My “bucket list” includes a trip to Istanbul. I am fascinated by that city. For more than a millennium, Istanbul has been a crossroad of cultures, religions, politics, and thus architecture too. I would love to taste its foods, wander its streets and alleys, visit the bazaars (and bargain for oriental carpets!), and see first hand its architectural wonders.
My last architectural history post left us in Roman times. Late in the 3rd century A.D. the Roman Empire partitioned itself into eastern and western halves. And early in the 4th century Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, later named Constantinople (“City of Constantine”), which today is known as Istanbul. In the late 4th century Christianity became the Empire’s official state religion, and by the early 7th century the Empire’s government and military adopted Greek as the language of official use (replacing Latin). During a large portion of its existence, the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. It survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire (5th century) and continued, albeit in various states of growth and decline, until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Yes, I just summarized a thousand years in a few sentences. But I do so simply to provide context – a backdrop, if you will – for considering the architecture that developed during this time.
It is also helpful to look at a map to fully understand the political, cultural and architectural history of the Byzantine Empire. Istanbul (ne Constantinople, ne Byzantium) is a city strategically located on the ancient trades routes between Europe and Asia, and between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. As a result of its location, peoples from East, West, North and South all converged on Byzantium and all contributed to its history.
It is impossible for me to fully describe Byzantine architectural history, because I have neither the space in this article nor the depth of knowledge to do it justice. Rather, I will attempt to scratch the surface by describing a few architectural characteristics and visually exploring two Byzantine structures that remain today.
Byzantine Architecture Characteristics
Due to the history of the period, some of the finest Byzantine architecture may be found in church structures. One of the major architectural developments was the creation of the cruciform floor plan of religious buildings. This design evolved out of the symbolic form of the Christian cross. Previously (in classical Roman forms), religious buildings were designed as long rectangular spaces with an entrance at one end and alter the other end. Those spaces might be covered by barrel vaulting and perhaps a half dome at the alter end. In contrast, the cruciform plans designed in Byzantine churches were called cross-in-square plans, and were inspired by the shape of the Greek cross (four equal sides). This plan created a core area (the Naos) that was comprised of nine square or rectangular sub-areas: four spaces which were the arms of the cross, four outside corner spaces, and one grand central square in the middle. As these plans evolved, sections were added to this core: to the west an entrance Narthex comprised of three spaces, and to the east the Bema containing three spaces devoted to religious functions. Below is an illustration of this plan.
The central space in the middle of the cross, sometimes called the “crossing”, became an important space for religious worship and a focal point for architectural design. This space evolved architecturally into a soaring, domed space that was inspired by the symbolic: looking up into that space represented gazing toward heaven. The round Roman arch form continued to be featured in these structures. As these designs were refined, the eight spaces surrounding the central domed area (the “arms” of the cross and the corners between the arms) were capped with a cascade of semi-domes that decreased in height as they moved away from the center. The effect was that of intersecting, round spherical spaces emanating from the central dome – quite beautiful and technically demanding.
The soaring central dome design required advancements in engineering, the most notable being something called a pendentive, which is a constructive device enabling the placement of a circular dome over a square room. In engineering terms, the pendentives receive the weight of the dome from above and concentrate that weight at the four corners where it can be supported by piers beneath.
From the East came what I would categorize as decorative advancements, which added beautiful, intricate architectural detail to Byzantine structures. Perhaps these represent some of the earliest examples of what we now call interior design. The most commonly known of these design elements are mosaics. Lesser known may be the application of brick and marble veneers to the interior and exterior wall surfaces of these buildings. The veneers added texture and beauty to the structure. The mosaics, integrated with the soaring domed spaces, added to the spiritual symbolism of the spaces. The intricacy and beauty of these decorative elements eludes words, so let’s move on to pictures.
Byzantine Structures to visit in Istanbul
As a way of further describing this architecture, let me present two examples. One of the most famous Byzantine structures is the Hagia Sophia, a church built in the 6th century AD and still standing in modern-day Istanbul. You may recognize this view.
The Hagia Sophia has been called one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. I will attempt to let pictures tell the story.
The above photo is a view of the Naos area of Hagia Sophia, showing the cascading domes and arches, and the soaring central dome (with windows around it’s base). Can you see the pendentives below the central dome? Notice also the classical Greek and Roman architectural features that carried forward into this structure, such as the colonnades constructed with classical columns and arches. And seen in this photo are Islamic symbols, illustrative of the historical diversity of Istanbul – the structure was built as a Christian basilica, later converted to an imperial mosque and is now a museum.
The photo above shows the beauty and intricacy of Byzantine mosaics, and the spiritual symbolism they provided. This is an image of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Note also how the mosaic design was integrated with the architecture – the imagery was placed in an arched nook and surrounded by other decorative mosaics.
To reveal a bit more of the intricacy of the mosaics, below are a series of three photos showing progressively closer views of a famous mosaic. This is called the Imperial Gate Mosaic, as it was located above a gate used only by emperors when entering the church.
First, we see the mosaics adding decorative richness to the architecture, and then our eye is drawn to the detail of the mosaic in the arch in the center of the photo.
And then we focus on the image, which includes an emperor with halo (thought to be Leo VI) bowing down before Christ who is seated on a jeweled throne and holding an open book (left hand) containing the text “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world.” In the circular medallions at Christ’s shoulders are images of the Angel Gabriel and Mother Mary.
And finally, in this third photo (above) we can see that this image is actually constructed of individual colored tiles, beautifully designed to create the image.
Another famous Byzantine structure is the Basilica Cistern, also located in Istanbul. You may remember seeing this place in films such as From Russia with Love (James Bond) and The International.
The Basilica Cistern, also built in the 6th century AD, is an underground chamber capable of holding 21 million gallons of water, which supplied filtered water to various imperial buildings. It is an immense space – with a footprint of roughly 105,000 square feet, constructed of small domes supported by 336 marble arches. The arches are all classical in form – mostly Ionic and Corinthian, if you recall those descriptions from my Classical Greek and Roman Architecture article. And the water came from a place twelve miles north of the cistern, carried by Roman-style piping and aqueducts. Today, only a few feet of water is stored in the cistern.
Below is a beautiful photo of the water surface reflecting the image of the columns and ceiling of the Basilica Cistern.
I leave you to ponder this: I find it amazing that these structures were built nearly 1,500 years ago, are incredibly beautiful, required highly sophisticated engineering and they are still standing today!
Oh, and some day I hope to fulfill my bucket list and see these places with my own eyes. Anyone want to go?