Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

I have added a page of 19th century images of Tekfur Saray from The Getty Institute.  There are incredible blow-ups showing detail I have never seen before.  Go see it by clicking here


The three-story Byzantine palace of Tekfur Saray is situated in the walls of the city and was an annex to the great Palace of Blachernae, a complex of buildings which stood further down the hill towards the Golden Horn. This palace was situated at a high point within the city walls and was visible over a wide area.

The Turkish name, Tekfur Saray, means "Palace of the Sovereign" from the Persian word meaning "Wearer of the Crown".  It was the only well preserved example of Byzantine domestic architecture in Constantinople until it was recently destroyed (2010) in an ill-fated restoration.  It is not too much to describe what happened to the palace as a crime against world culture.

The 13th century building is now modern exhibition space and an Ottoman tile museum.  I have never seen the report done on the archeology of the site that should have been done before all traces of the original palace were obliterated.  That doesn't mean the site was not surveyed in an emergency operation by the Turks, but these studies are seldom done and almost never published.  The developers didn't want their work slowed down and the government authorities celebrate every Byzantine monument in the city that has been destroyed or turned into some new Ottoman monument to 1453 and their conquest of the city.

It appears everything we might have learned about Tekfur Saray and its long history has been lost forever. In Turkey vast sums of money are borrowed to finance development projects like this one.  Perhaps the rape of Tekfur Saray was simply caused by greed and had nothing to do with the wave of destruction visited by modern Turkey on its Christian Byzantine legacy, but I doubt it.

tekfur sarayi


This is from 2014:

A REPORT OF CONCERN ON THE CONSERVATION ISSUES OF THE ISTANBUL LAND WALLS WORLD HERITAGE SITE

With A Special Focus on the Historic Yedikule Vegetable Gardens

The Blachernae Palace is one of the most important monuments of Byzantine Civil Architecture, where the Byzantine Emperors resided from 11th to 15th century, until 1453. Its significance and OUV were mentioned in the nomination statement of the Land Walls WHS. The only remaining part of the Byzantine court palace is the Tekfur Sarayi (the Palace of Porphyrogenneitus).

However, the documentary value of Tekfur Sarayi was diminished due to extensive reconstruction works going on. As pointed out by Korhan Gumu the traces of later periods are being removed from the monument, and a "fictitious" reconstruction is being realized. As Baris Altan pointed out, the ongoing work can hardly be declared as a restoration. Rather, it is the reconstruction of a Byzantine Palace, which is an improper intervention according to the contemporary conservation principles.

As mentioned above in the restoration works on the Land Walls section, in 2006, the ICOMOS and UNESCO Joint Mission had recommended that the restoration and reconstruction of the Blachernae Palace (Tekfur Sarayi), which were going on at the time that the Mission visited the site, had to be halted immediately. However, the reconstruction works continued, and the Tekfur Palace was rebuilt and refunctioned as an auditorium.


The top story of the palace was a vast wooden-roofed reception room.  The facade was decorated with heraldic symbols of the Palaiologan Imperial dynasty and it was originally called 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.

Constantine Palaiologos and his wife EireneThis is Constantine with his wife Eirene Raoulaina on the left.  Although this is a copy, it is an actual family portrait from a set of 12 in the Lincoln College Typikon.  Constantine was born in 1261 and died in 1306. This image depicts him when he was in his thirties.  It was customary for people to give gifts of portraits like this to members of the Imperial family, especially the Emperor and his wife.  Members of the Imperial family also commissioned paintings like this one and gave them to each other.  They were collected in books like photo albums and were often accompanied by poetic epigrams praising the subjects that were especially commissioned by the donor as a part of the gift.  Small-scale Imperial portraits on parchment and wood panels like were displayed around the city in churches, palaces and other public places.

The first thing to note is that both of these outfits are cut and tailored to fit the wearer and are real clothes. This emphasis on the fit of a garment, large scale patterns and multiple items made of the same color and fabric, are things we see in late Byzantine clothes.  Note the tight neckline on Eirene's dress and Constantine's sleeves to see the tight tailoring.

Constantine is wearing a tall red-silk hat - heavily embroidered with an enthroned image of his brother Andronicus, who was Emperor at the time, a kaftan - kabbadia - in heavy woven silk with tight sleeves, a red gold sash belt (weighted on the end to hang down properly) and an jeweled purse.  There would have been a standing image of his brother on the back of his hat.  His kaftan is an opulent silk brocade with a large bold pattern.  The kaftan would have been lined.

A man like Constantine would have dozens of different types of splendid robes in different colors and patterns made for specific occasions and uses. As members of the Imperial court he and Eirene would have changed their dress many times a day, based on their activities. Writing of Emperor Isaac II Angelos’ passion for luxury, and comparing his appearance in the palace to a young bridegroom, "brilliant as the rising sun", the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates tells us that Isaac never showed himself twice in the same costume.  The Emperor Alexius Comnenus gave the Georgian Gregory Pakourianos articles of his own clothing that he had worn in honor of Gregory's victory over the Pechenegs.  Gregory proudly left these items of clothing to his heirs in his will, that's how we know about them.

Men and women rode horses - Byzantine women rode astride like men.  The Imperial ceremonial in the last 200 years involved more riding and fewer processions. The Emperor (and even the Empress!) was expected to be seen in public on horseback riding in and out of the palace grounds and around the city.  You could get quite close to them.

In 1437 the Spanish historian and traveler Pero Tafur wrote about the hunt he went on with the Byzantine Emperor and his wife, Maria:


"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."


Five years earlier, in 1432 the traveler Bertrandon de Broquière was in Hagia Sophia for a service wrote the following:


"I went all day without food and drink, almost to vespers, very late, to see the Empress who had rested in a residence nearby which seemed to me as beautiful as a church, to see her come out and how she mounted the horse. She only had with her two woman and two or three elderly men, and three of the kind of people (eunuchs) the Turks have to guard their women. When she came out of the residence someone brought a bench from which she could mount and then they brought out a very beautiful roncey (horse) draped with rich and beautiful bardings (war armor fittings for horses). Going beside the bench, one of the elderly notables took a long mantle which she carried and then went to the other side of the horse and raised up the mantel with his hands as high as he could. She put a foot in the stirrup and then mounted the horse like a man, and then he threw the mantel on her shoulders."

"(referring to her hat) ...on the point of which she had three golden plumes which suited her very well. She seemed as beautiful to me as she had before. She came so close to me that someone said I should follow behind, and it seems there is nothing to say, except that her face was made-up, which was not necessary because she was young and fair. On her ears, hanging from each one, was a large flat earring with many stones, more rubies than anything else. It appeared, when the Empress mounted her horse, that the two women with her were equally beautiful, and they wore mantles and hats."


Emperor John VIII Palaeologus 1438

Above are sketches of the Emperor John VIII Palaeologus riding on a Russian horse, a monk, and a Scabbard, 1438.  Look at the very tall hat worn by the Emperor and the unusual hats on the other two figures.  This drawing was made when John was in Florence negotiating a union of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in order to save Byzantium from the Muslim Turks.  He was extremely ill during this trip and could hardly walk.  They were able to get him into the saddle on a horse so he would spend hours hunting everyday. One of the interesting details in these drawings is that the Emperor was wearing Islamic "Mongol" silk, which was very fashionable at the time.  The Italians thought their Byzantine visitors were splendidly dressed in the latest fashion. It's an interesting fact that Muslim men are forbidden to wear silk clothes by the Koran (except for thin trimmings of silk embroidery), although the Turks ignored this restriction.  Muslims were also forbidden to drink or eat from silver or gold vessels and men could not wear gold rings or jewelry.

 Like the reign of Louis XIV in France, Byzantine aristocrats were expected to spend enormous sums on dress. You could not show up at court if you weren't well-groomed and dressed properly.  This was true even for minor officials.  Servants also wore uniforms. You could tell everyone's position in the government and court by what they wore. The Russians adopted this same system in their own country.

The primary color of Byzantine court costume for everyday wear was white, which must have been very difficult to keep clean.  White was worn by Manuel II and his entourage when they visited western Europe in search for help against the Turks in 1400.  He visited England and stayed with Henry IV where historians remarked on the splendid immaculate white garments the Byzantines wore. Clothes could be handed down from father to son and mother to daughter  for generations being altered to fit the wearer.  Clothes were professionally repaired; once then they were worn out the thread was recycled. The resell of used clothes was a big business.  Buyers roamed the streets of the city a buying up old and used clothes. Second-hand clothes from Constantinople were resold in fairs like that of St, Demetrius in Thessaloniki. The washing and cleaning of clothes was conducted as a state enterprise - all the way down to family operations.

Constantine wears his hair in long lanky, loose curls, crops his finely combed beard and it's obvious he has big ears.  Small black shoes emerge from under his robe.  Byzantine men of the aristocracy and the Imperial court were very concerned with personal cleanliness, particularly of the hair and beard which were kept washed, combed and curled.  Emperors let their hair grow long in back and placed it in long loose curls. After the 1438 trip to Florence this hairstyle became one of the exotic Imperial traits of Byzantium that appeared in paintings and sculptures. The French kings copied it for themselves after the state visit of the Byzantine Emperor to Paris. Throughout Europe the emperors had a reputation for being finely and immaculately dressed, even in their poverty.

There was an big Imperial Roman-style bath in the Blachernai palace down the hill from Tekfur Saray that Constantine and John would have used.   This bath survived into Ottoman times and you can visit its ruins today.  Believe it or not, one Byzantine bath still survives in operation in Istanbul today!

On the left is a silk kaftan from the Museum of the Aga Khan in Istanbul.

Constantine is wearing a silk kaftan.  We know that the splendid court dress described by Constantine VII Porphyrogenetus (912- 959) in his "Book of Ceremonies" was a kaftan and they came to Byzantium by way of the Caucasus. Kaftans were made using different patterns based on the activity of the wearer, for example we have surviving kaftans from the 8th century that are cut for horseback riding. Everyday kaftans were made of linen with decorative silk bands. You could wear a plain bleached linen kaftan under a silk one, which could even be made a sheer silk material. They had buttons or elaborate frogs as fasteners and could be lined with fur for warmth.  Byzantine undergarments for men were made of linen.  A complete linen under-dress would have been worn under a kaftan.

There was a guild of linen merchants in Constantinople.  Linen has the advantage of being a fast growing plant and that was fairly east to process and was inexpensive.  Linen is difficult to dye and was usually woven in natural colors.  Colored decorative elements in linen clothes were usually added in wool. Linen was delivered to Constantinople merchants from the provinces in pre-woven sheets.  Bulgarian linen was especially valued. Fine linen was valued as highly as silk.  One of the finest types of linen was almost transparent and linen was often embroidered in gold thread.

The clothes of everyday people were made of wool, linen or inexpensive silk blends or cheaper grades of silk.  Soldiers wore clothing made of felt made from wool. Since the days of Imperial Rome cotton had long been imported from India, later it came from the Muslim countries of the Middle East.  Cotton clothes were worn both in summer and winter and the fabric was made in different thicknesses for the season.

The commercial silk trade was divided into three activities and guilds.  First, there were the acquirers of raw silk who purchased it from local producers or imported it from outside the Empire.  Second, there were the dyers, weavers and tailors of silk garments.  Finally there were specific silk garment merchants.

Sericulture - the production of raw silk - was a seasonal activity from April - June and was a family activity.  If you owned mulberry tree groves you could harvest and process the silk in your own operation.  Some mulberry groves were divided up and allocated to sharecroppers.  Raw cocoons were traded and sent to local centers of silk processing - or were sent to Constantinople, where in the 12th century there were thousands of people involved in the production of silk. There was a very short window for the processing of live cocoons - around three days - so most of this work must have occurred close to the places were they were harvested.  Silk that was sent to Constantinople would have primarily consisted of stifled cocoons and silk thread that had been reeled in advance.

Unblemished silk was the most valuable and it mattered whether your silk cocoons were wild or cultivated.  Silk cocoons or reeled thread could be damaged in shipping or soiled, which was treated as lower-grade material.  Waste material from the processing of silk was spun into low quality yarns and combined with other materials - like wool.

Because of the seasonal nature of sericulture there were annual markets where raw silk was sold.  Vast quantities were bought and sold through the markets.  Although there were official guilds for the commercial production of raw silk, silk cloth and silken garments there was no regulation on personal production.  Since there were so many levels of quality in the making of silk - and that the bulk of production was lower quality, this meant that the majority of silk was woven at home in family operations on family looms.  Family operations also produced ready-to-wear garments or specialty tailored clothes.

Men and women were equally involved in the production of silk in Byzantium and women could even run their own independent businesses.  Women managed their own silk shops and worked as sales clerks in them. There were silk workshops in Constantinople that had their own facilities and looms who used hired labor or slaves.  This business was highly regulated by the authorities, but only the owners of these operations were required to be guild members.  There were no restrictions on Jews in the silk industry.

There was also a unique Imperial silk tailoring workshop that made garments for the state and another workshop that produced gold embroidery.  A third Imperial operation connected to the production of silk garments made gold jewelry for the court.  The state required huge numbers of silk garments for participants in Imperial ceremonies and events on an annual basis.  These garments had to be stored and maintained by trained staff near the palace. When they were worn-out they were sold off to wholesalers. Even the military used silk, where we know it was used in leggings for lower ranked officers.

As already mentioned, silk came in different grades. For the market beyond the palace, a variety of high - and lower - grade silk textiles was available, as well as cheaper fabrics woven of spun floss silk and half-silks combining a silk warp with a wool, linen or cotton weft.  Most of the silk produced in Constantinople was made of these lower cost blends, was unregulated, and was a domestic activity woven on those home-looms I mentioned earlier, not in great Imperial workshops. This diversity was meant to cater for the needs of an ever-expanding public with varying buying power, yet keen to imitate courtly fashions for reasons of prestige and to own at least one garment made of precious silk.  We know from surviving records that even poor women could own a half-silk or full-silk dress in bright exotic colors or weaves and knew the difference in price and quality.  Byzantine-style clothes were sought after all around the Mediterranean and even as far away as Norway and England.

The entire silk-making industry in Constantinople - Imperial and domestic, went up in smoke during the fires of the Fourth Crusade.  Some of the silk weavers emigrated to Asia Minor and Latin Greece, where small scale production resumed.  Byzantine silks from Greece were highly valued in the 14th century as exports, but eventually Italian-made silks ended their manufacture.  Also, as styles evolved western consumers came to prefer eastern silks of Islamic or "Mongol" designs.

In the 12th century high-status men switched from the wearing of tunics to wearing long kaftans with tight sleeves.  Another new fashion men picked-up was the wearing of fancy belts or sashes with their kaftan.  It was thought the pulled in waistline of the belt showed off the male figure.  Constantine's kaftan has been sewn with lines at his waistline.  This was done no only to emphasize the waist, but had the practical objective of making it easier to wear it with a belt.  A well-dressed man Byzantine could have dozens of belts made of leather or fabric that were adorned with gold or metal ornaments and even gemstones and pearls.  Brides gave their husbands jeweled belts, Maria of Antioch gave her husband a belt with a gold, pearl and jeweled buckle that had an inscription to her husband Manuel I Comnenus pledging her love and fidelity.

Men also started carrying money pouches that hung from the belt. You can see Constantine has an embroidered linen or silk handkerchief with a fringe on it, this is another sign of his sophisticated elegance.

As far as jewelry is concerned men Byzantine men wore rings which could either be signet rings or religious ones with prayers and images of holy figures. They also wore wedding rings.  A woman would give a man a gold or silver ring to symbolize her softness and purity an a man would give his wife an iron one to indicate his strength and promise to protect her.

Men did not wear earrings - sometimes baby boys had their ears pierced.  Women of all classes wore earrings and there were inexpensive fashion knock-offs of the most valuable women's jewelry in base metals set with glass gems.

Everyone wore neck pendants or enkolpion cross reliquaries.  After death enkolpion were often displayed on an owner's tomb or buried with them.  These were mass-produced all over the Empire in copper alloys (like brass) and many examples have come down to us from the 11th and 12th centuries from burials.  Rich and fashionable young men could wear gold necklaces or jeweled collars set with enamels, gems and pearls, but it was not common.  It was considered a virtue that a masculine military officer might wear a necklace as a symbol of youthful heroic manliness. Men could also wear adornments on their sleeves and jeweled cuffs, but never wore bracelets.

In the Imperial family it was customary for men to give crowns to their brothers, fathers, cousins and uncles when they were elevated to positions of authority that allowed crowns to be worn.  They often carried donor inscriptions pledging loyalty to the receiver.  These crowns helped to strengthen the bonds of blood and family.

Byzantine HatsOn the right is a image of guys wearing Byzantine peaked hats called skiadions "shaders".  Byzantine hats - as strange as they may look to us today - were thought to be very smart and fashionable at the time. They became fashionable in the 11th century.  Prior to that Byzantine men went without hats or wore head scarfs.  The Byzantines copied the turban from Mamluks of Egypt. The guys in the back are wearing them.

Constantine's wife Eirene is wearing a jeweled peaked crown from which are suspended ropes of pearls, gold and gemstones and large jeweled earrings.   I'll bet the earrings are a pair she actually owned.  Earrings were often the most expensive possessions in the Byzantine wardrobe and - unlike crowns - were worn by all classes.  Eirene wears a heavy red silk and gold "chysokokkinon" in two colors.   The smock-like top part descends to the knees with a fringe.  Underneath is a matching dress, "roukon",  in the same silk.  The dress, which is lined in cream silk, has a high color and jeweled cuffs above the elbows, which are in heavy silk embroidery. Eirene's hair was been pulled back and falls in a long plait behind. Byzantine women wore heavy make-up and often wore wigs.  Women used face powder, rouge, eye-liner and eye shadow.  Women's fashions were more conservative than mens' were.

Both men and women used perfumes, mostly herbal and natural scents, especially rose water, which could be made at home and freely used, even as a room scent.  It was customary to anoint visitors and guests with it.

Byzantine men and women (especially the young) of fashion followed the latest exotic styles from foreign courts at home and in society, but if they were at court they had to follow dress rules.  However, during the reign of Andronikos III (1328-1341) there was a loosening of court protocol and he allowed anyone to wear what they wanted around him.  This freedom of fashion led immediately to appearance of clothes and hats in Italian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Syrian fashion everywhere.  Andronikos also eliminated protocol and established casual relationships with members of his court. Before this it had been easy to tell Byzantines from foreigners in Constantinople, since they dressed differently.

Except for the female crown, this is everyday garb for Constantine and Eirene and it is how they would have dressed when they lived in the palace. The silk would have been locally made. At this time Byzantine silk production was still going strong and was focused on a local consumer market rather than foreign exports.  Silk production depended on a steady supply of raw silk and the skill of dyers and weavers who continued to make garments, home goods, drapery, banners and tapestries well into the 15th century. The production of raw silk came from outside the city so it survived 1204.  Dyers, weavers and the makers of silk garments fled the city taking their craft into Greece and Asia Minor where there were enough customers to actually see an expansion of the silk business.  After the reconquest of Constantinople many silk workers came back to the city.  Those that remained in Nicaea after the Turkish conquest helped found a new Ottoman silk industry there.

Below is another picture of Byzantine men wearing crazy hats and fantastic turbans.  The Ottomans inherited the wearing of turbans from the Byzantines who invented them.  Hats on men were marks of rank or occupation The stripes indicate the office held by the wearer.  I assume that these are portraits of Serbian court officials..

Byzantines wearing fancy hats and turbansIt is interesting that the Italians in 1438-1439 who witnessed the visit the Byzantines to Florence thought that the costumes they wore were what the ancient Greeks wore.  The Italian humanist Vespasiano da Bisticci wrote:


"I will not pass without a special word of praise of the Greeks.  For at least fifteen hundred years and more they have not altered the style of their dress; their clothes are of the same fashion now as they were in the time indicated"


The Byzantines knew their court and popular dress for men was not ancient Greek, but they thought it pre-dated Alexander the Great in the court of Persia.

As already stated Constantinople was a huge market for both new and used clothing. The domestic clothing industry exploded in the 12th century.  Tailoring clothes in fabrics like silk and linen, often combined in the same dress or tunic, required enormous skill and the space to cut the patterns.  Every fabric was different and the cutting of patterns in one direction or another mattered.  In the case of silk you needed a lot of it to make a kaftan or a dress like Constantine and Eirene are wearing.  Most commercial silk was woven by home workers in standard sizes.  Weavers could be men or women. Some were organized into cooperatives and were clustered in certain neighborhoods.  In the 12th century there were thousands of home weavers working in the city.  Weaving was considered an esteemed, professional craft and weavers had to keep up on the latest patterns and trends in popular colors. Middlemen bought the silk from them and sold it in big bundles for export or the domestic production of clothes.  The quality of the silk, the weave and its thickness varied, so Byzantine tailors had to be experts in working with it.  In Byzantium tailoring clothes was a professional business and not a DYI affair.  The making of clothes required lots of room, which private homes didn't have and as a highly urban society Byzantine weavers did not have direct access to the materials used in making and dyeing of yarns.

There were ceremonial occasions when the merchants, guilds and common people were required to dress up in fancy outfits.  There could be thousands of people involved.  If the guilds could not supply these the Imperial court had thousands of silk outfits in storage that they checked out to the public to wear.  These were not always kept in the best condition and could be 100 years old.  In the 10th century one foreign ambassador reported processions of thousands of people - all in tattered, ill-fitting or worn silk costumes.  By the 12th century travelers consistently praised the citizens of Constantinople for their fine dress.A Byzantine Procession

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. Its roof and upper floors have vanished.  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.

Constantinople map  from 1420There are two drawings of the palace. The first one by Cristoforo Buondelmonti is from around 1420.  It shows the palace turned around and facing southwest.  This was an artistic convention to make the building fit the map he had drawn.  It is labeled "Palace of the Emperor".  In this late period, during the last years of the Empire, the palace may have been a principal residence of the Emperor in this section of the city.

During the horrible civil wars of Andronicus III, and later John Catacuzene, the palace was fought over and occupied by soldiers and suffered badly for it.

The palace was connected by a passage to the big Blachernae complex lower on the hill towards the Golden Horn, where there was a small private Imperial harbor. Before 1204 the Blachernae palace was said to have consisted of 200 rooms.  By the 15th century its surviving reception halls were still being used for big events like church synods. The Great Palace was still used  in the 15th century by the Imperial court; the Emperor always stayed here before his coronation in Hagia Sophia and for breakfast before services there. The Emperor also received visitors although the private quarters of the Emperor were reduced in size and the Imperial family was cramped for space in the Great Palace.

After 1300 - and increasingly so up until 1453 - Blachernae was the focus of daily Imperial ceremonies, which still took place in reduced circumstances.  The ceremonies and processions changed from what they had been before 1204,  there were fewer participants and they were more feudal and less urban in nature. Many of these ceremonies involved the Emperor on mounting a horse horseback and riding from the palace to destinations in the city. The Imperial Guard would accompany him for the short distances he would travel within the walled grounds of Blachernae.  There were still processions from Blachernae to the important churches of the city, but the Emperor was seldom required for liturgy in Hagia Sophia and regularly attended services in the Imperial chapel here.

In 1400 the great gates, courtyards and colonnaded spaces were still being used for public events and there were a number of churches and chapels still being maintained. There was an Imperial bath house here mentioned earlier.  Earthquakes were a continuous problem and parts of the palace were abandoned because there was no money for repairs.  Fire then struck the famous basilica of St. Mary of Blachernae, which was reduced to ruins and never rebuilt in 1434.  The original church that had been built by Justinian had also burnt down in 1069, was rebuilt by Romanus Diogenes in 1070, finally being restored by Andronikos II around 1300.  For years visitors to the city had remarked on the dangerous state of the wooden roof and a bolt of lightening set it ablaze in 1434.  One can assume that the fire spread to other palace buildings nearby, but there are no records to inform us.

The Castilian traveler Petro Tafur visited Constantinople tells us about the destruction of St. Mary of Blachernae just three years after the fire:

"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 thunder-bolt 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 Valayerna, and it is to-day so burnt that it cannot be repaired."

Recently the famous Byzantinist Ken Dark has been searching for the remains of Blachernae.  His work has answered some questions and created new ones.  Ken Dark discovered the Imperial bath found here which we know dates back at least to the time of Alexis I Comnenus.  Reading Dark's findings one thing that has surprised me is the lack of remains, especially columns and architectural ornament.  Over the years - and especially in the last two decades - the region of the Blachernae walls and palace have been scoured over by looters in search of 'treasures' and building materials.  Some things thought lost have turned up in local restaurants.  Anything of value that could be got at by digging must now gone, sold illegally, used in some building foundation or destroyed.  Many years ago a great huge diamond was dug up here, that story has inspired generations of looters to try their luck digging here.  They are still at work, even as you read this....

Because there so few remains have been discovered it is impossible for us to know how large some of the great and famous halls.  No one seems to have located the foundations of the mosaic and marble embellished palace built by Manuel I, so we don't know how big or extensive they were.  We can only imagine them from written accounts which tell us there were hundreds of rooms.  How is it possible that all of this has completely vanished?  Perhaps someday professional excavations will be conducted here, and perhaps it is too late.  Byzantium 1200 has done some great aerial reconstructions of the palace complex based on the latest evidence.

Tekfur Saray survives today because of its placement between two walls which protected it from the terrible earthquakes which brought down so many other palaces in the city.

After 1453 this area of the city was almost deserted, all of the residents who had not fled the city before the fall were either killed or sold into slavery.  After the conquest the Ottomans brought settlers in to repopulate the city, both Christian and Muslim.  Non-Muslims were restricted in the size of houses they could build or live in.  Most of the land was owned by Muslim charitable foundations who built houses and then rented them to non-Muslims.  This created ghetto-like conditions in some areas of the city.  There was no space for new homes, so houses got multiple wooden stories put on them above very narrow streets.  The sanitary conditions were dreadful; there wasn't a sewage system - one can imagine the smell.  The poor lived on the ground floors while the richer lived on top - a family to every room. This was especially true in the neighborhoods in the former Blachernae palace area which were the home of Greeks, Armenians and Jews - Cibali, Fener and Balat.   Within 75 years the city, the population exceeded 650,000 souls, and was already suffering from one of the effects of over-population again; fires were breaking out around the city.  A great fire that consumed the kitchens of Topkapi Palace in 1547 that was started by oil in a cooking pan.  In fires that started along the Golden Horn were dangerous because the flames spread up the hillside.  The neighborhood around Tekfur Saray burned several times and fire eventually destroyed it.

This map was drawn by Melchior Lorck in 1559. He must have made detailed drawings of some of the most important buildings and a general view of the whole city panorama.  He then made a detailed city view.  He made mistakes in the final work.  Here we can see our palace.  He has turned the western facade, which faced out from the walls, around so that it faces the city. In the center of facade we can see the 'chapel' which projected out over corbels. It resembles the palace, but only in general terms.  One can see how it dominated this section of the city.

Lorck drawing of Tekfur Saray ConstantinopleBelow is a map of the palace, and surrounding structures. Click here to see a bigger image.

Plan of the Palace Tekfur Saray

Below are images from the 19th and early 20th centuries showing the condition of the palace at that time.  One interior image shows built-in cupboards for the display of regalia and other treasures.  Similar display shelves were found in the great hall of the Palace of the Despots in Mistra and they are also mentioned in descriptions of the Palace of the Emperors in Trebizond.  All of this has been lost forever in the 'restoration' of 2010.

Tekfur Saray Northern FacadeFacade of Tekfur SarayiFacade of Tekfur SayariTekfur Sarayi from the Wall of Constantinople

Interior of Tekfur Saray showing cupboardsBelow is a reconstruction from Byzantium 1200 of how the palace might have looked in Byzantine times.

Reconstruction of Tekfur Saray from Byzantium 1200During Ottoman times, the palace was used as used a menagerie by the Sultans. They had several around the city and one in Tekfur Saray housed two huge elephants, giraffes and other 'docile' creatures.  One can see how the courtyard and ground floor could easily accommodate cages for animals as big as elephants and giraffes.

Here are two accounts from people who saw the Sultan's menagerie in the 16th century:

A man named Belon wrote, "There one saw the ruins of a very ancient palace, which the vulgates called the palace of Constantine.  The Turks used it to feed their elephants and other docile beasts."

Monsieur d'Aramon, Ambassador of the French King, reported, "There was also a certain place where one saw a monstrous number of savage beasts which were well guarded and among theme were lions, lionesses, tamed wolves, wild wolves, wild cats, leopards, lynx, wild donkeys, and ostriches in quantity.  In another place, one saw a certain beast which the residents called a sea pig and others called sea cow… In the same place they had two elephants, marvelously large."

A kiln was found at the site which was associated with a ceramic workshop that was established in the former palace in 1719.  Later it became a glass factory.  There were a large number of Jews living in this neighborhood at the time which was called Ayvansaray, and there were 7 synagoges here in 1900. They manufactured beautiful "Iznik" tiles in Tekfur Saray from the local white clay that had been used for hundreds of years to make pottery in and around Constantinople.  In the 19th century Tekfur Saray was a community center for the Jews of this district and the poor of the community were housed here. After a second life as a bottle factory the palace was abandoned and finally burned in 1911.

It is hard to know exactly when the palace lost its peaked roof and wooden floors.  From maps of the 18th century we can still see a roof, so when the place was 'ruined' - and what ruined meant at various stages - we don't know exactly.  It's hard to image the firing of kilns within the old palace, although they could have been in the courtyard.  I am trying to discover exactly where they were found.

Turkish drawing of Tekfur Saray from 1521Here in the two images at right you can see two Turkish maps that show Tekfur Saray in some detail.

The first one - the higher quality image - dates from 1521.

In both cases you can see a balcony overlooking the city on the left and the peaked roof in place. The eves of the roof project out over the facade and gables.  This conflicts with modern restorations of the palace.  In the restoration above you can see a stepped gable with a shallow roof within.  This must be wrong.

Looking again at these two maps, one of them actually has a view through the lower arches - you can actually see a bit inside.

The maps differ in that one shows the courtyard as straight, while the other is angled.

Turkish Map of Tekfur SarayThe second, angled one is true to plan, as we can see from Mamboury's drawing earlier in this article.  The balcony over looking the city must have had wonderful views.

At the northwestern end of the court stood another part of the palace complex with huge windows piercing its western facade.  The monogram of the Palaiologian dynasty was found here, but has vanished.

Visitors to the palace in Ottoman times reported seeing the double-headed eagle of the Palaiologi on a lintel and capitals carved with French lilies.  This has been lost as well.

One scholar insists that these reports were inventions and that these decorations never existed.  He contends that Tekfur Saray was built during the reign of Manuel Comnenus and Palaiologian symbols would never have been found in the fabric of the building.

Modern picture of Tekfur Saray

Meet Bob Atchison - the Creator of this Website

I am an icon painter, Russian Historian and Austin Web Designer formerly of Seattle, Washington and now living in Austin, Texas. My interest in Byzantium and icons began when I was 8 years old and read my first book on Byzantium called "The Fall of Constantinople".

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Stunning Byzantine Treasures