There is much to see about the Byzantine heritage in today’s Istanbul. It is possible to trace the churches, cisterns and palaces of the Byzantine period in various museums and mosques.
As a tour guide in Istanbul for nearly 20 years, I have a special interest in the Byzantine period. The mysticism of Byzantium, a civilization that no longer exists, seems interesting to me.
In this article, I will try to convey what I know about the Byzantine structures in Istanbul. I would also like to add that as a licensed tour guide in Istanbul, I organize private Byzantine Istanbul tours that include these historical artifacts.
Byzantine Heritage in Istanbul
The list of Byzantine heritage in Istanbul consists of 16 titles. Of course, there are other Byzantine structures in the Historical Peninsula (former Constantinople) that are not on this list.
However, while creating the list, I tried to choose places that a tourist visiting Istanbul can easily find. In the lines below, you can find the most important structures of Istanbul’s Byzantine past.
1. Hippodrome of Constantinople
Hippodrome of Constantinople is one of the early Roman buildings in Istanbul. The Hippodrome was built in the 4th century by Constantine the Great, who declared Istanbul the new capital of Rome.
The Hippodrome served as the main entertainment center of Istanbul for about 1000 years. This structure is an open-air museum, also known as Sultanahmet Square today.
2. Great Palace
The Great Palace was also built during the reign of Emperor Constantine and was the royal residence of the Roman emperors. The palace, which served for about 900 years, was replaced by the Palace of Blachernae in the late Byzantine period.
You can see the floor decorations left from the Great Palace at the Great Palace Mosaics Museum in today’s Sultanahmet district. These mosaics give us an idea of the early Roman art in Istanbul.
3. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by Justinian, the most famous emperor in Byzantine history. The building, which has stood for 1500 years, symbolizes the sophistication of Roman architecture.
Hagia Sophia is, of course, the most important work to see regarding the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul. However, considering that Hagia Sophia was built three times in history, it is recommended that you visit the structure with a guide who is an expert in Byzantine history.
4. Hagia Eirene
Hagia Eirene is essentially one of the oldest churches in Istanbul. It is rumored that there was a church built on the Temple of Venus here before even Hagia Sophia was built.
First Constantine I and then Justinian I beautified this church. However, the works of both of them did not reach the present day. Today’s Hagia Eirene was rebuilt during the Iconoclasm period in the 8th century.
Hagia Eirene is the structure with the most mystical atmosphere among the Byzantine churches in Istanbul. The building, which was built in a simple style by the Iconoclast emperors, was never turned into a mosque.
5. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is one of the most important buildings for the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul and is contemporary with Hagia Sophia. The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian in the 500s.
Although there are many Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul, Basilica Cistern stands out as the most iconic building among them. The reason for this is the Medusa Heads under some columns in the cistern.
6. Theodosius Cistern
Theodosius Cistern was opened to the public a few years ago after many years of restoration. The cistern, whose local name is “Serefiye Cistern”, is actually older than the Basilica Cistern and dates back to the Theodosius II period.
Light shows are held in Theodosius Cistern today. There is a 10-minute light show every hour. During the show, you can see the reflections of figures from the history of Istanbul on the walls of the 1600-year-old cistern.
7. Cistern of Philoxenos
The Cistern of Philoxenos was closed to the public until a few years ago and only opened for private events. As of 2022, it was opened to tourists for a reasonable fee.
Cistern of Philoxenos is a must-see for anyone interested in Byzantine sites in Istanbul. Known locally as the Binbirdirek Cistern, the building has a mysterious atmosphere.
8. Church of Sergius and Bacchus
Church of Sergius and Bacchus is a 6th century structure built during the reign of Emperor Justinian. As old as Hagia Sophia, this building is a little off the traditional tourist route and is generally quiet.
In this old Byzantine church, which serves as the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque today, there are still reliefs and column capitals to see about the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul.
9. Forum of Constantine
The Forum of Constantine was one of the first buildings of Roman Constantinople in the 300s. The Forum consisted of an ancient square and the statue of Emperor Constantine on a porphyry column in its centre.
Today, Forum of Constantine is the square where the Cemberlitas Tram Station is located. Only the body of this porphyry column remained from the square. However, you can still imagine the old state of this square through the animation pictures.
10. Valens Aqueduct
The Valens Aqueduct was the most important part of the sophisticated water transport system established by the Roman emperors. This aqueduct was used in both Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
When Constantinople was declared the new capital of Roman Empire, its population suddenly increased and there was a water shortage. This aqueduct, which was completed during the reign of Emperor Valens, permanently solved the water problem of the city.
11. Monastery of the Pantocrator
The Monastery of the Pantocrator was the third largest church in Istanbul after Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles during the Byzantine period. The building was formed by the merging of 3 separate churches.
The Monastery of the Christ Pantocrator, one of the most beautiful structures in Istanbul from the late Byzantine period, continues to exist today as the Zeyrek Mosque. The recently restored building is now in very good condition.
12. Church of Saint Theodosia
Church of Saint Theodosia is located around Cibali, Fener and Balat, one of the most popular walking routes of Istanbul in recent years. The building, which serves as the Gul Mosque today, is essentially an 11th century Byzantine church.
Saint Theodosia was a woman killed for defending icons during the Byzantine Iconoclasm period of the 8th century. This church was built in the name of St Theodosia, who was later honored as a saint by the Eastern Church.
13. Church of Saint George
The Church of Saint George is the most important structure of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Fener district. The relics of John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great, called The Three Holy Hierarchs, are preserved here.
The Church of Saint George is not one of the Byzantine churches in its current form. However, it is a must-see for anyone following the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul. Because it gives great clues about the life of Christians in Istanbul after the Byzantine Empire.
14. Chora Church
Chora Church is undoubtedly the most special of the Byzantine sites in Istanbul. In some aspects, we can say that it is more attractive than Hagia Sophia. Because the church is home to magnificent Byzantine mosaics.
When Chora Church was first built, it was a monastic complex outside the city walls. After the Theodosian Walls were built, it remained within the new city walls. What makes Chora Church world famous is the magnificent Byzantine mosaics added in the 13th century.
Today, Chora Church serves under the name Kariye Mosque. This important Byzantine structure is located in the west of Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula, very close to the Walls of Constantinople.
15. Palace of Porphyrogenitus
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus is associated with Constantine VII, who lived in the 10th century. It is presumed that this building is an annex from the Palace of Blachernae, the main palace of the late Byzantine period.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (known locally as Tekfur Palace) was among the Byzantine ruins in Istanbul for many years. However, the palace has recently undergone extensive restoration and now serves as the Tekfur Palace Tile Museum.
16. Walls of Constantinople
The Walls of Constantinople actually came into existence during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II, with the expansion of the walls from the reign of Emperor Constantine. However, the new walls were much more advanced than the old ones.
Although the Walls of Constantinople was associated with Emperor Theodosius II and referred to as the Theodosian Walls, it was actually the work of a statesman. These magnificent walls were built by the regent Anthemius when Theodosius II was a child emperor.
The Walls of Constantinople protected the Byzantine capital from numerous sieges for 1000 years. So these walls were impenetrable during the Middle Ages. The demolition of the walls was only possible with the developments in artillery in the following centuries.
Byzantine structures in Istanbul are of course not limited to those in this article. There are many other late Byzantine churches within the Historic Peninsula (former Constantinople).
If you are going to visit Istanbul and want to take a tour of the Byzantine monuments, you can organize a private guided tour with licensed tour guide Serhat Engul. So you can listen to the changes that the city has gone through in history from an insider.
If you want to know more about the private Byzantine history tour I offer, you can also review the Byzantine Istanbul tour article I wrote recently. In this article, there are tours consisting of a balanced blend of Byzantine buildings that can be visited in Istanbul in one day.
If you want to go deeper into the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul, the article titled Byzantine Churches in Istanbul may also be of interest to you. You can also follow the current photos of the Byzantine buildings in the city from this instagram address.
Written by Serhat Engul