The Great Palace was one of the first buildings built in Constantinople. Designed during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the palace was not a monolithic building but consisted of various structures spread over a large area.
The Roman Empire, whose center of power shifted to the east in the 4th century, became Hellenized over time and turned into a Greek-speaking structure known as Byzantium (aka Byzantine Empire) in modern history.
The place where this cultural change was most clearly seen was the new capital, Constantinople, and the Great Palace at its heart. Although the palace was built in the 4th century, it expanded with sections added over the centuries.
Inside the Great Palace, there were many pavilions, churches, meeting halls, sports fields and courtyards decorated with mosaics. The palace started from today’s Hippodrome and extended towards the Bosphorus in the East and the Marmara Sea in the South.
The Emperor could reach his lodge in the Hippodrome, the activity center of the city, through a corridor from the Great Palace. Likewise, he could go to Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the city, through underground tunnels.
The Rise and Fall of the Great Palace
The Great Palace had become the most magnificent palace in the world in the two centuries from Constantine (4th Century) to Justinian (6th Century). While Constantinople was known as the richest city of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, this palace was its crown jewel.
The palace grew continuously under notable rulers of the Byzantine Empire, such as Heraclius, Leo III, Basil I, and Constantine VII, and remained active as the center of political life. All major events in the capital took place in the Hippodrome and its neighboring palace.
However, starting from the 11th century, the popularity of the Great Palace began to decline and the Palace of Blachernae, near the Theodosian Walls, began to rise. During this period, some emperors preferred to live in this secondary palace.
The Great Palace became completely ruined after the Fourth Crusade (the Sack of Constantinople in 1204), which deeply affected the history of the Byzantine Empire. The palace was abandoned during the reign of the Latin Empire (1204-1261).
Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, who recaptured the city from invaders in 1261, found Constantinople in ruins. Unfortunately, Byzantium no longer had the resources to revive the palace. For this reason, the primary palace became the Palace of Blachernae from the 13th century.
The Great Palace Mosaic Museum
The structural elements that have survived from this magnificent complex consist of Roman arches and walls that can be seen among some of the buildings in Sultanahmet (Old City of Istanbul).
However, during an excavation in the 1980s, some Byzantine mosaics were also found adorning the floor of one of the palace’s colonnaded courtyards. The mosaics were restored where they were found and turned into a museum.
In today’s Istanbul, there is a museum called the Great Palace Mosaics Museum, where these works of art from the Byzantine palace are exhibited. Here you can see reflections of Roman art from the 6th century.
The mosaics in the museum are not Christian figures generally identified with Byzantine art. Instead, depictions of nature can be seen. Among the mosaics, there are depictions of humans and animals, as well as some mythological figures.
In conclusion, unfortunately, nothing remains of the Great Byzantine Palace in Istanbul. However, it is still possible to see the mosaics decorating the floor of one of the large courtyards of the palace. This museum is a must-see place among the Byzantine monuments in Istanbul.
Likewise, the Palace of Blachernae, the secondary palace of Byzantium, has also disappeared over time. This palace was located in the northwest of the city, where the Theodosian Walls met the Golden Horn. Today, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, an extension of this palace, serves as a museum.
If you are interested in the Roman and Byzantine history of Istanbul, you can book one of my private guided tours. If you would like to contact me for the Byzantine Istanbul tour, simply fill out the form on the contact page.
Although it is not widely known, a considerable Roman and Byzantine heritage still survives in today’s Istanbul. You can find a list of the most prominent of these structures on the home page of this site.
Written by Serhat Engul