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Istanbul II: relics and remains from two perspectives

Returning for a post to the earlier-proclaimed trip I made to Istanbul in 2016, it seems sensible as blogger to impose some sort of order on an itinerary that was as much based on where things were in relation to each other and when they were open as it was on any kind of historical enquiry. As it happens, these two sites are right next to each other and we did do them in sequence, but I think they reflect on each other in interesting ways. The two are the Hagia Eirini Museum and the Topkapı Palace, and one specific part of the latter in particular.

The Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul, seen from outside

The Hagia Eirini Museum, seen from outside

The two complexes have quite different histories. Hagia Eirini was, as the church it obviously once was, one of the first in Constantinople if not actually the first, but that building was wrecked in the fire of 532 and Emperor Justinian I rebuilt it in 548. That’s the core of what’s now standing, though there was more damage in an earthquake in 740 and the roof and what’s left of its decoration belongs to the restoration after 753.1 The site confuses me, however, as there is more exposed ruin outside the current building, which I guess is the fourth-century one, presumably bigger than the sixth-century restoration.

Ruined fabric outside the current building of the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

Ruined fabric outside the current building

In any case, this is one of the rare Byzantine churches of the capital that was never a mosque, and that’s because it was so close to where the Topkapı palace went up—we’re coming to that—that it was instead converted to an arsenal for the palace, and then from 1726 to 1978 served as the National Military Museum. Now it’s used as a concert hall and venue, which means that functionally it’s basically empty, but still quite impressive.

Entry-way passage down into the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

Entry-way passage

View down the central nave of the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

View down the central nave

View back down the nave of the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul, towards the gallery

View back down the nave, towards the gallery

Western aisle of the Hagia Eirinia Museum, Istanbul, viewed from the south

Western aisle, viewed from the south

There are some interesting features, and some signs of where things have had to be put back together after disaster as well. The six-stepped arrangement in the apse here is apparently called a ‘synthronon’ and there isn’t another in Istanbul (I admit to getting this factoid from Wikipedia); it was for the choir.

Apse and synthronon in the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

Apse and synthronon

There is also a mosaic cross in the apse, of which I totally failed to get a good photograph because I didn’t realise it was supposed to be significant, but it is in as much as it was put there, rather than the canonical image of Christ, because the church was restored by Emperor Constantine V, whom even in this age of rethinking I think the scholarship agrees was pretty much set against images of divine persons, especially that one, so this is in some sense Iconoclast decoration.2 In my defence, there were nets up between the nave and the roof, so a good photo would have been hard to get, but you can see what I have of it in the two above. There’s a much better image on Wikimedia Commons here. This, meanwhile, is just cute, and obviously not medieval; the access up to the equally-non-medieval balcony, set against the Byzantine stonework.

Modern stairs to the gallery in the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

Modern stairs to the gallery

But this is re-use and repair…

Reused column and column base in the southern arcade of the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

Reused column and column base in the southern arcade

An evidently reused column in the north arcade of the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

An evidently reused column in the north arcade

And once you start looking around there are more signs, here and there, that things have not ever been thus.

Flooring above the original level of the wall ornament, with empty column footing, in the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

Flooring above the original level of the wall ornament, with empty column footings

Polychrome decoration remaining in a partly-blocked arch in the Hagia Eirini Museum, Istanbul

Polychrome decoration remaining in a partly-blocked arch

But mainly, this site struck me as weirdly empty, and not just because it is, of course, physically so, but because it was never a relic church, being dedicated not to a saint but to Holy Peace. There must have been an altar, of course, and I’m sure at some point it had relics in it, but this was never the ‘home’ of a holy figure, and its initial role as the Patriarch’s church was lost after Hagia Sofia was built. It left me with the strange feeling of a space robbed of its focal point and purpose, even before the Ottomans got there and filled it with weaponry.

Entrance to the Topkapı Museum, Istanbul

Entrance to the Topkapı Museum

Now, empty is not a thing which you would think anyone could say of the Topkapı palace. This was the Ottoman royal residence as long as there were Ottomans, and since it was built from 1449 onwards, that gives it a pretty long history as the focal point of an immensely wealthy imperial dynasty with space to show off. It is a huge complex, and it’s hard for this non-Ottomanist to say much more about it than, “wow”.3

Interior decoration in the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

Interior decoration in the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

Exterior space within the Topkapı Palace Museum complex, Istanbul

Exterior space within the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

Interior decoration in the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

Interior decoration in the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

There are more detailed observations one can make beyond the general opulent splendour, after a while. The fact that this place was in use for half a millennium of course means that different eras are visible in it, including the weird interjection of an Italianate-looking summer-house and various pavilions in the gardens, again on imperial scale.

Summer house in the Topkapı Palace Museum complex, Istanbul

Summer house

Pavilion in the gardens of the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

Pavilion in the gardens

One also has to say something about the fact that a considerable part of the palace that is open to visitors now is what was the harem. For all that, empty now, it is beautiful and looks like an unparalleled place to be luxuriously idle, it’s still a place where women were confined and going round it with women meant, for me, that I had no idea how to feel about it except decidedly uncomfortable, which one way or another probably isn’t thinking hard enough.

Decoration inside the harem in the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

Decoration inside the harem

Stained glass windows in the harem of the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul

Stained glass windows. Notice how they mean that you can’t see out…

There are also about six other subordinate museums on the premises, including the kitchens (well worth seeing but apparently I didn’t photograph them; I suspect I had exhausted my camera battery by then), a museum of arms and armour (presumably the collection once in the Hagia Eirini) and one of horse harness in the stables, and more besides, including the Imperial Treasury, which I think may have been closed as I have no memory of it and I feel as if I would have.4 It should also be noted, in counterbalance to my earlier observations about fixing-up in Hagia Eirini, that even this noble edifice had some questionable modification here and there…

An incomplete room partition in the Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul

This room partition was evidently done so as to fit in with the decoration, and yet…

But the part of the palace I most want to write about is one where even I wasn’t going to chance a photograph, because completely to my surprise the Palace also contains a—well, what to call it? A shrine? A museum? A collection, I guess, but a collection including objects belonging to the Prophet Muhammad, his Companions and the early Caliphate known as the Chamber of the Sacred Relics. And we are talking serious relics: bits of the Qā’ba, hair from the Prophet’s beard, one of his footprints, a letter written in his hand, his sword, and the swords of the first few caliphs who followed him, too, as well as that of Mehmet I, the conqueror of the city, joining his story to theirs. These are all here precisely because of that succession: in 1517, the Ottomans took over the caliphate from the last ‘Abbāsid ruler and after that, apparently, had the relics that had been assembled at Mecca and Medina moved into, well, into their own house as the new focal centre of Islam, and here they still are. These include not just post-relevation Islamic artefacts, but also earlier ones, because as the local mosques, onto which we’ll come, were keen to emphasise to English readers, and doubtless others, from an Islamic perspective, until Muhammad came along all believers in God were Muslims, just not yet having the word; the choice to be anything else came only once his revelation was preached. So the collection also includes scrolls of John the Baptist, Joseph’s turban and the staff of Moses, all presented as relics of famous Muslims in a continuous tradition.

Weirdly, perhaps, or perhaps because of the lingering discomfort with the harem, the one of these that struck me most, and in which I was most prepared to believe despite my natural (or maybe unnatural) scepticism was the dress of Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad (perhaps significantly, not mentioned in the Wikipedia page… There’s an image here, for now.). It is small and made of rough wool, basically a thick poncho with arms, and gave me a clear if irrational picture of an actual person, small and cheerful, who might have worn it in the earliest days of Islam while the world changed about her. I was somehow gladdened by the thought that someone might even then have thought it worth preserving, even if my cynical hind-brain was telling me at the same time that a caliphal dynasty claiming descent from her three centuries later might have had good cause to invent such a garment…5

So on the one hand we have a building which felt empty of its purpose, and with no clear spiritual occupant, as it were, and then a complex whose original purpose had lapsed, for sure, but which had been called on to serve many others, including a spiritual one, even before its secular role ended, which is still going on. Still, in both Hagia Eirini and the Topkapı something was missing, for me, and I guess that what was missing was a sense of the people who had used these spaces and had had them constructed for their use. I got closest, maybe, in the harem and the kitchens of the Topkapı, and with Fatimah’s dress, but despite all the stuff that was piled into it, I’m not sure that in the end the Topkapı was the less empty of the two. Now, they are both fantastic, perhaps especially the Topkapı where one could easily spend a whole day, and I would thoroughly recommend visiting both, especially as you are not carrying round my baggage. Laden with it, however, I never did quite manage to pin down what my non-believing Anglican-schooled psyche was expecting these places to have that I thought they didn’t.


1. Although there is a good Wikipedia page on the complex, I took a lesson from the mistakes in the last post and have here consulted Leslie Brubaker and John F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (c. 680-850): the sources. An Annotated Survey (Aldershot 2001), where the basic details are on p. 8.

2. And it is consequently discussed in eidem, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 212-214.

3. Here, actually, the Wikipedia page is immensely detailed, working round building by building, and I’m sorry to say that I could not be bothered to pin the following pictures to buildings with it, but it’s an exercise someone could do if they wanted.

4. There is also a manuscript library, which I only later discovered I’d need. It’s possible that hanging round for an afternoon with no functional Turkish and no appointment would have got me no further than approach by e-mail subsequently did, but if it had I would not be yet another person writing about Ibn Hawqal’s maps who has not been able to reproduce the original manuscript (in Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, fig. 1). I do wonder if they actually just don’t have it any more and so don’t answer enquiries about it…

5. Michael Brett, The Fatimid Empire (Edinburgh 2017), pp. 1-3 & 17-20.

4 responses to “Istanbul II: relics and remains from two perspectives

  1. “hair from the Prophet’s beard, one of his footprints, a letter written in his hand”: how so? I understand that Moslems claim that the Prophet was illiterate.

    “Joseph’s turban and the staff of Moses”: and no doubt exactly as authentic as medieval Christian relics usually were.

    • Well, as long as you’re only claiming ‘usually’, and thus accepting that some few might be authentic, you have to allow the same potential courtesy to these ones, right? As to the former question, not my faith guv’ and I don’t know, but I guess that as with the proscription of figural representation, views may have varied over the last 1300 years.

  2. Pingback: Istanbul III: finding words about Hagia Sophia | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Istanbul VII: a mosque with a longer history | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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