Palace of Blachernai
Church of Panagia Blachernai with the Terrace Wall of the Palace of Blachernai in the background
The Palace of Blachernai was south of the Church of Panagia Blachernai on the northwest corner of Constantinople. Located on the steep northern slope Sixth Hill overlooking the Golden Horn, it was built in several stages. While dating to Late Antiquity, it later was expanded and served as the main imperial residence during the Komnenian and Palaiologan eras. Little survives of the palace except the remains of substructures and the terrace wall. The Palaiologan Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Turkish Tekfur Sarayı) is the south of the location of the palace complex. It seems that this palace (Greek palation) gives rise to the name of the neighborhood Balat. The main reason for the location of this palace is the nearby important Marian church of Blachernai.
It seems that there was a palace at Blachernai in the 5th century. According to the Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae, which lists the structures and monuments of Constantinople during the reign of Theodosius II (408-450), there was a palace in Region XIV. While this region is associated with Blachernai, some scholars have also doubted this identification. In any case, imperial residential buildings were built following the construction of the Church of Panagia Blachernai, which was built by the middle of the 5th century by Pulcheria or Verina, the wife of Leo I (457-474). By 500, there were several triclinia (halls) built around a central courtyard, which are known, in part, from protocols described in De Ceremoniis. It seems that the Triklinos of the Soros to date to the reign of Leo I, while the palace complex was enlarged during the reign of Anastasius I (491-518) by the addition of the Triklinos Anastasiakos. During this period, other structures were also built, including the Triklinos Danoubios (“Hall of the Danube”) and the Triklinos Okeanos (“Hall of the Ocean”). The Triklinos Danoubios was linked to the koiton (bedchamber) and the Triklinos Anastasiakos by the Portico of Josephitos and communicated with the Blachnerai church complex below it by means of a spiral staircase. The connection of the Triklinos Okeanos with the rest of the palace, though, is unclear. At some point, it seems that emperors and other dignitaries began to use the harbor and gate at Kynegon to access the palace or churches at Blachernai.
Additional walls were constructed, first during the reign of Heraclius (610-641) following the Siege of Constantinople by the Avars and Persians in 626, and again during the reign of Leo V (813-820) following the Bulgarian siege of Constantinople in 813. They were built in order to bring forward the walls from the original line of walls to protect the Church of Blachernai, which was located below the palace complex of Blachernai. Work on these walls continued during the reigns of Michael II (820-829) and Theophilus (829-842). Thekla, daughter of Theophilus, added a chamber in the palace complex and a chapel dedicated to St. Thekla (frequently identified with the Middle Byzantine church-mosque Toklu Dede Mosque). In 1070 the church of was destroyed by fire and was rebuilt during the reigns of Romanos IV (1068-1071) and Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078). It is possible that this fire also damaged the palace.
Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) expanded the palace complex at the Blachernai, building the Triklinos of Alexios as a reception hall with a magnificent throne room. The so-called “Prison of Anemas” – a substructure consisting series of 14 chambers behind the land wall – was also built during the reign of Alexios; it probably served as a substructure of the palace rather than as a prison. A large synod was held in 1094 there regarding a dispute that involved Alexios funding the imperial treasury with valuables confiscated from the church. It was also the likely location where the emperor received the leaders of the First Crusade in the winter of 1096/97. Alexios invited the princes leading the Crusade, including Bohemond, Godfrey, Raymond of Toulouse, Robert of Flanders and Stephen of Blois, in order to entertain them and win their goodwill – with the ultimate attention of getting them to swear an oath of fealty. During this time, the palace would have been guarded by the Varangians. While the palace itself was strongly fortified, his grandson, Manuel I (1143-1180), built an additional wall to better secure the palace complex. Manuel I also continued work on the palace, using elements from the Great Palace to decorate the Blachernai palace complex, and building a triklinos named after himself and another named after his wife, Irene-Bertha of Sulzbach. Accounts of Manuel’s palace survive in the works of Benjamin of Tudela and Odo of Deuil. Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195, 1203-1204) added to the Anemas complex by building a large residential tower (Tower B14) next to the “Tower of Anemas”.
While the Great Palace complex continued to be used, the Palace of Blachernai became the main imperial residence under the Komnenians. It resulted in dramatic changes to the imperial triumph, with the Golden Gate and the Mese being rejected in favor of a new route from the acropolis to Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome and the old palace. This palace complex seems to have played an ideologically role for the Komnenians. For Alexios, moving the imperial residence could be considered symbolic of his establishment of a new dynasty. Furthermore locating the main imperial residence near the important church of Blachernai can perhaps be seen as emphasizing the Komnenian emperors as God’s earthly representatives.
Blachernai was an important location for several events in the Fourth Crusade and its eventual sack of Constantinople. A Crusader army first camped at the walls of the palace and attempted an assault there in 1203. The palace was the scene of the negotiations between the envoys of the Crusaders and the restored Isaac II Angelos and his son, Alexios IV, following Alexios III fleeing the city. The Crusaders again attempted to attack the palace’s walls in 1204, but failed again. Many Byzantine nobles sought refuge at the palace once the Crusaders entered the city. It was then occupied and plundered the Palace of Blachernai by Count Henry of Flanders. While Bukoleon was the residence of the first Latin Emperor, Baldwin of Flanders, the Palace of Blachernai later became the residence of Baldwin II (1228-61). During the Latin occupation, the nearby Church of Blachernai became a Catholic church.
The Palaiologans followed the Komnenians in residing at the Blachernai. Following the recovery of Constantinople, Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-1282) immediately began to renovate the palace and made it his residence. He later had the palace decorated with mural paintings celebrating his victory at Berat in 1281. Andronikos II (1282-1328) renovate the palace complex, and during his reign a large synod was held there that repudiated the Council of Lyons – rejecting an agreement by Michael VIII in 1274 to establish a union of the Churches. A 14th-century account of the palace describes small-scale imperials ceremonies, mentioning a triklinos and an adjacent bedchamber linked by a long elevated gallery to the church. There was also a four-pillared building near the palace entrance – which might be identified with another structure mentioned, the Hypsela Gate – a name that suggests it was a tall, perhaps tower-like, structure. In the last decades of the Byzantine Empire, the palace began its gradual decline, while the Church of Blachernai burned down in 1434. Pero Tafur noted during his visit in 1437-1438 that the state of the palace that resembled the general decay of the city. By the time of the Ottoman conquest, it seems that only the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus and the Anemas complex were being used by the Palaiologans. The palace probably largely disappeared by the 16th century, as travelers to the city no longer recognize it. In 1581 the famous Ottoman architecture Mimar Sinan built Ivaz Efendi Mosque on the northern edge of the palace terrace next to the Anemas complex.
Terrace Wall of the Palace
The Holy Spring (Hagiasma) at the Church of Panagia Blachernai
The so-called “Prison of Anemas” and its towers, known as the “Tower of Isaac Angelos”, the “Tower of Anemas”, are the main surviving structures of the palace complex. While the hagiasma of Blachernai still exists, the current church on site was rebuilt around 1860. Further south is another well preserved palatial structure, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, dating to the Palaiologan era. There are other less noticeable remains of the palace, including its terrace wall. The terrace wall, located south of the modern church of Blachernai, is around 12 meters high and stretches about 180 meters, with its north-west section ending north of the Emir Buhari Tekke and its south-west section ended near Ebuzer Gifari Mosque. There is also a rectangular projection of the terrace, known as Lonca, located south of Ebuzer Gifari Mosque. The terrace wall, while in many cases having facing dating to later periods, still has Byzantine brick in certain sections. In the 1950s, two granite columns near a gap in the terrace wall south of the church. In addition, it has features which might be traces of a stairway providing access to the terrace from the area of the church below. Earlier maps recorded two rectilinear projections at the southeastern line, which have been interpreted as evidence of a balcony.
Two Byzantine brick substructures were discovered in the palace area. The largest structure, located under Emir Buhari Tekke, consists of a series of rectilinear vaulted rooms vaguely similar to the so-called “Palace of Botaneiates”, suggesting it might be the remains of a palatial structure. A smaller structure was located to the south of this structure. Byzantine remains can also be found at Ebuzer Gifari Mosque, included three ionic impost capitals and an apsidal barrel-vaulted structure built of red Byzantine brick. It is unclear whether this is the remains from the church or palace. Several findings were made in the vinicity of Ivan Efendi Mosque, including a section of an opus sectile floor. More recently the ruins of a Byzantine era bath were uncovered. The remains, which seem to date to the Middle Byzantine era, include a hypocaust and recessed brickwork probably from a vaulted cistern. This was probably a private bath belong to the palace complex and seems to have been in use throughout the Byzantine era. The Anemas complex also has two cisterns, perhaps dating to the Late Byzantine era. In 2006, the remains of a Byzantine church were unearthed in connection with restoration work on the Prison of Anemas.
Byzantine Substructure at Emir Buhari Tekke
Byzantine Substructure at Ebuzer Gifari Mosque
Ionic Impost Capitals at Ebuzer Gifari Mosque
View from the palace overlooking the Golden Horn, the Church of Blachernai and the converted Byzantine church Atik Mustafa Pasha Mosque
Account of the Palace of Blachernai
“This King Emanuel built a great palace for the seat of his Government upon the sea-coast, in addition to the palaces which his fathers built, and he called its name Blachernae. He overlaid its columns and walls with gold and silver, and engraved thereon representations of the battles before his day and of his own combats. He also set up a throne of gold and of precious stones, and a golden crown was suspended by a gold chain over the throne, so arranged that he might sit thereunder. It was inlaid with jewels of priceless value, and at night time no lights were required, for every one could see by the light which the stones gave forth.”
12th century account by Benjamin of Tudela
“There is set what is called the Palace of Blachernae which, although it is rather low, yet, rises to eminence because of its elegance and its skillful construction. On its three sides the palace offers to its inhabitants the triple pleasure of gazing alternately on the sea, the countryside, and the town. The exterior of the palace is of almost incomparable loveliness and its interior surpasses anything that I can say about it. It is decorated throughout with gold and various colors and the floor is paved with cleverly arranged marble. Indeed, I do not know whether the subtlety of the art or the preciousness of the materials gives it the greater beauty or value.”
Account of Odo of Deuil (when Louis VII arrive in Constantinople in 1147)
“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.”
Account of Pero Tafur in 1437-1438
Lithograph by Mary Walker (1869)
By the Greek Philological Society of Constantinople (1884)
“Prison of Anemas” and the Tower of Isaac Angelos
From the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection
From Byzantine Studies by Paspates (1877)
Plan by Müller-Wiener
Vaulted cistern (9.5 x 3.75 m) under the Tower of Anemas
Plan by Forchheimer & Strzygowski
Plan by Müller-Wiener
Insurance Maps by Pervititch (1922) from BnF
Important for recording architecture evidence of the area now lost
Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls: Byzantion, Konstantinoupolis, Istanbul bis zum Beginn d. 17. by Wolfgang Müller-Wiener
Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis by Ferudun Özgümüş and Ken Dark
Byzantine Constantinople, the Walls of the City and Adjoining Historical Sites by Alexander Van Millingen
Fetihten Önce Haliç Surları by Feridun Dirimtekin
Byzantine Constantinople Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life edited by Nevra Necipoğlu
Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris
The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 by Paul Magdalino
“The art and architecture of Alexios I Komnenos” by Lyn Rodley
The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Jonathan Phillips
İstanbul'da Bizans Dönemi Sarnıçlarının Mimari Özellikleri ve Kentin Tarihsel Topografyasındaki Dağılımı by Kerim Altuğ
“Ayvansaray'da Ortaya Çıkartılan Bir Bizans Kilisesi” by Ü.M. Ermiş
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium edited by Alexander Kazhdan
The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies edited by Jeffreys, Haldon and Cormack
Account of the Palace
The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela translated by Marcus Nathan Adler
Pero Tafur: Travels and Adventures (1435-1439) translated by Malcolm Letts
The Crusade of Louis VII by Odo of Deuil translated by James Brundage
Byzantine Palaces of Constantinople Album (Byzantine Legacy Flickr)