landmarks along main street of Constantinople
One of the reasons that Istanbul attracts around 13 million tourists per year – aside from its breathtaking landscape, vibrant culture, and incredible cuisine – is the layered history that makes every street a living museum. At first glance the old city seems dominated by Ottoman mosques, bazaars, and caravanserais, with little influence from the Byzantines and Romans. This is not entirely true – in fact, the Ottomans adapted many of the earlier structures rather than destroying them, and we can still see pre-Ottoman monuments such as the Aqueduct of Valens, the Basilica Cistern, the Hagia Sophia, and many smaller churches and monasteries.
However, the largest is not a building at all, but a road. Known in Greek as the Mese Odos or “Middle Road,” this was the route that victorious emperors marched along after returning from conquests abroad. The Ottomans named it the Divanyolu or “council road” after the processions of viziers, ambassadors, and soldiers who used it to approach the Imperial Council in Topkapı Palace. This same road is still walkable today, making for a daytrip that travels through 1,600 years of history. It is possible to imagine its former glory, lined with long colonnades filled with shops and taverns – Mese Odos was the İstiklal Caddesi of the old city.
The Mese dates back to Emperor Constantine’s renaming of the city as Constantinople in 330 AD, when the city limits went only as far as Yenikapı. But by the time of Emperor Theodosius I, the city had expanded further west, forcing the emperor to build a new set of defenses – the Theodosian walls. At the point where the land walls meet the walls along the Sea of Marmara, Theodosius constructed the Golden Gate as his triumphal entrance to the Mese road. Traveling out of the gate along the Roman road called Via Egnatia, his armies could march straight through modern-day Greece, Macedonia, and Albania to the Adriatic Sea. Here’s a look at some of the important landmarks along this historic road.
1.The Golden Gate
The original Golden Gate had four towers, so when Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror added three more it became Yedikule – meaning “seven towers.” The Ottomans later used Yedikule as a notorious dungeon that hosted many foreign ambassadors. In the 19th century it was turned into a museum, though it is currently closed for renovation. The Golden Gate that remains has lost much of its shine – a bricked-up reminder of when Istanbul was capital of an empire from Britain to Syria. But in its glory days, the gate was a wonderful sight: the walls were covered with gilded metal and above the gate were huge bronze statues of elephants and winged goddesses representing victory. According to a Greek legend, an angel took the last emperor Constantine XI after his death in the siege of Constantinople and hid him in a cave under the Golden Gate, where he awaits resurrection to reclaim the city.
2. Studios Monastery
The street Yedikule Caddesi follows the route of the old Mese road to İmrahor İlyas Bey Caddesi, named after İmrahor Mosque. At least, that was the Turkish name of the site for 500 years – before that, it had been the Stoudios Monastery for around 1,000 years, making it one of the oldest Christian buildings in the city. The sect of monks here, called Studites, was incredibly influential across the Orthodox world, supporting the church against the sect of Iconoclasts while producing illuminated manuscripts that are still treasured today. But the late Ottoman era saw a series of fires and earthquakes that left the building in ruins. Formerly classified as a museum under the same body responsible for the Hagia Sophia, it was decided to restore the building as a mosque in 2013, though the structure is still not yet open to the public.
3. Saint Andrew in Krisei
Further along the Mese is Kocamustafa Paşa Mosque, also known as Sümbül Efendi Mosque. The story here is similar, as the Ottomans converted this building from the Saint Andrew in Krisei church. Koca Mustafa Paşa was a Grand Vizier of Greek descent who ordered the building’s reopening as an Islamic place of worship, while Sümbül Efendi was a Sufi leader whose dervish lodge and tomb are also part of the mosque complex. In the mosque courtyard there is a centuries-old cypress with a wooden hut built around the base. Local beliefs say that if two people who disagreed swung a chain around the tree, the chain would hit whoever was truthful.
4. Monastery of Gastria
Continuing to the West on Koca Mustafapaşa Caddesi, the Mese route passes close by Sancaktar Hayrettin Mosque. This point on the road was also the site of the original Golden Gate that Constantine constructed in the first city walls, which are no longer visible. In its first incarnation Sancaktar Hayrettin Mosque was a 14th-century tomb attached to a much larger monastery dating from the 9th century. This means that, along with Fethiye Mosque and Chora Church, this is an example of Byzantine architecture that did not remain Christian for long after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
The first major square on the route was the Forum of Arcadius, of which only a small fragment remains in the form of the pedestal of the Column of Arcadius – this is on the corner of Koca Mustafa Paşa Caddesi and Haseki Kadın Sokak. Drawings from the 16th century show a spiral frieze of battle scenes curving around the column, likely depicting the Emperor Arcadius defeating the Gothic commander Gainas. Spiral steps led upwards inside the column to allow the public to stand on a parapet at the top of the column.
5. Forum of the Ox
Next on the road came the Forum of the Ox, located near the site of today’s Murat Paşa Camii. The construction of the main roads here in 1957 uncovered parts of a monumental arch and a statue. But the most infamous statue was the one that gave the forum its name – the ox. This bronze, hollow monster was large enough to fit a man inside. The Byzantines carried out particularly gruesome executions by lighting a fire under the ox to slowly burn and suffocate the victims.
6. Forum of Theodosius
In the Beyazıt neighborhood opposite İstanbul University are some more complete ruins, those of the Forum of Theodosius. The broken columns show the “lopped branch” pattern that was common in Byzantine triumphal arches. Visitors to the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet can see another of these columns placed underground.
7. Forum of Constantine
The Forum of Constantine, a short distance from Sultanahmet, contains the most complete artifact from any of the forums – the Column of Constantine. The emperor placed this porphyry column to mark the city’s rebirth as the capital of the Roman Empire, as well as renaming it after himself as Constantinople. In its original form the column supported a statue of Constantine in the guise of Apollo with an orb that supposedly contained a piece of the True Cross. Unsurprisingly, the Ottomans removed the statue when they took the city in 1453.
And the final stop on the Mese road is the Milion Stone, a large arch that symbolized the starting point of all roads in the Roman Empire. One fragment of this remains next to the old hippodrome in Sultanahmet. On reaching this point, the victorious emperor might proceed to the Hagia Sophia or the palace buried beneath what is now Topkapı Palace.
source: Joshua Bruce Allen (www.theguideistanbul.com)