Istanbul a city steeped in history that dates back around 2,700 years. It’s a city that is home to over 15 million people and served as the capital for the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empire. Although Istanbul has become a modern city today, churches, walls, monuments and ruins from the Byzantine period can still be seen.
Perhaps the most mysterious era that Istanbul experienced was under the Byzantine Empire when the city was named Constantinople. From 395 to 1453, the Byzantines reigned in the city during the medieval age and left a great deal of history behind.
Whether it’s the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the Chora Church or even the Walls that surrounded the ancient city, there are countless landmarks to explore. Despite all of the changes that the great city has gone through, the city of Istanbul is still filled with exciting Byzantine architecture and history that can still be experienced.
If you want to discover the mysterious history that is hidden within Istanbul, then we offer expert tours that will take you through the 1000 years of Byzantine rule and show you how they shaped the city, the landmarks and architectural wonders that they left behind, and also dive into the rich culture and history of Constantinople.
During the Byzantine history tour in Istanbul, we’ll take you through several of the most important Byzantine heritage sites that still exist within the city.
Byzantine Sites to See in Istanbul
There are churches, aqueducts, walls, museums and palace ruins among the Byzantine sites to be seen in Istanbul.
Located in Sultanahmet, the heart of the historic Old Istanbul, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was a circus that served as the sporting and social centre of Constantinople.
The Hippodrome used to house around 40,000 people and it was free and open to males in the empire. There were around eight different games played and they were held throughout the day, making this a lively yet powerful symbol of the Byzantine empire.
Today, the square is known as the Sultanahmet Square and there are a few surviving fragments of the structure in place today. It is easily accessed and it’s surrounded by other historic sights and museums.
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is often referred to as a wonder of the world and is one of the most impressive pieces of historical architecture that has still survived up to this day. Built in the 6th century AD under the direction of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as a church, it later became a mosque and now acts as a museum to display the rich history that surrounds it.
Millions of people come to visit the Hagia Sophia Museum as it still remains today as one of Turkey’s most-visited tourist attractions. The Hagia Sophia is home to some of the finest examples of Byzantine art.
3. Hagia Eirene
Hagia Eirene translates into “Holy Peace” and is often known as Saint Irene. It’s located in the outer courtyard of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and is one of the few churches in the city that hasn’t been converted into a mosque.
Today, the Hagia Irene operates as both a museum and a concert hall. You can visit the Hagia Irene both as a spectator to a performance or to admire its impressive Byzantine architecture.
4. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is the largest ancient cistern that lies beneath the city of Constantinople. The cistern is just 150 metres southwest of the Hagia Sophia and was built in the 6th century under the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. In the past, the basilica contained gardens that faced the Hagia Sophia, but it was razed in 532 and subsequently rebuilt after the riots.
The cistern has been featured in several popular films and video games and today, it can be visited during its opening hours and is one of the must-see historical monuments in Constantinople.
5. Valens Aqueduct
Known as the Aqueduct of the Grey Falcon (Bozdogan), the Valens Aqueduct is a Roman aqueduct that was completed in 4th century AD by Roman Emperor Valens. It was maintained and used by the Byzantines and provided water to the citizens of Constantinople. The surviving section of the aqueduct is around 920 metres long which is only 50 metres less than the original length.
Today, the aqueduct looks over the Atatürk Boulevard, an iconic road that was built in the 1950s. The road passes straight under the majestic arches which uphold the Valens Aqueduct System. It’s an iconic landmark in Constantinople and is one of the largest structures in the entire city.
6. Chora Church
Also known as The Church of the Holy Saviour, this medieval Byzantine church started life in the 4th century as a typical monastery. However, Chora Church was outside of the walls of Constantine the Great but was eventually incorporated within the city’s defences when Theodosius II built his walls between 413 and 414.
The church retained its name Chora since it was first built, and has seen numerous rebuilds up until 1948 when it received a sponsored restoration program from Thomas Whittemore and Paul Underwood from the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies.
Today, the Chora Church is opened to all as a public museum, showcasing some of the most beautiful surviving Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. Definitely the highlight of full-day Istanbul Byzantine Tour.
7. Monastery of the Pantocrator
The Monastery of the Pantocrator, also known as Zeyrek Mosque, is a significant structure that was constructed from two former Eastern Orthodox churches and a chapel. It’s a shining example of the finest Byzantine middle period architecture in Constantinople and is the second largest religious edifice built by the Byzantines (the first being the Hagia Sophia) that is still standing in the city.
Today, the Monastery of the Pantocrator can be visited by everyone that has an interest in its architecture and history. It’s a wonderful place to relax and admire the beautiful Byzantine design.
8. Walls of Constantinople
The Walls of Constantinople are defensive stone walls that once surrounded and protected the city from invaders. The walls were initially built by Constantine the Great and they surrounded all sides of the city, giving it protection from both land and sea. (Extended by Theodosius II) Although the walls eventually gave due to the number of Ottoman forces that invaded in 1453, it held strong and was impregnable even when gunpowder technology made its way into warfare.
Today, the walls can be toured by anyone that wants to take a look at the city from a different angle. Without a guide to explain the various segments of the walls, it can be a little uninteresting unless you take a walk around, so it’s best to visit the walls when you’re on a Istanbul Byzantine tour.
9. Forum of Constantine
Forum of Constantine houses the Column of Constantine or the Burnt Stone, also known as Çemberlitaş. It’s a Roman monumental column that was created by the order of Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 AD.
It was built to commemorate the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire and marks the centre of the new city. The column was originally crowned with a statue of Constantine but strong winds in 1150 caused the statue to fall.
Today, the column can be seen from many places in the city. It’s old, high and takes a bit of explanation to fully appreciate, but there’s no doubt that it’s one of the most iconic landmarks in Constantinople.
10. Church of St. George
Church of St. George is the principal Greek Orthodox cathedral that is still in use today in Istanbul. The church has been reconstructed many times since it was believed to be erected as early as the 5th century and little of its original construction is left.
Today, Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is a very popular tourist destination that houses many important artefacts, relics and holy mosaics that are well over 1,000 years old. It’s a fantastic place to learn about the history of Constantinople and is well worth a visit.
11. Palace of the Porphyrogenitus
Located in today’s Sultanahmet district, the Great Palace was the main palace in the early Byzantine Empire. However, it began to lose its importance from the 11th century. Late Byzantine emperors began to live in the Palace of Blachernae, which is located in the outskirts of the city.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, the only surviving part of this palace, is a museum open to visitors. This medieval Byzantine palace is included in my full-day tour itinerary.
Byzantine Ruins in Istanbul
Unfortunately, not every piece of Byzantine architecture has survived to the modern day. In fact, many areas of Constantinople such as the Great Palace of Constantinople and the Palace of Blachernae have been lost to history, but efforts are being taken to uncover more of these ancient Byzantine architectural wonders.
Important Byzantine churches such as Stoudios Monastery (picture above) and the Church of St. Polyeuctus shed light on the history of Byzantine architecture in the city, even if they are ruins. If you want to read a detailed article about the Byzantine churches that are still standing in Istanbul, you can take a look at this blog post.
Byzantine Mosaics in Istanbul
The Byzantine Empire was also well-known for its skill in crafting religious mosaics and pieces of art. One of the most famous surviving Byzantine mosaics can still be seen in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, an image of Christ Pantocrator on the walls located in the upper southern gallery. The mosaic was made in the 13th century and to this day still remain some of the most beautiful and interesting pieces of art that came from that period.
However, no matter how famous the Hagia Sophia mosaics are, they cannot reflect Byzantine mosaic art as well as the mosaics in the Kariye Museum. The mosaics of the Chora Church (Kariye Museum) are the pinnacle of Byzantine mosaic art’s ability to portray Christianity.
Guided Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul
Byzantine history is full of mystery, wonder and beautiful architecture, and it can still be found in many historic locations within Istanbul. If you want to learn more about Byzantine art and culture, then a guided tour that will help to explain the sights is the best way to experience them.
We offer two different types of Byzantine history tour; a half-day one that covers the most important landmarks in the city and another that covers even more of the city to deliver a fuller experience of Constantinople.
1. Half-Day Byzantine Tour in Istanbul
Our half-day Byzantine tour includes a visit of the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Great Palace Mosaic Museum and Forum Constantine. These are considered the essential landmarks to visit in Istanbul and this type of Istanbul Byzantine tour lasts around 3-4 hours in total.
- Hippodrome of Constantinople
- Hagia Sophia
- Basilica Cistern
- Great Palace Mosaic Museum
- Forum Constantine
2. Full-Day Byzantine Tour in Istanbul
In contrast, the full day Byzantine Istanbul tour includes the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Valens Aqueduct (from inside the taxi), Chora Church and the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus. This will give you the opportunity to see more of the wonderful city of Constantinople and marvel at the beautiful architecture that the Byzantines imbued the city with.
- Hippodrome of Constantinople
- Hagia Sophia
- Basilica Cistern
- Great Palace Mosaics Museum
- Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
- Valens Aqueduct
- Chora Church
- Palace of the Porphyrogenitus
Private Tour of Byzantine Istanbul
Private tour of Byzantine Istanbul is organized by Serhat Engul, a licensed tour guide in Istanbul. Byzantine Istanbul tour is a private guided walking tour. If you wish, you can organize your own private guided tour.
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Istanbul Byzantine Tour 2020