Great Palace of Constantinople History
The Great Palace of Constantinople (Turkish: Büyük Saray)
was the principal residence of Byzantine emperors from Constantine the Great to Alexios I and
the symbolic nerve centre of the empire. Also known as The Sacred Palace,
it was the Byzantine equivalent of the Palatine in Rome.
The Great Palace of Constantinople was a large complex of buildings and
gardens situated on a terraced, roughly trapezoidal site, measuring 600×500 m, and overlooking
the Sea of Marmara to the south-east. The complex was enclosed by the Hippodrome to the west,
by the Regia (a ceremonial extension of the Mese), the Augustaion, and the Senate to the north,
and by the sea walls to the south and east.
Modern understanding of the Great Palace depends heavily on
the literary sources and, to a lesser degree, on the meagre archaeological evidence. Of the few
archaeologically explored components of the palace complex, the largest is an apsed hall
preceded by a large peristyle court with splendid floor mosaics, which feature hunting and
pastoral scenes combined with figures from mythology.
The isolated nature of these finds and the ambiguity of the written sources
preclude any comprehensive architectural reconstructions of the palace despite repeated
attempts since the 19th century. In its scale and general character the Great Palace must have
resembled a city, with numerous buildings, private harbors, avenues, open spaces, terraces,
ramps and stairs, gardens, fountains and other amenities, built and rebuilt over nearly eight
Rebuilding of palace components at new locations, but retaining their old
names, along with the changing functions and names of preserved buildings, are among the
factors contributing to the confusion in the current state of knowledge about the
Constantinople Great Palace. Notwithstanding these problems, it is possible to
identify the main stages in its development.
The initial phase, under the auspices of Constantine the
Great, produced the core of the palace complex, which, by all accounts, must have
resembled several other imperial palaces built during the Tetrarchy. Constantine’s palace was
an overtly urban complex, approached by the Regia. Adjacent to the Regia stood the large Baths
of Zeuxippos, a public bath also related to the palace compound.
The entire western flank of the Great Palace bordered the Hippodrome, while
the so-called Kathisma —a component of the palace with the imperial box for viewing the
Hippodrome races, and rooms for other ceremonial functions— provided a palpable link between
the Great Palace and the city itself.
The second major phase in the development of the Great Palace occurred in
the 6th century, during the reigns of Justinian I and Justin II. Justinian’s building programme
was spurred in large measure by the damage caused by the Nika riots in 532, and it involved the
rebuilding of structures along the north flank of the palace complex, including the Magnaura
and the Chalke. The latter’s ceiling was decorated with mosaics showing Justinian’s victories
over the Vandals in North Africa (533–534) and the Goths in Italy and in part of Spain
(535–555); in the centre of the ceiling was a portrait of the imperial couple surrounded by
Justin II is credited with the construction of the Chrysotriklinos, the
octagonal domed throne-room, the resplendent decoration of which was finished by Tiberios I
(578–582). The Chrysotriklinos became in effect the new ceremonial nucleus of the palace,
modifying the original Constantinian layout.
The Great Palace was expanded again by Justinian II
(685–695; 705–711), who built the Lausiakos and the Justinianos, two halls in the vicinity of
the Chrysotriklinos. He is also credited with the construction of a wall enclosing the palace,
and of another gate, the Skyla, on the south side.
This development marks the end of an ‘open’ relationship between the palace
and the city, characteristic of Late Antique imperial palaces in general. This change was
brought about, in all likelihood, by the growing urban tensions and violence. During the
iconoclastic controversy (726–843) the Chalke acquired a particular significance in the
arguments for and against the worship of images.
On the building’s façade was an icon of Christ Chalkites (‘of the Chalke’)
shown standing on a footstool; in 726 or 730 Leo III Isaurikos (717–741) removed the icon and
replaced it with a cross as the first overt act of imperial iconoclasm. The image of Christ was
restored around 787 by Empress Eirene, only to be removed once again by Leo V (813–820) in 813
and replaced by a cross at the start of the second period of iconoclasm. By that time the
iconoclastic emperor Theophilos (829–842) had already begun the next major phase in the
development of the Great Palace, which continued under Michael II, Basil I and Leo VI.
Theophilos was responsible for the strengthening of the sea walls and for a
new two-storey ceremonial complex centred on the Trikonchos, preceded by the Sigma court and
surrounded by other pavilions. In its general character, this complex owed as much to the Late
Antique palatine tradition as it probably did to the palaces of the Umayyads, with whom
Theophilos is known to have maintained close cultural contacts.
Michael III is noted for several building restorations (particularly of the
Chrysotriklinos) and adaptations, but his most celebrated addition to the Great Palace was the
church of the Virgin of Pharos (‘Lighthouse’), renowned for the relics it contained and for its
splendour, if not for its size.
By far the best-known church to be added to the Great Palace was the
five-domed Nea Ekklesia under the auspices of Basil I. This emperor was responsible for one of
the most extensive building programmes to the Great Palace, which must have substantially
altered its appearance. Among his additions were two halls, known as the Kainourgion (the New
Hall) and the Pentakoubiklon (a room divided into five bays), and a large court for polo games,
known as the Tzykanisterion. Leo VI is credited with the construction of a sumptuously
In the following centuries the amount of construction within the
Great Palace of Constantinople diminished. During the reign of Nikephoros II
Phokas (963–969) another line of fortification walls was erected, apparently enclosing the
shrunken core of the Great Palace.
The final decline of the Great Palace began under Alexios I Komnenos
(1081–1118), who moved the imperial residence to the new palace of Blachernai. Despite this
shift, the Great Palace retained its ceremonial role for some time to come. Even some new
construction occurred, as under Manuel I (1143–1180), who built two halls: the Manouelites and
the Mouchroutas. The latter, known to have been the work of a Persian builder, had a painted
and gilded stalactite ceiling akin to such ceilings in Islamic architecture.
During the Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204–61)
the Great Palace was used, but was also despoiled of its major treasures. The
Palaiologan emperors (1261–1453) never attempted to restore the abandoned, slowly decaying
complex. Its final demise came in 1489–1490, when a large quantity of gunpowder stored in one
of the old buildings exploded, obliterating most of the surviving remnants.
Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul
The Mosaic Museum of Istanbul hosts a collection of archeological discovers
at the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The mosaics were first discovered in 1933,
during some excavations that took place on a site identified as the floor of a
peristyle courtyard of the Great Palace. (
under what is now the Arasta Bazaar). Later in the 1950's other mosaics were found and the
museum was built near the site.