When I first started my application process for study abroad, as an art history major, I dreamt of going to Rome. Things happened and I ended up coming to Istanbul instead. My expectations regarding studying at Koc University in Istanbul were mostly about filling in the blanks to my education regarding the civilizations that lived on the lands that I had called home once in my life. I didn’t have much information regarding the Byzantine empire past the rudimentary knowledge that revolved around the Hagia Sophia – a monument in the middle of the historical peninsula that is hard to miss.
Three of the classes I am taking this semester are in Byzantine art and civilization and I am really excited about discovering a side of Turkey I was completely oblivious to. Our first class trip was an incredible treat I couldn’t have imagined. We climbed the City Walls of Constantinople. The Theodosian Walls as they are commonly known were built during the reign of Theodosius II and finished in 413AD. The significance of the walls was that they were built to protect the new capital of the Roman empire, “Constantinople” on the city’s border towards the West.
When considering Istanbul, most people don’t think of its Roman past but it was at one point the capital of the Roman Empire. Constantine, after defeating emperors Maxentius and Licinius and becoming the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantion renaming it Constantinople. All of this took place in the 4th century and Constantinople was officially founded in 330 AD.
The Theodosian Walls are an inherent part of the city fabric of Istanbul but the city growing around it almost organically has embraced them to the point that most inhabitants of the city don’t notice them anymore.
Romans were very big on ceremony and especially ceremonial entrances to the city. The monumental Golden Gate was the official Gate used by the Emperor and his entourage on triumphal entrances into the capital after wars and coronations.
There is a really great website – http://www.byzantium1200.com/ which visualizes what Byzantium looked like in the year 1200.
The biggest thrill of the day was probably climbing on top of the Golden Gate and looking out over the city, imagining how the Roman soldiers must have kept guard.
The walls of Constantinople considered to be the most successful defense system of late antiquity protected the capital for over a thousand years til the Turkish conquest in 1453. After the conquest the area around the Golden Gate was turned into the Yedi Kule (Seven Tower) Fortress and used as a dungeon as well as a treasury and archive. We even got to see the tiny room where Sultan Osman II (Genc Osman) was executed in 1622 by the Janissaries.
The area surrounding the land walls at this particular part of the city are used as orchards and for farming, a tradition that went back to antiquity we were told. After we left the fortress and walked along the walls we even got to take a close look at the green houses being tended to next to the walls where the family whose dwelling we had to pass through was gracious enough to let us into their home.