The Byzantine Heritage of Istanbul

During Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean flourished for over 1,000 years, Constantinople – the modern-day Fatih district of Istanbul – was its capital. Because of this feature, some iconic Byzantine-style buildings stand proudly in this historic part of the city.

Although many centuries have passed since the fall of the capital of Byzantium, and it has long been a Turkish Muslim city, travelers interested in the history of the great Christian power, the Byzantine Empire, with great interest come to the shores of the Bosphorus, to Istanbul.

If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital. – Napoleon I, Emperor of the French.

Some of the historical monuments of the Byzantine Empire in Istanbul have survived to this day; others did not survive and collapsed, and today we can only observe fragments of their former greatness. An excursion to the sights that have survived since the time of Constantinople can be the most exciting journey during your stay in the Turkish metropolis.

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Best tourist attractions in Byzantine Istanbul

Although some say that looking for Constantinople in Istanbul is useless, it will take you a few days to explore its entire Byzantine heritage. Here are nine Byzantine beauties that are worth a closer look.

1. Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern  underground water storage Yerebatan Saray


During the Byzantine Empire, almost half a million inhabitants lived in the city, so people needed a lot of water. Especially during a war or a siege. Those cisterns known today are only a part of what used to be a long, long time ago – underground reservoirs were everywhere in the city.

Of course, many have heard about the Basilica Cistern, especially when going on a trip to Istanbul. It is in the top 5 recommendations for visiting Istanbul, and thousands of tourists visit the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city every day.

Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, the Basilica Cistern is almost 150 m / 500 ft long, and the reservoir is about 65 m / 210 ft wide. Rows of columns completely "grown" into the ceiling covering, of which there are over 300. The height of each of them is 8 m / 26 ft! The dimensional parameters of the tank surprise almost all tourists.

Address: 
Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Tram (line T1): Sultanahmet

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2. Chora Church

Painted dome of Chora Church side chapel (Photo by Alex Berger | cc by-nc)


The Chora Church, nowadays the Kariye Mosque, is the best-preserved Byzantine temple in Istanbul. It dates to the 11th century. A bit damaged due to an earthquake and repaired in the 13th century. Along with other monuments in the historic areas of Istanbul, the Chora Church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The temple is known worldwide for its well-preserved mosaics and frescoes. They were created in the era of the economic decline of the empire, survived the sack of Constantinople, numerous wars, and earthquakes. Converting the church into a mosque in the 16th century, the Ottomans covered all the Christian murals under a layer of plaster, not destroyed. In the 18th century, restorers accidentally discovered them.

Address:
Dervişali, Kariye Cami Sk. No:18, 34087 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Bus (lines 28, 87, 87, 38B, 39B, 35D, 37E, 38E, 86V, 36V, 37Y, 39Y, 336E): Edirnekapı
Tram (line T4): Edirnekapı

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3. Great Palace Mosaic Museum

The eagle and the snake  the motif, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness (Photo by Jeremy Brooks | cc by-nc; modified)


The building that houses a unique museum complex today is part of the peristyle of the Great Palace of Constantinople. 5–6th-century mosaics found on the territory of Istanbul are the most valuable finds telling about the history of the whole Byzantine Empire.

The surviving mosaic pieces feature 90 different themes narrated using 150 human and animal figures. Nature-oriented images cover topics such as shepherd life in the open air, the courage of the business peasants and hunters, and stories of myths. Despite the past years, the patterns look bright and lively.

Address:
Sultanahmet Mahallesi Kabasakal Cad. Arasta Çarşısı Sok. No. 53, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Bus (lin BN1): İett Çatladı Kapı Durağı
Tram (line T): Sultanahmet

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4. Prison of Anemas

The Prison of Anemas was the most horrifying dungeon in Constantinople, built adjacent to the old fortification walls close to the Golden Horn.  Its eerie multi-story cellars (more than 40 m / 130 ft deep) resemble not the creation of human hands but some dungeon goblins.

Its name refers to Michel Anemas, a general who rose unsuccessfully against Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus in the 12th century and was the first person imprisoned in this building. The prison had a prominent position in the last centuries of the empire's existence when it became a lock-up for four Byzantine emperors. In its terrifying dungeons, Turks now make historical movies.

Address: 
Ayvansaray, 34087 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Bus (lines 33ES, 36CE, 41Y, 44B, 48E, 55T, 99, 99A, 99Y, 399B): Şehit Tolga Ecebalın
Tram (line T5): Ayvansaray

5. Hagia Sophia

Interior view of Hagia Sophia


Hagia Sophia is the world's most famous monument of Byzantine architecture, a symbol of the golden age of Byzantium, and an icon of Istanbul. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

For a thousand years, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, before the 16th-century Cathedral in Seville, Spain, was the largest cathedral in the Christian world. The modern building dates back to the 6th century. In the middle of the 5th century, the Ottomans captured the city and turned the cathedral into a mosque. In 1935 it acquired the status of a museum, but in 2020, it became a mosque again.

Address:
Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Tram (line T1): Sultanahmet

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6. Hippodrome of Constantinople

Theodosius and Walled Obelisks (Photo by Erik Cleves Kristensen | cc by; cropped)


The Hippodrome of Constantinople is the oldest part of Sultan Ahmet Square, close to other iconic landmarks such as the Ottoman-era Blue Mosque and Byzantine Hagia Sophia. Admission to the Hippodrome and sightseeing of its architectural monuments are free.

The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus started to construct the site in 203. Of many sculptures, columns, and obelisks, brought by the emperors of the Byzantine Empire from different parts of the world, only three columns have survived to this day: the Egyptian obelisk of Theodosius, the bronze Serpent Column, and the Walled Obelisk.

Address: 
Binbirdirek, Sultan Ahmet Parkı, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Bus (line BN1): İett Çatladı Kapı Durağı
Tram (line T1): Sultanahmet

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7. Milion Stone

Not every experienced tourist, walking through the most beautiful places in the historical part of Istanbul, will pay attention to a fenced nondescript fragment of an ancient structure that once played a significant role in the history of the Byzantine Empire. 

The ancient structure was a marble column erected in the form of a four-track arch and performed the same function as the Miliarium Aureum in Rome: the starting point for measuring distances on all roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire.

Today, the vertical marble part of the supporting structure, dug into the ground, is all that has survived from the grand building and discovered during archaeological excavations.

Address: 
Alemdar, Divan Yolu Cd. No:2, 34110 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Tram (line T1): Sultanahmet

8. Little Hagia Sophia

Column and rim as interior details of Little Hagia Sophia (Photo by fusion-of-horizons | cc by)


Little Hagia Sophia is known as the oldest Byzantine Empire building in Istanbul. Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora built this temple called the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in the 6th century. In the 15th century, during the Ottoman Empire, it became a Muslim temple.

The construction of a railway near the mosque caused damage to the state of the monument. For this reason, UNESCO has added the former Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus to the World Heritage List of endangered monuments.

Address: 
Küçük Ayasofya Mahallesi, Küçük Ayasofya Camii Sokagi No:20, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Bus (line BN1): Küçük Ayasofya

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9. Aqueduct of Valens

The Aqueduct of Valens 


One of the achievements that completely changed the quality of life in Constantinople was the complete plumbing system. The Aqueduct of Valens was built and put into operation in the 4th century by Emperor Valens. 

The material for the two-tier flyover structure was a stone separated and brought from the destroyed Chalcedon wall. About 800 m / 0.5 mi from the 1 km / 0.62 mi system has survived to this day. Climbing to the upper part of the water bridge, tourists can see the remains of ancient ceramic pipes, through which freshwater once entered the city. 

Address:
Kalenderhane, Avrupa Yakası, 34083 Fatih/Istanbul

Transportation:
Bus (lines 28T, 33, 35, 73, 77, 82, 97A, 146B): İst.Büyükşehir Beled
Share taxi (D11, D13, D14, D15, D41, D42, D43, D44): İst.Büyükşehir Beled

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