You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Istanbul retains no major evidence of its very ancient past when it was called Byzantium: we know that the acropolis was located on the hill at the tip of the peninsula, on the site of Topkapi Sarayi, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans. A number of statues, gravestones and mosaics of that period can be seen in the Archaeological Museum in a section devoted to the history of the city.
In 193 AD Byzantium sided with Pescennius Niger, Roman governor of Syria, against Emperor Septimius Severus, who besieged the town: it was a long siege and when eventually the town fell it was razed to the ground. A few years later the emperor rebuilt it and gave it a new name Augusta Antonina, because Septimius Severus claimed to be the legitimate successor of Emperor Antoninus Pius. The new town was larger than the previous one and it rapidly grew again, owing to its excellent position on the trade routes between Europe and Asia and between the Mediterranean and the Black Seas.
In 324 Byzantium was again caught in the middle of a fight between two contenders for the Roman Empire; they were co-emperors and brothers-in-law, yet Constantine and Licinius did not refrain from involving large armies and fleets in a bloody civil war. Constantine won a great victory at Adrianople and Licinius retreated to Byzantium which he had to withdraw from when Crispus, Constantine's eldest son defeated his superior fleet. This time Byzantium did not pay a price for having been on the wrong side of the fight, because in 326 Constantine decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire there. Byzantium was renamed Nova Roma, but because Constantine had almost entirely rebuilt it, over time Constantinopolis (Constantinople) became the most used name.
(left) Cemberlitas (Hooped Column) and Atik Ali Pacha Camii behind it; (centre) two of the porphyry drums; (right) masonry surrounding the remains of the seventh drum with an inscription celebrating a restoration made by Emperor Manuel I Komnenos in the XIIth century
What they call the Burnt pillar is on the second hill, which, though not of one stone, yet when entire might be esteemed one of the finest pillars in
the world, being singular in its kind; it is said to have been brought from
Rome by Constantine the great, and that he placed on it that exquisite
bronze statue of Trojan Apollo, which was a representation of himself; it is
called the Burnt pillar, because the pedestal and pillar have been much
damaged by fire; it is erected on a marble pedestal, about twenty feet
high, which is much ruined; and probably there were some steps round
it; the shaft seems to have consisted of ten pieces of porphyry, thirty-three French feet in circumference, each stone being nine feet four
inches long, excepting a wreath of laurel half a foot deep at the top
of every one, which had the effect to conceal the joining of the stones:
Seven of these stones now remain, three of the stones, together with the
statue, were thrown down by lightning. It was said to have been of the Doric
order, and when entire must have been a most magnificent lofty pillar. (..) There is a Greek inscription, which I had not an opportunity of copying; but it is said to import, that the emperor Emanuel Comnenus repaired it.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
Cemberlitas is a column erected by Constantine at the centre of his Forum (near today's Kapali Carsi - Great Bazaar), similar to what Emperor Trajan had done in Rome. It celebrated the inauguration of the new capital of the empire which occurred on May 11, 330. The column was made up of ten or eleven porphyry drums: it supported a statue of the Emperor. The iron hoops were added in the Vth century to improve its stability, but the upper part of the column and the statue fell in 1106 during a storm. The pedestal was covered with a pyramidal masonry in 1779 to strengthen the structure of the monument.
(left to right) Column of the Goths (in the outer gardens of Topkapi Sarayi); capitals of this column (above) and of the Column of Marcian (below); Column of Marcian (near St. Polyeuktos' on the Fourth Hill); Column of Arcadius (near Cerrah Pasha Camii on the Seventh Hill)
I saw what is called the pillars of Marcianus. (..) It is now called by the Turks Kish-Tash (The Virgin stone or
pillar); it is a very fine pillar of grey granite of the Corinthian order, with a well proportioned pedestal which had steps round it; the shaft alone seems to be about twenty-five feet high; and this pillar, especially
the pedestal, is very ill represented by some travellers: It is supposed that
the inscription was made in brass, and they have been able to trace out by the holes which were made in order to fix on the letters. A pillar like this was removed from some part of the town into the garden of the
seraglio, which I saw from Galata between the trees. The historical pillar
of Arcadius has been very exactly described; the shaft of it was taken
down about thirty years ago, for some public Turkish building; so that
the base and pedestals only remain; the base, and the column consisted
of several tiers of single stones of the same breadth as the base and column,
and were laid one over the other, out of which the stairs were cut within. Pococke
During the IIIrd century AD the Roman limes (fortified border) on the Danube River was crossed by nomadic tribes for the first time. In 267 the Heruli and the Goths sacked Byzantium and many other cities, including Athens. A column was erected to celebrate the decisive victory of Emperor Claudius II against the Goths at Naissus (today's Nis in Serbia). It might have been built by Constantine who claimed to descend from that Emperor in order to assert the legitimacy of his power.
The Column of Marcian was erected during the reign of that emperor (450-457) to celebrate not so much a victory on the battlefield, but his ability in preserving the city from being attacked by the Huns. This column is known in Turkish as the Kiztasi (Maiden's) Column because, according to one of many legends, it played a role in a ritual to establish whether a girl was a virgin. This is probably due to the existence in the same neighbourhood of a (lost) column to Venus (it makes more sense to believe that a goddess, rather than an emperor, had means to detect loss of innocence).
A column taller than that of Constantine was erected by Emperor Arcadius to celebrate his achievements: it was decorated with reliefs in a spiral band similar to those which celebrated Trajan's victories in Dacia, but Arcadius never went to war: the reliefs celebrated the massacre of the Goths who lived in Constantinople in 400. Only parts of its base remain, after a still standing section of the column was demolished in 1715 because it was about to collapse.
(left) Site of the Hippodrome; (right) Hippodrome passageways walls inside Ibrahim Pacha Sarayi
Of the several pillars and obelisks which were in the Hippodrome there
are now only three to be seen, one is the obelisk of red granite, thirty-five paces from which is the serpentine pillar, and forty paces from that an obelisk, which is built of hewn stone. Pococke
During the Greek empire the Hippodrome was constantly occupied by public spectacles, and athletic exhibitions. The antagonists were distinguished by green and blue habits, who were frequently so numerous as to form factions or insurrections, which endangered the peace of the empire at large.
James Dallaway - Constantinople Ancient and Modern with Excursions to the Shores of the Islands of the Archipelago and to the Troas - 1797
Constantine greatly enlarged a previous circus to give it a size comparable to that of Circus Maximus in Rome. The Hippodrome played a special role in the early days of Constantinople. Chariot races were very popular and large crowds gathered there. In 532 a major riot began in the Hippodrome as a quarrel between the supporters of the Blues and the Greens. Read about Emperor Caligula being a fan of the Greens (in Rome).
The obelisk, which is
built of hewn stone, was covered with plates of brass, and the holes to
which they were fixed are seen in the stones: Part of the serpentine pillar is broke off; (..) it is
thought to be a very great piece of antiquity, being said to be the
twisted serpents on which there stood a Tripos, supposed to be that
which Pausanias and the cities of Greece consecrated to Apollo at Delphi. Pococke
In order to enlarge the old circus the ground had to be levelled on its side towards the Sea of Marmara by erecting huge supporting walls. The Hippodrome was decorated with statues and other monuments.
An unusual stone obelisk stands at the southern end of the race course; it is known by the name of the Emperor who repaired it in the Xth century, because of an inscription at the base of the obelisk. It was faced with brass plates.
The Serpent Column was part of a tripod brought here from the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi by Emperor Constantine. The tripod celebrated a victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC. A bronze column ending with three heads of snakes supported a golden basin. But both Christians and Muslims did not like snakes (seen as a symbol of evil) and eventually the bronze snakes were cut (one head has been found and can be seen at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum).
In 29 BC Emperor Augustus erected Miliarium Aureum, a column in the Forum of Rome which served as the starting point for measuring the length of the roads leading to the main towns of the empire. In Constantinople this function was assigned to an arch (Milion) situated at the northern end of the Hippodrome; excavations have brought to light a stone which is thought to have been part of that arch.
(left to right) Obelisk of Thutmose III; details of its hieroglyphics; relief portraying Emperor Theodosius I offering a laurel wreath (above) and spectators and musicians with two water pipe organs (below)
The obelisk of granite appears to have been longer the figures at bottom being imperfect: Both this and the other obelisks had two steps round them, which do not now appear, as they are continually raising the ground of the Hippodrome. Pococke
According to a traditional account Constantine brought this obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III to Constantinople, but Emperor Theodosius I actually placed it at the centre of the Hippodrome. According to another account the decision of embellishing the Hippodrome with an obelisk was made by Emperor Constantius II who at the same time shipped an obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose IV (aka Obelisco Laterano) to Rome. For some reasons while the transport of the latter obelisk went smoothly, the obelisk for Constantinople was broken and it was not immediately erected (it is small because it is just the upper part of the original one). Finally a third account suggests that everything was done by Theodosius; this is in contrast with inscriptions in Latin and Greek which were placed at the base of the obelisk to celebrate the event: they emphasize the erection and not the transportation: strangely enough the Latin inscription says the erection required 30 days, whereas the Greek one says 32. The hieroglyphs are very fine, contrary to the rather still reliefs celebrating Theodosius. You may wish to see a page on all the obelisks of Rome.
Reliefs on the base of the obelisk: (above) a race around the "spina", a strip at the centre of the Hippodrome (you may wish to see a relief showing a race in Rome); (below) surrender of the Goths
One of the reliefs portrays some Goths on their knees and offering gifts. As a matter of fact it was Theodosius who made gifts to the Goths. He was appointed co-emperor after the death of Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianopolis in 378. His policy was to find an appeasement with the Goths who eventually were allowed to settle in various regions of the Balkans and to govern themselves. In 394 he did not hesitate to attack Eugenius and Arbogastes, respectively emperor and actual ruler of the western part of the empire, with an army mainly composed of Visigoths. He defeated his rivals at the Battle of the River Frigidus (today Vipava River in Slovenia): he became the sole ruler of the empire, but he also paved the way for the invasion of Italy by the Visigoths in 410. In 413 the threat of the Goths led to the construction of new walls to protect Constantinople. The image used as background for this page shows a relief of the obelisk portraying Emperor Theodosius and his court.
The Hippodrome in a Russian engraving based on a painting by Gavriil Sergeef (late XVIIIth century) (by courtesy of Andrey Spashchanskiy). It shows Sultan Ahmet Camii which was built in part over the eastern side of the Hippodrome
The most extensive open space in Constantinople is called the Atmeydan. (..) This area is at present 250 paces long and 150 wide. On one side is the mosque of Sultan Ahmet, and on another part a large building (most likely Ibrahim Pacha Sarayi), said to have been the questor's palace, now appropriated to the reception of insane persons, of whom no medical care is taken, such being esteemed by the Turks as peculiarly favoured by Heaven. (..) Connected with the hippodrome was the palace of Constantine and his successors, probably on the site of the mosque of Sultan Ahmed. Under the farther part of the circus is a cistern raised on arches to complete the level, many of which are still perfect. Dallaway
The most antient aqueduct was built by the emperors Valens and Valentinian; it conveys water to the
city at the distance of ten miles, being brought for the most part from places three or four miles to the south east of the village called Belgrade. (..) The aqueduct makes a turn before it crosses the valley from one hill to the other;
this aqueduct is executed in a very fine taste; it is a rustich work. The water first runs on a wall, and it then turns and crosses the vale on tiers of arches; it is a work of great expence and magnificence. Pococke
An extensive net of aqueducts provided the city with that ample supply that the Roman way of living required for baths, lavatories and fountains. Because the city was built on seven hills, aqueducts had to pass over many gaps; that between the third and the fourth hill is of a major dimension and it required the construction of many arches.
This aqueduct was completed in 368 by Emperor Valens to supply the imperial palaces. Damaged by earthquakes and storms it was always repaired. The lower arcade is made of large stones, whilst the upper one is made of lighter materials. You may wish to compare it with the Roman aqueduct of Segovia.
Sections of the aqueduct near Kalenderhane Camii
passages made through the piers in the length of the aqueduct, by which
one passes to the other side of the valley. Pococke
It is interesting to follow the aqueduct in its eastern section where it carried water to a Roman bath which was turned into a church and later on into a mosque (Kalenderhane Camii).
(left) Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cistern); (right) Heads of Medusa supporting the columns
Water has been brought to Constantinople at great expence, and is
very necessary in this country, where they drink it in such great quantities, and use so much for washing and bathing; and the more care has
been taken, because a want of it would certainly cause a rebellion in the city; for this purpose they formerly made so many large cisterns as reservoirs of the water of the aqueduct, in case it should fail; and the
great cistern under saint Sophia serves for that purpose at this time. Pococke
Constantine built a cistern to supply water to the imperial palace. It was enlarged by Emperor Justinian. The cistern was built in the form of a subterranean basilica with 336 columns, for this reason it is called Yerebatan Sarayi (Undergound Palace). It was during the changes made by Justinian that two colossal heads of Medusa were employed as bases for columns. They most likely came from a temple to Apollo and they were placed in that position as an indication of the Emperor's contempt for the old religion. They show the decline in art, especially when compared with those at the Temple to Apollo in Didyma.
Yerebatan Sarayi was not the only large cistern of Constantinople. Another underground cistern is situated not far away under Topkapi Sarayi. Other (open) cisterns were built in key positions to distribute water to a net of fountains. Today they house parking lots, children's playgrounds and even a small stadium.
Flavius Ardabur Aspar was a general of Gothic descent who played an influential role over the Eastern Roman Emperors between 430 and 471. Aetios was governor of the city in 421.
The street of Adrianople is broad,
and adorned with many public buildings; to the south of it there is a vale, which is to the north of the seventh hill. Pococke
Divan Yolu, the main street inside the walls of the ancient city which ends at Edirne Kapi, follows the same route as the Mese (middle) Road of Roman Constantinople. In 1950, during excavations made to enlarge the street, remains of a small podium were found near Beyazit Medresesi. Other findings in the area included pieces of columns and fragments of a triumphal arch; they have been assembled in a rather haphazard way along the pavement of the street.
Recent archaeological findings: (left) a section of the walls built by Constantine at Yenikapi on the Sea of Marmara; (right) the Magnaura Palace which housed the Senate of the city opposite Hagia Sophia
Plan of this section:
Hagia Irene and Little Hagia Sophia
Roman/Byzantine exhibits at the Archaeological Museum
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Byzantine Heritage - Other Churches (before 1204)
St. Saviour in Chora
Byzantine Heritage (between 1204 and 1453)
First Ottoman Buildings
The Golden Century: I - from Sultan Selim to Sinan's Early Works
The Golden Century: II - The Age of Suleyman
The Golden Century: III - Suleymaniye Kulliye
The Golden Century: IV - Sinan's Last Works
The Heirs of Sinan
Towards the Tulip Era
The End of the Ottoman Empire
Museums near Topkapi Sarayi
The Princes' Islands
Map of Istanbul