Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

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 Blachernai, 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 in an ill-fated restoration.  It will now be an Ottoman tile museum.

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

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 Comeneus 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 armour 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: 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.

Clothes could be handed down from father to son for generations being altered to fit the wearer.  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.

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  - the splendid court dress described by Constantine VII Porphyrogenetus (912- 959) in his "Book of Ceremonies" was a kaftan and they seem to have to come 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 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.

The clothes of everyday people were made of wool.  Soldiers wore clothing made ow felt made from wool. During the day 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.

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 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 home-looms, not in the 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. 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 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's fashions were more conservative than mens' were.  Both men and women used perfumes, mostly herbal and natural scents, especially rose water.

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 could have been of Byzantine or Italian manufacture.

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.

Constantinople was a huge market for both new and used clothing. 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.  Since silk was custom woven the sizes and lengths of pieces was standard in Byzantine weaveries.  The quality of the silk, the weave and its thickness did vary, so Byzantine tailors had to be experts in it and every other fabric or thread they used.  So, 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 consumers 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.  Foreigners were shocked to see processions of thousands of people - all in tattered, ill-fitting or worn silk costumes.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 occupied by both men at different times and suffered for it.

The palace was connected by a passage to the big Blachernai complex lower on the hill towards the Golden Horn, where there was a small private Imperial harbor. Before 1204 the Blachernai 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 but the private quarters of the Emperor were reduced in size and the Imperial family was cramped for space. 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.  Tekfur Saray survives today because of its placement between two walls which protected it from those terrible earthquakes which brought down the vaulting in 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 Blachernai 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.

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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