Have you ever wondered what the queen of cities – Constantinople – might have looked like? Today traces of the old Byzantine city literally still litter Istanbul. The most conspicuous of all of these structures has to the great church of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) that extends across Sultanahmet Square. But whether it is the Hagia Sophia or the imposing remains of the Theodosian walls; the Valens aqueduct, the sixth century Basilica Cistern, or the towering obelisks that still stand tall in what was the old hippodrome, you wont be disappointed.
But unless you know what you are looking for, a casual tourist could easily walk by many of the old monuments or buildings, specifically Byzantine churches that had been turned into mosques or museums. Though, I have to admit Istanbul has made many of these old Byzantine-era sites easy to access. An example of this, is the Chora monastery, in the north of the city, which is one of the finest preserved church buildings of the Byzantine-era. It served as a mosque during the Ottoman period, but is now an amazing museum that attracts tourists with its decorated mosaics and frescoes from a bygone age.
Overall, it is unfortunate that much of what was Constantinople has been ruined or simply just disappeared over the course of time. Beginning, arguably with Justinian’s plague and followed closely by the Muslim conquests in the beginning of the seventh century, Constantinople would first really start to feel the pinch from a lack of resources and funds needed to help maintain its buildings and monuments. Except for in periods of prosperity and stability, important factors such as iconoclasm, palace revolts, great fires and natural disasters such as frequent earthquakes, contributed greatly to the queen of cities long-suffering slide into disrepair. It is not to say that Constantinople wasn’t beautiful and awe-inspiring. In around 1000 AD, Constantinople was arguably the greatest city in the Mediterranean world, if not the entire world. Trade, wealth, riches and monuments, churches and palaces, and emperors all resided in what was the glorious city founded by Constantine the Great. However, like many great cities of the past, Constantinople would suffer its greatest calamity in the aftermath of the fourth crusade, when it was stripped from head to toe of all its glory.
For three days straight days (beginning April 12th 1204 CE), the inhabitants of Constantinople were open to rape and murder, as the Crusaders systematically pillaged the city. The Crusaders targeted everything in their wake, sacking churches and mansions of the rich. Battle axes, swords and tools hacked and wrenched out gold and precious stones from walls and objects of beauty. Religious treasure, which included the relics of saints, was particularly sorted after and shipped to Italy and France. So much more was melted down to mint coins or damaged by senseless destruction or lost in the chaos. It was the Venetians who gained some of the greatest ‘booty’. They carefully selected beautiful enamels and precious oriental marble-works. Most famously, the Venetians brought back to their lagoon, the four bronze horse statues, that stood in Constantinople’s hippodrome for centuries, which would now adorn the central doorway of the Basilica of San Marco.
The Fourth Crusade did more than just strip the great city of Constantinople of its wealth. It had decidedly mortally wounded the Byzantine Empire that had stood for some nine centuries since Constantine The Great first consecrated the great city. When Mehmet II eventually conquered Constantinople in 1453 (putting an end to the Byzantine empire), it was nothing more than a shell of its former self. Descriptions of the city in its last years have often likened it to a large village with scattered ruins.
It is easy for the Byzantine enthusiast to despair, but modern-day Istanbul has devoted as much as it can (or is willing) to the city’s Byzantine past. But yes, it can still be hard for the casual visitor to imagine how things once were.
The amazing people behind Byzantium 1200 have a dedicated site aimed at creating a computer generated reconstruction of Constantinople’s monuments, as of the year 1200 CE. The reasons for choosing 1200 CE, as a starting point to reconstruct what Constantinople might have looked like, should be obvious to the reader. It was, as Byzantium 1200’s creator states, a period just before the 1204 siege of Constantinople, when she probably looked her best!
I will let the reader investigate how Byzantium 1200 went about the process of reconstructing Constantinople (in your own time). But for now I would like to present this virtual recreation by Byzantium 1200 that starts from the Porta Aurea and runs through many famous sites in Constantinople. If you never thought you would expect to see Constantinople brought back to life again, this is an amazing tour you simply have to take!
Click the video to watch it via youtube. Enjoy.