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Constantinople Heart of the Byzantine Empire

Constantinople 330-600 CE: Foundation and Growth

The Silk and the Blood

Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was inaugurated in 330 by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great on the ancient site of Byzantion, changing its name to ‘Konstantinoupolis’, the ‘city of Constantine’. The decision to make Constantinople the capital city was probably influenced by its strategic position as the gateway between two continents, Europe and Asia, and two seas, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Under Theodosius II (408-450), Constantinople was fortified by impressive walled defences. Although it was besieged on numerous occasions by various enemies, the city proved to be impregnable for almost 900 years.

The new imperial city’s magnificence was demonstrated by the construction of the Great Palace. Located between the Hippodrome and the Sea Walls, this irregular assortment of buildings developed over the centuries, dotted with courts, terraces and gardens.

Almost nothing of the Great Palace is preserved today as it was obliterated by construction following the Ottoman conquest. Archaeological investigations carried out in the 1930s brought to light this large and gorgeous floor mosaic (measuring 66 x 55m), belonging to a peristyle (columned) court and dated to the 6th century:

The Great Palace was directly connected to the Imperial loge inside the Hippodrome, the so-called Kathisma, which is well-represented on the reliefs of the marble obelisk base of Theodosius I (379-395). The latter is still located on the spina of the Hippodrome, the barrier that divided the arena into two tracks, upon which obelisks, columns, statues and other ornamental sculptures connected to the Imperial triumph stood.

Justinian I (527-565) oversaw the construction or reconstruction of more than 30 churches, including the notable Hagia Sophia, first begun by Constantine or Constantius II (337-361).

Soon after the destruction of the Theodosian Hagia Sophia during the urban riot of Nika (532), Justinian started its rebuilding, entrusting the project to the architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletos. The new cathedral was inaugurated on 27 December 537.

Turbulence and controversy:

Constantinople in the Second Byzantine Period (600-1200 CE)

The Byzantine Empire was in crisis during the 7th and 8th centuries, due to losing control of important regions (the Fertile Crescent, North Africa and part of the Balkans) and to internal conflicts. This turbulence profoundly marked the urban fabric of Constantinople and most of the building activity at this time was defensive. In 626, Constantinople was besieged for the first time by Avars and Sassanid Persians.

The emperor Herakleios (610-641) was one of the greatest military commanders of Byzantine history. In 628, he managed to defeat the Sassanid empire and his victory is probably being commemorated in this famous plate from Cyprus, which depicts the symbolic image of David’s combat against Goliath.

Under his reign, the dynastic transmission of power began to be accepted as an official practice, as is shown by the iconographic motifs of his coinage.

Emperor Leo III (717-741) inaugurated the Iconoclastic controversy, a religious movement that rejected the veneration of the figural depictions of Christ and denied the holiness of the icons. This subsequently caused the removal of several churches’ iconic decoration and their replacement with symbolic images.

Little evidence of the iconoclastic period (730-787, and 815-843) is visible in Constantinopolitan church decorations today, but the apse mosaic of Hagia Eirene survives. It dates from the era of Constantine V (741-775) when the apse of the church was adorned with a cross on a golden background.

After the end of Iconoclasm, on 25 March 843, many churches were redecorated by the Macedonian emperors and in particular by Basil I (867-886). He restored several edifices that had fallen into ruins – primarily Hagia Sophia, where he, possibly after a former intervention by Michael III (842-867), patronised a programme of figural mosaics, such as the apse decoration depicting the enthroned Virgin Mary bearing the Christ-child.

During the 10th century the Byzantine empire gradually recovered its leading position in the Mediterranean regaining many territories in southern Italy, along the Middle-Eastern frontiers and in the Balkans. These victorious military campaigns were celebrated in the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’ works of art and beautiful miniatures, including a prominent portrait of Emperor Basil II (976-1025) dressed in military attire and crowned by Christ with Archangels.

From the 1030s, the Byzantine Empire experienced a period of crisis provoked by several factors related to both domestic and foreign affairs. The Seljuk Turks occupied two-thirds of Asia Minor after 1071, while in the same year the Normans conquered Bari in southern Italy. Despite this, under the Comnenian dynasty, Constantinople witnessed a further expansion. Its founder, Alexios I (1081-1118), aimed to restore a centralised state and took important measures in the administrative and financial fields during his reign.

The new dynasty moved into a new residence, the Palace of the Blachernai located in the northern sector of the city, thus replacing the Great Palace. Irene of Hungary, wife of John II Komnenos (1118-1143), sponsored the foundation of the monastery of Christ Pantokrator (today’s Zeyrek Kilise Camii).

Both John II and his wife are depicted in a mosaic panel located in the southern gallery of Hagia Sophia church, showing a standing Virgin Mary with the Christ-child, flanked by the Imperial couple. Here the emperor is depicted with ceremonial garments holding a purse, the apokombion, symbol of imperial largess to the Church.

Renewal and reconciliation: Constantinople in the Third Byzantine Period (1200-1600 CE)

The urban renewal of the Comnenian age ceased at the end of the 12th century, when the dynastic struggles among the Angeloi family (1185-1204) led to the conquest of the city by the Crusaders in 1204. The period of Latin domination (1204-1261) was characterised by neglect and the dismantling of Constantinopolitan monuments.

Many works of art were moved to the west, especially to Venice, like the famous statuary group of the Tetrarchs (4th C.) located on the southern façade of St. Mark’s basilica as well as the marble reliefs, capitals and columns reused in decorating the façade of the same basilica.

In 1261, the reconquest of Constantinople by the emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-1282) gave way to a new phase of building activity in the city devastated by the Latin sack.

Among the public buildings dated to the Palaiologan period, the Porphyrogenitus Palace is still preserved. Known in Turkish as Tekfur Sarayi (‘palace of the emperor’), it was erected as part of the Blachernae palace by Constantine Palaiologos, a son of Michael VIII, or by the same by Michael VIII, and probably served as an imperial residence during the final years of the Byzantine Empire.

In the field of religious architecture connected to the court’s circles, the Palaiologan period was mainly focused on the refurbishment and the enlargement of pre-existing buildings, in order to underline an ideal continuity with the Macedonian and Comnenian dynasties. One illustrious example is the monastery of St. Saviour in Chora, whose restoration and decoration were promoted by one of the most important court figures of the 14th century, Theodore Metochites.

By the early 14th century, a process of political and economic decline was taking place throughout the empire and culminated in two civil wars fought in the course of that century among members of the imperial family. The precarious situation of the diminished Byzantine Empire facing the Ottoman threat led its emperors, beginning with John V Palaiologos (1341-1391), to seek the help of the western potentates, without much success.

Eventually John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448) came to Italy in order to support the reconciliation between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, deeply divided since the so-called ‘Schism’ of 1054. His portrait on the famous Pisanello medal is dated to his stay in Italy, when he took part in the Council of Ferrara and Florence in 1438-1439.

Under John VIII’s brother and successor Constantine XI (1449-1453), Constantinople finally fell into Ottoman hands, led by Sultan Mehmed II, on 29 May 1453, after a 53-day siege. Thus, after more than 1,000 years of history, this event determined the end of the Byzantine Empire, but not of Constantinople itself, which under the Ottomans saw a period of urban renewal.


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