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_9340IMG_9348IMG_9404IMG_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.

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