Feb 3, 2012

Istanbul was Constantinople

Just like the song said it, Istanbul was once Constantinople. As the expansion of the subway and its construction contributes to archeologists' discovery of new segments in the city’s terraine, such as the 1600 years old harbour of Theodosius (see), remember that this is not even the lowest segment (which is neolithic). One level above, the Greek/Byzantium segment is often neglected despite the fact that after the division of Roman Empire to East and West, Istanbul served as the capital of Eastern Roman Empire for centuries. As such, it carried a civilization to full lengths and even served as the birth place of Codex Iustinianus or more generally known as Corpus Iuris Civilis, the foundation document of western legal tradition. Travellers to Istanbul, on the other hand, learn about Byzantine times in the city merely through the Emperor Iustinianus built Saint Sophia. While it and St. Choir Church are considered the most important buildings dating from Byzantium, other buildings standing against the destruction of earthquakes and time also attest to a different Istanbul. This not only fills the city with a different history, tradition and color but has also served as inspiration for the Ottomans who did not hesitate to adopt Byzantine ways to do things while also engaging in rivalry with them.

Church of Pantokrator (Zeyrek Church mosque)
in Istanbul, under renovation.

In that sense, Church of Pantokrator (Zeyrek Church Mosque) is one of the most important buildings of the Byzantine era of the city. Located between Fatih and Süleymaniye hills,  it is a church complex dating from the Middle Byzantine period. Built in the 12th century, it formed part of a monastery and is the largest standing church after Hagia Sophia. Its garden hosts the tombs of various Byzantine emperors. During the Latin invasion of the city, it was even held by Venetians. After the Turkish conquest, it was converted to a mosque and is currently under renovation. After visiting, sit down and enjoy the view to Golden Horn and Süleymaniye Mosque and the food at Zeyrekhane.

Holy water of Ayios Haralambos in Istanbul.

As the protector of sailors, the entrance of
St. Nicholas church in Golden Horn, Istanbul.

Inside the St. Nicholas church in Istanbul.

Down below the Church of Pantokrator, when walking along side the Golden Horn, one can notice the Church of Aya Nikola in Cibali. This church is built on an ayazma (holy water) that is 1000 years old. Because Golden Horn is a natural harbor, especially before the building of bridges over it, the area had many sailors. It is therefore not a suprise that the church is dedicated to te Saint of sailors Nicholas, as seen from the chandeliers shaped like a boat. The church also has copies of sultan edicts on its walls. Unfortunately, it is open only on feast days.

The St. Theodosia church (Gül Camii) in Istanbul.

The interiors of the St. Theodosia church cry out
for renovation.

Close to it but inside the City Walls, is another building from the Middle Byzantine period that is full of mystery. This is the Saint Theodosia Church or the Gül (Rose) Mosque. Dedicated to an iconophile saint -Theodosia- who was martyred by the iconoclasts, her feast is celebrated on 29th May. This day coincides with the fall of Istanbul to Turkish hands. It is said that when the Turks entered the city walls, they saw that the church was covered with roses put up for the Feast of St. Theodosia. Hence, its new name in Turkish “the mosque of rose”. While the building was converted to a mosque during Ottoman rule, it is stil an eclectic building given its original design as a Greek cross with added Ottoman columns from 16th century and its interiors being decorated with stars of David to protect it from evil eyes. Rumor has it that some Byzantine dynasties were buried here. The Ottomans continued the tradition and buried some of theirs as well. 

The fairy tale building of Fener Greek Highschool
in Istanbul.

The unassuming exteriors of the church of Panagia Moukhliotissa
in Istanbul (cameras  not allowed inside).

The view to Golden Horn from Fener Greek Highschool.

Picture on the walls of Greek highschool with
Sultan handing the edict for the school.

Moving up, the Church of Panagia Moukhliotissa in Fener can be considered a real treasure for it is the only church which has remained as a church since the conquest. Never converted to a mosque and established by Byzantine Princess Maria in the 13th century, it also remains the only church in town with a clover leaf design. It is sometimes referred as the  “bloody church” because of the bloody battles around the then Greek neighborhood of Phanarion (Fener) during the Conquest of Istanbul. Taking its name from a light house in Golden Horn, it was one of the richest neighborhoods of the time. High bureaucrats such as translators lived there. It is also home to famous musician and statesman Dmitry Cantemir whose house is still standing. Another important building in the neighborhood is the Fener Greek Highschool. Built in 1881 by architect Dimadis with Marseille red brick, it looks like a fairy tale building and often mistaken for the nearby Greek Patriarchy. Unfortunately, the number of students in it is in historically low numbers given Turkey’s successful (!) policy towards Christian minorities (follow label Gokceada in this blog to learn more).

Streets of once rich Fener district in Istanbul.

Aya Yorgi church at Greek Patriarch in Istanbul.

Interior of the church of the Greek Patriarch in Istanbul,
icono wall covered with gold.

A piece from the marble where Jesus was beaten
before crucification was brought to the
Greek Patriarch in Istanbul.

Also located in the vicinity is the Greek Patriarchy, one of the oldest institutions in the world –older than Vatican- and the center of the Greek Orthodoxy. It moved to this location in 1601 and underwent renovation. Curiously, one enters the Patriarchy from its side door because after the execution in 1821 of Patriarch Gregorios 5th who left through the main door, it is kept closed. Its church Aya Yorgi hosts various treasures considered sacred for Orthodox Christiandom. Sometimes rich Greeks get married in the church and all sorts of dignitaries visit it.

The above Panayia Vlahernia Church can be another spot of interest since it appears to be the only Christian place of worship where  mass is held on Fridays given a 1400 years old myth that saved the city from falling into foreign hands. 

Although a little far out and close to St. Choir Church, the Palace of Porphyrogennetus (Tekfur Sarayı) is the last imperial palace of the late Byzantine period in the city. It was not only built into the city walls but also on the highest hill of the city, Edirnekapı. As shown in the above video (accompanied by Ottoman music:-)) it is the only building remaining from the Blakernai palace complex of the time.  Built by Emperor Manuel Komnenos in 12th century for his wife, it is the spot where Mehmet the Conqueror is said to have watched the conquest from. It was used as a workshop for tiles that decorate many mosques in Istanbul. Later used by Jews as a sanctuary, it was abandoned when  damaged by a fire. Today it is under renovation but if you are visiting on a Sunday, after seeing the palace, head to the pigeon  market in Edirnekapı to see pigeon raisers, a truly Eastern phenomenon.  

Inside the church in Greek Patriarch, the tombs of
Omonia, Teophano and Euphemia) in Istanbul.

The main door of the Greek Patriarch
 in Istanbul remains closed after the "incident".

You can lit a candle or write a wish at
Panayia Vlahernia Church in Istanbul.

Considering all this, one wonders why the Greek-Byzantium past of the city is so underplayed and its Ottoman-Muslim side emphasized. Do the lyrics of the song has an answer? "So take me back to Constantinople. Being long time gone Constantinople. Why did Constantinole get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks". Hardly.