A Medieval Cross-Imperial Monument and Its Site -

From the Church of the Holy Apostles to the Imaret of Sultan Mehmed II in Constantinople.

By Aksa Boyraz

A Land of Transitions

The city of Constantinople in present-day Istanbul, Turkey, has a cross-imperial medieval history having housed three empires. My current study focuses on a specific hill of medieval Constantinople that displays a striking cross-imperial and cross-religious transition following the Ottoman takeover of the city in 1453.

Constantinople was founded in the fourth century by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) with the ambition of creating a “new Rome” by considering Rome as the model for an ideal city.[i] A rivalry between the successors of the western and eastern Roman Empires evolved until 1204. Constantinople, having housed the Orthodox Patriarchate, became the destination for the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in a short-but-destructive Latin rule between 1204 and 1261 in Constantinople. In 1261, the city experienced an unexpected Byzantine reconquest under the Palaiologan dynasty. The Palaiologan urban revival focused on repairing the city, starting with its symbolic monuments that marked the Orthodox and Byzantine identity of the city.

In 1453, the city reached another breaking point; the Ottoman takeover ended the Byzantine era of the city, and led to the transformation of the city into the new Ottoman capital. The first Ottoman ruler of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II, thought the city to be a multi-religious and multi-ethnic political center. The cross-imperial and cross-religious transitions that the highest hill of the city of Constantinople went through in its medieval history constitutes the interest of my work.

Figure 1: Fifteenth-century map of Constantinople by Christoforo Bondelmounti.[ii]

A Hill of Transitions

The site where the church of the Holy Apostles stood, being the highest and most visible hill of the city, appeared to be a perfect place for a monument. Therefore, the namesake founder of the city, emperor Constantine the Great ordered the building of a monumental church to house relics of the holy apostles.[iii] By this means, Constantine’s new capital would acquire a sacred meaning, just like its rival Rome did. Although neither he, nor his successors, could complete the collection of relics of the twelve apostles, the church of the Holy Apostles featured in the most symbolic ceremonies and parade routes throughout the Byzantine era, such as in a parade held on Easter Monday.[iv] Moreover, Constantine the Great started the imperial tradition of being buried at the Holy Apostles Church, a tradition which was followed by his successors and many patriarchs until the late Byzantine era.[v]

The fourth-century source Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae names the area surrounding the church among the earliest built-up areas, while the tenth-century source on imperial ceremonies, De Ceremoniis informs us about a royal residence with upper-class houses nearby.[vi] These all suggest that the town, which was centered around the Holy Apostles Church, was one of the most vivid and most important places until the Latin invasion of Constantinople.

When it comes to the Latin invasion, the thirteenth-century sources by Niketas Choniates narrate the unfortunate fate of the Holy Apostles Church during its first encounter with the crusaders:

They broke open the sepulchers of the emperors which were located […] next to the great temple of the [Holy Apostles] and plundered them all in the night, taking with utter lawlessness whatever gold ornament, or round pearls, or radiant, precious, and incorruptible gems that were still preserved within.[vii]

In the face of that destruction of the two most sacred churches of Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia and Holy Apostles, the orthodox rulers from surrounding territories, such as Nicaean emperor John Vatatzes and a number of Slav princes,[viii] undertook the duty of funding its restoration during the Latin invasion.[ix] The very important building was urgently repaired along with Hagia Sophia right after the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople. Moreover, the patron of that repair, Emperor Michael VIII, erected his statue next to that church inviting resemblance with the founder of the city, Constantine the Great.[x]

The dramatically symbolic connections of the hill, as well as the monument that marked it remained more or less the same when the city was taken by the Ottomans, and transformed into their capital. However, the hill, and the thousand-year-old church were exhausted after all the tumultuous years. Sultan Mehmed II, the first Ottoman ruler of the city, reestablished the Orthodox patriarchate to organize his new Orthodox subjects, and granted them the hill ‘together with much property’, as noted by the historian Kritovoulos.[xi] However, after just one year, the patriarch himself asked to move out of the thousand-year-old church with security concerns because the town was a deserted area.[xii] The highest and most visible hill of the city remained abandoned for the next seven years until Mehmed II erected an imaret, a complex, to be named after himself. The very symbolic church of Orthodox Christianity since the foundation of the city was now to be replaced with a mosque-centered complex with non-religious sub-functions; its endowment document mentions that it had a hospital, a madrasa, a library, a bath, a marketing space, and spaces to serve for short term accommodation.[xiii] Apparently, this complex worked for Mehmed II’s repopulation project in his new capital; new neighborhood names referring to immigrants and upper-class housing, such as the architect himself who chose to move nearby and name a neighborhood after a mosque he founded there,[xiv] all indicate a gradual re-urbanization of that hill.

Figure 2: Sixteenth-century prospect of Constantinople by Melchior Lorck, including the depiction of the imaret of Sultan Mehmed II.[xv]


The most visible hill of a cross-imperial capital city experienced both glory and desertion in its medieval past. The wars, handovers and tumultuous history of contestation doubtlessly exhausted the hill, as well as the monument that stands on the top of it. Ultimately, they gave an end to the life of the monument, however, granted a new life to the ancient hill: the radical switch in the late fifteenth century from the Church of the Holy Apostles to the mosque-centered complex of Mehmed II under Ottoman rule appears to be the hill’s last clutch onto urban life.

Rahime Aksa BOYRAZ

Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey

Rahime Aksa Boyraz is an MA student at Boğaziçi University, History Department in Istanbul, Turkey. Her research focuses on the cross-cultural/cross-confessional encounters between the Byzantine Empire and its Islamic neighbors with a specific interest in urban history and material culture. For a wider understanding of the primary sources, she conducts her research on the Middle Ages in different languages such as Ancient/Byzantine Greek, Ottoman Turkish, and Classical Arabic in order to grasp the reciprocal perceptions of the encountering medieval cultures. You can find her on Twitter at @aksaboyraz

References: [i] Bryan Ward-Perkins, ‘Old and New Rome Compared: The Rise of Constantinople,’ in Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity, ed. by Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3-78. [ii] Fifteenth-century map of Constantinople by Christoforo Bondelmounti. [online] Available at: BnF Gallica on https://data.bnf.fr/fr/12378926/cristoforo_buondelmonte/ [accessed 2nd September 2022]. [iii] Holger A. Klein, ‘Sacred Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople,’ in Visualisierungen von Herrschaft, ed. by Franz Alto Bauer (Istanbul: Ege Yayınları, 2006), 79-99. [iv] Albrecht Berger, ‘Imperial and Ecclesiestical Processions,’ in Byzantine Constantinople: Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life, ed. N. Necipoğlu (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 73-87, p. 77. [v] Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies, trans. by Ann Mofatt and Maxeme Tall (Leiden: Brill, 2017), p. 642. [vi] Paul Magdalino, ‘Aristocratic Oikoi in the Tenth and Eleventh Regions of Constantinople,’ in Byzantine Constantinople: Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life, ed. Nevra Necipoğlu (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 53-69, p. 67. [vii] O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. by Harry Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1984), p. 357. [viii] Vassilios Kidonopoulos, “The Urban Physiognomy of Constantinople from the Latin Conquest through the Palaiologan Era,” in Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557). Perspectives in Late Byzantine Art and Culture, ed. S. T. Brooks (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006), 98-117, p. 109. [ix] Alice-Mary Talbot, ‘The Restoration of Constantinople under Michael VIII,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 47 (1993), 243-61, p. 248. [x] Ibid, p. 258. [xi] Nevra Necipoğlu, ‘Gennadios Scholarios and the Patriarchate: A Reluctant Patriarch on the “Unhappy Throne”’, in The Holy Apostles: a Lost Monument, a Forgotten Project, and the Presentness of the Past, ed. by Margaret Mullett and Robert G. Ousterhout (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2020), 237-46, p. 239. [xii] Ibid, p. 240. [xiii] Semavi Eyice, ‘Fatih Camii ve Külliyesi’, in TDV İslam Ansiklopedisi. [online] Available at: https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/fatih-camii-ve-kulliyesi [Accessed on Jan 13, 2022]. [xiv] Çiğdem Kafescioğlu, Constantinopolis/Istanbul: Cultural Encounter, Imperial Vision, and the Construction of the Ottoman Capital. (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009), p. 193. [xv] Sixteenth-century prospect of Constantinople by Melchior Lorck, including the depiction of the imaret of Sultan Mehmed II. Leiden University Libraries Digital Collections with shelfmark BPL 1758 / 13. [online] Available at: https://digitalcollections.universiteitleiden.nl/view/item/1276613 [accessed 2nd September 2022].

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