When the last Roman
Emperor Theodosios I died in the year 395
A.D., Rome was divided into two parts, the East and the West. Anatolia remained in the
Eastern Roman Empire. In contrast to the Western Roman Empire, which collapsed before too
long, the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, was remain on the
scene until 1453. The history of the Byzantine Empire showed a rise or fall according to
the successes or difficulties faced by the ruling emperor.
The Tribal Migration formed a danger for the newly established Byzantine Empire. The
Hun Turks proved to be a dangerous enemy for the empire under Theodosios II (408-450
A.D.). However, the Byzantines reached a peaceful settlement with the Huns by means of
money. In the meantime, religious struggles shook the empire. The competition for
authority between the Roman and Byzantine churches started around
this time. One group of Christians supported the divinity of Jesus while another group
valued him more as a person than a god.
Marcianus took over the throne from Theodosios II, whom had the high walls built around
Byzantium. In 451, Marcianus held a religious council in Kadikoy in an attempt to
peacefully resolve ongoing religious strife, but the disputes did not end. The tension
escalated rapidly, whereas two Byzantine groups appeared, called the Blues and the Greens.
Justinianos I, who was Orthodox, took control of the empire and promptly reached an accord
with the Pope, thereby eliminating all dissension between the churches of the west and
east. Under the long rule of Justinianos I, the Byzantines experienced their most
productive period. In 532 A.D., the Blues and the Greens rebelled against the emperor in
the Hippodrome. This rebellion, known as the Nike Revolt, spread through the town rapidly,
whereas the town was plundered, houses burned to the ground, and the Hagia Sophia Church was also totally devastated in a massive fire.
Justinianos set out immediately to have Byzantium reconstructed, the Hagia Sophia
restored, had St.Irene Church and the Underground Cisterns built, and had water brought to
Byzantium through a network of aqueducts. Besides Byzantium, he is also known to have the
St.John Basilica built in Ephesus. By adding the lands of Sicily and Corsica in Italy and
North Africa to the empire, Justinianos had turned the Mediterranean into a Byzantine
lake. Following Justinianos I, the Byzantine Empire passed through very difficult times
In a decree handed down by Emperor Leo III in 726, it was forbidden to worship icons,
and all paintings of religious character were destroyed. This ban lasted all the way
through the reigns of Constantine V and Leo IV and it was only with Constantine VI that a
solution to the ban was presented. Although it was Empress Eirene that had taken his post
in state affairs and was the one in 787 that allowed the faithful to offer respect to the
icons, it was only in the year 842 when the ban was completely removed. While these
religious conflicts dragged on, Arab raids continued to be a thorn in the side of the
empire. Also, the Bulgarians made it as far as the outskirts of Byzantium, and plundered
the surrounding towns.
In the year 927, hunger and epidemic diseases rampaged through the city. While the
Turks were settling down in Anatolia, the plot continued to thicken in Byzantium. Alexius
I Comnenus (1180-1183) had the infamous Anamaz dungeons in Ayvansaray erected to imprison
those who revolted against him. It was during the reign of this emperor that discontent
has risen to an extreme level. It was only with the violent deaths of both Alexius I
Comnenus and his successor, Andronikos Comnenus I, that the public riots were quelled.
While internal hostility for the throne persisted, the Fourth Crusade (1201-1204) was
diverted to Byzantium by Venetians and claimants to the Byzantine throne from Egypt. The
Crusaders pillaged the city, and set up the Latin Empire of Constantinople. They looted
all of the beautiful works of art from Byzantium and carried them off to their country,
and shared the valuables pillaged from the churches and palaces amongst themselves. The
lower hall of the Byzantine Palace was converted into a stable. Bronze reliefs upon the
Constantine VII columns were removed to mint money, statues of horses in the Hippodrome,
church doors and everything else of value was plundered and carried away.
The Byzantines fled to Iznik and made it the capital. By taking
advantage of the French and Venetian rivalry for the throne, they returned 57 years later,
in 1261, to chase the Franks from Byzantium. The Byzantine Emperor Mikhail Palaiologos
(1282-1328) came to Byzantium to sit on the Byzantine throne, but found the city looted,
destitute and in a miserable state. During the reign of Constantinos Palaiologos XI,
Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror conquered the city in 1453, and renamed it Istanbul.
Byzantine art is an exclusive product of the Eastern Empire. It is totally medieval in
form but developed in a peculiarly Byzantine way. In Byzantine art we see Greek and Roman forms exposed to the stylistic influence of ancient Anatolian
cultures and eastern art. It reached a totally Byzantine synthesis within the religious
framework of the empire. Specific examples of this art, which took its main source from
Anatolia may be seen in several places around Anatolia.
The transition phase between the years' 400-500, when Christianity made its biggest
impact, is known as the Early Byzantine art. Byzantine art, which is divided into three
phases, the First, Middle and Late, lived through its first brilliant period was the
Justinianos period (527-565). Without a doubt, the most important work from this period
that has survived to this day is the Hagia Sophia Church. The
architects Anthemios of Tralles from Aydin and Isidoros of Miletus were commissioned to
rebuild the church after the Nike Revolt. It was reopened in 537 with a basilica plan and
a central domed roof.
One of the most beautiful examples of Byzantine art in the city of Istanbul are the
surrounding walls. The walls were constructed during the reign of Theodosios II (408-450)
and conveyed a military purpose as well as aesthetic beauty. Apart from these, there are
numerous works of Byzantine art that are scattered around Istanbul.
Among these are the Cemberlitas (Hooped Column), Kiztasi (Maiden Column), Dikilitas
(Planted Column), Yilanli Sutun (Snaked Column), Gotlar Sutunu (Goths Column), Ormeli
Sutun (Knitted Column), Buyuk Saray (Grand Palace), Blakernal Sarayi (Blakernal
Palace), Tekfur Sarayi (Tekfur Palace), cisterns, aqueducts, and several churches, the
majority of which have been converted into mosques.
The well-preserved mosaics found inside both the chapel of Theotochos Pammacharistos
(Fethiye Mosque) and the Church of St. Saviour (known today as the Kariye
Museum) are important works that represent the Late Byzantine Period. Constantinople
was positioned as the art center of the empire. However, the source of its main influences
was Anatolia. For this reason, the most widespread and various examples of Byzantine art
can be seen in Anatolia. It is possible to come across Byzantine masterpieces in ancient
cities outside Istanbul. In particular, several temples in
Anatolia had been restored and converted into churches. The fact that there was an
archbishops palace in Aphrodisias, Byzantine basilicas uncovered in Side, the
formation of St. Philips Martyrium in Hierapolis (Pamukkale) and other ancient
cities like these show us that after the Roman Age, the Byzantine
Age was a powerful entity.
Today, examples of small Byzantine handicrafts can be seen in museums. If we take into
consideration the many pieces of artwork that were smuggled to Europe during the Latin
Crusade of 1204, we may have a better understanding of the high quality of these works.
The treasure of masterpieces of the church found in Kordalya near modern day Kumluca gives
support to this idea. Some of these are found today in the Antalya
Museum. Constantinople was a city of splendid sacred buildings, frescoes, manuscripts,
fabric and valuable artifacts and adornments made of precious metals. This was an empire
which survived for an astonishing 1100 years, steeped in the mysteries of medieval
Works of art made with a mosaic technique were floor and wall mosaics. The finest
examples of wall mosaics are those of the Grand Palace, which date back to the 5th century
and can be seen in the Istanbul Museum of Mosaics.
It is regrettable that the Iconoclast Period of 726-842 resulted in the destruction of
practically all early Byzantine pictorial art. Figurative impressions were prohibited and
symbolism became a major influence. For example, as can be seen in the St. Irene Church, a
cross motif symbolizes Jesus Christ. According to the concept of pictorial art, every
scene had its own specific place. Almost all of the icons surviving today date from the
12th and 13th centuries, and it is these icons which inspired western art. The Hagia Sophia mosaics do not conform with this system as mosaics
made during different periods in various sites around the structure can be seen.
The mosaics located in the south gallery depicting Deisis, Zoe, Comnenus are considered
the finest in the world. Fine examples of mosaics from the Late Byzantine Period can be
seen in the Kariye Museum. Visitors to the museum are stunned by the exquisite beauty of
these mosaics. The most important mosaics belonging to the Early Byzantine Period made
using the fresco technique may be seen in Yamacevler in Ephesus. It is here that animal
figures like fish, birds, pigeons and peacocks that expressed concepts seen in Christian
art such as heaven, the Holy Spirit and immortality were frequently used.
The most important frescoes representing the Mid-Byzantine Period are found in the Cappadocia region. These belong to the X-XI centuries. The
frescoes that adorn the cemetery chapel of the Kariye Museum represent the Late Byzantine
Period. Several notable historians and foreign dignitaries that have passed through Istanbul have stated in books they have written that Istanbul is a
city rich with incredible masterpieces.
However, the majority of these artworks were plundered during the Frankish Crusade of
1204. It is for this reason that the most valuable Byzantine masterpieces are found in
Small handicrafts such as ivory tablets, trays made from precious metals, incense
burners, relics and icons can all be seen in our museums.