Thursday, July 17, 2008

Byzantium, I hardly knew ye!

I think the thing I never grasped before coming to Istanbul was the extent to which you have to understand Constantinople to be able to understand Byzantium.

Constantinople wasn't just the political capital of the Empire, it was truly the cultural and artistic capital as well. So much of Byzantine culture was played out in the ancient streets of this city. The debates concerning the nature of Christ, the Byzantine respect for those "born in the purple," the lavishness of the Orthodox Christian Church, and of course their pride in Europe's greatest city.

The artwork of Byzantium is propaganda for all those things listed above, and from what can be seen in the remains of the city, it is easy to think that it must have been everywhere at the height of Byzantium's glory.

One example of that propaganda being played out in the city is the above image of Emperor Constantine (IX) Monomachos, the Christ, and Empress Zoe. It's a bold statement about the position of the Emperor in society, especially one as religiously devout as the Byzantines, to show him seated with the God who was essential to Byzantine life.

Another example of propaganda is the image of Christ Pantakrator, "The Ruler of All." Besides the fact that the name of the image labels Christ as the ruler of all, the image makes some major Orthodox theological statements, some that were (at least once) hotly debated issues for the Byzantines. The most noticebale is that on both of the Christ's hands his fingers are grouped into 3's and 2's. This is a statement about the Orthodox belief in the Trinitarian God, and the diaphysitic nature of Christ (both fully man and fully God). I'm sure images like this were the scorn of anyone who doubted the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea or Chalcedon.

All that said, I now have a real image of Byzantium that makes all the things I had read in my life more real. I can now put an exact scale to the "Grand Churches" that were the cornerstones of Byzantine life, and the palaces built for the emperors who were Christ's agents on earth. I think I'll leave Istanbul forever changed in my thinking about the Byzantines (by what they've left behind for posterity) and touched by the beauty of it all (even in its state of ruin). I came to Turkey looking for beauty, and I fell in love with The City.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Real Estate of the Empire

Sometimes the remains of Byzantine Constantinople can be elusive and require a little hunting. It only took one day's hunting to find one of later Byzantium's greatest treasures: the Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. The Emperors built this palace to go with the Blachernae Palace which was just a bit further down the Theodosian Land walls from the Porphyrogenitus Palace.

Today, as the pictures posted with this blog will show, the remains of the palace are mostly just the shell of some of its walls. That shell of a once grand imperial palace does not do justice to what was once the main living quarters of the later Byzantine emperors.

The palace was referred to by the name Porphyrogenitus not only because of the efforts of Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus in building it, but also because the word Porphyrogenitus means in Greek "born in the purple" --and to see the sun shining on this building you can see that even though the Byzantines mixed their construction with marble and bricks, the palace itself begins to look like a purple building.

The palace was a three-story structure with an arcade on the bottom floor that led out into a courtyard, from which you could look outside of the city and the land walls. On the east side of the structure you can still see the remains of a balcony, from which it is feasible that the emperor could have overlooked his city all the way down to the Sea of Marmara.

One of the more interesting features of the palace is that it helped to change the landscape of the Theodosian land walls, which used to make a fairly straight run from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn but now had to take a ninety degree angle turn just past the Adrianople Gate so that they could encompass the palace and the neighborhood around it, which the Byzantines called Blachernae. And this new section of walls was not protected by a moat like other sections, and it was thought to be weaker by the Ottoman invaders, so Mehmet's forces concentrated on the area of the wall near the palace structure.

Even in its state of ruin, the palace easily awes anyone who can walk up to its remains. The size of the palace matches the size of all imperial structures in Constantinople in its grandeur. The walls surrounding the palace, even if considered a weak point, also match that grandeur, and all of this was near the highest point in the city, which included the towers of the Adrianople Gates, just a few hundred yards to the south. If you're ever in Istanbul, it's well worth the walk to see the remains of this remnant of Byzantium!

Floor Envy

"It's good to be the King."--Mel Brooks (as Louis XVI)

Just a little off the beaten path, as in a five-minute walk from the entrance to the Blue Mosque, is the somewhat hidden Mosaic Museum. The museum is maybe one of the greatest treasures of Early Byzantine Constantinople to remain in the city.

The artwork dates back to the reign of Justinian in the sixth century and depicts scenes of "country life" to the royals who would have seen this amazing work. The scenes are more Roman than Byzantine in their outlook, as they don't really touch the subject of Christianity. And while they all show supposed scenes of life outside the city, the subjects they show have a great range. The thing I found to be most impressive, though, is that these mosaics were used to decorate the floors of the courtyards of the Great Palace of Constantinople. All this impressive work was little more than the foot path for those who got to wear the purple of the Roman Empire.

The scenes in the section of mosaic shown above are of horses out at pasture, which seems to be an image that Roman emperors, who were often depicted on horses in their military statues, would have enjoyed quite a bit. We also see a goat being milked, and a man moving a large pot of something, maybe either wine or goat's milk. These scenes of the countryside are normal and even somewhat calming. But not all floor mosaics are created equal.

Next up we have the gentle scene of a couple dogs tearing a rabbit apart. As much a contrast as this may seem, I would think it would have a dual purpose. The first is practical. Roman emperors were also military leaders, so they needed those gentle reminders that sometimes their job required them to be fierce. The second purpose would be to reinforce a more pagan sentiment, the belief that bad things happen out in the woods, which is part of why people build up great civilizations. And what greater civilization was there to protect people from this kind of wild than Rome?

These final two images show a more classical example of Roman art than anything else. The top image of the stag biting the snake is very Hellenistic, as the Greeks believed the stag and snake to be natural enemies. So we have the noble stag defeating the snake who is more associated with evil things. The lower image is of a Pan, the figure from mythology who is half goat and half human.

After looking at Justinian's other works throughout the city where he seems to do a lot of work to further the image of the Christian empire, the mosaics he had installed on the floor of the Great Palace show that he was still a Roman emperor at heart. The artwork seems one final glimpse for these people who called themselves the Romans back at what their world was before they enter iconoclasm and come out the other side making some of the best known images of Christ and other religious art. And it was all to adorn the emperor's feet as he walked about his palace.

Columns, Obelisks, and Statues--oh my!

The Hippodrome of Constantinople was the center of life in the city. The horse and chariot races that took place on its race course provided the social outlet for the citizens of Roman/Byzantine Constantinople. The building of the Hippodrome (which roughly means Horse Track) actually predates "Constantinople," as it was built in the third century by Roman Emperor Septimius Severus when the city was still a Greek-speaking fishing village in the eastern wings of the Roman Empire.

When Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire from Rome to "New Rome," the city became Constantinople, the city of Constantine, and the Hippodrome was built up so that it might rival the Circus Maximus in Rome, as Constantine the Great would only have the best for his new capital of his great empire. The Hippodrome would have continual additions by the emperors of Rome and Byzantium that would follow Constantine. The most common addition to the Hippodrome by a new emperor would have been a monument to himself and his reign. After all, that's what Roman emperors did: they celebrated themselves.

Only a few of those great imperial monuments still exist today. The Byzantines started to favor church over the horse races, and the Ottomans used the stones of the structure to build other things, and built some things over the old Hippodrome. Of those monuments to the greatness of the Byzantine emperors that still exist is the "Walled Obelisk" of Emperor Constantine VII.

The towering obelisk in the modern day looks like a bunch of bricks that have been used for target practice for the past couple of centuries. In its day the Walled Obelisk would have been an amazing monument covered in bronze, which would have shone like gold in the mid-day sun of Constantinople. Unfortunately that kind of beauty would attract the wrong kind of attention, and in the 4th Crusade (early 13th century) after Constantinople was sacked by the Christian armies of Western Europe, the Crusaders took the bronze from the obelisk and melted it down to sell off.

The Walled Obelisk of today is a feature that is hard to miss when in the historic Sultanahmet Square of Istanbul, as it still towers over many of the other monuments in town; in the middle of one of those bright days in Byzantine Constantinople this monument must have been visible from quite a distance! The ability to build such a magnificent monument only speaks to the legitimacy of the Byzantines as successors of the Romans, because only a Roman emperor could build something that wonderful as a tribute to himself.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Blessed Theotokos, pray for us!

The image of the Theotokos (The Virgin Mary, literally translated "The God Bearer") is almost as prevalent in Byzantine artwork as the Christ himself. This is because in the Orthodox Christian Church Mary is regarded as a very important figure in the life of the church, as she is the one who points the way to the Christ in her own life. She was also the patroness of the city of Constantinople, so she was of vital importance to Byzantine life.

One of the most common images of Mary in Byzantine culture is that of the Theotokos enthroned holding the infant Christ. This image is one of the most common Marian images used in iconography (to this day) and appeared in the apse of many Byzantine churches, most importantly, the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia).

The apse of a Byzantine church using a basilica layout with the half dome at the front of the church and a large icon of Mary holding the infant Christ would have certainly drawn attention from a worshipper standing (as the Orthodox of the Byzantine Empire didn't sit for the Divine Liturgy) anywhere near the iconostasis. The reason for choosing Mary in this position in artwork is that she in her life points to Christ, with her decision to bear the God-child in her womb, and the image used in Hagia Sophia and many other Byznatine churches is of her holding Christ in her lap, and literally pointing to Christ Child.

This image of Mary is known as "Hodegetria" and literally translates to "She who shows the way" -- which is important, as the acts of the clergy in an Orthodox worship service are intended to draw the eyes of the faithful towards the altar, and an image just above the view of that altar of Mary showing the way to the Christ leads the Orthodox faithful in their worship.

In Orthodoxy the icons used anywhere in any church are used to explain the faith and its virtues to those present in the church, and every icon is of some importance to the church it is in. Those icons may be the patron(ess) saint of the church, an important benefactor whose legacy is desired to be remembered, a prophet of the Old Testament, and/or a scene from a Bible story acted out. But the one icon other than the Christ to be featured in every Orthodox church is of Mary, who is often regarded as the first Christian. It is no surprise, then, that she is the one usually depicted over the altar of the church.

The Nakkaş Cistern

The cisterns that lurk beneath the streets of modern Istanbul are said to make a tunnel that runs from the Hagia Sophia to the city walls. Those cisterns were, in fact, chambers containing in themselves the most important feature of Roman and Byzantine life: water. Modern Istanbul is littered with these cisterns, most of which were found accidentally during the construction of new buildings in the old part of the city.

A lot of visitors to this city visit the Basilica Cistern near Sultanahmet, and the Cistern of 1001 Columns also gets a fair amount of traffic in a year. However, there is one cistern in Istanbul that is well preserved, easy to get to, and probably not all that often visited. The Nakkaş Cistern sits under a modern Istanbul carpet and jewelry store. It would probably be near completely unknown had our good friends at The History Channel not visited it a few years ago.

The kind people of Nakkaş are kind enough to host the clip shot by the History Channel on their website, and it can be found by clicking anywhere on this sentence.

What was more exciting for me, and a few others on this trip, is that the owners of Nakkaş were kind enough to let a few lowly students into their beautiful cistern--in pursuit of history! And this is what we got to see.

The cistern was very well preserved, and we had it all to ourselves while we were down there. By looking on a map of the position of the cistern in the modern day and comparing it with the Byzantine layout of Constantinople, it seems very likely that this cistern was used to supply either the Great Palace of Constantinople or the Sphendome of the Hippodrome. The water used in this well was water that made Byzantine Constantinople what it was!

Like the other Byzantine cisterns of this city, there is no set style of architecture that was used for the construction of this cistern. There are different types of columns and capitals on those columns, which shows that these structures were definitely built for their purpose, not to be regal structures like we sometimes equate with the Byzantine Empire. The following photo shows examples of the differing columns in the cistern.

A studied view of the brick column would also show that some restoration work has been done to it. The bricks at the base of the column are very thick and modern, and were probably used to reinforce the 1500 year old structure. The bricks at the top, however, are very thin and are the types of bricks found throughout Byzantine construction, which gives us a clue that they're probably original.

Even though these massive water storage structures weren't built to be the most aesthetically pleasing structures in the Byzantine Empire, they certainly are fascinating to look at in the modern era. To think that this was maybe the cistern that fed the Great Palace of the emperors of Byzantium is little more than amazing, especially given its plausibility. Either way, this cistern showed some of the amazing Byzantine civil construction that Istanbul is famous for!

The Grandest Church in Christendom!

On Wednesday, July 2nd, we visited the Hagia Sophia, the Church built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to be the grandest and most wonderful church in all of Christendom. Even when armed with this knowledge, this building is completely humbling when one walks inside of it.

The most noticeable feature of Hagia Sophia is its impressive dome.

The first thing one notices about this impressive dome, however, is that it is mostly blocked by scaffolding. Still, one needs only to stare for a few moments to realize what an impressive feature this is for a building that was built in five years during the sixth century. The current dome of the Hagia Sophia is not the original, though. The original dome lived a short life, and collapsed in an earthquake. After a review it was decided that the first dome was built too shallowly, and so its replacement was built much taller, as to drive the weight of the massive structure down into the large pillars that support it. This second dome has been damaged in earthquakes since its construction, but is mostly the same structure built in the late sixth century.

When looking up into the dome, you can see the large pendentives that help to bear the weight of the dome. In their time they were decorated with images of angels, which would have added to the visual aspect of the worship that took place in this most sacred of Byzantine structures. The most impressive feature of the pendentives, however, is that with the pillars around them they seem to make the dome appear to float above the Church, as if it were supported by nothing at all.

The dome in its prime (post-iconoclasm) would have brought light into the Church from its many windows and would have featured in its center an icon of Christ "Pantokrator" (Ruler of the World). The light shining off its beautiful gold coloring and the icon of Christ in the center would have pulled the eyes of visitors towards the heavens as they contemplated the Divine Mysteries of God and the worship of the liturgy in such a grand and sacred space.

Hagia Sophia was later converted to a mosque at the direction of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, and then still later into a Museum by Ataturk. Though it is not legal to celebrate religious ceremonies in the building today, it is difficult to enter the Hagia Sophia and not feel some type of spiritual connection.