The Great Palace of Constantinople – The Magnificent Imperial Residence of the Eastern Roman Emperors
The Great Palace of Constantinople, also known as the Sacred Palace, was the imperial residence of the Byzantine emperors (i.e. the Eastern Roman Emperors) for more than 700 years.
Located in the heart of Constantinople (Istanbul in present-day Turkey), the palace was a magnificent complex of buildings and courtyards that served as the center of Byzantine government and culture. The palace was basically used to symbolize the immense power and wealth of one of the world’s most influential and enduring empires.
When was the palace constructed?
Construction of the Great Palace began in the fourth century AD during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (reign: 306-337).
It was expanded and renovated over the centuries by subsequent emperors, including Justinian I (also known as Justinian the Great), who undertook a major rebuilding program in the sixth century.
Location and size
Emperor Constantine I purposely chose to site his grand imperial palace east of the Hippodrome, an area that was slightly elevated in order to demonstrate his imperial power. Also, this was meant to add to the grandiose of the palace, as it overlooked a large part of the city.
To the south-east of the palace was the mighty sea wall of Constantinople, and to the north-east of the palace stood the forum and the famed basilica Hagia Sophia.
Structures within the palace complex
The palace was built on a large scale, covering an area of approximately 200,000 square feet (19,000 square meters). It included a number of important structures, including the Chrysotriklinos, a grand audience hall decorated with gold mosaics and precious stones; the Augustaion, a large public square; and the Hippodrome, a vast arena used for chariot racing and other events.
Some of the halls in the palace were specially designed to receive dignitaries from far and wide, while some served as the coronation hall of the Byzantine emperors.
Other notable structures within the palace complex were: a polo field, barracks for the imperial guards, Roman baths (i.e. the old Baths of Zeuxippus), an educational institution, churches and chapels, reception room, and magnificent gardens with huge fountains and terraces.
Constructed between 100 and 200 AD, the Baths of Zeuxippus were destroyed during the Nika Revolt of 532 and then rebuilt several years later. Excavations of the area revealed that the baths were built close to the Great Palace Complex.
Perhaps the most breathtaking structure in the complex was the Chrysotriklinos, the magnificent Byzantine throne room built by Emperor Justin II and then later expanded by Emperor Basil I.
It is important to mention that many of the abovementioned features of the Great Palace of Constantinople were not constructed all at once; instead it took several centuries, as each Byzantine emperor made some form of modification and addition to the palace. For example, during the reign of Justinian II, the infamous Byzantine emperor with a golden nose, a wall was built around the palace.
Barracks for the Scholae Palatinae – the royal guards
Also located in the Great Palace complex were the barracks of imperial bodyguards. The barracks were cited immediately behind the Chalke Gate (i.e. the massive bronze gate that stood at the entrance of the palace). The barracks housed elite military guard unit called the Scholae Palatinae, which were originally the cavalry arm of the Praetorian Guard.
The Palace of Daphne
Named after the statue of the nymph Daphne – a nymph in Greek mythology associated with fountains and streams – the Palace of Daphne is today buried underneath the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
In the Byzantine era, the Palace of Daphne was a very important wing of the Great Palace as it included the emperor’s bedchamber (koitōn). It was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD and was originally a two-story building with multiple courtyards and gardens.
The Daphne was later expanded and renovated by other emperors, including Basil I and Nikephoros II Phokas, and was known for its luxurious decorations, including mosaics, frescoes, and marble sculptures.
To the southern part of the Daphne were two chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. There was a passage that connected the Daphne to the imperial box (kathisma) in the Hippodrome. Similar to the entire palace complex, the Daphne fell into disrepair after the 11th and 12th centuries.
The Trullo Hall and the Third Council of Constantinople
The “Trullo hall” in the Great Palace complex was where the Third Council of Constantinople took place. Also known as the sixth ecumenical council of the Christian Church, the Third Council of Constantinople was held in Constantinople in 680-681 AD. The council was called by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV to settle a theological controversy known as the Monothelite heresy, which denied that Christ had both a divine and human will.
The Chalke Gate and Roman Triumph in Constantinople
It is said that at the entrance to the Great Palace stood a massive Chalke Gate, which was made of Bronze. It stood near the Augustaion, which was in turn located on the south side of the Hagia Sophia.
Similar to their Western counterparts, the Byzantine Emperors conducted a number of ceremonial processions, most famous among them was the Triumph. The famous Roman Triumph, which bated back to the imperial Roman era, was a ceremonial procession organized in honor of the accomplishments (usually military accomplishments) of Roman emperors and generals.
In the Byzantine era, Triumphs often took place at the entrance of the Great Palace of Constantinople. Archeologists believe that massive bronze doors stood at the main entrance to the palace.
Mosaic-decorated dome of the Chalke Gate
The bronze gate built by Emperor Justinian the Great came with mosaic-decorated domes. The mosaics depicted Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora. It showed the emperor’s numerous military conquests, including those against the Vandals and the Goths. There were also mosaics that depicted influential lawmakers and generals, including the famed Byzantine general Belisarius.
There were also mosaics of important religious figures, including Jesus Christ, as well as other mythical creatures like the ancient Greek mythical monsters the Gorgons.
The Chrysotriklinos – the magnificent throne room in the Great Palace
Built by Emperor Justin II (reign: 565-574), the Chrysotriklinos was a grand audience hall located in the Great Palace of Constantinople. Justin II’s successor, Tiberius II (reign: 578-582), had the responsibility of putting finishing touches to the hall. The emperors that followed also decorated the hall, which also served as the throne room.
As it had beautifully designed interior of gold mosaics and precious stone, the audience hall was sometimes called the “Golden Hall”.
It is said that the Chrysotriklinos was where the Byzantine emperor received dignitaries, who sat in exquisitely designed chairs.
Basically, the audience hall, which remained in use from the late 6th century to around the 10th century, was meant to dazzle foreign ambassadors as well as communicate the vast wealth and power the empire wielded.
Important facts about the Chrysotriklinos
Unbeknownst to many people, the Chrysotriklinos influenced a number of medieval chapels and royal architecture across Europe, including Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen (in present-day Germany).
Much of what we know about the appearance and major features of the Chrysotriklinos comes from De Ceremoniis, a 10th-century work about the ceremonial protocol that existed in the court of the Byzantine emperors.
However, there exist no full description of the hall. There are some scholars that have theorized that the Chrysotriklinos was octagonal in shape, perhaps similar to the Palatine Chapel in Aachen.
The Chrysotriklinos rose to such importance and prominence that Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus labelled the hall “the palace”.
In some accounts, i.e. the Suda encyclopedia, Emperor Justin I (reign: 518-527) is credited as the builder of the Chrysotriklinos. On the other hand, the Patria of Constantinople, claims that the honor should instead go to none other than Emperor Marcian (reign: 450-457).
After the end of Byzantine Iconoclasm era (in the mid-9th century), an era when religious images or icons were seen as idolatry, Byzantine emperors Michael III (reign: 842-867) and Basil I (reign: 866-886) expanded the hall, decorating it with many exquisite items. And during the reign of Emperor Constantine III (reign: 913-959), silver doors were installed in the hall.
During imperial banquets, guests sat at a gilded principal table, which could accommodate about 30 persons. There was also about two to four additional tables for 18 persons each. And in some cases, the emperor and empress used their own separate table.
Provisions were made in the hall for musicians and members of the choir of the Hagia Sophia and the Holy Apostles.
Byzantine imperial throne and apses in the Chrysotriklinos of the Great Palace
Supported by eight arches, the roof of the Chrysotriklinos had somewhere between 16 and 18 windows. The Byzantine imperial throne was placed on the eastern apse, behind a bronze railing.
The northeastern apse (an elevated platform used as an orator’s podium), which was also known as the “oratory of St Theodore”, held the emperor’s crown and other holy relics, including a rod believed to be that of the prophet Moses. The room also served as the emperor’s dressing room.
Then, there was the northern apse, which was called the Pantheon. The room served as the waiting-room for officials.
The northwestern apse – the Diaitarikion – was used as the steward’s room. It was a place where the court’s eunuch (the papias) deposited his keys after every ceremonial opening of the hall.
The end of Iconoclasm and the Redecoration of the Chrysotriklinos of the Great Palace of Constantinople
In terms of decoration, it has been theorized that the Chrysotriklinos had the image of the enthroned Christ. Some scholars opine that the image was destroyed around 730 during the era of Byzantine Iconoclasm. A century later, and after the end of Iconclasm in the early 840s, the hall was redecorated with mosaics in a very grand style.
An inscription was made inside the hall to celebrate the victory of Orthodoxy over Iconoclasm. According to British scholar Cyril Alexander Mango, the inscription was made between 856 and 866. Per the inscription, the imperial throne symbolized the image of Jesus Christ enthroned.
It’s also stated that the hall was redecorated with images of the Virgin Mary, the Emperor and the Patriarchy. Some scholars maintain that the emperor at the time was most likely Michael III (reigned: 842-867).
The hall also had redecorated images that depicted archangels, priests, apostles, and even martyrs from the early Christian era.
Basically, the redecoration of the Chrysotriklinos was aimed at drawing parallelism between Christ’s heavenly court and the earthly court of the Byzantine emperor. Thus the enthroned images of the emperor were seen as representation of the enthroned Christ.
The Pentapyrgion in the throne room was a cabinet that contained exotic treasures and precious items from all over the Byzantine world. It is believed that the cupboard was built by Emperor Theophilos (reign: 829-842). Some of the specific things that the cupboard, which was also known as the “Five Towers”, contained were precious vases and crowns.
The Mandylion Icon and other Priceless religious relics in the Great Palace
The main hall of the Great Palace featured spectacular chandeliers, imperial regalia and all sorts of priceless religious relics, including some believed to be associated with the crucifixion of Christ. That particular religious relic was stored in the chapel of the Virgin of the Pharos, which was located in the southern part of the Great Palace.
There was also the Mandylion icon, which was believed to be imprinted with an impression of the face of Christ. Also known as the “Image of Edessa” or the “Holy Face”, the relic was later taken to France by the Knights Templar, perhaps during the Crusaders’ sack of Constantinople in 1204. It is believed to have been later lost during the French Revolution.
The Purple Room in the Imperial Palace
Going all the way back to the ancient time, the color purple has often been seen as the preserve of monarchs and rulers. It’s perhaps the reason why the expression “to be born in the purple” gained notoriety.
During the reign of Constantine V (reign: 741-775), the emperor created a purple-laced marble room in the Great Palace complex to serve as the birth room for his children. His first son – Leo – was born in the room, so were other members of the royal family.
Similar to early Roman emperors, Byzantine emperors used purple, more specifically Tyrian Purple (i.e. Royal purple), to reinforce their dynastic succession. And Constantine V was no different.
The Magnaura University in the Great Palace of Constantinople
During the reign of Emperor Theophilos, significant efforts were made to restore the Great Palace and gardens to their former glory. Many of the buildings within the palace complex were rebuilt, and new connecting corridors were constructed using pristine white marble. The restoration also included the creation of finely crafted wall mosaics, the addition of columns, and the incorporation of even more porphyry marble.
Among the many restoration and rebuilding works that Emperor Theophilos (reign: 829-842) conducted in the Great Palace the most defining structure was perhaps the Magnaura, a basilica with three aisles and spectacular galleries.
Standing to east of the Augustaion, the Magnaura was endowed with fine marbles and walls with mosaics. It also had a reception room.
The Magnaura would later serve as the home of an educational institution. The university was established by Caesar Bardas, who was the regent of his nephew Emperor Michael III (reign: 842-867) in the mid-9th century. Leo the Mathematician was an influential scholar in the university.
Emperor Theophilos’s mechanical throne
During his reign, Emperor Theophilos commissioned Leo the Mathematician to make a mechanical throne capable of lifting the emperor almost the ceiling-level. The Byzantine emperor then ordered for music to be played as the mechanical throne did its work. All of that was aimed at adding to the grand nature of the hall, as well as elevate the emperor to an almost divine status.
Another addition feature added to the hall during the reign of Theophilos was the Tetraconch of Theophilos. This four-winged building had a floor designed in the shape of a Greek cross, with each wing extending out in a different direction.
The Nea Ekklēsia
Translated as the New Church, the Nea Ekklēsia was designed to replace the Hagia Sophia, which had been damaged in an earthquake. The church was built in a basilica style, with a large central nave and two side aisles, and was able to accommodate up to 20,000 people.
The interior of the Nea Ekklēsia was decorated with exotic marbles and intricate mosaics, and the exterior featured a large dome and impressive architectural features. Those features were complemented with silver decorations and depictions of some important archangels. The church had a total of five gilded domes. It had fountains and bells from Venice.
Despite its grandeur, the Nea Ekklēsia was destroyed during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and was never rebuilt. Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Nea Ekklesia was turned into a warehouse for gunpowder. Lightning struck the place in 1490, causing the place and its gemstone walls to blow up.
The ruins of the church were rediscovered in the early 20th century and have since been partially restored, providing a glimpse into the magnificent architecture and design of this once-great Byzantine church.
Believed to have been built by Emperor Basil I, the Kainourgion was a palace built to serve as a residence for the emperor and his family.
The Kainourgion was designed in a grand style and featured ornate decoration, including intricate mosaics, marble floors, and elaborate architectural details. For example the mosaic floors of the palace depicted a number of animals, including peacocks and eagles.
There were mosaics on the walls showed the Emperor Basil, Empress Eudocia and their children. The emperor intended those decorations to celebrate his Macedonian dynasty, which ruled the empire from 867 to 1056.
The ceiling of the Kainourgion was made from glass mosaic and gold. The palace also had a painting of the emperor receiving artifacts from his generals.
Why did the Byzantine Emperors change their residence from the Great Palace to the Palace of Blachernae?
By the start of the 11th century, Byzantine Emperors began to lose interest in taking up residence at the Great Palace. The complex was relegated to administrative and ceremonial purposes. The emperors preferred residing in the Palace of Blachernae, which was located in northwestern Constantinople (in today Ayvansaray in Fatih, Istanbul, Turkey). The new imperial residence had over 250 rooms and 20 chapels.
Alexios I Komnenos, the Byzantine Emperor from 1081 to 1118 CE, is believed to have been the first to abandon the Great Palace as his primary residence and chose to live in the Blachernae Palace.
The reasons for this decision are not entirely clear, but there are several factors that may have played a role. One possibility is that the Great Palace, which had been the primary residence of Byzantine emperors for centuries, had fallen into disrepair and was no longer a suitable residence for the emperor and his court. Additionally, the Blachernae Palace was located in a more defensible position, which may have been a consideration given the frequent threats to Constantinople from outside forces.
The Blachernae Palace was also a sumptuous and luxurious residence, with extensive gardens, fountains, and other amenities. It was originally built in the 5th century CE and had been expanded and renovated over the centuries. It was a popular location for imperial ceremonies and festivities, and it became the primary residence of Byzantine emperors from the 11th century onwards.
Alexios I Komnenos’ successors continued to live in the Blachernae Palace, although they also occasionally used other palaces in Constantinople for official functions. The palace remained an important cultural and political center until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
It must be noted that a good number of the Latin emperors of Byzantine did take up residence in the Great Palace.
Reconstruction and renovations
Considering just how long the Great Palace of Constantinople served as the seat of the Byzantine emperor’s power, it is pretty much obvious that the structure underwent a number of reconstruction and renovation works.
Sometimes, those reconstructions were necessitated following attacks on the structure. For example, during the turbulent few weeks of the Nika Revolt in 532, rioters from the Hippodrome stormed into the palace and inflicted a lot of damage on the complex.
The Chalke Gate was damaged, and after Emperor Justinian the Great brutally and swiftly crushed the revolt, he rebuilt the palace in an even more spectacular fashion. The emperor rebuilt the gate and added a few extensions.
How the Great Palace of Constantinople fell into decay?
The first major blow that the Great Palace suffered came in 1204, when Crusaders (i.e. the Fourth Crusade) looted a great deal of treasures and holy relics from the complex. For example, a good number of those religious relics were whisked away to Western Europe, finding their way into the chapel of Louis IX of France.
The event, which came to be known as the Sacking of Constantinople (1204), ushered in the reigns of the Latin emperors, with Baldwin of Flanders, crowned Baldwin I, being the first of them. Continually challenged by the remnants of the Byzantine Empire, the Latin emperors (1204-1261) lacked the money for the effective maintenance of the Great Palace. Regardless, many of the Latin emperors took residence in the complex.
Baldwin II (reign: 1228-1273) – the last Latin emperor of Constantinople – even removed the lead roofs and sold them. The decline of the complex continued even after Michael VIII Palaiologos recovered Constantinople and restored the Byzantine Empire. The Palaiologan dynasty he established ruled the empire until 1453, when Constantinople fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Great Palace was in some way abandoned, and at worst, some Ottoman sultans took to the habit of building atop some of the crumbling structures of the palace. For example, Sultan Ahmet I (reign: 1603-1617) ordered the destruction of the remnants of in order to build the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (i.e. the Blue Mosque). This explains why archeologists today struggle to gain clear details on some specific structures that existed in the palace complex.
How the palace was connected to Constantinople’s circus
The palace had a residential wing called the Palace of Daphne which linked the main palace to Constantinople’s Circus. This pathway was created so that the Byzantine emperor could access the famed circus without any hassle.
Other interesting facts about the Great Palace
The Great Palace was not only the residence of the emperor and his family, but also the seat of government and the center of imperial ceremonial and ritual.
It housed a number of administrative offices, including the Chancery, where official documents were prepared and sealed; the Bureau of Barbarians, which dealt with diplomatic relations with foreign nations; and the Secretariat, which managed the emperor’s personal correspondence.
The architecture of the Great Palace was influenced by a number of different cultures and traditions. Byzantine architects drew on classical Roman and Hellenistic styles, as well as Persian and Syrian influences.
After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the palace fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished. Today, only a few fragments of the Great Palace remain, including the ruins of the Chrysotriklinos and the remains of the imperial box at the Hippodrome.
What is De ceremoniis?
Much of what we know about the Great Palace of Constantinople comes from De ceremoniis, which translates to “On the Ceremonies of the Byzantine Court”. Written by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (reign: 913-959), De ceremoniis is a medieval treatise that detailed manual on court ceremonies, etiquette, and protocol in the Byzantine Empire.
The treatise covers a wide range of topics, including the proper attire and behavior of the emperor and other members of the imperial court, the order of precedence for various officials and dignitaries, and the rituals and procedures for various imperial events and ceremonies, such as coronations, weddings, and funerals.
Excavations of the Great Palace of Constantinople
It’s been estimated that only about one quarter of the total area of the Great Palace has been excavated. To this day, total excavation is impossible as much of the palace is underneath the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and other ottoman-era structures.
The first serious excavations were conducted by French archaeologists between 1921 and 1923. Then a group of archeologists from the University of St Andrews in the UK conducted an even more extensive excavation between 1935 and 1938.
Collection of the ruins of the Great Palace of Constantinople
In the early 1950s, English archaeologist David Talbot Rice made a number of startling discoveries during his excavation of the area. Rice’s team unearthed a number of floor mosaics that are currently in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi).
Tthe Great Palace remains an important symbol of Byzantine culture and history. It was the seat of power for one of the world’s most influential and enduring empires, and it housed some of the greatest artistic and architectural achievements of the medieval period.
Its legacy can still be seen in the surviving fragments of its walls and structures, as well as in the numerous artworks and artifacts that have been excavated from its ruins. Through these remains, the Great Palace continues to inspire and awe visitors and scholars alike, offering a glimpse into the grandeur and power of the Byzantine Empire.
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