“O how great is that noble and beautiful city! How many monasteries, how many
palaces there are, fashioned in a wonderful way! How many wonders there are to be
seen in the squares and in the different parts of the city! I cannot bring myself to tell
in detail what great masses there are of every commodity: of gold, for example, of
silver…and relics of saints” -Fulcher of Chartres (~1100AD)
Constantinople. Constantinopolis. Nova Roma. The Queen of Cities. Κωνσταντινούπολις. Justinian called it “the imperial city guarded by God.” Even after the fall of the Empire in 1453 the city kept it’s name, in a Turkish form. After the conquest “continuity was averred by maintaining the name of the city. In imperial gold coinage minted in Istanbul from Mehmed’s day until the fall of the Ottoman Empire four and a half centuries later, the city was referred to as Kostantiniyye (‘Constantinople’).” Constantinople was the most important focal point for the Eastern Roman Empire in all eras until it was conquered in 1453. The former Greek city of Byzantium was transformed by Constantine into a “new Rome,” which was appropriately symbolic for the city. This new Rome would be the new cultural center of a spiritually transformed, now firmly Christian, Roman civilization. The Roman Empire would transform during and after Constantine’s life into a Christian Empire with a Greek speaking core. There were always of course other prominent cities in Byzantine history such as Ravenna, Antioch, Alexandria, Trebizond, Thessaloniki, Adrianople, Nicaea, and others at various times. There were also small cities which still had prominent histories or regional importance, such as Athens, Amorion, or Ephesus etc. But Constantinople was always the Queen of Cities in the Eastern Roman world.
Situated on a highly defensible peninsula, the city allowed the Romans to weather many existential threats such as the Persians, Arabs, and the Turks for nearly four centuries. Only in 1204 when the descendants of the same barbarians who took down the Western Roman Empire came to Constantinople did the splendor of antiquity come crashing down in the city of Constantine. This city would leave visitors in awe at it’s splendor, size, beauty, artistic value, and its collection of relics.
It impressed the Crusaders with its wealth and size. The Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade had the closest look as they were able to move freely around the city and assess it for plunder. Robert De Clari was clearly impressed by the city, documenting its glory as he and his colleagues in the Fourth Crusade destroyed the city. He wrote that: “Not since the world was made, was there ever seen or won so great a treasure or so noble or so rich, not in the time of Alexander (the Great) nor in the time of Charlemagne nor before nor after. Nor do think, myself, that in the forty richest cities of the world there had been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople. For the Greeks say that two thirds of the wealth of this world is in Constantinople and the other third scattered throughout the world.”
This is the most important city in the Medieval period in the West, and yet it is not always remembered in all historical narratives as such. But, it should be! That is why I have written several articles on this site to give people a view into the buildings of Constantinople. This article is on the city in a vague sense, the other articles in the drop-box are more specific and in-depth on those topics.
A CITY OF CHURCHES:
One of the key features of Constantinople was it’s unquantifiable number of churches and monasteries. Professor of Christian Art and Architecture at Yale University Vasileios Marinis wrote that “Medieval Constantinople was a city of churches and monasteries; so many that visitors, especially foreigners, often resorted to hyperbolic description. They did so with justification. Sources provide evidence for about 500 churches of various types between the fourth and fifteenth centuries. Admittedly, not all existed at the same time, and name changes over time may have led to the occasional duplication, but it is also likely that some religious establishments are not mentioned, thus evening the score. Tenth-century sources list 159 churches inside the city walls, with dozens more in the suburbs.” In addition to churches there was also a large quantity of monasteries. According to Dirk Krausmüller, “monasteries began to appear in and around Constantinople within a century of its foundation. By the mid-sixth century the city was home to nearly seventy houses. Once established, monasticism was integral to the city’s identity.” One would have seen priests and monks and nuns all around the city in all eras of Byzantine history.
To illustrate the impression made by Constantinople’s numerous places of worship are some western accounts. William of Tyre recorded the visit during the reign of Manuel Komnenos of the “King [of Jerusalem, Amalric, d. 1174] who was escorted throughout the whole city both within the walls and without. He visited the churches and monasteries of which there was an almost infinite number.”
THE STREETS AND PUBLIC SPACES OF THE CITY:
Albrecht Berger wrote a piece entitled “Streets and Public Spaces in Constantinople” where he addressed “the question of whether Constantinople was planned and built with a regular street layout. The existence of such a layout has frequently been doubted. In fact, the surviving evidence is vary scanty. We have only the trace of a single street, the Mese, longer than some hundred meters. Moreover, we should not forget that for a long time scholarship about Byzantine Constantinople was influenced by the appearance of Turkish Istanbul. The Islamic street system, with its irregular blind and winding alleys, was considered to be the symbol of a decadent culture, and since Byzantine culture itself was widely thought to be decadent, the Islamic layout, projected backward in time, served as a proof for the inferiority of the Byzantine town planning compared to that of Ancient Greece.”
It is well known that there was a lot of bias against Constantinople, and the Germans prior to World War Two especially exemplified this. Armin Von Gerkan wrote a slanderous paragraph about Constantinople: “Constantinople was not a Greek city anymore, it ceased to be a Roman one, and did not become a medieval one. It was an accumulation of imperial license without organic development, which was upset more than once by the excessive growth of the population, a pattern without any structure, without roots, and without the possibility of inner development. Despite its unique situation in the world, it wasted away because of the basic of evil of the Byzantine Empire, it died without ever having lived, and it continued to die on through the Turkish period until the present day.” Notice, von Gerkin does not cite any particular examples to support his claims, it is just a rant.
The actual street alignments are not well known. However, we can get some insights from where some larger roads must have been based on the surviving monuments and fortifications. For example, Berger points out that “if a number of monuments lie along an imaginary line and are oriented in the same way, a street may have led along them.” But, there are challenges to that approach. For example, perhaps a church could be oriented in a way not aligned with the road but had some other pathways connecting it to the street. Knut Olaf Dolman studied the Aqueduct of Valens, and from those studies found out some information about the streets. Dolman wrote: “In the town plan of present-day Constantinople, three zones can still be clearly identified that evidence discernable differences in their street layouts. The first corresponds to the old town within the Severan wall. In it no consistent street network can be recognized. The second Zone is Constantine’s town, whose systematic layout can still be made clear…In the third zone, which extends to the walls of Theodosius II, we again miss the continuous axes of a uniform system.” But, as Berger points out, he was really just going by the Ottoman street plans, and Berger is adamant he was wrong about the lack of a organized street plan.
Setting aside such ridiculous notions, what was the urban landscape like? The city was built in stages, starting with old city of Byzantium, which sometimes seen referred to as the Severan area, after Emperor Septimius Severus who rebuilt parts of the city. When Constantine, and later Theodosius II expanded the city, they used some already existing roads as the basis to plan the street layout around. For example, the Mese, the Main Street of Constantinople, was just the Via Egnatia that ran through the city. The road would have already been there, and perhaps it may have been upgraded and built around, but it was not new. The addition of Porticoes transformed it into the a bustling commercial street. There were likely to be two coastal roads, one along the Marmara sea and the other along the Golden Horn, which predated the building of Constantinople. When the city expanded outside the original walls Constantine had built, the entire area between the Theodosian walls was never to the brim with urban life. Really there was only development in the in-between area along the Mese on the Sea of Marmara side, and along the Golden Horn and in Blachernae.
Berger says that anaylzing Constantinople, there was clearly a street plan. “In the old town of Byzantium, a street grid can be recognized quite easily.” Summarizing his views, he wroe that “after the foundation of Constantinople in 324, a vast area had to be build up and incorporated into the fabric of the city. It seems that a consistent plan for the whole town was not made immediately but that was a first stage only two new, seperate quarter were established, one on the hills overlooking the Golden Horn, just outside the old walls, the other around the mausoleum of Constantine at the church of the Holy Apostles.
THE POPULATION SIZE:
In the 6th century, the population of Constantinople was 300,000-500,000 according to Paul Magdalino. He, along with other scholars, believes the population declined in the following two centuries to a level possibly as low as 70,000 people. Magdalino details how the urban scale decline as the Roman Empire faced new levels of existential crisis:
“In the first half of the seventh century, Egypt was conquered temporarily by the Persians and then definitively by the Arabs, who thus deprived Constantinople of its main source of grain. In 626 the Avars cut the aqueduct. The empire’s finances, diminished by devastation and loss of territory, were consumed by the life-and-death struggle with these and other enemies. Contemporary sources do not record the impact on urban life, but the government was undoubtedly obliged to reduce the urban population, at least until local agricultural production was stepped up and dietary habits changed to allow for greater consumption of meat and fish. Almost no major new building or restoration project is reliably attested between 610 and 760. The main area of settlement seems to have contracted around the old Constantinian civic center and the harbor of Julian, the only port of entry and exit mentioned in sources of the seventh to tenth centuries. It was probably in this period of depopulation that burials began to take place within the Constantinian wall and that the monumental spaces on the edge of the civic center—the amphitheater on the Acropolis, the Strategion near the Golden Horn, and some of the fora along the Mese—began to be used as places of execution and markets for livestock. The great baths, theaters, and sculptured monuments of the fourth and fifth centuries fell into decay and came to be regarded as objects of superstitious dread from a legendary and exotic past. Even the upkeep of churches strained the available resources, and Frankish ambassadors in the mid-tolate eighth century returned with reports of basilicas that lacked proper lighting or even roofing.”
Robert G Ousterhout also describes the huge decline in population in the city: If we are to view Constantinople as a city in transition, to my mind the most important urban transformation took place during the seventh to the ninth centuries. This period effectively marked its redefinition from a Late Antique to a medieval city. Constantinople had a population of perhaps 500,000 in the fifth century, which could have only been supported with a well-organized trading network that brought wheat from as far away as Egypt, and this also required sufficient ships, harbors, and warehouses. Elaborate works of engineering, like aqueducts and cisterns, were also necessary to provide and store water for the inhabitants. Without an elaborate system of trade and without quantities of water, a city of this size could not survive, and the population declined dramatically after the seventh century. Prior to the Arab siege of 717-18, Anastasius expelled all inhabitants who could not lay in a three-year supply of provisions. The population must have shrunk to perhaps one-tenth of its former size. The demise of trans-Mediterranean trade on an
Imperial Roman scale meant also that the medieval city remained small, with a large area of desabitato within the walls.” I think this is a generalization, of course Constantinople did still have a water system. It did fall into disrepair at this time, indicating a far lower population, but it was also brought back into function later when needed. Cisterns were of course present, and probably without the aqueduct were the main source of water for the city.
The decline in Constantinople continued after the Arab siege as well, peaking with a large outbreak of plague in 746. The Emperor Constantine V replaced the population of the city with Romans from Greece and islands of the Aegean. A couple decades later, he stepped up his repopulation efforts and repaired the Aqueduct of Valens, which had not operated in 140 years. This was the turning point for the city of Constantinople to be reborn as a giant metropolis once again, growing until 1204 when the fate of the city suffered its infamous and tragic fate. The city had contracted to the southern area, but the reviving city began to grow outwards, and in the 11th century the Golden Horn and Blachernae really took off in terms of growth. Alexios Komnenos moved the imperial residence to Blachernae, which naturally encouraged growth there, and of course in the areas between the Great Palace and Blachernae.
Magadalino described the population of the city as it peaked in the 12th and early 13th centuries: “The population of Constantinople, including merchants, litigants, and other transients, may have numbered as much as four hundred thousand in 1204 and occupied a built-up area corresponding very closely to that of the sixth-century city, with a dense concentration around the commercial district and tentacles of development along the seashores and the branches of the Mese leading to secondary nuclei in the northwest and southwest corners. The settlement used and reused the buildings of the late antique, early Christian, and earlier medieval phases in ways that ranged from careful conservation through structural conversion to outright quarrying. Whether the result was a pleasing blend or an incongruous jumble is impossible to say, but no part of the city was entirely a recent creation, and Constantinople was probably more closely, richly, and naturally in touch with its physical origins than any other city surviving from Greco-Roman antiquity.”
By 1453, the city was merely a shadow of it’s former self, and the capital of an Empire which was hardly even a shadow.
Clavijo, the ambassador of Spain to the Timurid court, stopped in Constantinople in 1403 where he was able to get a personal tour with the son in-law of the Emperor because he claimed they were distant relatives. Nike Koutrakou says that “Clavijo’s descriptions focus on churches and monasteries; however, he also notes the ubiquitous existence of ruins and vegetable gardens inside the walls, confirming the fifteenth-century city’s decay.”
CYCLES OF GROWTH AND DECAY:
It seems that in Constantinople, there were times the city grew and times it shrank, and though the perimeter of the city remained the same after the construction of the Theodosian walls, its contents did not. When the city grew in antiquity, it was when the Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire was a super-power with vast resources. Thus, new building materials, advanced urban architecture complete with antique quality foundations and decor, were the norm. Then, when the Empire became weaker and poorer, those resources and the population size dwindled.
When the city did start to grow again, it grew in a new form. It grew into a new medieval metropolis, although it did have many Late Antique elements surviving. One key difference in this second phase of growth was the reuse of material. Ousterhout relays how the medieval Romans were experts at re-using the remains of the Late Antique period to keep re-inventing the city. “Another visual manifestation that parallels the changes in patronage is the nature of the building materials. After about the seventh century, we have no evidence of quarrying for marble and other luxury stones. Even the nearby proconessos quarries seem to have ceased operation.” Builders relied instead on spolia taken from the ruins of the ancient city around them. Columns and capitals were reused time and time again, thus making the dating of both a building and of its parts somewhat problematic. Sculptures from the sixth century church of St. Polyeuktos, for example, found their way into the templon of the twelfth-century Pantocrator church, only to be recycled one again in the Ottoman transformation of the building. Older pieces were also recarved: look on the unexposed surface of almost any Middle or Late Byzantine cornice,
and another relief pattern will be found. Similarly, marble revetments were either recycled or created from cutting up other pieces. At the Chora, the stunning, fourteenth-century revetments are all created from spolia, in most instances from columns that have been sliced lengthwise, so that the repeat patterns of the book-matched panels are considerably wider at the center of
each set than they are to either side.”
LIFE IN CONSTANTINOPLE:
Constantinople is one of those rare places in Medieval European history, at times perhaps the only place, where one could find the kind of urban scale familiar in antiquity. One could find things lost in the West, especially on this scale such as: a large functioning hippodrome, multiple Roman forums, a colonnaded Main Street (the Mese), large cisterns, a functioning aqueduct, triumphal arches and columns, harbors, large public buildings, countless large churches and monasteries, a large quantity of ancient statues and sculptures, an imperial palace complex, as well as wealth and population on a level lost in other cities since antiquity.
It is unknown if the forums, such as the Forum of Constantine, actually still had their columns in the medieval period. Ousterhout argues, in agreement with Cyril Mango, that “Basil I built a church there, dedicated to the Virgin, having observed that the workers lacked both a place of spiritual refuge and somewhere to go to get out of the rain. Cyril Mango views this statement as significant in that it suggests that the church had replaced all other centers of social gathering. At the same time, it implies that the arcades and porticoes, which were part and parcel of the Late Antique city, no longer existed.” So it is possible that although Constantinople certainly resembled a late antique city far more than western Medieval cities, that it had lost some of that late antique splendor as well.
Life in Constantinople had a grand side, but also a darker, less beautiful dimension. For one, it was a metropolis, thus it had large amounts of poverty to go along with it’s extreme wealth. Odo of Deuil, despite his bias against the Byzantines, probably gave a fair description of the less glamorous side of society:
“The city itself is squalid and fetid and in many places harmed by permanent darkness, for the wealthy overshadow the streets with buildings and leave these dirty, dark places to the poor and to travelers; there murders and robberies and other crimes which love darkness are committed.”
This gives one a picture, like big cities today, where certain areas of the city are probably unsafe, poor, and relatively lawless in comparison to other parts. Ancient Rome had these issues as well. Odo of Deuil did also admit that Constantinople was a great city, and “if she did not have these vices, however, she would be preferable to all other places.”
Accounts of Medieval Constantinople: The Patria. Translated by Albrecht Berger (2013)
Medieval Constantinople: Built Environment and Urban Development. Paul Magdalino
Building Medieval Constantinople, Ousterhout, R. G. (1996)
The Conquest of Constantinople, Robert De Clari
The Cambridge Companion to Constantinople, Edited by Sarah Bassett
Margaret Mullett and Robert G. Ousterhout. The Holy Apostles: A Lost Monument, a Forgotten Project, and the Presentness of the Past (2020)
Streets and Public Spaces in Constantinople by Albrecht Berger. Dumbarton oaks Papers Vol. 54 (2000)