Byzantine Sites in Istanbul
Byzantine Sites to See in Istanbul > Churches, Museums, Ruins
With its history dating back to 638 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 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.
The most popular tours among domestic and foreign tourists are usually walking tours that include Sultanahmet and important historical monuments nearby. Undoubtedly, these tours are highly comprehensive and informative. However, we need to note that these general tours include monuments that were built in different periods that reflect different cultural aspects.
Indeed, you can gain much better information and cultural insight if you participate in a tour that focus on the history of Byzantine OR Ottoman Empire exclusively.
Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul
By Licensed Tour Guide Serhat Engul (Creator of IstanbulClues.com)
You may check availability and cost from our CONTACT page.
You may read the REVIEWS about this thematic tour.
For more information you may check Istanbul Byzantine Tour website.
Byzantine Empire Sites in Istanbul
Chariots are vehicles that have 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.
You can also read one of the stories of Hippodrome in Serpent Column blog post.
Byzantine Sites in Istanbul
Only few people know that the Nika Revolt is the reason why Hagia Sophia was built. Emperor Justinian survived the rebellion that claimed the lives of 30,000 people and he began to build majestic monuments to prove his power. Thus, Anthemios and Isidoros, whom the Emperor put in charge, built the biggest and most beautiful sanctuary in the world.
Hagia Sophia is such an astonishing monument that it took a thousand years to build monuments that could be compared to 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.
Byzantine Monuments in Istanbul
You reach the first yard 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 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 and it’s also the first archeological museum of Istanbul. Pieces that were displayed here in the 19th century were moved to Istanbul Archeological Museum once it was opened.
Byzantine Churches in Istanbul
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 were built in the 4th century and they managed to protect the city for centuries. There are only two instances when the city defense failed, the Latin invasion (1204) and the Fall of Constantinople (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 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 Istanbul‘s 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.
Cistern Restaurant (Sogukcesme Street) and Nakkas Rug Store on the base floor of a cistern are worth visiting too. Please note that these two establishments are managed by private companies.
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 huge public fountains and they made access to drinking water easier.
Roman Aqueduct in Istanbul
Kariye Museum (Chora Church)
Chora has a special place among other pieces 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 are both better preserved and they are more interesting as there is a story behind them.
Chora used to be a basilica and the main hall is quite simple and there is only one mosaic panel there. However, the mosaics in the interior and outer halls 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 Museum was a monastery and it was outside Emperor Constantine’s Istanbul. This is where monks secluded themselves. However, as Emperor Theodosius II extended the walls, this monastery was left outside the borders of the 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 next hall named “parekklesion”, a side chapel built later.
This Byzantine monument is visited by both local and foreign visitors and it’s definitely one of the works of art in Istanbul that are worth visiting.
Byzantine Church Mosaics in Istanbul
Zeyrek Mosque (Monastery of the Pantocrator)
Monastery of the Pantocrator is located in Zeyrek, one of the historical neighborhoods of Istanbul. This church has been closed for long years due to restoration and it stands out as the biggest monument after Hagia Sophia among Byzantine churches in Istanbul.
This monument used to serve as the mausoleum of emperors and it was a prominent sanctuary of its time. Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Apostles, and Monastery of the Pantocrator were the holiest sites in the city.
In order to enjoy the majestic architecture of Zeyrek Mosque, 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 monument in Istanbul.
Byzantine Monasteries in Istanbul
Walls of Constantinople
Istanbul became the capital of Rome by Emperor Constantine’s order in 330 A.D. and the borders of Ancient Greece 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 decided to solve the city defense problem when he was a young emperor. The walls to protect the Old City were constructed and consisted of three parts, which made the city almost 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 Marmara Sea only after the invention of huge cannons. The army of Mehmet II used these 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.
Byzantine Walls in Istanbul
Forum of Constantine
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 a square named the Forum of Constantine. Today, this colorful column is known as Cemberlitas and it used to be located in the heart of this square.
Two squares were the heart of the city. One of which was the Forum of Constantine and the other one was the Forum of Theodosius in Beyazit. Mese still remains as one of the main roads in the Old City and it’s known as “Divanyolu Street”, on which the tram line 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 today.
Byzantine Ruins in Istanbul
Gul Mosque (Church of St. Theodosia)
Participating in a Fener Balat tour has become a popular activity in recent years. These 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 is one of the most beautiful monuments that you will see in your Cibali, Fener, Balat tour. This church was dedicated to a deeply pious woman who was martyred during the Byzantine Iconoclasm 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 is decorated with roses on ferial days and the Ottoman army found this church covered with red flowers when they entered the city. Therefore, this city began to be called Gul (Rose) Mosque after it was converted to a mosque.
Byzantine Monuments in Istanbul, Turkey
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
The Ottoman Empire allowed Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to continue its activities after the conquest of Istanbul. Mehmed the Conqueror granted Patriarchate of Constantinople some privileges and it was the religious center of the Greek, the biggest non-Muslim community in Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia was the most important church of the city during the Byzantium 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, which is still where it is located. The Patriarchate is located in Balat and it’s one of the most important places to visit during Fener&Balat culture tours. Another amazing work to see at the Patriarchate is the golden altar, which is at the Church of St. George located at the heart of the Patriarchate. Church of St. George is one of the most important Byzantine monuments in Istanbul.
Byzantine Churches 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.
Phanar Greek Orthodox College
As I mentioned above, the Patriarchate continued its activities in Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire. And 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 special interpreters of the Sultan and 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 built 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 students from Yuvakimyon continued their education at this school too, which turned it into a school providing education to both boys and girls.
Byzantine Orthodox Monuments in Istanbul
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 Sites Worth Visiting in Istanbul
The names above are only some of the works from the Byzantine era. There are many other Byzantine churches that were converted into a mosque in the city. Almost all of these churches are in Fatih neighborhood. Especially, Suleymaniye, Vefa, Zeyrek, Fener, Balat, Ayvansaray, and Edirnekapi are the places you can find such small churches.
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 are the Great Palace of the Roman Emperors in Sultanahmet and Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Palace Museum) in Ayvansaray neighborhood.
You can see some of the breathtaking mosaics left from the Grand Palace at Istanbul Mosaic Museum inside Arasta Bazaar in Sultanahmet. As you can enter the museum with a Museum Pass, you can visit it without extra payment.
And the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus was a building where Byzantine emperors resided after the 10th century. It’s located on the corner where the Walls of Constantinople and Golden Horn met. The decoration of this palace was simply amazing and what remains today from the palace is a small section named “Tekfur Palace”.
Byzantine Palaces in Istanbul
Last Words on The History of Istanbul
If you wish to read a short and informative article about the history of Istanbul, I recommend reading the post titled the History of Istanbul. You can grasp the shift from Ancient Greece to Roman and Byzantine eras easily by reading this article.
Written by Serhat Engul