The sack of Constantinople in 1453 (Part 3)

In The sack of Constantinople in 1453, I quoted a very vivid description of the sack on Constantinople, found online and attributed to Critobulos, the renegade who served the Muslim attackers and wrote a history of the event.  But it was less than clear where the translation came from.

In The sack of Constantinople in 1453 (Part 2) I gave the Riggs translation of the relevant passages, which seemed rather different.  It looked to me as if the source for the online passage was Byzantium: its triumphs and tragedy, by R. Guerdan, trans. by D. L. B. Halliday, Allen and Unwin (1954).

I have today received a copy of Rene Guerdan’s Byzantium, as translated by Halliday. So let’s see whether this is indeed the source of the original quote.  For the benefit of those who come after, I have scanned the last six pages of the book, p.217-222 to PDF, and they are here:

And here is the text that they contain:

… Mahomet uttered a cry of triumph. Victory at last was in his grasp! He leapt forward from the moat and shouted to his Janissaries. ‘The city is ours! It is ours already! See, there is no one left to defend it! Fear not! Follow me! The city is ours!’ The reply was a frenzied howling, and a furious wave struck the wall. It flowed over the emergency wall and the debris of the ramparts.

Now the Byzantines fled in disorder. Some were flung into the moat and killed, others were chased and cut down from behind. There was nothing to stop the incoming tide. The last gates were swept down and a turbulent wave, cascading and roaring, spilled over the city. Yes, this was the end. On this May 29, 1453, fell the empire which had endured for more than a thousand years. And on this day Christianity disappeared from the Eastern sky. What can the thoughts of the last Basileus have been? Why should he live? He dismounted and slowly divested himself of the Imperial insignia, retaining of it only the red campagia—those famous boots ornamented with two- headed eagles—and plunged into the hand to hand fighting. He thrust to right and to left, and then suddenly vanished. Much later they found his body and Mahomet caused it to be decapitated. Then for many months to come, accompanied by forty captive young men and forty captive virgins, it was displayed throughout Asia to announce the triumph of the Crescent to the remotest comers.

* * *

And this is how this precious city was destroyed. . . .

The first picture which history offers us of this Dantesque hell is one of breathtaking violence. This was the feast day of St Theodosia. Slowly a procession of women, children and old men moved out of the rose-covered church dedicated to her. Everyone was wearing his or her best clothes and white-bearded priests held on high the comforting images of Christ and his gentle Mother, the Theotokos. Suddenly there burst on the scene a disordered mass of shouting monsters, their faces streaked with sweat, half-naked and blood-bespattered. What followed may be imagined. The procession broke up, but they were caught almost immediately and a few minutes later thousands of hacked and disembowelled and decapitated bodies reddened the slabs and the gutters.

Such scenes were to be seen everywhere. Drunk with slaughter, the Turks massacred throughout the morning. Nothing, and certainly not pity, stayed their hands. Like madmen the unhappy Christians ran about the streets, shouting, weeping, pleading, until lance, scimitar or knife stretched them on the pavement in their blood. Inside the houses women were dragged by the hair to windows and pushed through, old men were cut down, children were stabbed with pikes under the very beds where they hid.

When the orgy of killing had spent itself, rape took its place. Here is an extract from Critobulus, the Christian renegade who had entered the Sultan’s service.

‘Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge. The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter. When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions . . . there were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury. This medley of all nations, these frantic brutes stormed into their houses, seized them, dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonoured them, raped them at the crossroads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages. It is even said that at the mere sight of those savages many girls were so stupefied that they almost gave up the ghost. Old men of venerable appearance were dragged by their white hair and piteously beaten, and beautiful children of noble family were carried off. Priests were led into captivity in batches as well as reverend virgins, hermits and recluses who were dedicated to God alone and lived only for Him to whom they sacrificed themselves, who were dragged from their cells and others from the churches in which they had sought refuge, in spite of their weeping and sobs and their emaciated cheeks, to be made objects of scorn before being struck down. Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions and a thousand other terrible things happened.’

With senses satisfied the Turks gave themselves up to pillage. Shops, houses, palaces, churches—nothing was spared. Let us turn again to Critobulus.

‘Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged . . . sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. Saints’ shrines were brutally violated in order to get out the remains which were then thrown to the wind. Chalices and cups for the celebration of the mass were set aside for their orgies or broken or melted down or sold. Priests’ garments embroidered with gold and set with pearls and gems were sold to the highest bidder and thrown into the fire to extract the gold. Immense numbers of sacred and profane books were flung on to the fire or tom up and trampled underfoot. However, the majority were sold at derisory prices, for a few pence. Saints’ altars, tom from their foundations were overturned. All the most holy hiding places were violated and broken in order to get out the holy treasures which they contained.’

Amongst all these outrages the profanation of Saint Sophia stood out. In the great church an immense crowd was assembled, praying despairingly. The famous bronze doors had been closed, and full of anguish all awaited the imminent arrival of the conquerors. Suddenly violent blows shook and broke down the doors, and a tide of blood-covered brutes swept into the holy place. To make room for themselves they began by using the pike and scimitar a little; but they were in the grip of covetousness, not sadism. Here, they said to themselves as they looked about, fortune awaits us. In an instant, all who were young, good-looking and healthy were stripped, despoiled and herded. High-born women, young and gentle girls of noble family, now naked under their long hair, fell thus into slavery. Their masters bound them with whatever was at hand: sashes, belts, kerchiefs, stoles, tent ropes, camel and horse reins. With blows and kicks they were herded outside into long columns, to be led to a shameful fate and to all the extremities of the Islamic world.

Then came the turn of the Church where generations of the pious had added to the store of sacred treasures. There were vases of gold and silver studded with pearls and precious stones, sacerdotal garments of prodigious richness, reliquaries, icons and luminaries. All were broken open, pillaged and destroyed. To amuse their comrades some capered about in priests’ robes, holding up a crucifix surmounted by a turban. The famous relics which had protected the town—the bodies of the most illustrious martyrs, the most glorious champions of orthodoxy, and the most celebrated icons—were wrenched from their settings of precious metal and thrown out amongst the dead bodies and wandering dogs. In all history only the sack of Jerusalem can compare with this! To make their attitude quite clear the Turks stabled their camels there and installed their public women; and the Church of the Holy Wisdom became a stable and a brothel.

The orthodox still recount a legend which has come down to them from this tragic time. At the very moment that the great church was attacked the wall behind the altar opened and the priest who was officiating disappeared into it, bearing the holy chalice, and the wall closed up again. When at last an orthodox ruler returns to Constantinople, that priest will emerge from the wall and complete the mass which was so tragically interrupted many centuries ago.

As for the Sultan, he was sensual rather than acquisitive, and more interested in people than in goods. Phrantzes, the faithful servant of the Basileus, has recounted the fate of his young and good-looking family. His three daughters were consigned to the Imperial harem, even the youngest, a girl of fourteen who died there in despair. His only son, John, a fifteen-year-old boy, was killed by the Sultan himself for having repelled his advances. The Basileus was survived by his brother, the Grand Duke Lukas Notaras, the second personage of the Empire and a man of great intelligence and ability. At first the Sultan covered him with honours and discussed with him the possibility of his becoming governor of the town, with responsibility for clearing up and repopulation. One night, having been told of the graces of Notaras’ youngest son, he sent a eunuch to fetch him. When Notaras told the Sultan that his religion did not permit him to consent to so ignominious a proposal, the Sultan was seized with anger and caused both the boy and his brother and father to be brought before him. Then he summoned the executioner. Notaras asked to be put to death last in order, says Critobulus, ‘that his children perhaps fearing death, might not be tempted to renounce their faith to purchase their lives’. Standing there pale-faced, but without lowering his eyes, Notaras saw his two sons decapitated. He prayed and in his turn bowed his head to the blade. As for the Sultan, it pleased him to stare for some time at the faces of his three victims.

Critobulus has assessed the impact on Byzantium of the events of those few days in spring 1453.

‘Constantinople seemed to have been visited by a hurricane or to have been burnt in some fire. It became suddenly silent. . . . The Turkish sailors were extremely active in bringing about this destruction for they upset, undermined and turned upside down everything more thoroughly than the Persian Datis at Eritrea. They broke temples, chapels, ancient shrines, tombs, crypts, vaults and all the most secret hiding places. They examined everything. They pulled everybody and everything out of their hiding places. . . . The whole army, both of land and sea, flooded through the town from break of day till nightfall, pillaging and wrecking and carrying booty back to camp and ship. Nevertheless there were some like hawks who took hold of things, crept away stealthily and returned straight home. In this manner was the whole city emptied and depopulated and destroyed as though by a fire and changed into a tomb. Seeing it thus one would have found it hard to believe that it ever contained men’s homes, wealth, abundance or any goods or ornaments, and that in a city which had been so brilliant and great. Now there were only deserted dwellings, which by their tomb-like appearance instilled terror in the minds of those who contemplated them.

The same author tells an interesting story about the Sultan. ‘When he saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction. Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. “What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed!” His soul was full of sorrow. And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits.’

It was, we said at the beginning of this chapter, over a simple question of winds that Byzantium fell. The Christian fleet bearing reinforcements had been off Chios for a month, waiting for a wind. The little brigantine had passed nearby without seeing it. During a whole month it would have sufficed if the weather had been favourable for just one day; then would the Turks have raised the siege and hastily withdrawn. One windy day— on such things hang the fate of empires and the course of history.

The quotes in this from Critobulos are indeed the ones we sought.

Guerdan’s book is a popularisation of Byzantium.  In fact it is a very good one, which I recommend.  We need not cavil at details of accuracy.  It is intended for people who know nothing of the Eastern Empire.  Doubtless the passage of “Critobulos” has suffered from Guerdan translating itfrom Greek into French and then Halliday translating the whole into English.  But the author’s object was not dry scholarship, but to inspire interest, and emotion involvement in his readers.  In this he has succeeded admirably.  I wish the book were online.

However, for purposes of controversy – which I think is the origin of the internet use – it would be better to use Riggs’ translation of the whole of Critobulos.

That said, Guerdan’s book was published in 1962, when men were free to say what they thought, in a way unthinkable today.  This led me to wonder whether Guerdan dressed up Critobulos’ description of the rape of the city, in order to sell more copies; or whether Riggs played it down, in deference to modern politics?  Let us hope the former.

Update, August 2022:  Slight revisions to clarify the point at issue.


The sack of Constantinople in 1453 (Part 2)

A commenter queried the outcome of an investigation that I began in The sack of Constantinople in 1453, and asked whether the “quote” with which I started was, or was not, found in Critobulous.

Here is the Riggs’ translation of the passage describing the sack of Constantinople, which must be the passage in question (p.71 f.):

§ 237. Then a great slaughter occurred of those who happened to be there: some of them were on the streets, for they had already left the houses and were running toward the tumult when they fell unexpectedly on the swords of the soldiers; others were in their own homes and fell victims to the violence of the Janissaries and other soldiers, without any rhyme or reason; others were resisting, relying on their own courage; still others were fleeing to the churches and making supplication – men, women, and children, everyone, for there was no quarter given.

§ 238. The soldiers fell on them with anger and great wrath. For one thing, they were actuated by the hardships of the siege. For another, some foolish people had hurled taunts and curses at them from the battlements all through the siege. Now, in general they killed so as to frighten all the City, and to terrorize and enslave all by the slaughter.

§ 239.  When they had had enough of murder, and the City was reduced to slavery, some of the troops turned to the mansions of the mighty, by bands and companies and divisions, for plunder and spoil. Others went to the robbing of churches, and others dispersed to the simple homes of the common people, stealing, robbing, plundering, killing, insulting, taking and enslaving men, women, and children, old and young, priests, monks-in short, every age and class.

§ 240. There was a further sight, terrible and pitiful beyond all tragedies: young and chaste women of noble birth and well to do, accustomed to remain at home and who had hardly ever left their own premises, and handsome and lovely maidens of splendid and renowned families, till then unsullied by male eyes-some of these were dragged by force from their chambers and hauled off pitilessly and dishonorably.

§ 241. Other women, sleeping in their beds, had to endure nightmares. Men with swords, their hands bloodstained with murder, breathing out rage, speaking out murder indiscriminate, flushed with all the worst things-this crowd, made up of men from every race and nation, brought together by chance, like wild and ferocious beasts, leaped into the houses, driving them out mercilessly, dragging, rending, forcing, hauling them disgracefully into the public highways, insulting them and doing every evil thing.

§ 242. They say that many of the maidens, even at the mere unaccustomed sight and sound of these men, were terror-stricken and came near losing their very lives. And there were also honorable old men who were dragged by their white hair, and some of them beaten unmercifully. And well-born and beautiful young boys were carried off.

§ 243. There were priests who were driven along, and consecrated virgins who were honorable and wholly unsullied, devoted to God alone and living for Him to whom they had consecrated themselves. Some of these were forced out of their cells and driven off, and others dragged out of the churches where they had taken refuge and driven off with insult and dishonor, their cheeks scratched, amid wailing and lamentation and bitter tears. Tender children were snatched pitilessly from their mothers, young brides separated ruthlessly from their newly-married husbands. And ten thousand other terrible deeds were done.

§ 244. And the desecrating and plundering and robbing of the churches – how can one describe it in words? Some things they threw in dishonor on the ground – ikons and reliquaries and other objects from the churches. The crowd snatched some of these, and some were given over to the fire while others were torn to shreds and scattered at the crossroads. The last resting-places of the blessed men of old were opened, and their remains were taken out and disgracefully torn to pieces, even to shreds, and made the sport of the wind while others were thrown on the streets.

§ 245. Chalices and goblets and vessels to hold the holy sacrifice, some of them were used for drinking and carousing, and others were broken up or melted down and sold. Holy vessels and costly robes richly embroidered with much gold or brilliant with precious stones and pearls were some of them given to the most wicked men for no good use, while others were consigned to the fire and melted down for the gold.

§ 246. And holy and divine books, and others mainly of profane literature and philosophy, were either given to the flames or dishonorably trampled under foot. Many of them were sold for two or three pieces of money, and sometimes for pennies only, not for gain so much as in contempt. Holy altars were torn from their foundations and overthrown. The walls of sanctuaries and cloisters were explored, and the holy places of the shrines were dug into and overthrown in the search for gold. Many other such things they dared to do.

§ 247. Those unfortunate Romans who had been assigned to other parts of the wall and were fighting there, on land and by the sea, supposed that the City was still safe and had not suffered reverses, and that their women and children were free-for they had no knowledge at all of what had happened. They kept on fighting lustily, powerfully resisting the attackers and brilliantly driving off those who were trying to scale the walls. But when they saw the enemy in their rear, attacking them from inside the City, and saw women and children being led away captives and shamefully treated, some were overwhelmed with hopelessness and threw themselves with their weapons over the wall and were killed, while others in utter despair dropped their weapons from hands already paralyzed, and surrendered to the enemy without a struggle, to be treated as the enemy chose.

The extremely vivid language of the original quotation is not, therefore, found in the original.  I suspect that it is a modern rewriting of Critobulos.  One would have to look at “Guerdan and Halliday” to see whether that text was theirs.[1]

UPDATE: I have ordered a copy of Guerdan, so we will find out.

  1. [1]Byzantium: its triumphs and tragedy, by R. Guerdan, trans. by D. L. B. Halliday, Allen and Unwin (1954).

A drawing of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople?

When the Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453, one of their first actions was to tear down and demolish the Church of the Holy Apostles, the church to which the mausoleum of Constantine was attached, and to build on it the mosque of Mehmet the Conquerer.

I have never seen a drawing of the church until today.  But Ste Trombetti has kindly sent me a link to a digitised manuscript online, which contains an early map of the city of Constantinople!

The link is to a manuscript at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut.29.25, Christophori Ensenii descriptio cycladum et aliarum insularum.  It appears here, on p.74:

Constantinople 1420, Ensenius / Cristoforo Buondelmonti
Constantinople 1420, Ensenius / Cristoforo Buondelmonti

The image is not as high resolution as one might like, but I have zoomed in and got this, with the now vanished church in the very centre of field:


The building is labelled “s[an]ctorum apostolorum” (“of the holy apostles”), with abbreviations.  The Hippodrome is to the right – note the towers of fortification around it.  Left of that are two columns, the right hand one labelled “hic Justinianus in equito porphyia” (“here is Justinian on a porphyry horse”).  Above the Church of the Holy Apostles is another column, labelled “hic Constantinus …” with two words underneath which I cannot read, referencing Constantine, of course.

It looks as if most of the churches stand inside a walled enclosure – remember that most of the city was just fields by this date.  But this may not be so, as we shall see.

The depiction of Hagia Sophia does not fill one with confidence that the pictures are very accurate, it must be said.  But it is certainly better than nothing!

The image itself is not an original, but a copy of a drawing by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, an early traveller, from his Liber insularum archipelagi.  Another copy of the map is at Wikimedia commons here, from a Paris ms, apparently:


This is very low resolution, but seems to give a better and more believable image.

Yet another version of the map is owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, from where someone has copied a bitmap to Wikimedia.


This is drawing gives us a much more likelike picture.  Hagia Sophia looks more accurate.  The churches no longer stand in courtyards but have high walls with domes atop them, which is probably correct.

But … this isn’t a perfect copy.  Note that Justinian on his horse is now perched atop the column.  It is just as well that the copy was put on Wikimedia, for the link to the Metropolitan Museum no longer works.  It is infuriating that curators do this, considering that locating images is very hit and miss anyway.

Thankfully libraries are getting more sensible, and a visit to the Gallica site at the French National Library can pay dividends.  Doing so reveals a volume containing Ptolemy’s Cosmographia which also contains plates by Buondelmonti, such as this one, Ms Latin 4802 (1552), on f.134r:


But this is a late copy, and various important bits have vanished.  Also the walls of the churches have turned into courtyard walls – perhaps this is a feature of later copies?  Here I was hoping for an early copy, but evidently this is not available yet.

A different image in many ways – and one in which the writer has just put stuff wherever he likes, seemingly, is here, a 1450 manuscript copy of the Liber insularum archipelagi sold in Chicago.


The copies of the map of Cristoforo Buondelmonti, from the Liber insularum archipelagi, vary greatly it seems.  What we need, I think, is some nice, high resolution images of all the copies that we can find.  The results could not fail to be interesting and informative.

UPDATE: Ste Trombetti has kindly sent me a bibliography on Ensenius/Buondelmonti.  This includes T. Thomov, “New information about Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s drawings of Constantinople”, Byzantion 66 (1996) 431-453, which seems to be sadly offline but is often referenced where these maps are concerned.  Also a link to another image, a copy of Buondelmonti’s “Liber insularum Archipelagi”, in MS Lat.X.123, at the Bib. Marciana:


This is clearly not an accurate copy.

I also found a bibliography on the Vatican website, giving Thomov’s article as a reference for the following Vatican manuscripts (which, presumably, must contain also copies of the Buondelmonti map): Chig.F.V.110, Ross.702, Ross.704,  Sadly none of these appear to have been digitised as yet.

Another find, an article by Michel Balard,[1] tells us more about the map:

Buondelmonti’s positive appreciation of the Turks can be perceived not only from the text of the Liber insularum Archipelagi, but also from the illustrated maps which complete his vision of the Aegean world. The most important are those of Constantinople, which can be found in 16 manuscripts of the Liber. Ian Manners has demonstrated how at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the cartographers changed their way of constructing their work.[19] In their bird’s eye views, they wanted to represent places and landscapes as they appeared to the travellers. For instance, when they drew the design of Pera, the Genoese colony on the north of the Golden Horn, they show the galleys waiting along the shore, the wooden piers, the walls, the churches and some specific building known by everyone at that time. The maps display the city “as known, as experienced, as remembered, as imagined by artists and cartographers”, with a growing realism and a tendency to accentuate and add particular facts of peculiar interest to themselves. In so far as the manuscripts and their drawings can be dated, the maps depict the transformation of Constantinople according to the main events of its history, and particularly according to the contrast between the last years of the Byzantine domination and the reconstruction by the Ottomans after 1453.

When he visited Constantinople in 1421-2, Buondelmonti received from Vitold of Lithuania, father-in-law of John VIII Palaiologos, a commission for a map of Constantinople, which perhaps could have been a model for the illustrations of Buondelmonti’s text on the city. The oldest maps, drawn between 1420 and 1450, depict a city quite ruined, with very few indications of monuments and places. The representation insists on the fortifications, sometimes with a single line of walls and towers, sometimes with a double line, similar to the reality. The city has a triangular shape, as is described by many chroniclers and travellers using a frequent topos and comparing the triangle-shaped city to a lateen sail.[20] Very few monuments are drawn inside the walled city: the imperial palace of the Blachernai, two monumental colums, and some churches, but no effort has been made to emphasize or even identify the great church of Hagia Sophia. Pera, described in the text as “Januensium pulcerrima civitas”, is shown on the opposite site of the Golden Horn as a very small suburb of Constantinople. The general impression is that of an open and empty city, with a few scattered buildings. Buondelmonti with his text and drawings wants to show the miserable condition of the city and of its inhabitants, whose hostility towards the Latins is underlined by reference to the Franks put to death by the Greeks who, during the crusades, offered them bread mixed with lime (a legend related by many chroniclers since the First Crusade).

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 changed the representation of the city in the copies of the Liber insularum of the second half of the fifteenth century. Buondelmonti died probably after 1431, but those who used his text and illustrated it shared partially his representation of Constantinople. The majority, especially the authors of the copies made in Chios, give many details about the city’s system of fortification: a moat, a double line of walls studded with strong towers, a single but mighty line for Pera. And, above all, inside the urban perimeter, a great number of churches, differentiated by their shape and denomination.  The more recent maps also show the Byzantine standard: a cross with the quadruple “b” of the Palaiologoi. It seems that the illustrators, longing for the city’s Christian past, wanted to enhance its Christian heritage. For them, Constantinople, which possessed so many relics and shrines, is still the New Jerusalem, a holy city with the benefit of divine favour. These copies are often linked with the writings of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, who, when he became pope, attempted to…

It is, then, clearly important to have a list of manuscripts, and to get the images from each.

The article is an interesting one, and it is a pity that it is offline.  It seems to give a biography of the Florentine priest, Christopher Buondelmonti, who knew Niccolo Niccoli, based himself at Rhodes and visited Constantinople twice, in 1420 and 1421-22, while hunting for Greek manuscripts.

  1. [1]Michel Balard, “Buondelmonti and the Holy War”, in: Ruthy GertwagenElizabeth Jeffreys, Shipping, Trade and Crusade in the Medieval Mediterranean: Studies in Honour of John Pryor, (2013), 414-424 (?). Google books preview here is rather odd and I can’t make out much about the pagination.

A useful map of Constantinople

Van der Vin’s book[1] also contains a rather useful map of Constantinople, which I think worth sharing.  In particular it shows the location of the Church of the Holy Apostles.


UPDATE: I suppose this map will be more useful to more people, if I OCR the names at the bottom so that Google can find them. They are:
1. Wall of Theodosius II
2. Golden Gate
3. Pege Gate (Selymbria Gate)
4. Hagia Sophia
5. Hagii Apostoli
6. Monastery of St. John in Stoudion
7. Church of Mary Peribleptos
8. Monastery of St. Andrew in Krisei
9. Church of Mary of Blachernae
10. Monastery of St. John in Petra
11. Monastery of Pantocrator
12. Church of St. Stephen in Dafne
13. Church of Mary Hodegetria
14. Monastery of St. George of the Mangana
15. Column of Justinian I (Augusteion)
16. Column of Constantine (Forum of Constantine)
17. Column of Theodosius I (Forum Tauri)
18. Column of Arcadius (Forum of Arcadius)
19. Column of Michael VIII
20. Imperial Palace
21. Bucoleon palace
22. Blachernae palace
23. Hippodrome
24. Obelisk
25. Cistern of Philoxenos
26. Aqueduct of Valens
27. Forum Amastrianum
28. Forum of the Bous
29. Lycus Valley
30. Mese

  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.

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.

An old engraving of the Hippodrome at Constantinople, sabotaged by Google Books

This afternoon I was trying to find out what early engravings might exist of Constantinople.  The search was mainly vain; but I did learn that a certain Onofrio Panavinio in his Ludi et Circences (1600) had printed an engraving of the Hippodrome.

This may be found here at Flickr, and I have uploaded the original here since it took quite a long time to locate it.  You should be able to click through to the splendid full-size image.

Onufrio Panavinio, engraving of the Hippdrome at Constantinople. Published 1600.

I wondered if perhaps the book itself might exist at Google Books.  A reprint of 1642 has no plates in it; but the original does exist there, and may be found here.  The plate is between pages 60 and 61.  On page 61 Panavinio adds, after discussing the Circus here in Constantinople:

Eius Circi descriptionem, ex antiqua Constantinopolis topographica, quae paulo antequam Urbs in Turcorum potestatem venisset facta fuit, excerpta, sic adieci, parum his quae a Petro Gilio dicuntur quadrantem.  Fieri n. potest ut centum annorum intervallo, Circi sive Hippodromi Constantinopolitani aspectus mutatus sit, Turcis eum indies demolientibus, & vastantibus, ac ad suos usus praeclarissima marmora, & columnas vertentibus.

I have added opposite a drawing of this circus, picked out from the topography of old Constantinople, which was made a little before the city came into the power of the Turks, a quarter of these things which are discussed by Petrus Gyllius.  It has come about that,  as a hundred years has intervened, the appearance of the Circus or Hippodrome of Constantinople has been changed, the Turks from day to day demolishing and devastating it, and putting its most excellent marbles and columns to their own uses.

The absence of any mosques does indeed suggest a 15th century drawing.

The Google Books page for the right-hand side looks as follows:


I thought that I would keep a copy locally, so I downloaded the PDF. Imagine my shock to find that I didn’t get what was visible on-screen.  Instead I got this:


(I have included the full screen in both images because our software tools change so fast at the moment that these may be of interest in five or ten years time!)

I don’t think we need ask which we prefer.  The colour image is far better to work with.

In these early books, moreover, the paper is thin and the text often comes through.  It’s manageable enough in colour images; but in the monochrome ones, this makes the pages near unreadable.

Did Google always do this?  Why don’t they make the images shown onscreen accessible for download?  A bit worrying this, in a way: for the image I have above was something I couldn’t have got from the book.

One postscript to all this.  I found a wonderful site this afternoon, on the Sphendone, the supporting platform at the west end of the Hippodrome.  The site slopes down towards the sea, and the Roman architects built a platform of brick and mortar — known as the Sphendone — to support it.  It’s still there.  The website contains numerous photographs and drawings, as well as an aerial photograph showing the extent of the Hippdrome, superimposed on today’s buildings.  Marvellous, and very recommended.  The author of the page is an artist named Trici Venola.


The brass statue of Justinian in Constantinople

One of the sights of Constantinople before the Ottoman conquest was the colossal equestrian statue of Justinian, standing in the Forum Augusteum, atop a 100 foot-tall pillar outside the senate house.  The statue faced east and was widely thought to have magical powers to repel invaders from that direction.

At Robert Bedrosian’s site I have found a treasure-trove of articles about Byzantium.  One of these, on ancient statues in medieval Constantinople,[1] contains a fascinating portrait of the statue:

One of the oldest was the equestrian statue which Justinian set up of himself ; it is described by Codinos. The horse was on the top of a column, and the emperor held in his left hand the ball and cross, signifying his universal dominion over the earth by the power of the faith of the cross.[2]

“The right hand,” says Codinos, “he has stretched out towards the east, signifying that the Persians should halt and not come over to the land of the Greeks, crying by means of the repelling gesture of his uplifted hand,’Stay, ye Persians, and do not advance, for it will not be to your good ‘.”

The idea is as old as the time of Justinian himself, for it is found in the contemporary historian Procopios, who says that the statue, “was riding, as I think, against the Persians.” The gesture of his right hand was to forbid the advance of the eastern barbarians.[30]

The latest notice of this statue we owe to Bertrandon de la Broquiere who saw it in 1432 ; by his time the Persians had been superseded by the Saracen holders of Jerusalem, and he says that the figure has “le
bras droit tendu et la main ouverte devers la Turquie et le chemin de Jherusalem par terre, en segne que tout celluy pays jusques en Jherusalem luy souloit estre obeyssant.”[31]

It was destroyed about 1525, shortly before the visit to the city of Gyllius, who saw fragments of it of gigantic size “carried into the melting Houses where they cast their Ordnance.”[32]

[29] Codinos, 28.
[30] Procopios, De Aedificiis, 182, especially lines 14 and 20. The idea spread to Europe and is found in John of Hildesheim, edition quoted, p. 274, and also in Arabic authors: Qazwini in the thirteenth century says that there were two opinions, and some said that the hand held a talisman to keep off enemies, and others that on the ball was written, “I own the world as long as this ball is in my hand” (J. Marquart, Osteurop. und ostasiatische Streifzuge (1903), p. 221). Harun ibn Yahya in the ninth century thought that the right hand was beckoning people to come to Constantinople (ibid. p. 220). An old drawing of this statue connected with the name of Cyriac of Ancona was found by Dothier in the library of the Seraglio. It has often been reproduced, and may be seen in Rev. des etudes grecques, vol. ix. p. 84.
[31] Bertrandon de la Broquiere, Le Voyage d’Outremer, publie par Ch. Scheffer (1892), P. 159.
[32] Gyllius, The Antiquities of Constantinople (translated) (1729), p. 129.

I did try to locate that drawing.  But this is harder than it might be.  Thanks to AWOL, I learn that REG is online here.  But this does not go back so far as vol. 9. list the volumes here, and vol. 9 (1896) is here.  Unfortunately page 84 is missing!  The Gallica collection of microfilms is here; but the series is incomplete and does not include the relevant parts of vol. 9.

I did find a drawing at Wikimedia Commons, however, which looks like a modern redrawing.  Note the inscription “THEODOSI”, suggesting – inevitably – reuse of an older statue by Justinian:

The volume of Gyllius – Pierre Gilles – is accessible online, however, and his description is worth hearing:

Chap. XVII. Of the forum called the Augustaeum, of the pillar of Theodosius, and Justinian, and the Senate-house.

Procopius writes that the forum which was formerly called the Augustaeum was surrounded with pillars and was situated before the imperial palace. Not only the forum is at present quite defaced, but the very name of it is lost, and the whole ground where it stood is built upon. The palace is entirely in ruins, yet I collect from the pedestal of a pillar of Justinian lately standing, but now removed by the Turks, which Procopius says was built by Justinian in the Augustaeum, and Zonaras in the court before the Church of Sophia, that the Augustaeum stood where there is now a fountain, at the west end of the Church of St. Sophia. Suidas says, that Justinian, after he had built the Church of St. Sophia, cleansed the court, and paved it with marble, and that it was formerly called the Forum Augustaeum; and adds, that he erected his own statue there. Procopius writes, “That there was a certain forum facing the Senate House, which was called by the citizens the Augustaeum; where are seven stones, so cemented together in a quadranglular manner, and are so contracted one within another, the upper within the lower stone, that a man may conveniently sit down upon every projecture of them.”

I was more induced to give this account from Procopius of the pedestal because I do not find it in his printed works. Upon the top of it, says he, there’s erected a large pillar, composed of many stones covered with brass, which did at once both strength and adorn them. The plates of brass did not reflect so strong a lustre as pure gold, yet was it, in value, little inferior to silver.

On the top of the pillar was set a large horse in brass, facing the east, which indeed afforded a noble prospect. He seemed to be in a marching posture, and struggling for speed.  His near foot before was curvated, as though he would paw the ground; his off foot was fixed to the pedestal, and his hind feet were so contracted, as though he was prepared to be gone.  Upon the horse was placed the statue of the emperor: it was made of brass, large like a colossus, dessed in a warlike habit like Achilles, with sandals on his feet, and armed with a coat of mail, and a shining helmet.  He looked eastward, and seemed to be marching against the Persians.  In his left hand he bore a globe, devised to signify his universal power over the whole world.  On the top of it was fixed a cross, to which he attributed all his successes in war, and his accession to the imperial dignity. His right hand was stretched to the east, and by pointing his fingers, he seemed to forbid the barbarous nations to approach nearer, but to stand off at their peril.

Tzetzes, in his “Various History”, describes what kind of helmet he had upon his head. “The Persians,” says he, “generally wore a turban upon the head.  When the Romans obtained any victory over them, they plundered them of their turbans, which they placed upon their own heads. These are,” says he, “of the same shape with that with which the statue of Justinian, erected upon a large pillar, is crowned.”  Cedrenus relates that Justinian held the globe in his silver hand.

Zonaras writes that Justinian, in the seventeenth year of his reign, set up this pillar, in the same place where formerly had stood another pillar of Theodosius the Great, bearing his statue in Silver, made at the expense of his son Arcadius, which weighed 7,400 pounds. When Justinian had demolished the statue and the pillar, he stripped it of a vast quantity of lead, of which he made pipes for aqueducts, which brought the water into the city. This ill-treatment of Theodosius by Justinian was revenged upon him by the barbarians; for they used his pillar in the same manner, and stripped it of the statue, the horse, and the brass with which it was covered, so that it was only a bare column for some years.

About thirty years ago the whole shaft was taken down to the pedestal, and that, about a year since, was demolished down to the base, from whence I observed a spring to spout up with pipes, into a large cistern. At present there stands in the same place a water-house, and the pipes are enlarged.

I lately saw the equestrian statue of Justinian, erected upon the pillar which stood here, and which had been preserved a long time in the imperial precinct, carried into the melting houses where they cast their ordinance. Among the fragments were the leg of Justinian, which exceeded my height, and his nose, which was above 9 inches long. I dared not measure the horse’s legs, as they lay upon the ground, but privately measured one of the hoofs and found it to be 9 inches in height.

An article by J. Raby references Ottoman sources, to show that the statue was taken down by 1456.[2]  This also gives a copy of the drawing, and indicates its present location: Ms. Budapest, University library 35, fol.144v, which is a miscellaneous manuscript.

  1. [1]R. M. Dawkins, “Ancient Statues in Mediaeval Constantinople”, Folklore 35 (1924), pp. 209-248. Download here: Ancient Statues in Mediaeval Constantinople. File size: 3.6 MB.
  2. [2]J. Raby, “Mehmed the Conqueror and the Equestrian Statue of the Augustaion”. Illinois Classical Studies 12 (1987), 305–313.

Emperor with a crown of glass paste: John VI Catacuzene

While looking for material about George Codinus, or pseudo-Codinus as we must call him, I came across a paper on here.[1] which gave a striking picture of the poverty of the Byzantine court at the end of the 14th century:

This picture of court life in the reconquered Constantinople, which is generally regarded as representative of the whole of the late Byzantine period from the late thirteenth century to 1453, is based on the one surviving text from the period after 1204 that contains descriptions of ceremonies, the so-called Treatise on the court titles by the anonymous author known to us as Pseudo-Kodinos. The text dates to some time in the mid-fourteenth century, to the reign of John VI Kantakouzenos, the emperor whose crown was made of glass paste gems and whose coronation banquet tableware was earthenware and pewter.

The reference given is “Nikephoros Gregoras, Byzantina Historia II, Ludwig Schopen, ed. (Bonn 1830) 788.15-789.8.”

This startling picture caused me to go in search of the History of Nicephorus Gregoras.  Fortunately p.788 of vol. 2 of the Bonn edition of the text is here, and includes a Latin translation:

Tanta porro tunc laborabat inopia palatium, ut in lancibus et poculis nihil ibi esset aurei aut argentei; sed stannea quidem nonulla, caetera vero omnia fictilia et testacea essent.   Ex his quilibet earum rerum non rudis, caetera quoque aliunda requisita, nec ita ut par erat perfecta (tyrannica quippe inopiae vi in factis, in dictis, in consiliis, tum temporis dominante) facile intellecturus est.  Nam illa quidem dicere omitto, ut et ipsa in ea solemnitate diademata et vestimenta, maxima ex parte, auri quidam speciem haberent et gemmarum pretiosissimarum; constarent autem illa corio, qualia nonnumquam inaurantur ad coriariorum usum; haec vitro, omnigenis coloribus perlucente.

For then the palace was troubled with such poverty, that in the cups and plates there was nothing of gold or silver; but while some were of tin, all the rest were pottery and earthenware. Of these things there was nothing that was not coarse, and everything else was lacking, and so it may be easily understood that nothing was correct (obviously there was desperate poverty in deeds, in speech, in advice, because of the times).  For I am disregarding this, that also their diadems and vestments in that ceremony, for the most part, had some appearance of gold and very precious gems; but the former were made of leather, of the type sometimes gilded according to the custom of the leatherworkers; the latter of glass, shining with every kind of colour.

It must have been dismal.

  1. [1]Ruth Macrides, “Ceremonies and the City: the court in fourteenth century Constantinople”, 217-236; p.218.

“In the Heroon of the great and holy Constantine towards the east end lies the porphyry larnax of the great Constantine himself…”

Another text in the PG 157 volume (col.725) is one describing the tombs of the emperors in the Church of the Holy Apostles, here:

On the tombs of the emperors which are in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

In the Heroon of the great and holy Constantine towards the east end lies the porphyry larnax of the great Constantine himself, in which he himself is deposited with his mother Helena.

Another porphyry larnax, in which is deposited Constantine, son of the great Constantine.

Another porphyry larnax, in which is deposited Theodosius the Great.

Another porphyry larnax, in which is entombed Theodosius Junior.

Another larnax of green Thessalica, in which lies Zeno. …

And so it continues, including Heraclius, and various Byzantine rulers.  On col. 735 we read, after a stoa – literally a portico, but by this period any building or chamber containing columns – with three small larnaxes containing the remains of Arcadius and his wife and son:

Another stoa in the same church towards the west end, in which lies an larnax of expensive Roman stone, where is deposited the accursed corpse of Julian the Apostate.

UPDATE (18/12/2013): I have updated this to reflect the meanings of the words “stoa” and “larnax”, after reading more around the subject.  While the PG renders larnax as “urn”, it should be rendered “sarcophagus”.  “Roman stone” means porphyry.  “Thessalica” is thessalian marble.


The Latins break open the tombs of the emperors in Constantinople

The history of Nicetas Choniates ends with a mournful description of the damage done to the city of Constantinople by the victorious Latins in 1204.  It seems to describe events well after the initial capture and sack of the city.

The following is very interesting:

Exhibiting from the very outset, as they say, their innate love of gold, the plunderers of the queen city conceived a novel way to enrich themselves while escaping everyone’s notice. They broke open the sepulchers of the emperors which were located within the Heroon erected next to the great temple of the Disciples of Christ [Holy Apostles] and plundered them all in the night, taking with utter lawlessness whatever gold ornament, or round pearls, or radiant, precious, and incorruptible gems that were still preserved within.

Finding that the corpse of Emperor Justinian [d.648] had not decomposed through the long centuries, they looked upon the spectacle as a miracle, but this in no way prevented them from keeping their hands off the tomb’s valuables. In other words, the Western nations spared neither the living nor the dead, but beginning with God and his servants, they displayed complete indifference and irreverence to all.

Not long afterwards, they pulled down the ciborium of the Great Church that weighed many tens of thousands of pounds of the purest silver and was thickly overlaid with gold.[1]

All the emperors of the East, from Constantine the Great onwards, were buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.  The church was pulled down after 1453 by the Moslems, and a mosque built in its place.  I believe that some of the porphyry sarcophagi of the emperors can still be seen at the archaeological museum, although I have not seen this myself.

But I had never realised that the tombs were actually looted by the Latins after their capture of the city in 1204.

  1. [1]Nicetas Choniates, Annals, translated as O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, tr. H.J. Margoulias, 1984, p.357.