Also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire dominated Eastern Europe from approximately 395 AD to the 15th century. In 1453, Byzantium fell to Ottoman Turkish invaders.
But in its prime, the Byzantine Empire is thought to have had power over lands from Spain all the way to India. And the capital of this vast empire was in Constantinople, now known as Istanbul.
The Byzantine Empire’s rich cultural and architectural heritage is still preserved in dazzling sites across the city. From important museums to incredible architectural triumphs, here are 5 Byzantine sites to visit in Istanbul.
1. Hagia Sophia
One of many important Byzantine sites in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia is a world famous 6th century church turned mosque. Whilst the original Hagia Sofia was built in the 4th century AD by Constantine the Great, very little remains of this structure nor the one built after it in the fifth century. The current building dates back to between 532 and 537 AD, during which time it was constructed under the order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.
Visitors can view remnants of the first two Hagias Sophias as well as touring the current building with its stunning mosaics and ornate Muslim altars and chapels. Outside, cannonballs used by Mehmet the Conqueror during his invasion of the city line the paths and there is an eighteenth century fountain for ritual ablutions. Hagia Sophia is a beautiful mixture of Muslim and Christian influences and architecture, including the Byzantine mosaics, which can only really be seen in the higher galleries for a further fee.
2. The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is a subterranean wonder and one of the greatest – and certainly the biggest – of Istanbul’s surviving Byzantine sites. With its imposing columns, grand scale and mysterious ambience, this subterranean site seems like a flooded palace, but it is in fact a former water storage chamber. Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in around 532AD, the Basilica Cistern would have stored around 80,000 cubic metres of water at a time to supply the city of Byzantium.
Today, visitors can explore the site, treading its raised platforms to view its 336 beautiful marble columns, enjoy its vaulted ceilings and experience its eerie nature complete with dripping water. Amongst the highlights at the Basilica Cistern are two mysterious columns depicting the head of the mythological figure Medusa.
3. Istanbul Mosaic Museum
The Istanbul Mosaic Museum, located near Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul, contains the amazing remains of mosaics excavated from the courtyard of the Great Palace of Constantinople. First discovered in 1933 and later fully excavated in the 1950s, the mosaic floors were found under the modern Arasta Bazaar and now form the core of the Istanbul Mosaic Museum.
The Great Palace mosaics that make up the museum have been dated between 450 and 550 AD and depict scenes from daily life, hunting nature and mythology rather than religious figures. Visitors can walk around and above the excavated mosaics and read detailed information points which describe the content and history of each mosaic section.
4. St Savior in Chora
St Savior in Chora (Kariye Camii) is an 11th century church turned mosque and, more recently, a museum known as Kariye Muzesi (Chora Museum).
Originally built within a Christian complex outside the boundary of Constantinople’s walls, St Savior in Chora derived its name from its countryside setting, with ‘in chora’ meaning ‘rural’. However, the building of St Savior in Chora we see today is a newer incarnation, having been built in the 11th century and turned into a mosque in the 16th century.
Today, a highlight of visiting St Savior in Chora is its incredible set of Byzantine mosaics dating to the fourteenth century, when the church underwent redecoration. Hidden by plaster during its time as a mosque, these works now remain beautifully preserved.
5. Yedikule Zindanlari
Yedikule Zindanlari is an impressive Byzantine and medieval fort in Istanbul, one of several key Byzantine sites in the city. Originally part of the Theodosian Wall, built by Theodosius II in the fifth century, the fortress was added to over the centuries, including by Mehmet the Conqueror during the Ottoman period.
Today, this imposing fort is open to the public and visitors can see its dungeons as well as walking along its well-preserved walls and battlements.