Above are mosaics that were laid by Byzantine artists from the court of Manuel I in Sicily. These are probably copies of mosaics he set up in his palace that Ibn Battuta describes below.
History of the Church of Mary of the Blachernae
During the 5th century there was a increase in veneration of the Virgin Mary who was named the Theotokos - Godbearer - at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431. The elevation of Mary's status was strongly supported by women in general and members of the Imperial family specifically. It was an early feminist movement. Nestorius, the Bishop of Antioch who was deeply involved in the controversy over the Divinity of Christ, was scandalized by the 'excessive worship and near-deification of Mary in the city, bolstered by the Imperial court". He had a head-on collision with Pulcheria who was the most prominent promoter of the cult of Mary in Constantinople. Many of the most famous icon types of the Virgin and Child appear at the same time. Some of them ended up being attributed to the Evangelist Luke, who was believed to have been a painter and created these portraits from life. New churches were created in Constantinople to celebrate the Virgin's new status. The most famous was the great basilica Church of St. Mary of Blachernae - Panagia Blacherniotissa - which was traditionally built by Empress Pulcheria and her husband Marcian in 450. Pulcheria was the second (and oldest surviving) child of the Emperor Arcadius. Her brother was the future Emperor Theodosius II. She was extremely religious and took private vows of chastity. Her younger brother was a worthless non-entity and Pulcheria ruled in his place. She married Marcian formally but maintained her vows privately. The Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae was built with a double row of Parian marble columns with a gallery. The choice of Parian marble was unusual, Proconnesian marble was less expensive and came from nearby quarries. There were many Proconnesian columns already in stock and waiting for projects to include them. At the time most of the forums and public monuments were being built from it. However It was not a pure white marble being a course grained light gray marble with bluish veins. Parian marble was pure white and was chosen to express the immaculate virginity of Mary the Theotokos, whoever built it. The church would have looked like the Church of the Acheiropoietos, another fifth century church in Thessaloniki which is pictured below. It was built outside the walls of the city near a wellspring that became associated with cures brought through the intervention of the Theotokos. The church was very popular with the court and the common people and became a destination of pilgrimage. A small palace was built south of the church where the Imperial family could bathe in water from the holy spring and rest after liturgy. It had a number of chambers that were richly decorated with marble.
Above are two pictures of the north aisle of the Church of the Acheiropoietos and a close-up of its splendid capitals in Thessaloniki, Greece. The church is dedicated to an image of the Theotokos that was supposed to have been made without human hands. The church is almost the exact size as the Blachernae Church of the Theotokos and dates from the same time. The fact that this is just the north aisle of the basilica shows the enormous scale of the church. The capitals would have have been almost identical to these which were all carved in a Constantinople workshop. The columns here are not Parian they are Proconnesian.
Above is a reconstruction of the Blachernae from Byzantium 1200, looking up the hill to the north. 1) Church of the Theotokos; 2) Holy Soros; 3) Anastasiakos Hall; 4) Danubius Hall; 6) Palace of Alexios I; 7) Prison of Anemas; 8) Baths of Alexios I; 9) Palace of Bertha-Irene; 11) Palace of Manuel I; 12) Balcony & Tower Chambers of Isaac II Angelus.
Above is another reconstruction of the Blachernae from Byzantium 1200 looking south towards the Golden Horn. At the very top is the private Imperial harbor. The white building near the top is the Palace of Alexios I; to the east of it is the church of the Theotokos; below them to the left is the gray Palace of Bertha-Irene and further down, near the great courtyard, is the palace complex of Manuel I colored brown. The Palace of Manuel I was actually the biggest of the three. At the top on the left, shaded out, is the location of the Palace of the Philopation and its hunting grounds. Alexios I kept his lions just outside the walls here.
Pulcheria built three churches in Constantinople dedicated to the Theotokos in Constantinople; the Monastery of the Hodegetria, the Church of Mary of Blachernae, and the Chalkoprateia - of the bronze workers - a small church near Hagia Sophia that was built on land that had been bought from the Jews and had been a synagogue. In building these churches and bringing important relics of Mary to the city Pulcheria's objective was to create spiritual dwelling places for the Theotokos where the people could come and venerate her. She got away with some excessive demands of the church because she was the Augusta; her image was displayed above the altar, her robe was used as an altar cloth and she was allowed to receive communion within the sanctuary as is she was a priest. There was always a danger in Byzantium that respect or honors offered to a ruler could be confused with the worship of God since they took place in churches and chapels. Essentially most court ceremonies (except those secular ones that took place in the Hippodrome and the Forum of Constantine) followed the same rituals as religious ones. Some emperors, like Manuel I Comnenus, went too far in identifying himself with Christ, who he believed spoke to him directly. Manuel believed he shared in Christ's own nature in a unique and personal way because of his position as a sacred anointed emperor and the "Champion of Orthodoxy", the state religion.
It helps to understand how the church in the fifth century was defining the role of Mary in a new way without making her a goddess and extending worship to her that belonged to God alone. There would be no fourth member of the Trinity. They were pushing veneration for Mary to its limit with flowery hymns like this one. The hymn writer Proclus - who became patriarch in 434 - was commissioned to write this litany to her for the virginity festival that Pulcheria sponsored in 428, he also wrote secular Imperial panegyrics to her. The hymn is a religious panegyric to the Theotokos that is within the boundaries of orthodox Christology. Pulcheria would have known the limits of how far this could go:
"For this reason we now call Mary Virgin Theotokos.
She is the unstained treasure of Virginity
She is the paradise of the second Adam.
She is the workshop of the union of natures, the festival of the covenant of salvation.
She is the bridal chamber in which the Logos wedded all flesh.
She is the living bramble bush of nature, which the fire of divine labor pains do not burn up,
She is the true relieving cloud, the producer of him in the body, higher above the Cherubim.
She is the purest fleece of the heavenly rain from which the shepherd clothed the sheep.
Mary, the servant, and mother, virgin and heaven, The only bridge from God to humanity,
The awe-inspiring loom of the oikoumene, in which the robe of unity was woven inexpressibly."
In a Christmas oration Proclus took the Magnificat of the Gospel of Luke and expanded upon it. It is in Luke's Gospel that we meet Mary. It is no surprise that Luke was believed to be the painter of so many portraits of Mary and Jesus from real life. In contrast Paul never mentions Mary by name, only that Christ was born of a woman:
"Hail full of grace, unreaped soil of heavenly grain.
Hail full of grace, undeceitful Virgin Mother of the true vine, Hail full of grace, unfailing net of the immutable Godhead.
Hail full of grace, wide open field of the undivided nature, Hail full of grace, oh unstained bearer, bride of the bereaved world.
Hail full of grace, the weaver of the crown, which was not braided by hand, and was made for creation,
Hail full of grace, the house of holy fire,
Hail full of grace, you are the return for those who fled the world.
Hail full of grace, You are the undepletable treasury of the world.
Hail full of grace, The joy from you, Holy Virgin, is infinite, Hail full of grace, You are adorned with many virtues, you are the torch-bearing light, and the inextinguishable light brighter than the sun."
The church forbade the chanting of anything except the psalms in church, Proclus's new verses were delivered within the context of a sermon, not the liturgy, using the form of an Imperial poem addressed to an empress. The use of the word "hail" is how one would greet an emperor in Roman times.
It's interesting that the advocacy of Pulcheria and her female relatives for Mary can be seen as a feminist movement. They were able to assert their own opinions and direct religious policy because they held real power. The male members of the dynasty were weak and disengaged, even stupid. They abdicated authority to her willingly. Besides being well-educated and an Imperial princess, she had a strong and assertive personality. When she was attacked by opponents - like Nestorius - she fought back. Nestorius accused her of many things; he she was not the chaste virgin she claimed to be - but had six or more lovers that he could identify by name.
Pulcheria's Monastery of the Hodegetria was originally built for monks who 'indicated the way' to God. It later became associated completely with increasingly famous icon of Theotokos 'of the Hodegetrion Monastery' and the icon absorbed the original name of it and gave it a new meaning as a director to Christ as the "Hodegetria icon". In this meaning the icon became famous all over the Christian world. There was both a shrine of the icon and a church at the monastery that continued to operate right up to the fall of the city in 1453. The Augusta Pulcheria and other female members of the Imperial family personally draped their own veils over the icon to protect it. This started a tradition of veiling the icon which continued for its entire 1,000 year life. Later veils were made of translucent linen and silk that was embroidered with gold thread and bordered with pearls and gemstones. The icon had been taken close to the walls of the city during the Ottoman siege of 1453 to protect it. When the city fell one of the first churches to be sacked and desecrated was the one housing the icon, which was robbed of its precious settings, split in four pieces and burned.
The Chalkoprateia was also a basilica and later was run by the clergy of Hagia Sophia. It had a famous school in the 12th century. Another item of the Virgin's clothing was kept here.
The Blachernae was the church most dear to the Constantinopolitans; its fame spread from Crete to Cherson in the Crimea, where other churches were named “Blachernae” in its honor. Pulcheria's sister-in-law, Eudocia brought the first icon "painted by Saint Luke" from Jerusalem to Constantinople and gave it to Pulcheria who in turn placed it in the Hodegetria.
The Holy Maphorion of the Virgin
In recent years it has been argued by Cyril Mango that the association of Pulcheria with these Marian shrines is a later invention and that the famous shrine of the Holy Soros, which housed the maphorion of the Virgin which came to Constantinople in 460 from Nazareth was the 5th century church. This was during the reign of Leo I and his wife Verina, who were depicted in the apse of the Soros. Mango believes the huge church - 68 feet wide and 146 feet long - was built by Justin I (517-528). We know that Justin II made changes to the church, possibly adding a shallow transcept or apses to the aisles. Thus, according to Mango, Blachernae began as a holy site with the building of the Holy Soros which was vastly expanded by the church built by Justin I. This does not explain the use of Parian columns in the church and the fact it is mentioned in texts prior to Justin's reign. The Emperor Heraklios extended the city walls to protect the church and the suburb that had been built around it shortly after the Avar siege of 626, meaning the church had been defenseless for the first 200 years of its existence. The silver and gold in the church, including a silver box containing the maphorion, was removed in advance of the attack, which was proven unnecessary. The fact the the church was spared during the Avar siege in 626 was considered a miracle. The lifting of the Avar siege, which was attributed to a miraculous intervention of the Theotokos whose church had been spared.
In 619 Theophylact of Simocatta describes his viewing of the maphorion. He also tells the story that the maphorion was brought to Blachernae by Galbios and Kandidos - recent converts from Arianism - from a small town in Galilee by subterfuge and established a house church on their estate in Blachernae dedicated to it. One night they stayed at the home of a very old Jewish woman. She was quite dignified and ascetic. They discovered that she possessed the Virgin’s shroud and kept it in a small chest. According to the legend, the old woman was a descendant of Mary’s, and the robe had been passed down in her family for generations. After stealing the robe they brought it back home to Constantinople where they end up giving it to Verina:
'We went to the church of the Mother of God which the Byzantines, who hold it in awe, call Blachernae. This shrine stands in high honor with the faithful and is the object of great devotion on the part of the city. It is said that the clothing of the Virgin Mary (whom we Romans correctly - and alone - call “the God-bearer”) is deposited there in a gold-encrusted casket."
The story is told that gold casket was opened in 860 by the Patriarch Sergios. At first he were disappointed to see the cloth was frayed and badly decayed with time. Then he discovered the cloth was wrapped around a purple wool shawl which was perfectly preserved. Its preservation was attributed to the fact it had been close to Christ while He was in her womb.
The Emperor Romanus I Lecapenos took the maphorion into battle with him. Earlier the Emperor Theophilos had it carried on the walls of the city to protect it. Alexios I took it on campaign against the Patzinaks when his daughter Anna Comnena tells us he had to hide it in some bushes. Since it was used by Alexios I it obviously survived the fire of 1069. The fate of the maphorion is unknown. After the Fourth Crusade it might have been cut up and sent to churches in the west. Russian pilgrims who visited the church in 1389 say the maphorion was stored in an iron-bound box near the altar and was set with the Imperial seal. If the maphorion was not rescued from the church during the 1434 fire it was lost in he flames. Since it was in a heavy stone box it would have been hard to carry. There are no later mentions of it in historical texts.
Decoration of the Church - Weekly Miracles - the Holy Shroud
The renowned mosaics of the church included the Feasts of the Church, images of prophets, martyrs, hierarchs, and saints in addition also representations of peacocks, eagles and other birds in the nave. There was a beautiful ambo with a solea leading to chancel screen, just like Hagia Sophia. The church had a huge clergy associated with it that was reduced to 74 by Heraklios, who was hard pressed to raise money for his wars in Persia and had to melt down some of the treasures of Hagia Sophia to finance them. A number of famous icons were associated with the church, including the Theotokos Blachernitissa - was also known as the Great Panagia. It was paraded around the city and up on the walls - along with the maphorion - to protect it during sieges. The icon was associated with the royal court of Russia as the "Great Protector of Princes". This famous icon of the Theotokos Blachernissa, also called "Our Lady of the Sign", was the source of a weekly miracle on Friday evenings at Vespers when a veil lifted mysteriously revealing the icon is no longer mentioned after 1204 and was lost or stolen. The French clergy that took over the church may have carried it off to their own country or even sold it. The icon, which was one of the most esteemed in the city, would have been covered with gilt silver, enamels, pearls and other gemstones, which the first crusaders entering the church might have ripped off destroying the painting. The miracle was regularly attended by the Imperial family until 1204. There were other relics in the church including the bodies of Saint Patapius and Saint Anastasia that were kept in different chapels.Besides the maphorion of the Virgin which was stored in the Holy Soros the church also on occasion hosted some of the Passion relics. After being processed through the city the icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria was brought to the palace of Blachernae from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. The famous Holy Shroud - the Sidona - was shown on a special apparatus that unrolled it showing the face to the public. Robert of Clari describes the ceremony which he saw during the Fourth Crusade:
“There was ... [a church] called My lady Saint Mary of Blachernae where was kept the syndoine in which Our Lord had been wrapped, which stood up straight every Friday so that the features of Our Lord could be plainly seen there. And no-one, either Greek or French, ever knew what became of this syndoine after the city was taken,”
The Emperor Romanos III Argyros had the capitals of the church and the ceiling beams gilded in 1031. During the Latin occupation the church had a Roman Catholic staff of French canons. The Latin emperors would attend Mass there when they were resident in Blachernae.
In Palaelogian times the ceremony of Imperial weddings, which was always a private court function, was moved to the Church of the Theotokos from chapels in the Great Palace.
Above is a map of the Blachernae.
There were other churches in the Blachernae quarter including Saint Nicholas of Blachernae which lay between the Theotokos church and the land walls, probably very near the Tower of Saint Nicholas tower. This church was said to have been originally built by Justinian. It also had a holy well which still exists. No traces of the church have been found.
The Church is Rebuilt - the Fourth Crusade - Civil Wars - Attack by Genoa
Later emperors expanded the defenses of Blachernae and strengthened them. The Blachernae was always considered the weakest part of the land walls and the emperors became more concerned about its vulnerabilities as they built more palaces here. There was a special harbor built near the church for the Imperial family who often visited the Holy Soros and church by boat from the Great Palace. The Church of the Theotokos had a wooden roof that caught fire and it was burned to its foundations in 1069 during the reign of the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes. Romanos had taken the famous icon of the Virgin from the church on a military campaign and this it was spared the fire that destroyed the church. The restoration of the church began with Romanos and was finished by the elderly Constantine VII Ducas who reigned from 1071-78 who was ultimately succeeded by Alexios I and the Comnenus dynasty. The church as it was rebuilt followed the earlier version of it. It had an incredibly beautiful set of mosaics which travelers commented on and have been described earlier.
During the initial assault of Fourth Crusade in July 1203 the Blachernae was bombarded by catapults. Emperor Alexios IV brought the crusaders into Blachernae to negotiate with them. In desperation he offered to turn over the palaces to his western friends if they guaranteed him protection during any attack on the city. His duplicity was discovered by his subjects, he was overthrown and strangled to death. The new Emperor Alexios V Mourtzouphlos moved into Blachernae. In August, the crusaders set fire to nearby homes along the Golden Horn and the fire spread from here, burning most of the city.
On April 13, 1204 the crusaders broke through the fortifications here using a battering ram. The Imperial guard who was left in the palace surrendered to Henry, the brother of Count Baldwin of Flanders, on the promise that none of the people in the palace would be harmed. The promise, once made, was not honored. He immediately set his own guard over the palace to ensure the treasures in the palace would all be his. Most of the servants would have brought their families into the palace for protection during the assault. All of people within the palace who could not ransom themselves were forcibly ejected from it and were immediately set upon by other crusaders waiting for them in the courtyard. Servants and courtiers were stripped and searched for any valuables they had on them.
Being so close to their point of entry, the Theotokos Church was the first to be looted and striped of its treasures. It was full of people from the neighborhood who mistakenly hoped they would be safe here. It was incomprehensible that to them that their own fellow Christians could want to harm and rob them. They didn't know that the crusader bishops had authorized their extermination because they said they said the Byzantines were not truly Christians but heretics. Looting was also authorized for the same reason. Children were not to be spared. The Bishops joined into the killing and looting themselves. Just in case, some Latin clergy hired other crusaders to do the dirty work for them, so they could avoid potential sin.
Once they were in the church the crusaders pulled the silver covers from the icons turning them into gaming boards, destroyed the gilt-silver ciborium and altar and carried off the sacred vessels used in the liturgy and used them as drinking cups. Many of the crusaders had visited the church before the attack and knew where everything was. Common people and clergy were tortured in order to make them confess where things had been hidden. Mobs of soldiers and camp followers swarmed over the churches and palaces looting and pillaging. Every woman who could be grabbed was raped, including young girls and nuns. The Latins collected immense piles of silks, pulling curtains from windows and rummaging through chests of Imperial clothing looking for valuables. Desiring the palaces as their own residences the leaders of the crusade intervened to stop the destruction of the palaces and set guards over them. Even though they initially lusted over them, the crusaders living in the palaces like barbarians. After one palace had been ruined by them they simply moved to another one and repeated the same destruction there. They rounded up former Imperial servants and tried to force them into service, but they couldn't pay them and had to let them go. They forced out the Greek Orthodox clergy and installed French clergy, who were incapable of running the churches and chapels. The job was simply too big for the few clerics who the Pope sent to Constantinople. The Venetian and the French clerics fought over who would control which churches and monasteries. The Venetians got the prize of Hagia Sophia. The churches crumbled around them and the Latin Emperors were to poor to support their maintenance or pay their salaries. The Catholic clergy sold off stuff from their churches to raise money. Unfortunately during their occupation the Latins failed to repair all the damage they had done to the district in the assault. Many historic and beautiful buildings that might have been restored were lost through this misuse and willful neglect.
On June 21, 1302 14 Venetian ships commanded by Belletto Giustinian sailed into the Golden Horn accompanied by 7 pirate ships which they had picked up ion the way in Crete and Negroponte. They anchored opposite the Blachernae palace and their men went ashore to do as much damage as they could. They set fire to bales of straw that they found on the shore in front of the walls. The resulting flames could be seen from the city and the nearby palaces where the emperor was resident. Too late Andronikos II, never a forceful or decisive leader, realized that without ships he was absolutely powerless to retaliate. A bridge of boats was suggested to be built across the Golden Horn from Imperial troops could attack the Venetians. Andronikos thought that this would do more harm than good. When night fell the pirate ships attacked the nearby Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmora. They were crowded with refugees from the Turks in Asia Minor. Such of them as could not afford a ransom were murdered. Others were brought within sight of the Blachernae and tortured before the emperor's eyes with the connivance of the Venetians. The emperor protested to their commander Giustinian, sending him 4000 hyperpyra as ransom money for the surviving refugees.
During the civil wars in 1347 there was more fighting around the palaces of the Blachernae. This was just a year after the dome and eastern arch had collapsed in Hagia Sophia! The Empress Anne of Savoy was surrounded in the Palace of Bertha-Eirene by John Cantacuzene and 1000 men (mostly mercenaries and even Turks) who broke into the city and stormed their way into the fortified area around the Blachernae palaces. During the fighting the tower-gate to the main courtyard was destroyed. Anne was forced to negotiate with the rebels to save the throne for her son John Paleologos, who was 15 years old at the time. Anne had to agree to allow John Cantucuzene to reign as co-emperor with him. She ended up a prisoner in her own palace and had to pawn the crown jewels and remove silver and jewels from icons in order to save herself and her son from ruin.
In August 1348 the Latin Genoese, who controlled Galata, brazenly sailed along the coast of the Golden Horn, burning ships along the way to force the Byzantines to grant them more trade rights. They attacked the Church of the Theotokos and the monastery of Christ the Savior with catapults, but the people of city saw the stones slide harmlessly off of their lead roofs. They saw it as a miraculous act of the Virgin of the Blachernae, who had intervened once more to save the city. The area around the church was still densely populated and the church was very popular with the merchants and artisans that lived in the area.
The Last Days of the Church of Mary of the Blachernae
The church was burnt once more on January 29, 1434 when the portico was hit by lightening during the reign of John VII, who was to be the next-to-last emperor. In his reign the Turks were already peering into the city from the surrounding hills with covetous eyes. The Sultan Bayezid was actually choosing which buildings in the city would be turned over to specific commanders. He announced that he would take Hagia Sophia and make it his own personal palace to house his harem. There would soon be tens of thousands of new Christian slaves to serve them. During the Ottoman siege of 1422 the Sultan Murah built a huge rampart of earth behind the walls crossing from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn. His troops lobbed fire and stones into the city using catapults. The Turkish camp was full of slave traders and dervishes who had come to collect the booty and slaves that had been promised to them when the city fell. An Ottoman seer, a descendant of the Prophet, the imam Seid-Bokhari predicted the city would fall on August 24th. Thankfully he was wrong. On that same day the Islamic soldiers panicked and abandoned the siege, burning their camp behind them. When stories like this were heard by the people understood what there fate would be if Constantinople fell to an Islamic army. During the siege of 1422 both men and woman fought heroically on the walls of the city to defend their homes and families from enslavement. They came to truly believe only God himself - His personal intervention - could save them if the people failed. The burning of the Church of the Theotokos must have made them despair even of the Virgin's help, which had saved the city so many times before. There was lots of bad news to come, in 1430 Thessalonica fell to the Turks and its centuries-old churches, like the ancient shrine of Saint Demetrios, were quickly turned into mosques. A year after the church burned the Black Plague returned once more.
John VIII began negotiations to end the schism of the churches. His goal was to raise help for the empire from the pope and the western kings of European Christendom to repel the Turks, who it was expected would soon arrive outside the walls of the city. After long negotiations over the proposed terms of reunion by Byzantine envoys, John himself with a huge entourage of church and state officials and scholars, boarded papal ships to Italy to attend the Council of Ferrara in 1437. He had to borrow the money to cover the costs of the mission. The Byzantines made a powerful impression on the Italians for their splendid retinue, sophisticated manners and classical education. The Council was a success in concluding a union of the churches, but the promised military campaign was a failure and the people of Constantinople rejected the union their rulers had agreed to without their consent.
With such troubles it is understandable that repairs to historic churches and palaces had to be put on hold. The survival of Constantinople was hanging the balance. What money there was had to be spent on repairing the walls and cleaning out the moat. The church had been in a state of disrepair for awhile, it badly needed a new roof. Leaks must have been damaging those wonderful mosaics for a while. Since the loss of the Pontic forests - and the sea routes to deliver them - Byzantium no longer had access to the long straight timbers that basilicas required. This church was especially huge. The decay of the church must have been hugely embarrassing for the last emperors - it was a highly visual sign of the decline of the city and their poverty. The fire was not blamed on the lack of repairs - the responsibility was laid on gay men who, it was said, met there. God had destroyed the church because of their sins, in 1437 Pero Tafur wrote about it, he was there just three years after the fire and would have seen the ruins:
"There was a church at Constantinople, not so large as St. Sophia, but, as they say, much richer, which St. Helena built, desiring greatly to show her power. At the entrance were certain arches which were very dark, and they say that people were found there frequently committing the offence of sodomy, and one day a thunderbolt fell from Heaven and set fire to the church, and not one of those who was surprised in that sin was spared. The church they called Blacharyerna, and it is to-day so burnt that it cannot be repaired."
An alternate story was told that the fire was started by accident by some young nobles who were chasing pet pigeons which had flown into the church.
The loss of the church was a huge blow to the morale of the city in its last years. The fire could be seen all over the city and it lasted for along time. It probably spread quickly through the wood-beamed roof and the entire church was enveloped in flames as the roof caved into the nave and brought down the colonnades. One can imagine the people tried to save as many of the relics and artistic treasures; darting in and out of it with icons while the fire was underway. After the fire the authorities must have done a survey to access the possibility of rebuilding and regretted the foolishness of putting off the repairs for so long. There must have been many such loses due to fire and collapse of historic buildings in those last years, which would have been very depressing. The church remained a burnt out shell until 1547 when the ruins vanished. The marble remains were probably gathered up and carted away for the building of the new Süleymaniye Mosque which was built by Sinan in 1550. Many of remaining columns in the city - like the giant 17 surviving columns of the Hippodrome - were harvested from Byzantine sites all over Istanbul for the project.
The holy well still exists and a small church was built here centuries later by the Greek population of Istanbul. It is possible the fire spread to other nearby buildings, including surviving parts of the Blachernae palaces. This area was still densely populated in the last centuries of Byzantium and a new commercial food market developed along the waterfront. The port was still active until the fall of the city.
Above are two 15th century map of Constantinople printed by Schedel. At the center top you can see the Blachernae palaces grouped around a large courtyard. The center palace has a high pitched wooden roof.
The Fabled Palaces of the Blachernae
The Blachernae palaces were described as being upper or lower based on their position on the hill. The upper gate, Ta Hypsela, was closest to the Church of Mary Theotokos - south of it - and was the location of service buildings and the stables. Court officials did not live in the place, but came everyday for the regular ceremonies. There was a special quarter for them in the Blachernae called "ta Pittakia". Before the erection of the Comnenian palaces there were two buildings the hosted the Emperor when he came to Blachernae for church festivals and feasts. One was a big building called the Anastasiakos and the other was called the Danubius. These buildings may have been abandoned or fallen into ruin because they aren't mentioned after Alexios built his big "Alexiakos triklinos" which in Greek means Alexios hall but should be understood to describe a palace. These palaces were dominated by huge reception halls - at least two stories tall - that ran across the building lengthwise.
Benjamin of Tudela wrote of the Blachernae which he visited:
"This King Manuel built a great palace for the seat of his Government upon the sea-coast, in addition to the palaces which his fathers built, and he called its name Blachernae. He overlaid its columns and walls with gold and silver, and engraved thereon representations of the battles before his day and of his own combats. He also set up a throne of gold and of precious stones, and a golden crown was suspended by a gold chain over the throne, so arranged that he might sit thereunder. It was inlaid with jewels of priceless value, and at night time no lights were required, for every one could see by the light which the stones gave forth. Countless other buildings are to be met with in the city. From every part of the empire of Greece tribute is brought here every year, and they fill strongholds with garments of silk, purple, and gold. Like unto these storehouses and this wealth, there is nothing in the whole world to be found. It is said that the tribute of the city amounts every year to 20,000 gold pieces, derived both from the rents of shops and markets, and from the tribute of merchants who enter by sea or land."
"The Greek inhabitants are very rich in gold and precious stones, and they go clothed in garments of silk with gold embroidery, and they ride horses, and look like princes. Indeed, the land is very rich in all cloth stuffs, and in bread, meat, and wine. Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world. Here also are men learned in all the books of the Greeks, and they eat and drink every man under his vine and his fig-tree."
Alexios's mother, Anna Dasselene, was first of the Comnenai to move to Blachernae. She had a special attachment to the Chapel of Saint Thekla. The new dynasty felt its fate, its success in gaining the throne, was somehow tied to the Blachernae.
The Palace of Alexios Comnenos
Before Alexios I, the iconoclastic emperor Theophilos renovated a palace that had been built by Marcian for his daughters called the Karianos and added enormous towers to the walls at the same time to protect it. The Karianos also had porticos, a church and an old-folks home attached to it. He also built the first chapel dedicated to Saint Thekla here. Nothing remains of the palace or the chapel, but the towers remain.
Alexios I Comnenus built a great hall in a new palace he built in the Blachernae. When he was in Constantinople Alexios lived primarily at Blachernae, although he moved to the Bukoleon and Mangana Palaces in his last days. It was at the Blachernae that he received the Crusader chiefs in 1096 and the Norse king Sigurd in 1107, and that he held the church Council of 1086 there. The palace was close to the wall and so tall that in 1096 a Norman soldier was able to shoot an arrow in though one of the windows of it and wound a courtier who was standing near the emperor. Alexios abandoned many of the formal ceremonies of the court; Alexios disliked useless ritual. The big reception halls of Great Palace existed primarily to host the old expensive ceremonies, involving thousands of useless courtiers, which he detested. Moving to Blachernae - a much smaller palace - enabled the emperor to cut down on the number of ceremonies and the number of participants. It was also much easier to protect from riots and the volatile mob that often dominated the politics of the city and had deposed emperors in recent times. The Great Palace housed the Imperial Mint and was full of valuable treasures and luxurious furnishings. It always was a magnet for potential looters. Finally it was close to Imperial hunting grounds just on the other side of the walls - so it was easy to slip into the countryside whenever he wished. Once a drunken crusader climbed into Alexios's lion enclosure between the walls of Blachernae to fight with them, there were six of them. A bunch of his buddies watched from the top of the wall and egged him on. The soldier managed to kill one - the most docile and oldest of the lions, who was Alexios's pet - and then the other lions pounced on him, killed the crusader and ate him.
It seems the rooms of Alexios's palace were by Byzantine standards and in comparison with the Bukoleon and Great Palaces rather austere in its decoration. Bohemond the Norman was only really impressed by the emperor's wealth when he was shown into a chamber that Alexios had especially filled with treasures to impress him. When the rooms of a palace were unoccupied their furniture was removed and used elsewhere. Also since Alexios's palace was new the interior decoration might not have been completed.
Above is a reconstruction of Alexios's palace by Antoine Helbert. Everything is accurate, including the costumes, the decoration and lions, which came from the Bukoleon Palace in the sea wall. He also built a bathhouse connected to his palace, whose substructures still survive in ruins. The Imperial church, dedicated to the Theotokos "Victory Giver", housed that icon, was attached to his palace and directly communicated with the main hall. Even though no remains of it can been seen today, the enormous foundations of the three Comnenian palaces of the Blachernae must still exist underground; one section of the massive Byzantine substructures were uncovered in this area in the 1950s. Once can look at the extensive remains of the Mangana Palace which still survive to get an idea of what could be found one day.
At the end of the 12th century the Emperor Alexios III set up a theatrical show for the wedding of his newly wed daughters and sons-in-law. As it was carnival time he put on mock horse races and pantomimes with music and gymnastics in the courtyard of one of the palaces before an audience of court officials and the imperial family. The Blachernae had plenty of space for big productions like this one.
One of the advantages of the Blachernae was it was much easier to get around from building to building than the Great Palace was. The old palace was swarming with court officials and workers from the Imperial agencies that were headquartered there and the passages and roads were clogged with people and carts. There were also thousands of Varangian Guard troops who were housed in barracks there. Plus there were a huge number of horses and other domestic animals stabled within the grounds of the Great Palace. When an Comnenian emperor was in the Great Palace he usually stayed in the Bukoleon which was offered some privacy by being walled off from the rest of the palace buildings and it was easy to enter and exit via its private dock. He could also receive guests privately here, something that would have been important to a man like Manuel who had affairs with multiple women at the same time. Another disadvantage of living in the Great Palace was it was noisy.
There was a public law court in the Blachernae (one could hear the deliberations in the courtyard outside it) and a branch of the imperial mint. There was also a water mill here that served the court. which ran on water from the aqueduct that brought water into Blachernae.
Aqueducts and the Water System of Blachernae
The water system of Constantinople was one of the great wonders of the city that can still be seen today. The engineering of the system showed the degree of skill the Byzantines had inherited from the Romans and continued to develop and expand. Anastasius and Justinian had been the first contributors to the aqueduct system which was necessitated by the growth of the population of the city in their reigns. Aqueducts crossed the Theodosian wall near the Blachernae and two enormous open air cisterns, those of Aetios and Aspar, had been carved out in the Deuteron heights. The water was brought from the Hydrales River. Later Manuel I had been pressured to invest in the water supply of the city which was failing to meet the needs of the population in his reign, which was approaching the same level as Justinian's era. Andronikos Comnenos came to the throne through a welter of bloodshed and over the dead bodies of the family and relatives of his late cousin Manuel. He killed both of his children along with Maria, his second wife from Antioch. Andronikos appealed to the people of the city by acting like he was their champion in attempting to improve their lives through things like public services. Andronikos began to expand the aqueduct, planning taking this water further into the city, where it was badly needed. His project stopped suddenly when he was - in a sudden turn of events - overthrown and killed by another mob like the one who had put him on the throne to begin with. As a part of this project he greatly increased the volume of water that the aqueduct carried into the city and built a big water tower in Blachernae and planned further channels from there into the city. His successor, the Emperor Isaac II Angelus demolished the tower because it was a reminder of the hated Andronikos that could be seen all over the city because of its location and great height. As a result the Blachernae and its neighboring districts benefited from a vast increase in their water supply but the rest of the city did not. The crusaders believed the city would fall quickly if the water supply into the city was cut. They thought it would be an easy task to disrupt it, but their efforts failed. The strength of the flow of water was so powerful they could not divert or block it. The 5 ft tall conduits of the aqueduct still survive. The aqueduct entered the city south of the Gate of the Kaligaria meaning "Gate of the Maker of Military Shoes", which was called the "Crooked Gate" in Ottoman times. After 1453 the Ottoman rulers restored and expanded the water supply from it. The water system and the fountain where it entered through the walls could still be seen and explored in 1907.
Above is another image of a Norman palace room in Sicily. The mosaics were created by court artists from Constantinople who duplicated work they had done in Blachernae.
The Lofty Palaces of Manuel I Comnenus
Alexios I's grandson, Manuel I Comnenos, built at least two other palaces, one for his German wife, Bertha-Eirene and another huge one for himself which was higher up on the hill that was described as being "exceedingly high". Bertha of Sulzbach was the sister-in-law of the German Emperor Conrad III and was plain, dull and stupid. Manuel could not abide her and built a separate palace for her in order to avoid her. Manuel lived almost entirely in his own new palace apart from her. You entered it though a colonnaded portico that was decorated with mosaic scenes of his heroic exploits, which was updated with new scenes as he achieved new triumphs. This palace had beautiful marble columned loggias and balconies carved with lions and other creatures. The floors were set with beautiful opus sectile work in elaborate patterns of rare colored marbles that was highly polished and looked like carpets. He set up a throne of gold precious stones and s golden crown suspended by a golden chain over it. The exterior walls were set with glazed decorative brickwork in intricate patterns. It had a tall peaked roof covered in lead plates. Since the 10th century, Byzantine palaces were tall. The Mangana Palace, built alongside the Monastery of Saint George near the sea wall on the Bosphorus was five stories tall. Alexios's palace was built on lower ground than Manuel's but made up for it by its great height which caught the gentle fresh breezes of the neighborhood and provided splendid views over the walls and other nearby buildings. These palaces were connected by colonnaded courtyards and were set in gardens and fields of grassy meadows planted with fruit trees, roses and flowers. The gardens were inhabited by doves, peacocks, parrots and swans. There were channels of water and fountains - it was a mini-paradise with its protective walls. A river of fresh water from the aqueduct went right down the center of Manuel's great hall and there were flowering trees on either side. The water course was carved in marble, with special patterns carved in it that made the movement of the water sound like music. The palaces were built at right angles to each other creating a central core and two long wings. There was also a chapel to the Theotokos here on the square and a great mural icon of Saint George on horseback. The wall around Blachernae had towers and gates. The most important one was a triple-arched gate which was decorated with a life-sized relief of the Goddess Victory, which has survived until today. You can see it below on this page.
Manuel's palace had lots of space around it. He was fond of western-style tournaments and jousting which he had plenty of room to conduct nearby. Hunting was another one of his passions and another reason for his preference for Blachernae.
Manuel also built new walls to protect the district. His primary goal was to move the wall further out, to place his new palace beyond the range of catapults. His single wall, which was built on a steep slope, was stronger and taller than previous parts of the land walls. Because of the hill it did not have a moat. The ramparts were wider - 15 ft. - and the towers were more closely spaced. The first 6 towers are alternately octagonal and round, the next 2 are octagonal and the last one is square. There was one gate and two posterns. Between the 2nd and third towers facing north is the small postern gate, which the Byzantine historian Phrantzes, and the last emperor, Constantine XI Dragases used to reconnoitre the Turkish camp on the eve of May 29th, when the city fell. The Ottomans attempted to breach the wall of Manuel I Comnenus in 1453 without success, neither with cannon or by tunneling underneath them.
Odo of Deuil described Blachernae which he saw in 1147 on a visit to Constantinople in 1147 during the Second Crusade with King Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine:
"There is set what is called the Palace of Blachernae which, although it is rather low, yet, rises to eminence because of its elegance and its skillful construction. On its three sides the palace offers to its inhabitants the triple pleasure of gazing alternately on the sea, the countryside, and the town. The exterior of the palace is of almost incomparable loveliness and its interior surpasses anything that I can say about it. It is decorated throughout with gold and various colors and the floor is paved with cleverly arranged marble. Indeed, I do not know whether the subtlety of the art or the preciousness of the materials gives it the greater beauty or value."
Above is an image of the Norman Ziza palace in Sicily which was built at the same time and was directly modeled on Manuel's palace. The mosaics were done by artists from Constantinople who had worked for him. The water channel down the center of the room is a duplicate of Manuel's water feature in his throne room. It has a waterfall and has large inset fountains.
Hunting and Lion Keeping
The Comnenian emperors built their palaces here - away from the Great Palace for the healthier climate and to be near the walls and their hunting grounds of the Philopation Palace which were on the other side of the walls here. Alexios I kept his five lions is a special enclosure here. The emperors collected other animals like panthers who were trained to ride horses. In Byzantium men and women both hunted. The palace of the Philopation was used to house foreign guests, like the Crusader kings, who were best kept outside the walls with their armies. The hilly hunting grounds of this palace were not forested, they had gullies filled with brush and brambles, which were used primarily for boar, deer and rabbit hunting. Hawks were also used to hunt. Hunting was a dangerous sport in Byzantium and several emperors were killed in hunting accidents. Poisoned spears were often used in boar hunting and this is what killed John II, Manuel's father, who was accidentally stabbed with one. In 1437 the Spanish historian and traveler Pero Tafur wrote about the hunt he went on at Philopation with the emperor and his wife, Maria, who rode astride:
"This day the Emperor sent for me to go hunting, and we killed many hares, and partridges, and francolins, and pheasants, which are very plentiful there, and when we returned to the Palace I took my leave and went to my lodging, where he had ordered that I should be provided with whatever I had need of. Without doubt, it was the Emperor's wish to show me much honor and favor, and from that day onwards, when he or the Empress, his consort, desired to hunt, he sent horses for me, and I went with them, and they said that they had great pleasure in my company... The Empress rides astride, with two stirrups, and when she desires to mount, two lords hold up a rich cloth, raising their hands aloft and turning their backs upon her, so that when she throws her leg across the saddle no part of her person can be seen. The Greeks are great hunters with falcons, goshawks, and dogs. The country is well stocked with game both for hawking and hunting, and there are quantities of pheasants, francolins, partridges, and hares. The land is flat and good for riding."
Splendors and Decoration of the Palaces
Alexios and Manuel's palaces had ground floors built with columns and vaulted arches that were used as service rooms and for access to the upper floors. The palaces were dominated by huge multi-storied halls that were used as throne rooms, for meetings, celebrations and for banquets. They could hold several thousand people whose walls were covered by rich marble revetment. The ceilings were sometimes made of carved wood which was painted in rich colors and gilded. If a ceiling was made of vaulted brick it was covered with gold mosaic. These great halls had apses that were set with more mosaic showing members of the Comnenian dynasty accompanied by Christ, the Theotokos and saints. In buildings erected by Manuel I he was always the number one actor in these displays until he had a son and added him to them. The colonnaded porticoes of the palaces were also decorated with golden mosaics depicting Manuel's many victories and triumphs. It was very splendid and sumptuous - there was nothing like it anywhere in the West. The layout of the palaces made them seem like they were much bigger than they were. Visitors reported there were several hundred rooms.
Above is an example of what the floors in Blachernae would have looked like.
These new palaces were not only places of splendor, they were also Imperial residences. Manuel saw himself as the true universal Roman emperor and lived according to his position. There were many personal apartments for emperors, their extended family and guests. Some of them functioned as independent establishments and had their own kitchens, service staff and stables. Manuel went so far as to create special quarters for his Muslim guests, designed for the practice of their own religion. Not surprisingly some of the most pleasant rooms were at the tops of the palaces - which could be five or more stories. They had windows set with glass panes and huge wooden shutters. Sometimes the winds were strong enough that the glass windows had to be temporarily removed to protect them. If there were long periods of time when parts of the palaces were unoccupied they were closed up. Furniture was moved around from one palace to another and his personal suite of furnishings could follow him as he traveled. Byzantines either slept on beds or on benches that were built-in around the walls of rooms and covered with mattresses. In domestic settings whole families would sleep in the same big room. Emperors always slept with a servant in their bedroom and guards outside the door. Valuable things - like silver chandeliers, candlestands and basins even followed an emperor when he was on campaign. The walls of palace rooms were covered in marble, painted or decorated with mosaics. The rooms had stone floors - always with elaborate designs in colored marble and mosaic. Carpets were used everywhere, including in churches. Windows, beside being glassed were hung with curtains of silk and linen. Often they were transparent and embroidered with gold thread.
How Byzantine Emperors Lived - Luxury and Ceremony
Beyond windows, Byzantine emperors used lots of glass. It came in the form of drinking vessels, dishes, hanging lamps, containers and bottles. It came in colored glass blown with designs and glass that was painted in enamels and gilded with both gold and silver. Emperors had their own personal libraries that were manged by secretaries who also handled their correspondence. An individual emperor could have dozens of secretaries. Clothes were managed by their own court officials - the closer you got to an emperor the more prestigious the position. Like most Byzantines, emperors preferred to use bathhouses in the Roman fashion, and they shared them with their relatives and friends. These bathhouses could be small and intimate or have large bathing pools. The palaces of the Blachernae where served by underground aqueducts and underground cisterns. The aqueducts provided a special sweet water that was clean and fresh.
Palace kitchens were always built apart from the palaces they served - the danger of fire was always present. Imperial banquets were served with gold and silver plates,which were kept in stacks. The food was served to the emperor first who sat alone at his own table on a raised platform. He was personally served by a high court official, then his guests were served from heaping platters of food. You were served on gold or silver depending on your rank. Sometimes you were allowed to keep the gold or silver dish you were served on. Diners used spoons, knives and forks - the Byzantines were reputed to have invented the fork - which was viewed as a devilish luxury in the west. Wine was served in glass vessels. People at banquet used big linen napkins. Banquet tables were made of slabs of marble, even in taverns and restaurants. There were short-order kitchens in palaces that were used for quick meals and to reheat stuff. They also provided hot and cold water. Some emperors preferred these and did their own cooking.
The traveller Ibn Battuta visited Constantinople in 1351 during the reign of Andronikos III and described an imperial banquet in a Blachernae palace. The "khatun" is a relative of the emperor who he has escorted back to Constantinople who had married a Muslim ruler and was now returning. He begins by telling us about his first visit to Blachernae to meet the emperor, he is most likely visiting the Manuel I Palace which was recently renovated by Andronikos's father:
“On the fourth day after our arrival in Constantinople, the khatun sent the slave Sunbul the Indian to me, and he took my hand and led me into the palace. We passed through four gateways, each of which had archways in which were foot soldiers with their weapons, their officer being on a carpeted platform. When we reached the fifth gateway the slave Sunbul left me, and going inside returned with four Greek youths, who searched me to see that I had no knife on my person. The officer said to me: "This is a custom of theirs; every person who enters the king's presence, be he noble or private citizen, foreigner or native, must be searched." The same practice is observed also in India. After they had searched me the man in charge of the gate rose and took me by the hand and opened the gate. Four of the men surrounded me, two of them holding my sleeves and two behind me, and brought me into a large hall, the walls of which were of mosaic work, in which there were pictures of creatures, both animate and inanimate. In the center there was a stream of water, with trees on either side of it, and men were standing to right and left, silent, not one of them speaking."
“In the midst of the hall three men were standing to whom those four men delivered me. These took hold of my garments as the others had done, and on a signal from another man led me forward. One of them was a Jew, and he said to me in Arabic "Do not be afraid; this is their custom that they use with one who enters. I am the interpreter, and I come from Syria." So I asked him how I should salute the Emperor, and he told me to say "As-salam alaykum."
“After this I reached a great pavilion, where the Emperor was seated on his throne, with his wife, the mother of the khatun, before him. At the foot of the throne were the khatun and her brothers, to the right of it six men and to the left of it four, and behind it four, every one of them armed. The Emperor signed to me, before I had saluted and reached him, to sit down for a moment, in order that my apprehension might be calmed. After doing so I approached him and saluted him, and he signed to me to sit down, but I did not do so. He questioned me about Jerusalem, the Sacred Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the cradle of Jesus, and Bethlehem, and about the city of Abraham [Hebron], then about Damascus, Cairo, Iraq, and Anatolia, and I answered all his questions about these, the Jew interpreting between us. He was pleased with my replies and said to his sons "Treat this man with honor and ensure his safety." Then he bestowed upon me a robe of honor and assigned me a horse with saddle and bridle, and an umbrella of the kind which the king has carried above his head, that being a sign of protection. I requested him to designate someone to ride in the city with me every day, that I might see its marvellous and rare sights and tell of them in my own country, and he appointed a man as I had asked. They have a custom that anyone who wears the king's robe of honor and rides his horse is paraded round with trumpets, fifes and drums, so that the people may see him. They do this mostly with the Turks who come from the territories of Sultan Uzbeg, so that the people may not molest them, and I was paraded in this fashion through the bazaars."
"After this long trip about the city, we paraded back to the palace for the nightly meal. To my astonishment, the King had a feast prepared in my honor, and we began. An endless assortment of different types of meat, pastry, and drink were present. The King, knowing that I did not drink alcohol, presented me with a drink of fermented beets and apples, which I found extremely flavorsome. The chef was very artistic in his presentations of the foods, with such delicacies as pastries containing roasted birds or fruits preserved in honey and sugar."
When Ibn Battuta left Constantinople the emperor made a gift of the the two horses he had used to ride around the city.
Above, crusaders of the Fourth Crusade camped outside the walls of Blachernae. This is another illustration by Antoine Herbert.
Keeping the Palaces in Tip-Top Shape
Palaces had to have regular cleanings. The Blachernae was particularly blessed with ample supplies of flowing water for its cleaning. Their schedule followed an emperor and his family as they moved from one palace to another. As soon as they left everything was washed and scrubbed from top to bottom. Rosewater was used for its fragrance. Throughout the year floors were strewn with rosemary, myrtle and grape leaves. The walls and corridors were also hung with giant garlands of flowers and fragrant herbs. Incense and fragrant woods were simmered in heated braziers or burned in swinging and hand-held censors. Small glass bottles of rosewater were used to anoint guests hands and faces. Emperors had their own personal perfumeries stocked with all of the most useful and rare fragrances which were mixed in special heated silver basins. They traveled with him, even on military campaigns, with its own special luggage.
There was a great deal of polishing, even the marble was refreshed with warm encaustic waxes. The mosaics were regularly checked for loose tesserae and reset or replaced where necessary. Gilding was renewed where it was worn. There were thousands of silver lamps, candle stands, chandeliers, serving dishes and plates that had to be cleaned and polished all the time. The palace had its own team of lamplighters who were responsible to light the rooms with candles and oil lamps. Many of the chandeliers were hung in lofty locations and had to lowered to be lit or accessed by ladders and walkways along cornices.
Dressing the Emperor
An emperor's wardrobe was immense. There were formal clothes used on special occasions there were difficult to put on and wear. Some were very heavy with jewels and gold embroideries. Emperors avoided certain ceremonies for this reason. A few revolted and refused to wear the proscribed articles of clothing. Others simplified Imperial dress, not only to avoid its weigh, but to save money. The Imperial loros is a good example. It was heavy and impossible to move in. The Paleologian emperors made the loros smaller and cut down on the gold and jewels which was cheaper and lighter to wear. He would be expected to change many times in the same day. Different colors and patterns were required for special occasions; a special mourning color was required based on the position of person who was deceased or his relation to you. Emperors always wore hats or crowns. Imperial underwear, sheets, stockings and towels were made of fine linen that was embroidered in gold thread. It was even given as gifts to other royals. The Imperial workshops and tailors who made these things had regular annual orders for all these things which were paid for once year. They involved thousands of things that were made at different levels of quality. The highest quality always went to the emperor and lower quality items were given as gifts. There were two qualities of gold thread, solid gold wire and gilded silver. All imperial clothes had special containers and luggage made for them that was stamped with royal symbols and monograms. An active emperor like Manuel I usually dressed in highly tailored silk kaftans that closely fit his body. This style of clothing - designed for riding or hunting - originated in Central Asia and came to Byzantium in the 7th century. It was modified a little over the years as fashions changed. The level of quality was dictated by the grade of the silk and the lining, which was usually linen. The emperor wore special shoes in red and purple that only he could be seen in. The most ornate were sewn with gold, pearls and gemstones in the pattern of eagles. There was a special color red-purple that was reserved for the emperor. Sometimes his closest relatives and highest court officials were allowed to ear a few strands of it. At one time this color was extracted from Murex mussels, but later it was made from other dyes.
Changing Times - the Blachernae Palaces Under the Paleologian Emperors
In Paleologian times the life and ceremonies of the Imperial court retreated to the palaces and churches of Blachernae and took on an entirely different character and scale. The palaces of Alexios and Manuel had survived the Fourth Crusade and the Latin occupation, but they required extensive cleaning and restoration. It is said this took 10 years! The Latins had even stripped the buildings of their lead roofs for money. The great halls were covered by black soot from the open fires they set in them to keep warm and cook food. Windows were broken and not replaced, rooms were abandoned rather than cleaning them. The gardens were overgrown and the water system had broken down.
There were two receptions in the palace everyday that were attended by office holders and presided over by the emperor, which involved hundreds of participants. This is why so many office holders had to live close to the palace, since they walked to it. The emperor sat during them, while the others stood, although standing in the presence of the emperor was not required. If you had to approach him there were three levels of bowing. The first involved bowing from the waist, the second was done on ones knees while the third was done prostrate on the ground. In this period the wearing of uniforms for most officials was discontinued, court officials could wear any silk outfit they wanted. In earlier times the Emperor had made gifts of clothes to officials. This was discontinued because of the expense and silk garments were now widely available at reasonable prices. Everyone wore hats based on ones rank and occupation.
Many church councils were held in Alexios's palace in the 14th and 15th centuries, which tells us it was functioning and in use right up until 1453. Alexios's palace was lower down and closer to populated areas than Manuel's. Many of the attendees of the synods - which could go on for a considerable period of time - were older churchmen, would have walked to them and would have wanted to lodge nearby. There were still a number of monasteries in the immediate area that could house them. Alexios's palace was still splendidly decorated and fully functional - which undermines the view that the imperial court was now housed in diminished circumstances. There is one account of a traveler who visited the emperor in the 5th century who says he was badly lodged in just a few rooms. It is now understood that he visited the emperor in what remained of the Great Palace after visiting Hagia Sophia. In those days a small part of the Great Palace was maintained - amidst the ruins - as an Imperial apartment for visits to Hagia Sophia. The emperor had a small throne room there, too. Up until almost the end, (the last emperor was not crowned in Hagia Sophia) Imperial coronations were celebrated in Hagia Sophia and were accompanied by days of feasting and celebration. Money was still thrown to senate and people of the city as a part of the ritual. But Imperial court life was now centered around two those two great courtyards of the Blachernae. The coronation celebrations started in the old Augusteon outside Hagia Sophia and then moved there. The great processions that used to take the emperor weekly throughout the city ended and moved to organized parades to a few nearby chapels and churches in the northwest corner of the city. Hagia Sophia was only visited six times year because the emperor was too poor to provide the former donations to the clergy his visits required. Long gone were the days when the emperor entered the sanctuary and placed 100lbs of gold on the altar as a gift!
Above is a marble Victory that was mounted in the gates of the Blachernae. There were three arched entrances to the private Imperial harbor, this part of the Sea Wall as was demolished in 1868. It looks like it's from the reign of Theodosius I. It came to the museum in 1894. From historical records we know it was paired with a marble relief of the Theotokos.
The Varangian Guard in Blachernae
The former Varangian Guard still served the emperor, but they only accompanied him on horseback from the palace to its gates, where they would greet him on his return to the palace. The horses were still splendid and the uniforms, arms and many banners were smart and colorful. In the city the emperor was accompanied by family members and court officials. There were many banners carried in procession. People could approach the emperor when he rode in procession outside the place and present petitions to him. Music was played to announce the emperor was coming so people would know he was coming their way. When the procession arrived at its destination banners would be erected on poles. Every member of the Imperial family had his own symbol or shield - even dragons - that was placed on his banner. Every court official had one as well. There was still a senate and people to acclaim him in many of the old ceremonies on a reduced scale. From time to time the palace courtyard and streets of the city still echoed with trumpets, drums, wind instruments and water organs. When the emperor wanted to ride seven splendid horses were offered to him and he would select the one he wanted to ride. The other horses followed him when he set out from the palace, just in case he needed to change one.
The Palace of the House of the Porphyrogenitus - Tekfur Saray
After the Latin emperors were ejected from Constantinople there was a short period of unreserved optimism about the future. Michael VIII began redecorating the colonnades of Manuel's palace with new paintings of his own military exploits, but they were not finished at his death. He also added a library to it. Some new palaces were built before the disasters of Andronikos II ruined the finances of the state and ended Byzantine rule in Asia Minor forever. The most famous of these - because it still survives - was the House of the Porphyrogenitus - which means "Born in the Purple Chamber". It was built for Constantine, third son of Michael VIII and dates between 1261 and 1291. The top story of the palace was another vast wood-roofed reception room. The famous facade was decorated with heraldic symbols of the Paleologian dynasty, was recently ruined in a dreadful restoration as an Ottoman tile museum that has finally opened in 2019.
Constantine and Eirene's oblong palace was built between two walls which descend from the Porta Xylokerkou for a short distance, towards the Golden Horn. Its long sides, facing respectively north and South, are transverse to the walls, while its short western and eastern sides rest, at the level of the second story, upon the summit of the walls. The whole surface of the building was decorated with beautiful patterns in brick and stone mosaic. The many windows of the palace are framed in marble and their were graceful balconies on the east and south, which looked out over the superb views the lofty position of the palace commanded. The palace was connected by elevated corridors to the palaces in the lower part of the Blachernae.
Today, besides Tekfur Saray, an underground prison, the pathetic remains of the baths of Alexios I, and one Imperial balcony, nothing remains of Blachernae above ground except for it's walls and terraces. The site has been thoroughly ransacked for building materials to build new structures. Every exposed spot has been dug up in search of treasures. Nothing is documented when it is found. Anything of value is sold on the black market or melted down as scrap metal. Anything that shows a cross or any other Christian symbol is effaced by religious zealots. The Turkish state is still ruled by Islamic fundamentalists who celebrate the successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in destroying anything that is not Sunni or Christian. Today the best place to get an idea of what the Blachernae was like is to visit Mystras in Greece. Here they have reconstructed the 15th century Palace of Manuel II, which sits on a courtyard with wings of earlier palaces - really castles - attached to it. It is now called the Place of the Despots and it stands among churches and small colonnades that were built to stand-in for Blachernae in the last days of the empire.