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Constantinople / Istanbul

A map of Constantinople/Istanbul

A detailed map of Byzantine Constantinople


It is common to think that the western terminus of the Silk Road was Rome in Italy. The narrator intones as much at the end of each film in the 30-part NTK/CCTV series, and the final scene of that sprawling epic shows the “expedition” arriving at the Roman Coliseum. Indeed Rome must have been an important destination for Chinese silk during the first two or three centuries of the Silk Road (perhaps to ca. 200 CE), but for a much longer time, beginning in the fourth century, the “Rome” to which all roads led in the Mediterranean world was “Eastern Rome” or Constantinople. Even in its long centuries of decline down to its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the wealth of the city was legendary, and its location ensured it a role in the trade with the East. Renamed Istanbul under the Turks, the city again became the capital of a great empire and played a central role in east-west cultural and economic exchange.

As early as the 7th century BCE, Greek colonists occupied the tip of a peninsula on the western shore of the Bosphorus Strait where the current is favorable and, of greatest importance, there is a wonderful natural harbor known today as the Golden Horn. The third century historian Polybios could not imagine a location better suited to control the trade from the Black Sea into the Aegean which was so important for supplying Ancient Greece with honey, wax, grain, slaves and much more, “a site that is absolutely the most advantageous, for safety and prosperity, in the world as we know it.” Beginning in the second century BCE this town of Byzantion flourished under Roman control but in the 190s CE incurred the wrath of Emperor Septimus Severus and was to a considerable degree destroyed.


The turning point in the city’s history occurred when Emperor Constantine I dedicated it as the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 CE. As the late Roman writer Sozomen put it:

In obedience to the command of God, he therefore enlarged the city formerly called Byzantium, and surrounded it with high walls; likewise he built splendid dwelling houses; and being aware that the former population was not enough for so great a city, he peopled it with men of rank and their families, whom he summoned from Rome and from other countries. He imposed special taxes to cover the expenses of building and adorning the city, and of supplying the inhabitants with food. He erected all the needed edifices for a great capital---a hippodrome, fountains, porticoes and other beautiful adornments. He named it Constantinople and New Rome--and established it as the Roman capital...

Even though the new capital was deliberately consecrated as a Christian city, a fact later symbolized by a mosaic in the great Cathedral of Hagia Sophia showing Constantine presenting a model of the city to the Virgin Mary for her blessing, its Roman and pagan character continued to be evident in architecture and public monuments. Colonnaded porticoes lined the main streets. The Emperor erected in one of the main squares a column atop which was an image of him as Apollo. He stripped Rome of a significant amount of statuary to decorate his new capital. Images of the emperors were exhibited in public spaces. One fragment which has survived is the sculptural group known as the “Four Tetrarchs,” the rulers of the empire ca. 300 CE whose images were displayed on two columns in one of the public squares in the center of the city. As with so much else of value, they were taken off to Venice by the leaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and installed as a trophy on the corner of the Cathedral of San Marco. Only the heel of one of the figures remained behind for the archaeologists later to rescue. The Tetrarch group is a very modest reminder of imperial imagery which included sculptures of immense size scattered throughout the New Rome.

Another of the Venetian trophies in 1204 was the bronze quadriga, the horses and chariot which had decorated one end of the Hippodrome in Constantinople. In Venice the horses were placed directly over the main entrance to San Marco. The Hippodrome itself was one of the most important Roman structures in Constantinople. Begun prior to Constantine I and completed after his reign, this arena for chariot races and public spectacles was over 400 m. long and seated from 60,000-100,000. Although today only part of one end of the building has survived, its contours were still very evident when drawn by a Renaissance artist in the 15th century and in some Ottoman miniatures. The central spina of the race-track was decorated with various trophy monuments, three of which have survived until today. Constantine had brought to his new capital a 5th-century BCE commemorative tripod from the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The remains of its intertwined serpent base can still be seen in the Hippodrome and the Archaeological Museum. Theodosius I in the late 4th century erected in the Hippodrome an ancient Egyptian obelisk. It rests on a base which was carved specially for the purpose to display the Emperor in his box presiding over ceremonies in the Hippodrome celebrating among other things the submission of various foreigners. The other obelisk still standing today in the space of the Hippodrome is one erected in the time of the 10th-century emperor, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos.

Another of the monuments to Roman engineering in Constantinople was the system of aqueducts and cisterns, which were of critical importance as the population of the city outstripped any local water supply. What is known as the aqueduct of Valens undoubtedly antedates Constantine; it continued to function in later centuries. One of the most famous cisterns is the very large one excavated in the sixth century not far from the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia. As was typical in the world of late Antiquity, masonry from earlier buildings was recycled for the columns which support its roof.

The economic importance of Constantinople was in part a function of its becoming one of the largest cities anywhere in the world. By the 5th century, it held around 300,000 inhabitants; by the middle of the 6th, some half a million. For comparison, Chang-an, the capital of Tang China, may have had as many as a million inhabitants at its peak a century later, and Baghdad, at its peak in the early Abbasid period probably had more than half a million. Despite a long period of disasters and decline, with its revival in the 9th and 10th centuries the population of Constantinople again swelled, to between 500,000 and 800,000. Maintaining a food supply was one of the principal concerns of city government and required that large quantities of grain be imported. (For some time the source was Egypt, which later in the Ottoman period would resume being the granary which fed the capital.) The government supplied the grain free to the populace. Apart from trade in foodstuffs, a city of that size and importance became a commercial center, with high demand for expensive luxuries, and it served as one of the main transit points for goods being sent to Western Europe.

That the city could flourish even as the vast territories of the larger empire were lost to invasion is explained in large part by the impregnable fortifications. Constantinople could not be taken from the water side so long as the Empire’s fleet, with its secret weapon of flaming naptha or “Greek fire,” controlled the sea. A huge chain blocked the entrance to the Golden Horn in any event. The potentially more vulnerable land side came to be defended by the triple walls completed under Emperor Theodosius II in the early fifth century. The city survived attacks by Persians, Arabs, Bulgarians and others. It was taken by siege only in 1204, when naval control had fallen into the hands of the Venetians who diverted the Fourth Crusade to the city. The land walls were not stormed until 1453, when there no longer was sufficient manpower to defend and repair them in the face of a huge Ottoman artillery barrage. By the end, what we know as the Byzantine Empire hardly extended beyond the defensive perimeter of its capital city.

Christian art and architecture and Christian public ceremony became dominant in Constantinople and were at the core of its transition from a Roman city to a “medieval Byzantine” one. The most important symbol of the new order was the great Cathedral of Hagia Sophia (The Holy Wisdom), erected under Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. Prior to this time, the dominant architectural form for the city’s churches was the basilica—that is, buildings of a rectangular shape with a long nave leading to the altar and a tent-shaped timbered roof. In various parts of the Roman world though there were architectural alternatives which incorporated domes. Three of the churches from Justinian’s lifetime illustrate ways in which this could be done and suggest the direction by which Byzantine Church architecture would arrive at a standard design of intersecting nave and transept (forming the shape of a cross) with a central dome. One of the first major domed churches is that of St. Eirene, located not far from the imperial palace (and today within the grounds of the Ottoman Topkapi Palace). A second one is the octagonal Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus (also known as the “Little Hagia Sophia”), erected near the shoreline below the Hippodrome. And the third is Hagia Sophia itself, whose proportions and even today’s rather diminished reflection of its original elegance produce an overwhelming impression upon a visitor. It was with good reason that a delegation from Kiev in the 10th century is said to have reported that on entering the church they “knew not whether they were in Heaven or on earth.”

Justinian’s architects succeeded in designing a building that by most calculations never should have held together, given how vast its dome and semi-domes are, bridging the entire central part of what is in effect a wide nave. As was the case with all the major Byzantine churches, the upper reaches of Hagia Sophia were covered with glittering mosaics; the walls and columns had polished marble and elaborate carved relief. Whether in daylight or lighted by lamps after dark, the interior produced on observers an overwhelming impression of brightness. The 6th-century historian Prokopios notes: “The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church....” As the main imperial church, attended regularly by the royal family, Hagia Sophia displayed images of emperors and empresses asking Christ and the Virgin Mary for their intercession on behalf of the Empire, its churches and the rulers, who presented themselves as God’s representatives on earth.

Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome and the adjoining Imperial Palace complex occupied much of the most important space at the triangular point of the city bounded by the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Of these three major buildings, the one least well known from its material remains is the palace. It was frequently re-built, but today only its foundations survive (a significant part of the territory is today occupied by the 17th-century “Blue Mosque”). Some major floor mosaics from one small part of the palace have been preserved. Dating possibly from the time of Justinian they show a range of images, including scenes of daily life, imperial emblems, and the royal hunt. Prokopios describes in some detail one of the scenes depicted in mosaics on the ceiling of the palace, in which the Emperor and Empress are celebrating the important military victories accomplished under their brilliant general Belisarios. Other books, notably the important Book of Ceremonies compiled by Emperor Constantine VII in the 10th century, provide detailed information about imperial functions and the spaces in which they occurred.


Foreign visitors also reported on imperial ceremony, one of the more amusing accounts being that of the disgruntled Archbishop Liutprand of Cremona, who described his visit to Constantinople in 962. His acerbic characterization of the Emperor Nicephorus violates our modern sensibilities:

a monstrosity of a man, a pygmy, fat-headed and like a mole as to the smallness of his eyes; disgusting with his short, broad, thick, and half hoary beard; disgraced by a neck an inch long; very bristly through the length and thickness of his hair; in color an Ethiopian; one whom it would not be pleasant to meet in the middle of the night; with extensive belly, lean of loin, very long of hip considering his short stature, small of shank, proportionate as to his heels and feet; clad in a garment costly but too old, and foul-smelling and faded through age; shod with Sicyonian shoes; bold of tongue, a fox by nature, in perjury, and a lying Ulysses.

Of perhaps greater interest is what Liutprand tells us about the devices the Byzantines used to impress foreign visitors. He is describing an ambassador’s reception by Constantine VII a number of years earlier.

In front of the Emperor’s throne was set up a tree of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their different species. Now the Emperor’s throne was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was seen to be up in the air. This throne was of immense size and was, as it were, guarded by lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue.

This same Emperor Constantine would sponsor the baptism of Princess Ol’ga from Kiev when she came to Constantinople in the 950s. A vivid reminder of that important event in the earliest history of the spread of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity to the East Slavs may be seen in Kiev, where the main cathedral was dedicated to the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in emulation of the main cathedral in Constantinople. A series of mural paintings in the Kievan church celebrates Olga’s baptism and illustrates her attending events at the Imperial court, including chariot races in the Hippodrome (the Emperor is shown with a halo). Medieval Russia and Ukraine thus provide one of the best examples of the cultural impact of Constantinople well beyond the boundaries of the Empire.


The Byzantine revival of the 10th and early 11th centuries was short-lived, however. By the 1070s, the Seljuk Turks had defeated the Imperial army and seized much of Anatolia. Not long after, the Venetians gained a strangle-hold on the Empire’s trade. A Western author in the middle of the twelfth century, Odo of Deuil, presents a quite contradictory picture of a city that was “the glory of the Greeks, rich in renown and richer still in possessions,” but one that one that was simultaneously “squalid and fetid and in many places harmed by permanent darkness, for the wealthy oversahdow the streets with buildings and leave these dirty, dark places to the poor and to travelers; there murders and robberies and other crimes which love the darkness are committed.”


Relations with Venice and the West more generally steadily deteriorated, culminating in the Fourth Crusade’s sack of the city in 1204. The conquering crusaders such as Robert of Clari were in disbelief at the wealth they found:

It was so rich, and there were so many rich vessels of gold and silver and cloth of gold and so many rich jewels, that it was a fair marvel...Not since the world was made, was there ever seen or won so great a treasure or so noble or so rich, not in the time of Alexander nor in the time of Charlemagne...Nor do I think...that in the forty richest cities of the world there had been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople.

The crusaders eagerly seized large numbers of Christian relics, and, if we believe a Byzantine source, Nicetas Choniates, equally assiduously looted the imperial tombs and destroyed the Classical art which was still so abundant in the city:

They eyed the bronze statues and threw them into the fire. And so the bronze statue of Hera, standing in the agora of Constantine, was broken into pieces and consigned to the flames. The head of this statue, which could hardly be drawn by four oxen yoked together, was brought to the great palace. The statue of Paris, also called Alexander, opposite it was cast off its base. This statue was connected with that of the goddess Aphrodite to whom the apple of Eris (Discord) was depicted as being awarded by Paris...These barbarians, who do not appreciate beauty, did not neglect to overturn the statues standing in the Hippodrome...They then threw down the great Hercules Trihesperus....

The city never would recover from the devastation of the Fourth Crusade, even though Venetian commercial interests ensured that it would remain an important center for trade with the East during the period of Latin rule which lasted from 1204 to 1261. It was on the eve of the recapture of the city by Byzantine forces that the Venetians Maffeo and Niccolo Polo passed through the city on their way to Bukhara and ultimately to China. Presumably one reason they returned home by a different route a few years later was the fact that the Genoese had replaced Venice as the arbiters of Byzantine commercial life.

For approximately another century, the Empire did more than just limp along. Two important churches of the early 14th century attest to the still considerable wealthy patronage in the capital. One, the Church of Hagia Maria Pammakaristos (the Fethiye Camii), is an excellent example of the late Byzantine style, with its variegated brick exterior and high quality interior mosaics. The second, the Church of the Savior in the Chora Monastery (Kariye Camii) is a structure built earlier but then substantially renovated in the early 14th century under the patronage of one of the important court officials, Theodore Metochites (shown here presenting the church to Christ for his blessing). The monastery housed the most important library in a city still rich with texts from Classical Antiquity. The church’s mosaics and frescoes are stunning examples of the skill of Byzantine artists. The royal family in this period was still able to construct new palaces.

The continuing importance of the Byzantine Empire can be seen in its relations with the Mongol rulers of the Golden Horde, whose capital was on the lower Volga and whose reach straddled some of the most important trade routes in the northwestern part of Eurasia. The Genoese domination of Byzantine trade also meant control of the ports in the Crimea, under the protection of the Mongol Empire. When the famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited the territories of the Golden Horde in the early 1330s, he reported on the prosperity of its cities and then accompanied one of the Khan’s wives, a member of the Byzantine royal family, when she went back to Constantinople to visit her family. The Byzantine position on the Bosphorus was obviously of importance both to the Genoese and to the Mongols, who wanted to keep open the sea lanes to their political allies in Egypt.


We are also reminded vividly of the continuing commercial importance of the Constantinople in a merchant handbook compiled around 1340 by the Florentine Francesco Pegolotti. Pegolotti describes in some detail the exotic products of the East which could be obtained in Constantinople, and he then gives advice to those who would wish to travel East, through the territories of the Golden Horde and on to China. Even in this period when the Mongol Empire was in fact beginning to disintegrate, the route to China was safe and the “Silk Road” was flourishing, Constantinople being one of its main entrepots.


However, the Byzantines had barely secured themselves again in Constantinople when the power which would ultimately destroy them appeared on their frontier in Asia Minor. This small state, founded by the Turkish leader Osman, would grow into the Osmanli (i.e., Ottoman) Empire. By the middle of the 14th century, the Ottomans had established a firm foothold across the straits in Southeastern Europe, thus encircling the steadily shrinking territory controlled by Constantinople. By the 1390s, the Ottomans mounted a serious siege of the city and seemed about to take it. The Ottoman defeat at the hands of a new conqueror from Central Asia, Tamerlane, merely delayed the inevitable. Even an unprecedented diplomatic mission by the Byzantine emperor to the West and, in desperation, a last-minute attempt to obtain Western military aid by agreeing to recognize the authority of the Pope over the Eastern Church could not save the city.

By the early 15th century within its great walls the population had shrunk to a few tens of thousands. The chronicler Sphrantzes was very specific about the disparity in forces when Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II mounted the final siege that resulted in the taking of the city on May 29, 1453: “He surrounded the entire 18 miles of the City with 400 small and large vessels from the sea and with 200,000 men on the land side. In spite of the great size of our City, our defenders amounted to 4,773 Greeks, as well as just about 200 foreigners.” The last Emperor died on the walls and the Patriarch, the head of the Byzantine Church, was taken captive. The Sultan’s first act was to ride his horse into the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia as a highly symbolic indication that the old order of Christian Rome had ended. Most churches were converted into mosques and minarets added to them.


The Greek chronicler of the Sultan, Kritouboulos, lamented:

...This time the City’s possessions vanished, its goods summarily disappeared, and it was deprived of all things: wealth, glory, rule, splendor, honor, brilliance of population, valor, education, wisdom, religious orders, dominion — in short, of all. .... While it had been an example of all good things, the picture of brilliant prosperity, it now became the picture of misfortune, a reminder of sufferings, a monument of disaster, and a by-word for life.

Even in Western Europe, which had contributed to the downfall of the city and, despite last-minute agreements, had failed to provide any meaningful help to defend a Christain state against the Muslim Turks, a Florentine could write: “We can hardly tell you how shocked we are by the painful news, which seems to us to be such that all Christian princes should make peace with one another, and the rest of Christendom should wear mourning.”

Sound Clips:

(mp3, 4:34 min.)

(mp3, 11:55 min.)

In an effort to persuade the papacy to mount a crusade to liberate the city, the well-known Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay composed four laments on its fall. A Byzantine court composer, Manuel Chrysaphes set to music the lamentation of Psalm 79: "O God, the heathen have come unto your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, O Lord...We have become a reproach to our neighbors, subjected to scorn and derision from those around us... How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?...Do not remember our old sins, but quickly help us, and have mercy upon us."

Image Gallery

In fact, no help was to come. Recognizing the city's importance, the Conqueror set about almost immediately repopulating and restoring it to Imperial grandeur and prosperity. If we extend the history of the Silk Road down through the seventeenth century, the Ottomans and Ottoman Istanbul are an essential part of the story which will have to be treated in a separate essay. For some visual impressions of the splendors of Ottoman and modern Istanbul, click on the thumbnail on the left.

— Daniel C. Waugh

Original recordings copyright © 2004 Cappella Romana, Inc. All rights reserved. Our special thanks to Cappella Romana for permission to use the two tracks from its wonderful CD, “Music of Byzantium,” which was produced in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent exhibition "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557).” Please visit Cappella Romana's website to learn about the group 's concerts and to order its recordings.



Primary Sources:

  • Robert de Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1936).
  • Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror. Tr. Charles T. Riggs (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1954).
  • Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, “Pegolotti’s Merchant Handbook
  • Polybius, The Histories. Newly translated by Mortimer Chambers. Ed. E. Badian (New York: Twayne, 1966), esp. Bk. IV, pp. 194-202.
  • George Sphrantzes, The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Sphrantzes 1401-1477. Tr. Marios Philippides (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1980).
  • Charles M. Brand, ed., Icon and Minaret: Sources of Byzantine and Islamic Civilization (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969).
  • Deno J. Geanakoplos, comp. and ed., Byzantium: Church, Society, and Civilization Seen Through Contemporary Eyes (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984).
  • Various primary source texts in Paul Halsell’s “Internet Medieval Sourcebook.”
  • Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453: Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

Secondary Sources:

  • John Beckwith, The Art of Constantinople (London; New York: Phaidon, 1961).
  • Glanville Downey, Constantinople in the Age of Justinian (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1960).
  • Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (The Pelican History of Art) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965).
  • Dogan Kuban, Istanbul: An Urban History. Byzantion, Constantinopolis, Istanbul (Istanbul: The Economic and Social History Foundation of Turkey, 1996).
  • Michael Maclagan, The City of Constantinople (Ancient Peoples and Places) (New York; Washington: Praeger, 1968).
  • Tamara Talbot Rice, Everyday Life in Byzantium (New York: Dorset, 1967).
  • Alexander Van Millingen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople (London: Macmillan, 1912).
  • Alexander van Millingen, Byzantine Constantinople: The Walls of the City and Adjoining Historical Sites (London: John Murray, 1899).
  • Daniel C. Waugh, “Bursa.”
  • Byzantium 1200,” computer graphic reconstruction of Byzantine buildings in Constantinople (not by any means as they looked in 1200 though!).
  • Selected images of the Byzantine Collection at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D. C.

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© Daniel C. Waugh 2004