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F - 45 : A Palace too big for a shrinking Empire

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

Most people know about the Palatium in Rome, the home of Roman Emperors since the time of Augustus. The Palatine Hill gave us the name for palaces. But with the demise of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, there was no need for this vast building complex anymore. It was abandoned, then plundered and eventually used as quarry by the Popes. Many columns and marbles used for churches or other ecclesiastical buildings were taken from the Palatine Hill. The Roman Emperors had taste for exquisite materials – so did the Popes.

The Great Palace of Constantine in 1'200 AD - between Hippodrome and Sea of Marmara

The Great Palace in Constantinople suffered a similar fate, except that today almost nobody remembers its name nor location. It is difficult to find. Ask a Turkish taxi driver to take you there. He will look at you with big eyes. Constantine’s Great Palace – building started 330 AD - is not mentioned in Turkish history books.

The Great Palaces overlaid on a contemporary map

Contrary to the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the Turkish Sultan had no use for it. It is said that Mehmet II, the Conqueror, toured it once he entered the city in 1453 but was thoroughly unimpressed by its dilapidated state. The Great Palace was severely damaged and looted in 1204, when Venice convinced the leaders of the 4th Crusade to sack the city.

The Four Roman Tetrarchs are now built into the Walls

of the San Marco Basilica in Venice - the missing foot

(right) was recently found in Istanbul

Many of the looted objects like the 4 Roman Tetrarchs (Roman Co-Emperors) or the Quadriga (the 4 horses on San Marco) never returned and are still in Venice. Today, with two exceptions, only ruins are left of the Great Palace. The ruins are underground as Turkish people settled on top.

Just south of the Hagia Sophia, parts of the Great Palace are now excavated

Constantine’s Great Palace is ingeniously designed. Built on the slopes below the Hippodrome and limited by Hagia Irina and Hagia Sophia to the north, it overlooks the Sea of Marmara and benefits from sun, the fresh sea breeze and direct access to the waters. It had a direct link to the Hippodrome. The palace’s surface was around 200’000 square feet. The slopes drop 33 m from top to bottom. Many of the brick-built terraces are still visible. Constantine’s Palace was a sprawling complex of buildings and gardens. Kind of a blend between Hadrian’s Tivoli Palace outside Rome and Diocletian’s Fortress Palace in Split. When I saw model drawings the first time, the architecture reminded me of Venice – of course, Venetian architects were inspired by Byzantium. There was no other town to copy . Next time you stand in front of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, think of Constantinople.

The Bucoleon Palace was part of the Great Palace and built on the Sea Walls

One part of the palace is still standing - the Bucoleon Palace on top of the sea walls. It goes back to Emperor Theodosius, who built Constantinople’s famous double walls but was completed only in the 9th century AD. When the crusaders sacked the city, they took up residence there whilst the rest of the Grand Palace was looted. It was not the Ottomans who destroyed this important testimony to Christian culture. The Frankish Knights did the job. Another part that survived are the wonderful mosaics from the time of Emperor Justinian I. They provide a wonderful insight into daily life during Roman times. We are going to visit both during the Byzantine Tour in August.

The Palace Mosaics date back to the time of Emperor Justinian and were found in the 1930s

Given the palace’s dilapidated nature, the Ottoman architects used the ruins as quarry when Mehmet the Conqueror decided to build his own place on the site of the old Acropolis. There was no fresh water but the Ottomans were skilled hydraulic engineers. Determined to make Istanbul the capital of the world, Mehmet II planned a palace that was unique and rivalled by none. With water from the aqueducts, the site became a lush garden - and still is.

The Topkapi Palace as seen in 1771 - the name of the French Painter escaped me

The design of his Topkapi Palace was similar to Constantine’s Great Palace. The gardens offer splendid views on the Golden Horn and the Bosporus, the wide, open area is dotted with buildings that housed the Sultan’s private quarters (Harem), his most senior ministers and his imperial council. Mehmet’s palace buildings were modest on the outside, but marvels inside. The craftsmanship is superb. The Topkapi Palace is unique in the Islamic world. I never forget my thoughts when standing on the Sultan’s terrace overlooking the seas for the first time. “The Sultan must have been a powerful man!” Construction for the Topkapi Palace started in 1459. Most was completed in record-breaking time. It took six years only – thanks to the materials sourced from the Grand Palace. The Ottoman Sultans lived in and governed from the Topkapi Palace until the 18th century.

Aerial view of the former Palace site - a whole new neighbourhood was built on top

The former Grand Palace remained a quarry for several centuries. Some of its marbles and columns found their way into the Souleymane and the Blue Mosque on top of Constantine's Daphne’s Palace. By the 17th century, most precious materials were removed. Ordinary people started to settle on top of the old ruins. Many of the houses and streets built still exist today. The beauty sleep of the Grand Palace became a deep slumber.

There are lots of ancient vaults below today's buildings - we are going to visit some

Columns of the Great Palace in a Turkish Textile Shop

The slumber was briefly disturbed when the first railway line to Istanbul was built in 1873. The new line cut right through it. The old sea front terrace with the sea lions, forgotten for centuries, had to be torn down. The lions are today in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul. Luckily, a few photos survived. They give us a good idea how the palace must have looked like in the 19th century.

Destroyed Part of Bucoleon Palace - the 2 Lions are today in Istanbul's Archeologic Museum

Seafront of the Bucoleon Palace from 1860 before the railway and Main Street were built

Eventually, in 2018, the mayor of Istanbul launched a project to restore what was left of the palace and build a park with a walk way through the remains. But that was four years ago and I am not sure where it is going.

2018 Project of a Park with Walk Way - the Palace Remains need urgent structural Support

The recent conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque does not bode well for projects which do not align with Turkey’s new nationalism. Why spending money on a project that reminds people that Istanbul had a cosmopolitan past? We have to see what is happening. For the time being, only the well preserved mosaics remind us of the former splendor of this once great seat of power which became too big once the empire shrank.

Reconstruction of the Bucoleon Palace with its Harbour

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