Before it housed the glamour and glitz that was the court of the Ottoman sultans, İstanbul was, as Constantinople, the capital of the equally glamorous and glitzy Byzantine Empire. Byzantium had evolved gradually from the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire with the city on the Bosphorus founded by the emperor Constantine its natural centre. Unlike the Western Roman Empire the eastern side had always been Greek-speaking. In time the Byzantine emperors also espoused the Orthodox rather than the Catholic brand of Christianity, so that soon there was almost nothing left to suggest a common ancestry with the West.

It’s sometimes hard now to remember that the Byzantine Empire once spread its tentacles right across Anatolia even though it faced constant challenges especially from the Arabs as they fought their way north from their stronghold in the Saudi desert. From 1071 and the Battle of Manzikert onwards the Selçuks began to push the Byzantines back towards Constantinople, although the single biggest blow to their power came in 1204 when the Crusaders sacked the city and forced the Byzantine emperor to flee. Two rival Byzantine courts were then set up in distant Trabzon (Trebizond) and İznik. Not surprisingly in 1261 it was the closer branch in İznik that drove out the usurpers and reestablished Constantinople as the Byzantine capital.

The 12th and 13th centuries saw a Byzantine artistic renaissance but soon the Ottomans were circling hungrily. In 1453 Mehmet II seized Constantinople. The last Byzantine emperor died fighting on the city walls. 

Although the finest Turkish monuments to Byzantium are in İstanbul there are also impressive reminders of the era in both Trabzon and İznik. Trakya (Thrace) retains several under-visited Byzantine churches as does the southern side of the Sea of Marmara. Right in the heart of Anatolia the rock-cut churches and underground cities of Cappadocia are evocative reminders of a part of Byzantium that frequently found itself on the frontline of the fighting.

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), İstanbul

Almost no one who visits İstanbul fails to see Hagia Sophia, the great church paid for by the Emperor Justinian in 537 and whose dome, designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, was one of the wonders of the age. Now that the scaffolding that marred its interior for more than a decade has been removed it’s finally possible to appreciate the glorious spaciousness of this church-turned-mosque-turned-museum that has played a major role in Turkish history, with many of the Ottoman sultans buried in its grounds. The mosaics of Hagia Sophia are one of its greatest glories, especially the Deesis in the gallery that was installed during the Renaissance era of the 13th century.

Chora Church (Kariye Cami), İstanbul

If Hagia Sophia is primarily a monument to the early years of Byzantium, the equally remarkable if much smaller Chora Church, isolated near Edirnekapı and the city walls (themselves a monument to Byzantine military engineering) is the 13th-century Renaissance writ large in both mosaic and murals. The ceiling of the narthex glitters with goldleaf-backed depictions of stories from the Bible while the side chapel (Parecclesion) pairs the dramatic black and white of painted saints’ vestments with the soft pastel colours used to depict some of the more dramatic events of Christ’s life.

Great Palace Mosaics Museum, İstanbul

The Byzantine emperors lived in a sprawling complex of buildings called the Great Palace that stretched right across most of Sultanahmet and Cankurtaran. A few pieces of wall and corridor still survive but the most striking reminder of what the palace must have looked like can be seen just beside the Arasta Bazaar where a long stretch of floor mosaic has been preserved in situ. It depicts all sorts of quirky aspects of life at the time including a monkey trying to catch a bird and a man milking a goat. 

After the Latin occupation of the city the later Byzantine emperors gradually abandoned the Great Palace in favour of the Blachernae Palace on the city walls at Ayvansaray. Today little remains of that building apart from the Anemas Dungeons (currently under restoration), although you can admire the shell of the Tekfur Palace, which may have formed part of the same complex, nearby. 

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), Trabzon

The breakaway Comnenian dynasty in Trabzon embellished that city with fine monuments to late Byzantine art, a few of which still survive today most conspicuously the church of Hagia Sophia, built between 1238 and 1263, which stands alone on a bluff overlooking the city far from its restless centre. The vividly colourful murals of this Hagia Sophia are absolutely spectacular having been completely restored under the supervision of the Byzantine art expert David Talbot Rice. However, in 2013 a court ruled that the museum could be turned back into a mosque, as it was immediately after the Ottoman conquesr. It remains to be seen what this would mean for the murals.

Trabzon has several other important Byzantine monuments, the most interesting yet least obvious being the slight remains of the imperial palace that just about hang on on the “trapezus”, the table of land between two valleys that gave its name to the city. The second is the Fatih Cami, once the church of Panayia Chrysokephalos where many of the emperors were crowned. The third is an externally dull little church that was once part of the Kaymaklı Monastery dating back to 1424. Reused as a barn, its interior boasts stunning murals once concealed behind the hay. It’s on private property but the owners are usually happy to unlock the door.

Sumela Monastery

Near Trabzon, the remains of Sumela Monastery dating back to the fourth century cling to the rockface amid pine forest at Maçka. They’re one of Turkey’s iconic sites and have been attracting growing crowds since they were largely rebuilt and an annual service to commemorate the Virgin Mary reintroduced. The roof of a cave which once housed a sacred icon of Mary is still covered in impressive medieval murals while the exterior walls of a small chapel boast much-damaged 19th-century murals, reminding visitors that the last Greek descendants of the Byzantines continued to worship here until the 1923 Greco-Turkish population exchange.

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), İznik

The early Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in İznik, near Bursa, was the setting for the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Greek Orthodox church in 787 that repudiated iconoclasm. Recently it was rebuilt and converted into a mosque. Opinions vary as to the need to do this and as to the end result.


In the heart of Anatolia the troglodytic settlements of Cappadocia are Turkey’s finest reminders of Byzantine provincial life. The most impressive monuments are the rock-cut frescoed churches, mostly dating from the ninth to 12th centuries, which incorporate structural features of built churches such as columns as purely decorative features. The finest churches are protected inside Göreme Open-Air Museum; the two most spectacularly decorated are the Karanlık (Dark) and Tokalı (Buckle) churches.

During the Byzantine era many Cappadocians lived in cave homes. In times of emergency they took refuge in so-called underground cities, labyrinths of rooms connected by tunnels that penetrate up to nine layers beneath the earth. Best known are the two complexes at Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı but many others wait to be discovered without the summer crowds. 

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), Enez

Few foreign visitors make it to Enez on the Gulf of Saros near the Greek border but those that do will discover the ruins of a sea-facing sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia that must, in its day, have been absolutely enormous. A short walk away another much smaller church that looks as if it’s strayed from one of the Greek islands has been converted into a shrine.

Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya), Vize

People heading for Edirne or Kıyıköy in Thrace could break their journey in the under-visited town of Vize where another vast sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia was recently restored and now serves as the Gazi Süleymanpaşa Cami. Towers lost amid woodland on the hillside survive from the Byzantine city walls.

Hagios Stephanos, Trilye

Pretty little Trilye (Zeytinbağı) on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara still bears strong traces of the Greek presence that hung on here until 1923. Of the three brick-built Byzantine churches to survive the best preserved is the eighth-century Hagios Stephanos (St Stephen) which was crudely converted into a mosque.

Also well worth visiting:

Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus (Küçük Ayasofya Cami), İstanbul

Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos (Fethiye Cami), İstanbul

Church of the Pantokrator (Zeyrek Kilise Cami), İstanbul

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