Rarely does a single city hold so much meaning and impact to the history and fates of men than in Istanbul. And believe me when I say that this exact place, cradled between Europe and Asia, throughout the past seventeen hundred years, has been pivotal in defining the world as we know it today. So for the third and final part of this blog series, let me enumerate the places largely ignored by travelers in Istanbul which are actually the ones that made possible the dynamic stories told at present about this ancient city in the Bosporus. (click on the links for Part 1 and Part 2)
Church of the Holy Apostles (Present Day Fatih Mosque)
You might be wondering why you don’t or maybe seldom see any Church of the Holy Apostles in the maps nor travel books in Istanbul. The answer is because the famous Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles is no more. The whole structure has been demolished back in the early years of the Conquest of Constantinople to give way to the first monumental Ottoman imperial project in Istanbul aptly named Fatih Mosque (meaning Conqueror’s Mosque) under the orders of Sultan Mehmed, the conqueror of the city in 1453.
So what’s the point you might say of putting in this list a place no longer in existence for the past 600 years? It is for the reason that this place was the burial grounds of generations of Byzantine Emperors stretching back to Constantine the Great – sacred ground which held the remains of great people that held the world at their sway, upheld Christianity and leaders of the empire that preserved the culture & accomplishments of the Western World for thousands of years. In addition and of greater importance, it was the repository of relics gathered from around the world of the Apostles of Christ themselves.
The Church of the Holy Apostles, built on the newer part of the newly founded city of Nova Roma or Constantinople on 330 AD, was dedicated to the Twelve Apostles of Christ and was meant to be the church that would hold all the relics of these first leaders of the Christian faith gathered from all around the world. And what a site it was – a harmonious forest of colonnades shimmering with marble walls! The first structure under Constantine was made even grander by Justinian the Great in 550 AD by ordering the same architects who designed and constructed the famous Hagia Sophia to rebuild a new church on the site. Based on historical accounts, the new building had the same area as Hagia Sophia, on a cruciform plan, with five domes topping the structure (one dome for each of the cross’s arm and a dome in the center were the cross’ arms met), on a scale and opulence only second to the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Sadly, we are only left to imagine how it looked like before as no surviving illustration or representation accurately depicts how this sacred structure appeared back in the day. The closest that we get of how people might have seen it in the late ancient and middle ages is by looking at Venice’s Basilica of Saint Mark whose Byzantine design was inspired by it.
The Church of the Holy Apostles, as I mentioned earlier, was also known as the Imperial Cemetery or Polyandreion. This tradition of burying emperors and their family within the church and its grounds was started by Constantine the Great himself when he built his very own mausoleum inside the church. The mausoleum had 12 empty porphyry sarcophagi (representing the 12 Apostles) surrounding his very own magnificent sarcophagus in the middle (representing Christ himself). The 12 empty sarcophagi were eventually used to house the remains of subsequent Eastern Roman/Byzantine Emperors including Justinian the Great and ending with Constantine VIII 700 years later in 1028 AD. Fortunately, 7 of these survived – two can be found in the atrium of the Hagia Eirene, four outside the Archaeological Museum, and a fragment of a fifth, believe to be that of Constantine the Great’s, in the museum’s “Istanbul through the Ages” pavilion (all within the Topkapi Palace grounds). When space ran out within the Church, emperors were buried in monasteries and other churches within the city – notably in the Myrelaion Church converted and presently known as the Bodrum Mosque in the district of Fatih, in the neighborhood of Laleli, present day Istanbul. A number of Patriarchs, head of the Orthodox Church whose position is equal to that of the Pope’s, were also buried within the hallowed walls of this great church.
True to its name, the church had a vast treasury of relics from Saints and Martyrs. But among all others, the most highly valued were the:
– Relics of Saint John Chrysostom and other Church Fathers
– Skull of Saint Timothy, the first Christian Bishop of Ephesus. He was a close disciple and companion of Saint Paul to whom he addressed the Epistles to Timothy. He died when he was 80 years of age, stoned to death by pagans when he tried halting a procession in honor of the goddess Diana by preaching the gospel
– Skull of Saint Luke the Evangelist, author of one of the four canonical Gospels of Christ
– Skull of Saint Andrew the Apostle, one of the first 12 apostles of Christ who was martyred by being crucified in an X-shaped cross.
– Column of the Flagellation, the stone column to which Jesus was bound and flogged by the Romans
Monastery of Saint John at Studious
In an area within the walls of Constantinople called Psamathia (modern dat Koca Mustafa Pasa), not far from the sea of Marmara are the ruins of Constantinople’s most historically important monastery. It was built on the orders of Consul Studious, a patrician of Rome who moved to the new capital of the empire, on 462 AD. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was not able to visit this place when I was in Istanbul. At its heyday, the monastery was the center of the art of illuminated manuscripts, Byzantine religious poetry (whose hymns are still being used by the modern Orthodox Churches). Unfortunately, it was destroyed partly by fellow Christians, the Fourth Crusader, on 1204 and largely during the Turk’s conquest of the city on 1453.
Today, only the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist survives. It is presently a museum but will be converted into a mosque once restoration is complete. Although the monastery itself is in ruins, the laws and customs of the Stoudion still lives on in the Monasteries of Mount Athos in modern day Greece (these monasteries still fly the Byzantine Flag as they had for centuries) and other orthodox monasteries in the world.
Palace of the Porphyrogenitus
The Palace of Porphyrogenitus was named after Constantine Palaiologos, a Byzantine Prince who was the son of the reigning Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (Porphyrogenitus means “born of the purple” , the color of imperial royalty) – another location in Istanbul which remains in my to-see list. The importance of the palace lies in the fact that it is the only remaining best preserved example of palatial and secular style of architecture in Byzantine Constantinople/Istanbul. As opposed to the highly ruined Boukoleon Palace which was part of the Great Palace Complex of Constantinople, this palace was part of the Blachernae Palace Complex, found in the northwestern section of the old city of Istanbul, which was the area of residence of latter Byzantine emperors near the very walls that protect the city. The shift of imperial residence location reflects the changing fortunes of the empire, wherein before, emperors had the luxury of being at peace & surrounded by the calming waters of the Bosporus and the Propontis, now they had to stand guard near the walls themselves for invasions that has plagued and threatened the existence of the empire itself.
Walls of Constantinople: The Theodosian, Golden Horn and Propontis Walls
One of the main reasons why the new Imperial Capital of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire lasted a thousand years longer than its western counterpart and the old capital, the Ancient City of Rome, was its strategic location. In contrast with Rome which was almost fully surrounded by land and therefore prone to attack on all directions, Constantinople was built on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by large bodies of water: on its northern side is the Golden Horn which was also the city’s main harbor, on its eastern side was the Bosporus Strait which required ferries to cross, and on its southern side is the Sea of Marmara called in Byzantine times as the Propontis. Only a single side of the city, a stretch of almost 6 kilometres, was exposed to attacks from land armies. And the answer of the Romans/Byzantines to this was the kind of answer you’d expect from the people who rose from being a small collection of villages near the Tiber River to the masters of the Mediterranean Sea and the most glorious empire the world has ever known – the most sophisticated fortification ever built, the massive Walls of Constantinople also called as the Theodosian Walls.
To access these famous walls, I took the tram from Sultanahmet with fellow travelers whom I met in my stay in Turkey. Upon arriving to the walls, I can just imagine how formidable it was to the people who were welcomed by it upon arriving in Constantinople back in the Byzantine days, regardless of their reason of going to the city, may it be in times of peace or war.
Upon approach to the city, enemies of the empire must first overcome an aproximately 60 foot wide-30 foot deep moat while trying to avoid arrows and Greek fire shot towards them by the city’s defenders. But the greatest obstacle for those who dare lay siege to the city were the land walls, standing formidably 60 feet away from the moat.
The land wall itself was a double wall – the outer wall was almost 30 feet high with square or crescent towers built within them at 200 feet intervals. The terraces were topped with battlements giving more protection to the imperial army while giving more difficulty to enemies who are already having and had a hard time negotiating the moat.
But the most impressive and the one that most probably struck fear and awe to the foes of the empire were the massive inner walls. Almost 40 feet in height, 20 feet in width, they were topped with battlements and had 96 towers across the whole land approach of the city. These towers were higher than the wall itself, rising 60 feet from the peribolos or the area between the outer and inner wall.
And the Byzantines didn’t risk the defense of the city, in addition to the land walls, they built sea walls to completely surround Constantinople: the Golden Horn Wall and the Propontis Wall.
The land walls were only pierced by nine main gates and a number of smaller ones – a combination of civilian and military gateways:
– First Military Gate or the Gate of Christ
– The Golden Gate
The main ceremonial/triumphal gateway to the Queen of Cities. It was only used by Emperors and his army to enter the city after military conquests and victories & other state occasions. It was a colossal gate and no expense was spared in its decoration – covered in marble and topped with statuary. Despite it being ceremonial in nature, it is one of the strongest positions along the walls and can be considered as a fortress by itself. At present, the entrance is walled up, probably explained by the belief that the last Roman Emperor was not killed by the invading Turks and was just resting in suspended animation, brought there by an angel, beneath the gate and will enter to win the city again through the Golden Gate.
– Xylokerkos or the Belgrade Gate
The gate was walled off twice in its history: First, under Emperor Isaac II Angelos due to the prophecy that the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa would enter through it; reopened in 1346, it was again closed before the 1453 siege of Constantinople up until 1886
– Second Military Gate
– Gate of the Spring
The forces of the Empire of Nicaea (one of the splinter empires that resulted after the Crusaders took the city in 1204) entered and retook the city from the Latins (general term used to refer to Western Europeans) on 1261 and re-established Roman/Byzantine Rule in the city
– Third Military Gate
– Gate of Rhegion
The best preserved among the gates of Constantinople; it retains much of its 5th century appearance
– Fourth Military Gate
– Gate of St. Romanus
This is the second largest gate along the walls, its size only next to the Golden Gate. It is where the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was killed during the siege of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, thus ending the 2500 year old existence of a Roman state on the face of the earth. It is here where he famously said, “The City is fallen and I am still alive”. After which he immediately tore off and removed his imperial regalia and ornaments so as to let nothing distinguish him from the common soldiers and went off where the fighting was thickest. His body was never identified.
– Fifth Military Gate
– Gate of Charisius
The second most important entryway to the city after the Golden Gate. It is here that Mehmed the Conqueror entered the city upon it falling to the Turks. It is where Constantine XI established his command during the month long defense of the city.
A small postern that was accidentally left open on the 29th of May 1453 where Ottoman troops were able to enter the city and outflank the wall the defenders that lead to the fall of Constantinople
All in all, the Walls of Constantinople stretched for approximately 40km and enclosed an area of about 14 square kilometers. For me, the Walls are bested only by Hagia Sophia in being the most significant surviving Byzantine structure in modern day Turkey. Because of it, the empire survived thousand of years, being the beacon of light shining from the East when the whole of Western Europe was plunged in the hardships of the Dark Ages. It was the vanguard of Christian civilization, being the main line of defense of the capital of the first Christian Empire and located at the gateway of Europe, protecting the whole continent from the onslaught of Arabs, Avars, Rus and Bulgars among many others, while its fellow Christian states were but too weak and busy squabbling with each other for existence. Without these walls, Europe and the whole world would be so different from the one we know today.
So there you are my friends, the final part of my list of the important places that are often missed by fellow travelers in Istanbul. I hope that through these articles, I have helped you maximize your stay in one of the most undeniably beautiful cities in the world and opened your eyes to the relics of the past that remain hidden in plain site, caught in the hustle and bustle of modern Turkey.
Till next time! Bon voyage to us all!