The church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople – already in ruins before 1453?

The church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople was the location of the mausoleum of the emperors.  It doesn’t exist any more, as it was demolished by the Turks after 1453 and a mosque built on the site, the mosque of “Mehmet the Conquerer”.

I’ve seen the statement online, made in such a way as to palliate the destruction, that the church was a ruin before the Turks demolished it.  But I did wonder what the evidence was.

Well, I’ve been working away at Van der Vin’s marvellous book on medieval travellers to Constantinople,[1] which I mentioned earlier.  The website on which it resides did a splendid job and scanned the missing half of the book and fixed the upload in a day!  And this gives us the answer.

From Cristoforo Buondelmonti (ca. 1414-1422), Liber insularum archipelagi:[2]

Next to the church of the Holy Apostles stands the fifth column, the top of which bears an angel of bronze and Constantine on his knees.

The aforesaid church, already ruined by time, contains the sumptuous tombs of the emperors, cut out of purple marble, notably the vast sarcophagus of Constantine.  The column to which Christ was attached for the flagellation may be seen there.

This statement, however, is our only such statement.  Buondelmonti refers to ruins all over the place in Constantinople.

In fact the city was largely in ruins and extensive areas within the walls were just fields and olive groves.  the population had shrunk to a mere 40,000, living in 13 villages scattered here and there over the immense area.

The population estimate comes from an anonymous account written in Munich in 1437.[3]

Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveller who visited the city in 1332 as part of the entourage of a Greek princess, says that the citadel and palace are “is surrounded by the city wall, which is a  formidable one and cannot be taken by assault on the side of the sea.  Within the wall are about thirteen inhabited villages.”[4]

Buondelmonti tells us that the Constantinoplitans are “very few”[5] and concerned with nothing but food.  In 1432 Bertrandon de la Broquiere, a Burgundian nobleman on pilgrimage, tells us that “the city is made up of villages and that there is much more open than built-up.”[6]  Pero Tafur, a Spanish nobleman on pilgrimage who visited around 1437-8, writes:[7]

The city is sparsely populated. It is divided into districts, that by the sea-shore having the largest population. The inhabitants are not well clad, but sad and poor, showing the hardship of their lot which is, however, not so bad as they deserve, for they are a  vicious people, steeped in sin. …

It must have been a sad place, full of ruins and poverty, and an impoverished emperor and his court.  Yet how we would love to see it!

  1. [1]J.P.A. van der Vin –   Travellers to Greece and Constantinople. Ancient Monuments and Old Traditions  in Medieval Travellers’ Tales (PIHANS 49), 1980. [27 cm, softcover; IX, 751].  ISBN: 90-6258-049-1. Online at the Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten – Netherlands Institute for the Near East site.
  2. [2]Van der Vin, p.688.
  3. [3]P.254, 443.  The text is Terre hodierne Grecorum et dominia secularia et spiritualia ipsorum; see “Neos hellenomnemon” 7 (1910), p.361.  It reads: “habitantes in ea, ut extimo, quadraginta milia hominum vix possunt interesse, qui in tempore guerrae de suis internis vineis, pratis et ceteris necessariis vivere possunt, prout frequenter probatur.”
  4. [4]P.569.
  5. [5]Van der Vin, p.669.
  6. [6]P.684: I am not entirely certain of the translation of the old French “Tout ainsi que les grosses carraques peuvent venir devant Pere, semblablement font à Constantinoble[sic]. Et est cette cite cy faicte par villaiges et y a beaucop plus de voide que de plain.”  Edition: Ch. Schefer, Le voyage d’Outremer de Bertrandon de la Broquiere, Paris, 1892.
  7. [7]P.703.

7 thoughts on “The church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople – already in ruins before 1453?

  1. That was an interesting comment about “The inhabitants are…steeped in sin.” I remember my secular junior high school history book saying that at the time Constantinople fell the people had become more interested in material things than spiritual things.

  2. A little more, then, from the same author, Pero Tafur:

    The Emperor’s Palace must have been very magnificent, but now it is in such state that both it and the city show well the evils which the people have suffered and still endure. At the entrance to the Palace, beneath certain chambers, is an open loggia of marble with stone benches round it, and stones, like tables, raised on pillars in front of them placed end to end. Here are many books and ancient writings and histories, and on one side are gaming boards so that the Emperor’s house may always be well supplied. Inside, the house is badly kept, except certain parts where the Emperor, the Empress, and attendants can live, although cramped for space. …

    The Emperor’s state is as splendid as ever, for nothing is omitted from the ancient ceremonies, but, properly regarded, he is like a Bishop without a See. When he rides abroad all the Imperial rites are strictly observed. The Empress rides astride, with two stirrups, and when she desires to mount, two lords hold up a rich cloth, raising their hands aloft and turning their back upon her, so that when she throws her leg across the saddle no part of her person can be seen. The Greeks are great hunters with falcons, goshawks, and dogs. The country is well stocked with game both for hawking and hunting, and there are quantities of pheasants, francolins, partridges, and hares. The land is flat and good for riding. …

    The city is sparsely populated. It is divided into districts, that by the sea-shore having the largest population. The inhabitants are not well clad, but sad and poor, showing the hardship of their lot which is, however, not so bad as they deserve, for they are a vicious people, steeped in sin. It is their custom when anyone dies not to open the door of the house for the whole of that year except in case of necessity. They go continually about the city howling as if in lamentation, and thus they long ago foreshadowed the evil which has befallen them. …

    On one side of the city is the dockyard. It is close to the sea, and must have been very magnificent; even now it is sufficient to house the ships. In the quarter over against Pera is a mole made by hand, where the ships are fastened. Here the salt water comes in and meets a river which enters the sea at that place. The distance from there to Pera is twice as far as a man could cast a stone. When the ships come to Pera to traffic with the Genoese, they first salute Constantinople and pay tribute, and criminal justice is administered from Constantinople for Pera and the whole country. These harbours of entry, the one and the other, are always full of ships, on account of the great cargoes which they discharge and load. …

    During my stay in the city the Grand Turk marched forth to a place on the Black Sea, and his road took him close to Constantinople. The Despot and those of Pera, thinking that the Turks were going to occupy the country, prepared and armed themselves. The Grand Turk passed close by the wall, and there was some skirmishing that day, and he passed with a great company of people. I had the good fortune to see him in the field, and I observed the manner in which he went to war, and his arms, horses and accoutrements. I am of opinion that if the Turks were to meet the armies of the West they could not overcome them, not because they are lacking in strength, but because they want many of the essentials of war. On this day a great present was carried from Constantinople and taken to the place where the Turks were stationed. I thought that they would sit down and besiege the city, but they continued their march to the Black Sea against a people which had rebelled. It was, indeed, what I desired, for we had but few men, and it would have been difficult to make much resistance. It was, therefore, a gratifying thing to see so great a host depart without peril or labour. Would to God that the people of our country were closer at hand, for there are here neither ships nor fortresses, nor is there any protection except by fighting.

  3. How very exciting – thank you!

    By a curious coincidence someone has written a blog post denying that moral decline has any part to play in the collapse of the Roman empire. I’m mulling over whether to respond.

  4. Here is the first book (actually a booklet) that I am aware of to write about this: It is called “The Fate Of Empires” by Sir John Glubb and maintains that they basically all go through very similar patterns from beginning to ending. He lists the stages of an empire as:

    The Age of Pioneers
    The Age of Conquests
    The Age of Commerce
    The Age of Affluence
    The Age of Intellect
    The Age of Decadence (last stage before the empire collapses)

    He says that the characteristics of the “Age of Decadence” are: Defensiveness, Pessimism, Materialism, Frivolity, An Influx of Foreigners, The Welfare State and a Weakening of Religion.

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