to see in Fener Balat walking tours, which I mentioned on the upper lines. This church, which is the spiritual center of all Orthodox Christians in the world, reflects an amazing history.
Greek Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Period
The Ottoman Empire allowed Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to continue its activities after the conquest of Istanbul. Mehmed the Conqueror granted Patriarchate some privileges and it was the religious center of the Orthodox people, the biggest non-Muslim community in Ottoman Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia had been the most important church of the city during the Byzantine era but after it was converted into a mosque, the Patriarchate had to move to a new place. The Church of the Holy Apostles, the second biggest church of its time, was the first address of the Patriarchate. However, as it was demolished later, the Monastery of Pammakaristos began to used as the Patriarchate building.
Finally, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate moved to the Church of St George in the 16th century. The Patriarchate is located in Fener and it’s one of the most important places to visit during Fener and Balat walking tours.
The most beautiful place to see in the Patriarchate Complex is the golden altar in the heart of Church of St. George. This hidden gem, dedicated to St. George, is one of the most important Byzantine style buildings to be seen in Istanbul.
Church of St. George is not a building from the Byzantine period in its current form. However, someone who studies the Byzantine history should not pass without seeing this place. Because in the church there are relics of the most important bishops of early Christian history.
12. Phanar Greek Orthodox College
Phanar Greek Orthodox College was built to supply the demand for the new priests that the Patriarchate needed. Although its location changed for a couple of times, the school usually remained at Fener.
Phanar Greek Orthodox College was one of the best schools of its time and it not only trained priests but also statesmen. The kids of Byzantine origin families in Fener neighborhood served as the private interpreters of the Sultan and Grand Vizier (prime minister) in the Ottoman Empire.
The Greek served as a bridge between Europe and the Ottoman Empire for ages and they were appointed as governors at cities like Wallachia and Bogdan in exchange for their service.
Konstantin Dimadis, one of the graduates of this school, became an architect in the 19th century and he wanted to pay back the community he grew up in. Therefore, he rebuilt Phanar Greek Orthodox College as we know today by donations.
Dimadis showed a special effort to make it look like a Byzantine building and he ordered the red bricks covering the outer part of the school from Marseille.
Today, Phanar Greek Orthodox College is not a school that trains priests. It’s a school under the Ministry of Education in Turkey and it provides formal education to the Greek origin students.
Next to Phanar Greek Orthodox College stood Yuvakimyon Girls High School. However, once it shut down due to the lack of students, the girls from Yuvakimyon continued their education at this school too, which turned it into a school providing education to both boys and girls.
Phanar Greek College is not a building from the Byzantine period either. However, it is a structure that offers many clues about the place of the Byzantine people in the city life after the 15th century.
Byzantine Churches in Istanbul
So far, I have given you the most important examples of Byzantine heritage in Istanbul. While preparing the list, I chose places that are close to touristic spots and relatively easy to visit. However, there are many other Byzantine churches in Istanbul that were later converted into mosques. Almost all of these churches are in Fatih District (Historical Peninsula).
Especially, Suleymaniye, Vefa, Zeyrek, Fener, Balat, Ayvansaray, and Edirnekapi are the places you can find such small Byzantine churches. If you want to review the most important churches in Istanbul’s history, you can read my article called Byzantine Churches of Constantinople.
The ruin you see in the picture above belongs to Stoudios Monastery from the Byzantine period. Stoudios Monastery was the most important monastery in Byzantine Istanbul. The abbot of the monastery was the most influential religious official after the Patriarch of Constantinople. I told the story of this church in my article on the history of Stoudios Monastery.
Byzantine Palaces in Istanbul
Apart from the monuments listed above, there are some other Byzantine artifacts that are about to disappear as they are turning into a ruin. These ruins are mostly the Byzantine palaces in Istanbul.
The two main Byzantine palaces in Istanbul were the Great Palace in Sultanahmet and the Palace of Blachernae in Golden Horn. You can see some of the breathtaking mosaics left from the Great Palace at Istanbul Mosaic Museum inside Arasta Bazaar in Sultanahmet.
And the Palace of Blachernae was a building where Byzantine emperors resided after the 10th century. It was located on the corner where the Walls of Constantinople and Golden Horn met. Unfortunately, not much has remained from the Palace of Blachernae to the present day.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, the only section remaining from the Blachernae, has recently been converted into a museum. You can visit this building, which is known as Tekfur Palace in Turkish, to study the late Byzantine architecture in Istanbul.
In this article, I tried to give you information about the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul. If you are a history buff and want to go deeper into the history of Constantinople, the article The Story of Byzantine Constantinople may also interest you.
Byzantine Sites in Istanbul by Serhat Engul