As the song says, it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. But some of the city’s main attractions do derive from the days when, under its former moniker, this stunning city succeeded Rome as a center of influence and power. Here the Monkey looks at a few marvels from the age of Constantinople.
The Monkey inspects the workmanship of the land walls that made Constantinople what most historians consider the finest fortress of its day. These are a small part of the second set of walls, begun in the early 5th Century under Theodosius II (Constantine’s earlier walls had already constrained the growth of the city and had to be replaced by the new set some 2 kilometers further from the center). The 6.5 kilometers of walls were destroyed by an earthquake in 447 and were rebuilt in only two months, just in time to repel Atilla and his Huns. Later, they repelled numerous other invasions, including one by the Persians, at least four by the medieval Bulgarians, and two by the Arabs.
The Fourth Crusade managed to conquer the city only by attacking the sea walls (not the land walls seen here) in 1204, but the Byzantines retook their capital under Emperor Michael Paleologos in 1267. And in large part due to the strength of these walls, Constantinople was one of the last shreds of Byzantium to fall to the Ottoman Turks. Repeated attempts to conquer the city had failed, until Sultan Mehmet II approached the walls with a new strategy in 1453. With 14 separate batteries of Hungarian-made cannons, the Turks bombarded the walls for over seven weeks. Emperor Constantine XI and his men defended the city bravely, repairing multiple breaches in the walls, but eventually the cannon barrage proved too powerful, and a section of the walls collapsed beyond repair. The Ottoman forces surged in, and Byzantium and Constantinople were no more.
A detail of the masonry of Theodosius II’s land walls in Constantinople. Note that some of the stones may have been cannibalized from previous structures, or the text may be a “tag” from the work crews that built this section of the wall.
The Monkey poses for a risky photo above the raceway known as Atatürk Boulevard, but the real attraction of this shot (aside from the Monkey) is the 4th Century Aqueduct of Valens, which facilitated the delivery of fresh water from far outside the city to the cisterns and fountains in the center straight through the 19th Century!
At the site of the Byzantine Hippodrome that once hosted chariot races, the Monkey admired the Egyptian Obelisk that dates from the 15th Century BCE or even earlier (the obelisk broke in transit from Egypt during the 4th Century, and only the top third of it remains). In the background are two of the six minarets of the Blue Mosque.
Despite the fact that invaders hauled off vast amounts of Byzantine relics, Constantinople was also capable of cannibalizing itself. Here, in the 4th Century Yerebatan Saray, a Byzantine cistern that supplied the imperial palace with water from a forest outside the city, the Monkey encountered a carved Medusa head being used as the base of a support column. The cistern was also the site of one of the Monkey’s worst pictures, which you can see here if you scroll to number one.
The Monkey pays a visit to the grounds of the Ecunemical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Patriarchate has been at this location since 1601, but moved twice before then and actually dates from around 330. The Patriarch (a high bishop) of Constantinople was second only to the Bishop of Rome (better known as the Pope) in the church hierarchy. After the 1054 schism, the Patriarch at Constantinople became the chief religious figure for the Eastern Orthodox confession, though he was subjugated by the Byzantine Emperors and his control over his followers was never comparable to that of the Papacy in the West.
Under the Ottoman millet (akin to a religious “caste”) system, while Islam was the most revered religion and Muslims were the best treated citizens, other religions were not illegal and religious freedom was generally respected. The Sultans recognized the Constantinople Patriarch as the leader of the Christian millet, and Christians, though subject to Ottoman taxation and military control, followed the laws established by the Patriarchate.
Despite the powers it held under the millet system during the Ottoman period, the Constantinople Patriarchate’s control was steadily diminished—not so much by the Turks but more so by the Russian Tsars, who in 1589 established a Patriarchate in the Third Rome (Moscow), which usurped much control from Constantinople. This diminution continued later with the establishment of other new Orthodox Patriarchates and Exarchates (in Bulgaria, Serbia, and elsewhere) that sought to preach in the more vernacular Old Church Slavonic rather than Greek, consequently playing a key role in the nationalist movements that eventually brought down the Ottoman Empire. Thus, today the Patriarchate in Istanbul is one of many Patriarchates and governs a smaller flock, but remains proud of its centuries-old legacy as the core of Christian Orthodoxy.
The Monkey decided to end his visit to Istanbul with a look at one of the most lavish buildings of old Constantinople, the Bucoleon Palace. Only a few desolate ruins remain of the great old palace that was once the power nexus of the mighty Byzantine Empire. Commissioned by the 4th Century Emperor Constantine himself, the palace grew to include over 500 rooms, all decked out with the most luxurious finishings available. The palace fell into disuse by the 12th Century, long before the Ottoman Turks finally overran the Byzantine capital in 1453.
In fact, it was the Old Rome and its Crusaders that started to wear down the new one. After 1054 and the Great Schism between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches, Constantinople faced marauding bands of Crusaders ostensibly bound for the Holy Land. In 1204, a combined force of Frankish and Venetian Crusaders began the sacking that left Bucoleon Palace and so many other Byzantine remnants of Constantinople so scarred, and consequently gave cities like Venice the (pilfered) raw materials to construct many of their most treasured monuments (see, for instance, the bronze horses adorning St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, looted from Constantinople). In the words of one participant, the Frankish Crusader Geoffrey of Villehardouin, “Never, since the world was created, had so much booty been won in any city.”
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