constantinople at sunset
“Approaching the walled city, we had just enough wind to push our vessel ever closer to the harbor beyond before night fell. As we glided past the sprawling metropolis, Peter told us of the horror that took place within its great stadium and the ensuing riot that rampaged the city a mere eight years before. He told us of the fire that raged for days; destroying everything in its path so that by its conclusion, half the city lay in ruin. He pointed to various buildings dotting the landscape and explained how they replaced what stood before. Of all the structures he singled out, the most impressive was the enormous church that spanned the crest of the skyline. A church so massive that it being built in half a century would be impressive enough but to learn it was built in one tenth that time defied comprehension.”
By the middle of the 6th century, nearly half a million people lived within the perimeter of the protective walls that surrounded the city. For over a thousand years those walls would not be breached* until one spring day in 1453 when Mehmet II finally conquered the city and officially put an end to what would later be known as the Byzantine Empire - and by extension the Roman Empire. But during the time depicted in my painting, the city was an impenetrable, thriving, bustling capital city that ostentatiously displayed the power and wealth it possessed. Many of the buildings dotting the skyline were rebuilt after the destruction caused by the Nika Revolt in 532 CE including Hagia Sophia which along with Hagia Irene, are the only still intact structures remaining from that time period.
Above is a screen shot from Google Earth showing what this part of Istanbul looks like today compared to the same location depicted in my painting. It isn't exactly an "apples to apples" comparison but it does give you a rough idea of the differences between the two.
Note: I took artistic license with a couple of things in the painting. The first is I exaggerated the height of the topography so we have a clearer view of landmark buildings. The second is some of the buildings I have portrayed in the painting where actually built much later than the 6th century.
*The city was sacked during the 4th Crusade but not due to a failure in the protective walls.
Points of Interest
Parts of the following information come from the books "Walking thru Byzantium - Great Palace Region" by Jan Kostenec and the "Hippodrome of Byzantium" by A. Tayfun Öner. Both of which were invaluable resources for me when I was researching and designing this painting. In addition to that is this great resource on the excavations of the old city.
The descriptions that follow pertain to the building (or structure) directly below the number in the image.
1. The Column of Justinian
The column of Justinian I was unusual in the sense that it wasn’t fashioned from marble but built of brick and sheathed with polished brass plates. On top of the 50 meter column sat an equestrian statue of Justinian holding an orb in one hand while the other is raised in greeting. The column and statue survived for a thousand years before eventually being dismantled and melted down in the 16th century.
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia (or church of the Holy Wisdom) is the third church of that name to be constructed on that site. Rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian I after the previous church was destroyed during the Nika revolt, this new church was completed a mere five and a half years after construction began.
3. Hagia Irene
Hagia Irene is a much smaller church than Hagia Sophia and depending on when you count is either much older or slightly newer than Hagia Sophia. First constructed under Constantine I it is believed to sit on what was once the site of a pagan temple. Though its original construction was much older than its sister structure, it nonetheless was torched and destroyed during the Nika revolt and replaced with the current building in 548 CE.
4. Zeuxippus Baths
First built by Septimus Severus and decorated by Constantine I, Zeuxippus became the predominant public bath in the city and was renowned for not only its opulence but extensive collection of antique statuary. Burned during the Nika revolt, it was subsequently rebuilt by Justinian I.
This area was transformed from an open public square to a formal colonnaded courtyard by Justinian I after the destruction of the Nika revolt. At the eastern edge of the ceremonial courtyard stood the chamber where the Roman senate would convene.
6. Chalke Gate
Grand entrance to the Imperial Palace region.
7. Imperial Corridors
Known as the Corridors of Lord, they connected the Church of Lord with the Apsis at the west of the Sigma.
8. Scholai Barracks
The Scholai were the largest guard unit within the imperial palace complex.
The Kathisma was a structure built into the hippodrome that contained the loge from where the emperor watched the chariot races. It also contained several rooms and a veranda from which his family and others in his entourage could view the races.
10. The Triklinos of 19 Couches
This was a very long dining hall that probably had 19 apses containing semicircular couches upon which guests reclined as they ate their meal. A custom going back centuries in Roman culture.
A large hall built by Basil I. Possibly as a domed tetraconch.
An imperial summer residence.
Possibly used as a hall in which the circus factions had audience with the emperor.
14. Boukoleon Palace
During the time of Justinian I, a harbor was carved out of the shore of the peninsula facing The Propontis (the Sea of Marmara). Legend has it that a statue featuring a bull and a lion stood at the harbor and eventually the entire area became known as “Boukoleon” or “Bull and Lion” in Greek. The palace itself was first constructed in the 5th century by Emporer Theophilos and was in continuous use as the main palace for the Byzantine court until the 11th century.
Reconstruction sketch of Boukoleon Palace by Ernest Mamboury
The ruins of the palace today
Built by Justinian I as part of the Boukoleon Palace complex, it served as the main dining and reception hall of the middle Byzantine imperial residence.
A lighthouse built on a terrace overlooking the private imperial harbor of the Boukoleon.
17. Nea Ekklesia
The Nea Ekklesia or "New Church" was built by Basil I between 876 and 880 CE. It survived the conquest of the Ottoman Turks but was subsequently destroyed in 1490 by an explosion of gun powder that was stored there.
A porticoed garden extending from the Neo Ekklesia to the Tzykanisterion.
A stadium used to play an equestrian game imported from Persia that was a precursor to the modern day game of polo. It was actually demolished when the Nea Ekklesia was constructed and rebuilt further to the east.
This was the rounded portion of the hippodrome stadium. The location of the hippodrome in Constantinople made it impossible to match the length of the Circus Maximus in Rome. To make the track as long as possible, the Sphendone in Constantinople also served as a retaining wall as this part of the stadium reached beyond the slope of the hill the hippodrome was sited on. Even with this engineered extension, the hippodrome was still 150 meters shorter than the Circus Maximus.
The ruins of the Sphendone today