Great Palace of Constantinople
Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Archaeological Park

The Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople was the ceremonial heart of the Byzantine Empire for a millennium. It was situated on a sloping site between the Hippodrome and the sea walls, in the area known as Sultanahmet today. Built or begun by Constantine I, it remained the actual residence of the emperors until the reign of Alexios I, who moved his court to the Blachernai Palace, and continued as the official imperial residence until 1204. The Latin emperors also lived there. 

The archaeological remains of the palace are relatively limited and thus only partially understood. Apart from a system of terraces, they are limited to a seaward facade of the Boukoleon palace, a stretch of defensive wall, probably the one built by Nikephoros II Phokas, running north from the old lighthouse tower of the sea walls, and remnants of an apsed hall preceded by a peristyle court, the latter decorated with a magnificent floor mosaic. This complex, excavated in 1935-38 and 1952-54, appears to date no earlier than the reign of Justinian I and has not been convincingly identified with any of the palatine buildings known from the textual evidence. In addition, there are remains of the palace at Sultanahmet Archaeological Park as well as a series of vaulted substructures.

The palace is best known to us as it was in the 9th-10th centuries and should be visualized not as a symmetrically planned complex (although parts of it may have been) but as an irregular agglomeration of buildings of various dates separated by gardens and sporting grounds. The three principal texts that help us to recreate the layout of the palace are the De Ceremoniis ; the description in Theophanes Continuatus of the buildings put up by the emperors Theophilos and Basil I; and the account by Nicholas Mesarites  of the failed coup of John Komnenos the Fat in 1200. On the basis of these and other sources, repeated attempts have been made to reconstruct the palace on paper, all of which highly conjectural.

The oldest portion of the Great Palace, the Palace of Daphne, built by Constantine the Great and his successors in the 4th and 5th centuries, was a complex that is thought to have occupied the site upon which the Sultanahmet Mosque now stands. Its immediate context comprised: the Hippodrome and adjacent palaces; the Baths of Zeuxippos; the Imperial forum or Augustaion, where Justinian I erected his equestrian statue on a monumental column in the 6th century; the churches of St. Sophia, St. Eirene, and later St. John Diippion to the north-east and Sts. Sergios and Bakchos to the south-east, the Milion and the beginning of the Mese, and the library and peristyle courtyard called the ‘Basilica’. There is a clear precedent for such imperial gardens in the layout of Roman aristocratic villas, such as that of Hadrian in Tivoli, and the Flavian palace in Rome, as well as being evidenced by the typology of the late-antique porticoedvilla. The palace complex had a monumental vestibule called Chalke opening on to the main street, the Mese, a “public” section, centered on a big court (called Tribunal or Delphax) with meeting rooms and a dining room (the Hall of the 19 Couches) grouped around it, and a residential wing called Daphne, which communicated with the imperial box (Kathisma) in the Hippodrome by means of a spiral staircase.

A chapel of St. Stephen was added by Pulcheria (c. 428) and another, of St. Michael, before the end of the 5th century. The palace had a harbor or other landing facilities and was certainly protected by a wall. A private sporting ground called "the covered Hippodrome" may have dated from the same period. The Chalke and guards' quarters were burned down in the Nika Revolt (532) and rebuilt by Justinian I. Justin II is credited with the Chrysotriklinos (Golden Hall), a domed octagon that was to become the throne room and ceremonial center of the palace. Tiberios I (soon after 578) remodeled the north section of the palace to provide new quarters for himself and his family. A further expansion was carried out by Justinian II, who strengthened the palace walls and built a big reception hall called Triklinos of Justinian (loustinianos). The next important building phase was initiated by Theophilos, who erected a two-story complex (the Trikonchos, the Sigma, and several pavilions). Next, Basil I put up residential rooms (the Kainourgion and the Pentakoubouklon), the Nea Ekklesia, and several chapels and laid out a polo ground (Tzykanisterion).

It would appear that parts of the complex of the Daphne Palace, such as the Chapel of St. Stephen, the Augustaion and the Consistorion, were still in use for special ceremonial occasions during the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogenetus (r. 913 – 959), although most of the ceremonial life at that time would appear to have centered on the Chrysotriklinos, the Triklinos of Justinian, and the churches of the Theotokos of the Pharos and the Nea. However, when the emperor Nikephoros Phokas fortified the Great Palace in 969, the structures of the Daphne complex were excluded from its boundaries. They had, it would appear, by this date ceased to have any more than an occasional ceremonial function.

The Daphne Palace would seem to have thereafter fallen into gradual ruin, exacerbated by pillaging and spoliation during the period of the Latin Empire (1204 - 1261). In the Middle Byzantine period, and notably during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), there was a shift in significance to the Blachernae Palace, in the north-west part of the city, close by the Golden Horn, as the primary imperial residence. And yet, significant new or renovated structures were constructed in the Great Palace grounds as late as the 12th century, notably the Mouchroutas, a pleasure pavilion in Arabic or Persian style, possibly with a muqarnas (conical) vault, and thought to have been located in the south-west area of the palace. Great damage is recorded as having been inflicted on the area during the sack by the IV Crusadein 1204, and subsequent Latin occupation. During the Palaiologan period the palace gradually fell into decay; except for the Nea Ekklesia, little of it had survived by the time of the Ottoman conquest.

The Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople was the ceremonial heart of the Byzantine Empire for a millennium. It was situated on a sloping site between the Hippodrome and the sea walls, in the area known as Sultanahmet today. Built or begun by Constantine I, it remained the actual residence of the emperors until the reign of Alexios I, who moved his court to the Blachernai Palace, and continued as the official imperial residence until 1204. The Latin emperors also lived there. The Great Palace has a high cultural and historical significance, exerting a significant influence on both Western European and Levantine palatine architecture, and forming a link between Imperial Roman and medieval palaces.

The archaeological remains of the palace are relatively limited and thus only partially understood. Apart from a system of terraces, they are limited to a seaward facade of the Boukoleon palace, a stretch of defensive wall, probably the one built by Nikephoros II Phokas, running north from the old lighthouse tower of the sea walls, and remnants of an apsed hall preceded by a peristyle court, the latter decorated with a magnificent floor mosaic. This complex, excavated in 1935-38 and 1952-54, appears to date no earlier than the reign of Justinian I and has not been convincingly identified with any of the palatine buildings known from the textual evidence. In addition, there are remains of the palace at Sultanahmet Archaeological Park as well as a series of vaulted substructures.

The palace is best known to us as it was in the 9th-10th centuries and should be visualized not as a symmetrically planned complex (although parts of it may have been) but as an irregular agglomeration of buildings of various dates separated by gardens and sporting grounds. The three principal texts that help us to recreate the layout of the palace are the De Ceremoniis ; the description in Theophanes Continuatus of the buildings put up by the emperors Theophilos and Basil I; and the account by Nicholas Mesarites  of the failed coup of John Komnenos the Fat in 1200. On the basis of these and other sources, repeated attempts have been made to reconstruct the palace on paper, all of which highly conjectural.

The oldest portion of the Great Palace, the Palace of Daphne, built by Constantine the Great and his successors in the 4th and 5th centuries, was a complex that is thought to have occupied the site upon which the Sultanahmet Mosque now stands. Its immediate context comprised: the Hippodrome and adjacent palaces; the Baths of Zeuxippos; the Imperial forum or Augustaion, where Justinian I erected his equestrian statue on a monumental column in the 6th century; the churches of St. Sophia, St. Eirene, and later St. John Diippion to the north-east and Sts. Sergios and Bakchos to the south-east, the Milion and the beginning of the Mese, and the library and peristyle courtyard called the ‘Basilica’. There is a clear precedent for such imperial gardens in the layout of Roman aristocratic villas, such as that of Hadrian in Tivoli, and the Flavian palace in Rome, as well as being evidenced by the typology of the late-antique porticoedvilla. The palace complex had a monumental vestibule called Chalke opening on to the main street, the Mese, a “public” section, centered on a big court (called Tribunal or Delphax) with meeting rooms and a dining room (the Hall of the 19 Couches) grouped around it, and a residential wing called Daphne, which communicated with the imperial box (Kathisma) in the Hippodrome by means of a spiral staircase.

A chapel of St. Stephen was added by Pulcheria (c. 428) and another, of St. Michael, before the end of the 5th century. The palace had a harbor or other landing facilities and was certainly protected by a wall. A private sporting ground called "the covered Hippodrome" may have dated from the same period. The Chalke and guards' quarters were burned down in the Nika Revolt (532) and rebuilt by Justinian I. Justin II is credited with the Chrysotriklinos (Golden Hall), a domed octagon that was to become the throne room and ceremonial center of the palace. Tiberios I (soon after 578) remodeled the north section of the palace to provide new quarters for himself and his family. A further expansion was carried out by Justinian II, who strengthened the palace walls and built a big reception hall called Triklinos of Justinian (loustinianos). The next important building phase was initiated by Theophilos, who erected a two-story complex (the Trikonchos, the Sigma, and several pavilions). Next, Basil I put up residential rooms (the Kainourgion and the Pentakoubouklon), the Nea Ekklesia, and several chapels and laid out a polo ground (Tzykanisterion).

It would appear that parts of the complex of the Daphne Palace, such as the Chapel of St. Stephen, the Augustaion and the Consistorion, were still in use for special ceremonial occasions during the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogenetus (r. 913 – 959), although most of the ceremonial life at that time would appear to have centered on the Chrysotriklinos, the Triklinos of Justinian, and the churches of the Theotokos of the Pharos and the Nea. However, when the emperor Nikephoros Phokas fortified the Great Palace in 969, the structures of the Daphne complex were excluded from its boundaries. They had, it would appear, by this date ceased to have any more than an occasional ceremonial function.

The Daphne Palace would seem to have thereafter fallen into gradual ruin, exacerbated by pillaging and spoliation during the period of the Latin Empire (1204 - 1261). In the Middle Byzantine period, and notably during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), there was a shift in significance to the Blachernae Palace, in the north-west part of the city, close by the Golden Horn, as the primary imperial residence. And yet, significant new or renovated structures were constructed in the Great Palace grounds as late as the 12th century, notably the Mouchroutas, a pleasure pavilion in Arabic or Persian style, possibly with a muqarnas (conical) vault, and thought to have been located in the south-west area of the palace. Great damage is recorded as having been inflicted on the area during the sack by the IV Crusadein 1204, and subsequent Latin occupation. During the Palaiologan period the palace gradually fell into decay; except for the Nea Ekklesia, little of it had survived by the time of the Ottoman conquest.

Sultanahmet Archaeological Park
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Chalke Gate
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Chalke

The Chalke, was main entrance vestibule of the Great Palace of Constantinople, so named either for the gilded bronze tiles of its roof or for its bronze portals. The earliest attested building was put up by the architect Aitherios under Anastasios I. Burned down in the Nika Revolt in 523, it was rebuilt by Justinian I as a rectangular structure with four engaged piers supporting a central dome. The ceiling was decorated with mosaics representing the emperor's victories over the Goths and Vandals, with the imperial couple surrounded by a cortege of senators placed in the center. The Chalke or its dependencies became a prison in the 7th-8th century. Basil I repaired the building and turned it into a law court.

On the facade of the Chalke, above the main door, was an icon Of Christ Chalkites, shown standing full-length on a footstool. Its origins are obscure. Its removal by Leo III in 726 or 730 was the first public act of imperial iconoclasm. Restored by Irene ca.787, it was once again removed by Leo V and replaced by a cross. Soon after 843 the icon, in mosaic, was set up again by the painter Lazaros. When the palace was enclosed by a less extensive circuit wall by Nikephoros II Phokas, the Chalke lost its importance as a vestibule. A small chapel dedicated to Christ Chalkites, built next to it by Romanos I, was reconstructed on a larger scale by John I Tzimiskes, who endowed it with relics and was himself buried there. The chapel, situated on an elevated platform, survived until 1804. Drawings and plans of the 18th century. help to place the chapel about too m south of the south-east corner of Hagia Sophia. The Chalke itself, robbed of its bronze doors by Isaac II, is not mentioned after 1200.

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Elfenbeintafel_mit_Reliquienprozession,_

Trier Adventus Ivory

Often interpreted as depicted as an imperial procession to the Chalke (Photo by Chris 73)

Magnaura Palace
Plan by Mamboury

“Mamboury B”

Ramp Tower and Substructures

Drawing by Mary A. Walker
Plan by Müller-Wiener

“Mamboury D”

Mamboury  “Da1”
Mamboury  “Da1”
Façade of “Mamboury  “Da”
Plan by “Da” by Mamboury
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Plan by Müller-Wiener
Palace of Boukoleon

Chrysotriklinos

The Chrysotriklinos (“Golden Hall”) was part of the Great Palace complex, probably constructed at the end of the 6th century. A domed octagon lit by 16 windows, the Chrysotriklinos was the place of ceremonial receptions, especially at Easter. Its principal table (of gold or rather gilded silver) accommodated 30 high-ranking state and church functionaries; there were 2 to 4 additional tables for 18 persons each, where subordinate officials were seated. Literary sources sometimes locution a small table for the emperor who sat apart from his guests. The imperial throne, decorated with a mosaic representing the enthroned Christ, was placed in the apse of the Chrysotriklinos. The hall contained exquisite furniture, of which the most renowned piece was the so-called Pentapyrgion , a large cupboard displaying vases, crowns, and other precious objects. The Chrysotriklinos was surrounded by numerous halls: Tripeton (a vestibule of Chrysotriklinos), Horologion (possibly containing a sundial), Kainourgion (adorned with 16 columns and with mosaics depicting imperial expeditions), Lausiakos, and the Triklinos of Justinian, from which one could reach the Hippodrome through the Gate of Skyla. The official in charge of the Chrysotriklinos (also called the protospatharios of Chrysotriklinos) was an important court dignitary, but his functions are not yet clear.

Plan by Franceschini
Plan by Müller-Wiener

Plan by Müller-Wiener

Reconstruction by Vogt

Aerial photo by Kadir Kir

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016