I have just returned from a visit to the amazing historical sites of Istanbul. This city was formerly called Constantinople and was the capital of what we refer to as the Byzantine Empire. This was the eastern half of the Roman Empire that survived and prospered as the western half split into barbarian kingdoms.
Constantinople – capital of the Byzantine Empire
From the reign of the emperor Diocletian (CE 284 to 311), the Roman Empire was divided between an eastern and western emperor. It had become too massive to run under just one man. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, founded the city of Constantinople as a new Rome in the east and also made Christianity the de facto state religion.
Two hundred years later, the west had gone but whereas Rome was now under the control of Germanic Goths, Constantinople continued as a Roman capital governing everything from modern Egypt to Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece.
Islam overwhelms Byzantium!
Under the sixth century emperor Justinian (CE 527 to 565) it attempted to seize back lost western territories but this weakened the empire’s finances and combined with plague and war with Persia, many of its provinces were lost to the armies of a new religion: Islam.
However, Justinian left behind a vast church called the Hagia Sophia, which is still standing today. Take a look at some of the photos I took over the last weekend. There’s also a huge underground cistern for collecting water, one of several, that featured in the Dan Brown movie Inferno and the James Bond movie Skyfall.
The Byzantine Empire created a form of Christianity we now call Eastern Orthodox. It was often in conflict with the papacy in Rome and rejected the pope’s claim to be the divinely ordained leader of all Christians. This led to a mutual excommunication of both churches and undoubtedly contributed to a shameful act by western crusaders in the year 1204.
FIND OUT MORE: The so-called “Donation of Constantine” – a forgery!
Venice treacherously attacks the Byzantine Empire
Instead of attacking the Muslim Saracens, a crusader force led by the Venetian doge (leader) Enrico Dandolo (CE 1107 to 1205) invaded and sacked Constantinople. Its 800 year old walls had never been breached by Arabs, Goths, Bulgars and other military forces. But the blind Dandolo, already in his 90s, led the crusaders on a mission to fatally damage the Byzantine Empire.
Why? Because Venice had emerged as a major trading rival against Constantinople. Once a junior player, it was now able to flex its muscles and undermine the once great city to the east. Dandolo died during the crusade and was buried within Justinian’s great church of Hagia Sophia. His bones were subsequently dug up and discarded but a later marker indicates his tomb.
READ MORE: How Venice destroyed Constantinople
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire. But you can still see strong evidence of the Byzantine metropolis everywhere in the older downtown area. I even found a shop with two Roman pillars sticking out of the basement!
TOURIST ADVICE: If you are looking for a reasonably priced guide during your stay in Istanbul, I’m happy to recommend Karavan Travel – https://karavantravel.com/