Three days in Istanbul: Hagia Eirene

This building could have featured in my previous post on finding ancient (Eastern) Rome in Istanbul, as it was the first church to be built by Constantine the Great in his new capital city, and was the main place of worship until Hagia Sophia was built in the 360s. 

Now it stands within the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace – in Ottoman times it found itself used as an arsenal, and then more recently as a military museum,  

The original building has been damaged by fire and earthquakes. What we see today is from the 8th Century. It is fixed in a very particular moment in time: the basic decoration (a large cross instead of icons) dates from the days of iconoclasm, and would have been relatively unusual either before or after that date.

The site is slightly below ground level and is basically built to replicate the form of a traditional Roman basilica. 

Its dome has seen better days and netting hides its splendour (and the birds above)… 

The site may even be the final resting place of Constantine himself – peeking through the window into a sunlit internal courtyard, I saw the porphyry tomb to the left and remembered Simon Sebag Monteffiore’s recent programme (Byzantium: a tale of three cities) where it was suggested that this might be the emperor’s tomb. Not such a ludicrous suggestion as only members of the Imperial family were allowed to use this material. And is the Chi-Rho symbol a clue? 

Three days in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace (named after a now lost Cannon Gate) stands on an acropolis overlooking the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara, and close to both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque

After the 1453 conquest, this site was chosen as the location for Sultan Mehmed’s new palace complex, with construction beginning in 1459.  It remained the chief residence of sultans and their families until the middle of the 19th Century.

It’s a magical blend of courtyards offering visual feasts of architecture; sacred relics;and a treasure trove including gold-encrusted thrones, jewellery from Persia, India and even Britain. Sadly, no photos in most of those exhibits. And, given its location, it’s not surprising to find stunning views across the Bosphorus to Asia, and across the Golden Horn to Galata and the modern city centre of Istanbul.




The tower below is the highest point in the complex, and is known as the Tower of Justice.  When built, it was intended to be visible from across the Bosphorus, and a symbol of the sultan’s presence. 


Gardens that once housed peacocks and other exotic animals now house richly decorated pavilions.

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With the Istanbul Museum Pass, we got two visits for the price of one as entrance to the Harem (meaning forbidden) was also included. That was a fascinating warren, and offered only a glimpse into the closed world of eunuchs, Queen Mothers. wives and concubines. From baths to swimming pools, their every need was catered for.












Three days in Istanbul: Exploring the new Rome

Previous posts have hinted at Istanbul’s Roman heritage.

The old Greek settlement of Byzanium – situated at the strategic crossing point of the Bosphorous – was chosen by Emperor Constantine the Great for his “New Rome” of Constantinople. There’s a lot still left to see, so my 3-day visit (and this post) could only scratch the surface of what’s left.

Today’s old city district of Sultanahmet, with Sultanahmet Park and the Blue Mosque at its heart, is centred around the ancient hippodrome. Like Rome’s Circus Maximus or Piazza Navona, it’s still possible to get a sense of the old race course, which is conveniently marked by three ancient columns – one obelisk from ancient Egypt, the so-called Serpent Column from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the third a more modern 10th Century addition. IMG_9340 IMG_9348 IMG_9404 IMG_9425 And here’s Emperor Theodosius enjoying the hippodrome spectacle as depicted on the obelisk named after him… IMG_9361 The Blue Mosque is itself partly built on the Byzantine Emperors’ Great Palace, and recent excavation uncovered some evidence of hippodrome seating. But for the visitor,  all that’s left of that is the Istanbul Mosaic Museum, where it’s still possible to view some of the mosaic floor tiles of Constantine’s palace. That’s for another visit, as is the Archaelogical Museum close by.

Before entering Hagia Sophia, one can see a column graveyard with bits and pieces left from the original version of the church – hard to believe that this has lain untouched for over 1500 years.

Inside, remnants of Rome remain in this church turned mosque turned museum, with an easy to miss site of significance being the Ompitahlon, the spot where Eastern Roman emperors were crowned. IMG_9192

Back to the hippodrome, and the main tram / shopping street of Sultanahmet, Divan Yolu Caddessi, now follows the route to the Divan (or Ruling Council of the Ottoman Empire at Topkapi Palace). But it has an earlier Imperial heritage as the Mese. A road which (eventually) leads to Rome. At its starting point was the Milion (only rediscovered last century), the point at which all distances from Constantinople were measured

Following Divan Yolu Caddessi for about half a mile, one reaches the Column of Constantine: a porphyry creation just off the street that officially marked the Forum of Constantine. Appropriately, that Forum area is quite close to the Grand Bazaar – keeping the original function of the forum area alive into the present day, in much the same way as happened in London.

As I said earlier, this is only a snapshot of Istanbul’s Eastern Roman heritage, and there’s lots more to explore above and below ground.

Three days in Istanbul: the Blue Mosque

On exiting Hagia Sophia, one gets a view of the Blue Mosque (properly the Sultanahmet Mosque), which replaced that earlier building as one of the main centres of worship in Imperial Istanbul. Its architect, Mehmet Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, was obviously a little influenced by Hagia Sophia when building this impressive structure for the young Sultan Ahmed I in the early 17th Century.


Like Hagia Sopha, the complex contains a school, tomb for the Sultan and a courtyard with fountains for worshippers.


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The Sultan was the only individual able to enter the complex on horseback – this chain made sure that he had to bow when doing so.   IMG_9379The “blue” in the mosque’s popular name comes from the 20,000+ Iznik tiles that decorate the interior of the complex from its domes to its columns.

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The vivid colours make this a stunning location and it’s well worth a visit. The visitors’ entrance is well signposted and you’ll be given a handy plastic bag for your shoes, as well as a head covering (females) if you haven’t got one of your own. 

Three days in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

Three days was never going to be enough to see all that Istanbul has to offer, but a natural starting point was Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya (the Church of Holy Wisdom).  Now a museum, this cavernous building started life almost 1700 years ago as one of three churches dedicated to the elements of the Trinity in Constantinople: the city that Constantine the Great had declared the new capital of the Roman Empire.

The building we see today is the third building on the site, and dates from the mid 6th Century. Post the 1453 Conquest of Constantinople, it became a mosque remaining so until the 1930s when it became the museum that we see today.  As part of that mosque complex, there was an adjoining primary school, fountains, an almshouse, and a complex of buildings where Sultans were buried.

So it’s a unique blend of Christian and Islamic heritage – now displaying some of the largest Islamic calligraphic panels in existence, as well as Byzantine mosaics.

The first view from the city’s Sultanhamet Park is pretty spectacular.

The site’s dome was the highest in existence (until the Renaissance) and appeared to float before eventually being reinforced by buttresses. As the scaffolding shows, repair is an ongoing  task.

The building was a pre-eminent Greek Orthodox cathedral during the Byzantine era (apart from a few years as a Roman Catholic cathedral) and had a central relevance for Eastern Roman emperors.  They were crowned here on this spot, known as the Ompithalon….

…and had a bird’s eye view of proceedings from this marble-clad loge.


Columns were rumoured to have come from the temple of Artemis at , and marble from all over the ancient world was used. The lighting in place now can only give some indication of the grandeur of how this structure would have looked when lit by candlelight and glittering mosaics.


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There’s also a reminder that not everyone would have been rapt by church services – this 9th century graffitti from a Viking Varangian guard suggests that he wasn’t exactly delighted to be there.



Moving on the site’s post 1453 life, and there are stunning examples of craftsmanship on display in the lodge for the muezzin, as well as an imperial library, minbar and altar.


Finding Ancient Rome in London

I got the inspiration for this post from my post on Milan’s Roman heritage: it seemed like a good idea to explore Roman heritage closer to home. I’ve mapped out some of London’s most important sites on the attached Google map, but obviously could only make a few of them in one day!


On exiting Tower Hill tube station at one of London’s main attractions – the Tower of London – the remains of Roman walls can be seen close to a statue of Julius Caesar. The walls have been incorporated into many buildings and even car parks – they’re also remembered by the street name London Wall in the western part of the City.  We’ll meet it again later in the post!

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Just a little further along, and a western neighbour of the Tower of London stands the Saxon church of All Hallows by the tower.


Built in 675 AD, this is the oldest church in the city of London and built over the remains of a Roman-era home discovered only in 1926, and whose pavement is visible from the crypt.  The church describes this as:

the floor of a domestic house from the late 2nd Century. Consisting of plain red tesserae, it has a gully in it thought to be the position of a wall, showing plaster at the edges.


The crypt museum displays some everyday objects from the house, including lamps, bowls (some in great condition), writing implements and even the household shrine.



The atmospheric little museum also contains a model of the Roman city, built in the 1920s.


And appropriately for a church, there are fragments of burial monuments and tablets.



Peeking above that first picture of picture of All Hallows’ is the new Walkie Talkie building, only a minute or so away from the location of Londinium’s Roman Forum whose basilica was at the time the largest building north of the Alps.  The commercial theme of the forum continues into the 21st Century as it’s the site of Leadenhall market (which become one of London’s markets in  the 1300s).  And it also featured in Harry Potter and the Philiphosphers Stone as Diagon Alley!

There are no visible remains of the Forum or basilica above ground, although some of the basilica’s piers are apparently visible from below ground in a barbers shop!  While there’s nothing much to see now, the Museum of London have recreated the site in model format.



We’re also not far from a temple of Mithras discovered during building work in the 1950s but can omit that as it’s currently part of extensive city building work and will eventually reemerge as an exhibit in new Bloomberg offices. Again the Museum of London come to the rescue with remnants taken from the origianl excavation of that Temple. Interestingly, as the site was moved from its original location, archaeologists are now requesting that people forward old photographs to help them rebuild the site as authentically as possible.


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The gods above are Mithras and Serapis.  With the name of this blog, I couldn’t not include Minerva too.



On to the City of London’s Guildhall, home of the Corporation of London since the 12th Century. . Guildhall square is a gorgeous space but look at the elliptical black line around its edge – what it represents lies beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery: the remains of Londinium’s amphitheatre.

IMG_8976 IMG_8968 IMG_8953-0 IMG_8958 IMG_8965-0 IMG_8964-0The amphitheatre was only discovered as recently as 1988, and architects have incorporated it beautifully into the Guildhall art gallery. While it’s not the Colosseum, the scant remains of the site’s eastern entrance are beautfiully lit to give visitors an impression of what the site could have been like.   It’s even been used as a theatre in recent years.

Obviously, given their discovery dates, neither amphitheatre nor temple are featured in the All Hallows model above.

Moving on to the Musuem of London, which has provided some of the photos already in this post, there’s another sign of Roman London – in the street name (London Wall).  The museum itself has a Roman gallery showing wonderful exhibits of finds from across London – not just restricted to the city walls of Londinium, but venturing south into Southwark and much further.

Part of London Wall has even been integrated into the display – visible from the museum Londinium galleries. What’s displayed here is actually the round turret of a fort (to which the museum arranges guided visits) and located at the North western edge of the city of Londinium. One could just imagine the soldiers making the short walk from their fort to the amphitheatre for a day out!

Inside, as well as the representations of the Forum, basilica and Temple described above there is much more detail on how citizens lived and died, including models of the baths complex overlooking the Thames, and mock ups of a triclinium, kitchen and more.

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As with all the sites, many of the finds are quite recent, including a find of a Roman noble woman’s sepulchre (discovered in 1999 during excavations of Spitalfields market). The features of Its occupant – Spitalfields Woman –  have been reconstructed putting a face to at least one of the ancient city’s citizens.P1020857


And If you can’t get to see any of those sites, then there is always the wonderful cast court at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where you’ll even find a replica of Trajan’s Column.


then there are the Roman baths that aren’t….

Exploring Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle has been home to six English queens, and today is a major tourist attraction deep in the Kent countryside (the Leeds bit comes from the name of the area of Esledes recorded in the Domesday book).

It started life as a castle built by a Norman knight, Robert de Crevecoueur, who had accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066, and passed into royal ownership at the time of Edward I, where it remained until the time of Edward VI.  Its final owner, Lady Olive Bailie, left her mark by introducing black swans, and combining traditional decoration with a 1930s style.  It’s thanks to the foundation that she set up that so many of us were able to explore the site on an October afternoon.

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Inside the castle, the decor ranges from mock medieval to 1930s styles.  Here, the Queen’s bedroom reflects how a bedroom could have looked, with the cipher of Henry V and Catherine de Valois lining the walls.




Back outside, and there’s more to explore (whether by train or not!).

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