Rotunda of Myrelaion
The fifth century rotunda near the Myrelaion church (Bodrum Camii) was the largest circular building in Constantinople. Later it was in ruins when its foundations were used as a cistern and a palace was constructed over it, perhaps by Romanos I Lakapenos who also built a church adjacent to it. Today, the former rotunda appears as a row of relatively narrow, low, and dark chambers which house a bazaar for leather goods.
Probably dating to the fifth century, the rotunda had an outer diameter of more than 40 meters, making it the second largest circular structure of the Roman-Byzantine period (only the Pantheon in Rome surpasses it). It can also be compared with other rotundas, for example the Rotunda of Galerius in Thessaloniki or the Red Basilica in Pergamon. It was situated on the south side of the main street from the city center towards the Golden Gate, not far from the Philadelphion. The chambers date from the middle Byzantine period, when they replaced the dome and served as a cistern as well as substructure for a palace which was built on top. The complex was referred to as the House of Krateros and later owned by Romanos Lekapenos, who turned it into a monastery after his accession to the throne in 920. The monastery also comprised a neighboring church, which became known as the Myrelaion and was afterwards converted into the Bodrum Camii. Excavations of a huge rotunda next to the started in the 1930s and were completed in the 1960s.
The cistern and palace were studied by K. Wulzinger a century ago, when the rotunda was not yet visible. The latter was only discovered in 1931, when T. Macridy and D. T. Rice excavated the substructure of the Bodrum Camii and uncovered a small outer section of the rotunda. This was then excavated in 1965/66 under the direction of R. Naumann. The findings include twenty-six pilaster capitals or capital fragments as well as figural floor mosaics now at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. In addition, a fragment of a porphyry sculpture – the heel of the Portrait of the Tetrarch was found on site, proving that this sculpture group in Venice originally was located in Constantinople.
The rotunda lies at the core of a larger building complex. It had two opposite doors, a wider one on the north and a narrower one on the south. The northern portal was 3.70 m wide and opened onto a portico. The walls flanking the portal form an angle and indicate that the portico was bent with a radius of approximately 40 m. It may have surrounded a sigma-shaped forecourt and possibly a u-shaped extension up to the main street which passed by on the north. Other Constantinopolitan rotundas were similarly combined with sigma-shaped forecourts, e.g. the palace complex at the Hippodrome and the (later?) bath or baptistery in the Mangana quarter. In all cases the forecourt will have marked the main entrance. The narrower southern door was 2.85 m wide and opened onto a semicircular flight of stairs. They led to a lower level, as the ground slopes down toward the Sea of Marmara. Here the rotunda was flanked by two separate porticos on the west and the east. Roughly 40 m to the south stood a second, smaller centrally-planned building almost on the same axis as the rotunda. This second building was excavated by Rice on the same occasion when he studied the Bodrum Camii, but has since vanished. It seems to have been contemporary with the rotunda. The masonry of alternating layers of blocks of limestone and brick is similar, and the same mullions have been found 11 m to the south of the rotunda as well as in the second building. Their narrow-pointed acanthus resembles that on a console from the rotunda itself.
The original function and identity of the rotunda are disputed. One of the possibilities, taking into account the probable fifth-century date of the complex, is that it was the palace of the Theodosian princess Arcadia. Moreover, Naumann suggested that the sigma portico of the rotunda could be identified as the Amastrianon which served as a market and place for public executions in the Medieval period. According to Byzantine texts, the Amastrianon was an open space limited by a semicircular portico and adjacent to the Mese approximately in the location of the Myrelaion rotunda and it was defined by a semicircular portico and a straight wall which contained a gate. The Patria (10th century) tell us other interesting details: For example, there were several reliefs and statues in the Amastrianon court, such as Zeus driving a chariot , turtles, a personification of the Lycus River and a relief of a man from Amastris with his servant. In the 8th century the rotunda behind the portico must have been in ruins (confirmed by the twentieth-century excavations) and it is quite possible that the sigma court may have become a market place by that time.
The ruined rotunda was re-used when a new palatian building was erected directly on the top of it in the Early Middle Ages. Before the construction of the new palace started, the walls of the rotunda had been consolidated and both doors walled-up. The interior of what had left of the late antique structure was converted into a cistern whose vaulting, supported by re-used columns, created a leveled platform on which the medieval palace was built. The palace was considerably smaller than the rotunda and occupied only the eastern part of the platform. It consisted of a rectangular hall (21.75 x 7.80 m) with two corner tower-like structures connected by a portico. Thus, the building resembled a Roman corridor villa. The building was identified as the palace which belonged to the emperor Romanos I Lakapenos (920-944) and was converted by him to a nunnery, as it is known from the sources, situated near the Myrelaion church (also work of Romanos) which fortunately survived, converted into a mosque (Bodrum Camii). Nevertheless, it is not certain whether Romanos built this palace. In this respect it has been suggested that the palace may be the same as the House of Krateros adjacent to the semicircular Amastrianon court (either the general Theodore Krateros serving under the emperor Theophilos (first half of the 9th century) or Andreas Krateros who was a domestikos in the reigns of Basil I and Leo VI (second half of the 9th century).
Also see Myrelaion Church
Rotunda ruins and church
Rotunda with archaeologist D. Talbot Rice
Mosaic floor of small rotunda unearthed (now lost) by Rice
Plan by Müller-Wiener
Comparison of Rotundas
Plans of Myrelaion, Pantheon, and Rotunda of Galerius
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Fragment of Paving Mosaic
Excavation at Myrelaion, 5th century
The mosaics were found on the floor of the northern portico in front of the northern portal of the rotunda. They were laid out in a patchwork of various fragments with differing orientations and with gaps in between. This layout was obviously secondary, analogous to the reuse of the pilaster capitals in the later foundations mentioned above. The mosaics consist of ornamental and of figural fragments. If all the figural fragments belong to the same or similar figures, they could be reconstructed as one or more male youths, each with a round shock of hair, short cloak and short tunic. Head and gaze are turned sideward, the right arm is slightly bent and one heel lifted from the floor. Another indication of the iconography is provided by the inscription AK above the head which may be read as Ακτέων. Actaeon is best known as a mythological figure and described as a young hunter. He was frequently depicted in Antiquity, for the last time in an early Byzantine floor mosaic from Daphne, a garden suburb of Antioch on the Orontes.
The mosaic floor from Daphne belonged to one of several sumptuous houses known as the “Yakto Complex.” The composition consists of a so-called figure carpet arranged around a central medallion with a bust of Megalopsychia. The six figures are alike, all of them youthful male hunters dressed in short cloaks and tunics, each wielding a spear. Inscriptions identify them as well-known mythological figures, Actaeon, Meleager, Adonis, Tiresias, Narcissus, and Hippolytus. The Actaeon figure at Daphne does not lend itself to direct comparison with the fragments in Istanbul because it is turned in the other direction. But if instead one compares it with Meleager, the fragments in Istanbul can be reconstructed as one or more spear hunters, possibly framed by the same double guilloche as at Daphne. If this reconstruction is correct, the fragments may formerly have covered the floor of the rotunda and have been laid out in close similarity to Daphne. The composition is arranged in circles and would appear initially to have been conceived for a rotunda. Its adaptation to the rectangular ground plan at Daphne is obviously derivative. Furthermore, spear hunters were commonly depicted on early Byzantine mosaic floors, and several have been found at Istanbul, for example at Saraçhane below the Belediye Sarayı and in the imperial palace. It would, therefore, seem appropriate that spear hunting should also have been depicted in the rotunda at the Myrelaion.
Text by Philipp Niewöhner
Mosaic floor during excavation
Yakto Mosaic in Antioch
Marble Capital Revetment Slab from the Rotunda
Bodrum Mosque excavations, 5th century
Porphyry Heel of Tetrarch Group
Excavation at Myrelaion
Late 3rd-4th century
Originally part of Potrait of Tetrarchs, now in Venice
A Marble bust of a woman
Roman Period, late 2nd-early 3rd century AD
Vicinity of Bodrum Mosque-Laleli
Fragments of glazed revetment tiles
Myrelaion Church, 10th century
The Myrelaion (Bodrum Camii) in Istanbul by C. Striker
“Excavations at Bodrum Camii 1930” by D. Talbot Rice
“Myrelaion palaces” by Jan Kostenec (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World Constantinople)
Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls: Byzantion, Konstantinupolis, Istanbul by Wolfgang Müller-Wiener
İstanbul'da Bizans Dönemi Sarnıçlarının Mimari Özellikleri ve Kentin Tarihsel Topografyasındaki Dağılımı by Kerim Altuğ