Why Istanbul’s ancient imperial legacy lies hidden in plain sight

Thanks to politics and the passage of time, grand monuments of the 1,000-year Byzantine Empire are easy to miss in the modern metropolis.

By Jennifer Hattam
photographs by Rena Effendi
Published 1 Dec 2020, 12:30 GMT

Tourists take photographs in the Byzantine-era Chora Church, which subsequently became a mosque under Ottoman rule and was designated as a museum in 1945 by the Turkish Republic. Recently re-converted to a mosque by presidential order, the earliest phase of the current building dates to the 11th century A.D.


Photograph by Rena Effendi, National Geographic

When the Church of St. Polyeuktus was completed in A.D. 527, it was likely the largest and most sumptuous house of worship in Constantinople. Built based on biblical descriptions of the Temple of Solomon, it was commissioned by Anicia Juliana, a powerful noblewoman who celebrated her own achievement with a lengthy inscription carved into the structure. Juliana, it declared, “surpassed the wisdom of the celebrated Solomon” with this great building, “springing up from below and pursuing the stars of heaven… glittering with the indescribable brightness of the sun.”

With walls inscribed with poetry and columns adorned with palm leaves and peacocks, the Church of St. Polyeuktus is said to have inspired the Emperor Justinian to top Juliana’s feat with the construction of the even larger Hagia Sophia a decade later. Today, however, the overgrown ruins of St. Polyeuktus lie scantly noticed along a traffic-clogged thoroughfare in the city now called Istanbul, next to a small down-at-the-heels park where passersby sometimes smoke a cigarette or drink a cup of tea while seated atop one of the church’s lavishly carved column capitals.

A view from the Byzantine-era Palace of Porphyrogenitus (known in Turkish as the Tekfur Sarayı). Its recent restoration has been criticized for highlighting the building’s years as an Ottoman ceramics factory at the expense of its more multifaceted past.

The fate of two other Byzantine-era religious monuments became the subject of fierce international debate this summer, when Turkey’s government reopened the world-famous Hagia Sophia—the grand sixth-century church later converted into a mosque and then a museum—to Islamic worship. A similar transformation remains pending for the fresco-and mosaic-laden Chora Church. But many scholars and archaeologists say Istanbul’s broader Byzantine history has long gotten short shrift—or worse—leaving this rich heritage at risk of vanishing almost entirely within the city.

If it weren’t for the Byzantines, however, modern Istanbul would likely be a decidedly different city. Before it became the capital of the Christian, Greek-speaking Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire in the fourth century A.D., the Greek colony known as Byzantium was a small but well-placed trading port on the shores of the Bosporus. Rechristened Constantinople, it served as the centre of power for an empire that endured for over a millennium until the city was conquered by Muslim Ottomans in 1453.

At its height, the Byzantine Empire controlled territory extending from the Balkans to North Africa, and it played a crucial role in connecting Christian and Islamic civilisations and conveying ancient Greek and Roman culture to the present day. European travellers to the Byzantine capital in the 12th century rapturously described palaces lavishly adorned with jewels, gold, and marble statues. But a visitor to Istanbul today needs a keen eye, an adventurous spirit, and a lot of imagination to try and grasp the grandeur of the pre-Ottoman city.

A map of Byzantine Constantinople, created by a Florentine priest who visited in 1420, is the earliest known map of the city and predates the Ottoman conquest of 1453.

Photograph by British Library Board, Bridgeman Images

“You have to work hard at understanding Byzantine Istanbul, because so much is hidden or misrepresented,” says Veronica Kalas, an independent historian specialising in the art and architecture of the Byzantine Empire. “There are all these bits and pieces, but how they fit together doesn’t reveal itself easily.”

Long-lasting influence

Parts of the massive system of aqueducts and cisterns that provided Constantinople with water can be found in parking lots and along roadways, lining the sides of soccer stadiums and playgrounds, and sitting beneath carpet shops and hotels. A faded inscription under the eaves of a building, a telltale piece of brickwork, or a chunk of carved marble half-covered by weeds might be the only visible hint of a particular structure’s Byzantine past. But these hidden layers belie long-lasting influence.

“The Istanbul of the Ottomans and of today both owe their existence to Constantinople and its transformation under the Byzantines from a sleepy trading post to a major city and imperial administrative centre,” says Kutlu Akalın, a professor of late antique and Byzantine history at Istanbul Medeniyet University. Many key Byzantine sites and pieces of infrastructure retained their importance under the Ottomans and into the modern Turkish Republic, even as their appearance, use, and meaning was transformed. That process created the strata of history and culture that make Istanbul both fascinating and fraught.

Most of the rich mosaic and painting decoration in the Chora Church dates to the 14th century A.D.

The site of the Hippodrome, where Byzantine crowds cheered their favorite charioteers and later Ottoman soldiers and horses trained for battle, is now a quiet park. The grand Fatih Mosque, named for the sultan who conquered Istanbul for the Ottomans, was built over the site where Byzantine emperors were buried centuries earlier. The roads of the Sultanahmet tourist district are still aligned to the Byzantine street plan.

But there are also smaller continuities in daily life, according to independent historian Axel Çorlu, including much of Istanbul’s street food and its famed meyhane culture of boozy nights sharing small plates of food in tavern-like restaurants.

“Every time a modern Istanbulite bites into stuffed mussels on the street, they’re basically eating Byzantine cuisine,” says Çorlu. “But I once ended up dumped on the side of the road by an angry taxi driver after telling him that the kokoreç [a dish of grilled intestines] he likes to eat was actually a Byzantine food.”

Çorlu chalks up the driver’s response to an educational system and popular culture that often gives Turkish people an “us vs. them” sense of identity. Anything predating the Ottoman era is seen as “other,” if not downright pernicious. These kinds of attitudes, Çorlu and other experts argue, have led to the neglect of Byzantine-era monuments and the erasure of this critical historical era from the predominant story of Istanbul.

“Turkey’s Byzantine heritage is an emotional matter that also gets projected onto contemporary politics due to its association with the idea of Ottoman conquest,” says archaeologist Alessandra Ricci, a professor at Istanbul’s Koç University. Many Orthodox Christian communities, the Greek one in particular, still feel a connection to the Eastern Christian capital of Constantinople. And although Greece and Turkey are neighbours and NATO allies, they’re also frequent adversaries, currently embroiled in a heated dispute over natural gas resources and maritime borders. “As a result, many Turks have difficulty embedding this heritage in their cultural understanding of the city,” Ricci says.

As evidence, she cites the lack of Byzantine objects on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. The city also failure to build a planned museum to house artifacts from 37 Byzantine shipwrecks discovered in 2005 during construction of a subway station.

Other scholars note the erasure of Byzantine history during restoration work at various churches-turned-mosques. A prominent example is the former Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, an important monastic center built in the sixth century and today known as the “Little Hagia Sophia” (Küçük Aya Sofya) Mosque.

“Too many of Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments, like Küçük Aya Sofya, have been overly restored within an inch of their lives, with no serious analysis or documentation done of what is discovered during the restoration process,” says Robert Ousterhout, a professor emeritus of the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania. “So we end up with a new mosque but don’t learn anything new about the building’s history.”

Ousterhout spent nearly a decade studying and restoring the former Monastery of Christ Pantokrator (now the Molla Zeyrek Mosque) before political winds shifted. The restoration was halted from 1998 to 2001, then resumed for a time before the Directorate of Pious Foundations under Turkey’s current government took over the project in 2006.

“We had argued all the way that this was a building that could be both be a functioning mosque and a historic site, restored with sensitivity toward its past and representing history in all of its messiness,” Ousterhout says. “But if you go into the building now, you see very little evidence that it was ever a Byzantine structure.”

No master plan

The 13-mile-long fortified walls that once formed the boundaries of Byzantine Constantinople, protecting it from both land and sea attacks, are also a point of much contention. Restoration work done in the 1980s and 1990s was widely panned by preservationists as a poor-quality reconstruction unfaithful to the walls’ original texture and materials. The recent reopening of Tekfur Sarayı, a Byzantine palace embedded in the inland portion of the walls, has been criticized for highlighting the building’s years as an Ottoman ceramics factory at the expense of its multifaceted past. And periodic news stories about the collapse of one section or another attest the fragility of the remaining structures.

This year, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality embarked on a new effort to protect and preserve the walls that, officials say, will be more sensitive than those carried out in the past. “Unlike the previous construction-based restorations, we are taking a more conservative approach, trying to strengthen the walls while ‘freezing’ them the way they stand.” says Mahir Polat, the city’s head of cultural heritage.

Polat says that as far as he’s concerned, all of Istanbul’s historic structures are of equal importance.

The Hagia Irene church today sits on the grounds of the Ottoman-era Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. The original church, built by the first Byzantine emperor Constantine, burned down and was subsequently rebuilt in the 6th century A.D.

“When it comes to Istanbul’s cultural heritage, we don’t differentiate between Byzantine or Ottoman or the Turkish Republic. The whole story of Istanbul belongs to every Istanbulite, and we are responsible for conserving it for all of humanity.”

The municipality, however, doesn’t have final say over all of Istanbul’s monuments, which are overseen by an overlapping array of bureaucratic structures. Many of these are part of Turkey’s central government, while the municipality is led by the country’s main opposition political party.

“There’s not a real master plan for the whole city, for municipal and national institutions to collaborate,” Polat admits. A recent example of the lack of coordination happened in August, when Polat and his team butted heads with the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry over work that he alleged was damaging the Galata Tower, a 14th-century landmark built as part of fortifications protecting a Genoese colony in what is now the city’s Beyoğlu district.

Crumbling, poorly restored, or demolished Turkish baths, mosques, fountains, and other Ottoman structures attest to additional preservation hurdles beyond ideological differences. Restoration projects are often given to construction companies chosen for their political connections or low bids rather than their heritage expertise, according to critics, including former culture minister Ertuğrul Günay. Limited finances play a role, too, especially given Turkey’s increasingly shaky economy. And balancing historical preservation with the needs of a modern metropolis—especially one like Istanbul, whose population has burgeoned from 1.5 million to nearly 16 million over the past 60 years—is never simple. But the urban setting presents opportunities as well as challenges.

“What’s happening among these monuments today is also part of their history,” says Gönül Bozoğlu, a Leverhulme Fellow at Newcastle University. Bozoğlu helped lead a participatory research project that gathered oral histories from local residents around Istanbul’s walls. “If you start to talk to people about how they are used, you understand how they are not just dead structures.”

Those oral histories painted a picture of a city within living memory that is very different from today—a city where the waves of the Marmara Sea crashed against its Byzantine walls, and church bells rang out much as they must have in Byzantine times. As recently as the 1970s, market gardens still clinging to the base of the walls were serving up fresh-picked lettuce sprinkled with salt.

But such cheerful recollections are tinged with the sorrowful absence of once-vibrant Armenian, Greek, and Jewish communities that made both Byzantine and Ottoman Istanbul a cosmopolitan city before they were largely pushed out by the mid-20th century.

Initiatives like the oral history project reinforce the fact that unlike pieces in a museum, the Byzantine monuments of Istanbul are part of an ongoing, ever-evolving story whose future preservation and continuity depends on connecting the past with the present.

Archaeologist Ricci recalls meeting a local man who lived near the Satryos Monastery site that she was excavating in one of Istanbul’s suburban neighbourhoods. “He brought us a Byzantine coin that he had found at the site as a child and kept for decades because he felt it was special and wanted to protect it,” she says. “The Byzantine history can become part of Istanbul residents’ story of the city when you empower them with the meaning of what is there—the idea that you are a part of this historical landscape.”

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul reporting on urban, environmental, and cultural issues. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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