Few cities on the European continent can boast such an eclectic and undulating timeline as Istanbul. The Turkish metropolis, which straddles the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia, was initially founded under the name Byzantium in the 6th century BC, and quickly rose to become one of the most significant cities of the ancient world.
Serving as an imperial city for almost 16 centuries, Istanbul’s name was changed to Constantinople in the 4th century AD, while under the rule of the Byzantine Empire, a continuation of the Roman Empire in the Middle East. The Byzantine period is arguably the most fascinating aspect of Istanbul’s history, with extraordinary relics from this lost civilisation still littering the city today.
Whether you’re a history buff or culture vulture, discovering Istanbul’s Byzantine legacy is one of the great joys of a visit to the city. Here, we look at some of the incredible historic sights you can expect during a port call in Istanbul.
Hagia Irene is a Greek Eastern Orthodox Church located in the outer courtyard of Istanbul’s renowned Topkapı Palace, known in Turkish as Aya Irini Kilisesi. Its name derives from the Greek phrase for ‘Holy Peace’ or ‘Godly Wisdom’, and it was commissioned and built by Constantine in the 4th century BC, at the peak of the Byzantine Empire’s economic power and strength.
One of three shrines devoted to God’s attributes (the others being Hagia Sophia and Hagia Dynamis), Hagia Irene is an outstanding example of Roman basilica architecture, and features a wonderful array of iconoclastic art from different periods in the city’s history. Today, the church is used as a performance venue, its wide dome lending it surprisingly good acoustics, however, tours can still be taken of the church’s ornate interior.
While not strictly an example of classic Byzantine design, Istanbul’s Egyptian obelisk does have a fascinating link to the Roman Empire. Originally built in 1479BC to feature in the great temple of Karnak, the Dikilitas obelisk was brought all the way from Egypt to Constantinople at the request of Constantine, to commemorate his 20th anniversary as the Roman Emperor.
The Egyptian obelisk began its long journey from the ancient city of Luxor in the year 357AD, travelling via the River Nile. However, a series of delays meant that the obelisk didn’t arrive at its new home in Constantinople until after the death of Emperor Constantine, with Theodosius I having to make the final arrangements for the obelisk to be erected in the city.
Great Palace Mosaic Museum Istanbul
The Byzantine period was synonymous with intricate tile and mosaic work, and archaeologists are still busy unearthing some of Istanbul’s hidden Byzantine-era mosaics to this day. The most impressive collection of mosaics discovered in the city now resides in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, which was purpose built to house the collection of intricate works found in the courtyard of the Great Palace of Constantinople during archaeological digs in the 1950s.
The museum’s collection of 4th-century mosaics showcases the expert craftsmanship of Byzantine tile makers, with each depicting daily life, natural scenes and mythological stories from the era — providing great insight into the culture, customs and traditions of this illustrious empire.
Of all Istanbul’s historic religious sites, the Gul Mosque is one of the most beautiful, and the most storied. Originally built as a Roman-age church known as Saint Theodosia, the building was converted into a mosque in 1499 when Istanbul fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and remains one of city’s the most popular Islamic prayer sites to this day.
Legend has it, on the night before the Ottoman conquest, residents of Constantinople covered the floor of the church in rose petals in honour of Saint Theodosia, from which the church took its name. Later, when the Ottomans preached the city, a group of soldiers discovered the petals and named the building ‘Rose Mosque’, or Gul Camii, as a result.
While only a small portion of the Million Pillar remains today, this is arguably one of the most significant of all Istanbul’s Byzantine-era architectural relics. During the 4th century, the ‘Milion’ (as it was known in Greek) marked the starting point where all roads leading out of Istanbul began, making it easier for travellers to judge distances between the ancient capitals.
The Million Pillar can be found near the entrance of the Yerebatan Cistern, one of several hundred ancient cisterns which are thought to lie beneath the streets of Istanbul. Yerebatan is the largest of these subterranean Roman monoliths, and features a number of incredible architectural feats, including a pair of ornate Medusa head pillars.
If you’re keen to discover the historic wonders of Istanbul for yourself, take a look at our great range of European cruises which include a stopover in this mesmeric Turkish metropolis. For more information, visit the homepage or call us on 0808 274 6777.
Gul Mosque image sourced via Wikimedia Commons. Source: A. Fabbretti