Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.16

John Freely, Ahmet S. Çakmak, The Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul (paperback edition; first published 2004).   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 322.  ISBN 9780521179058.  $45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam, University of Michigan (

By the time Constantinople was dedicated in the early fourth century, Rome was already over one thousand years old. It was also a city in decline, no longer an imperial residence and losing population quickly. Two centuries after its foundation, Constantinople, with a population that had surged to perhaps over 500,000 residents, was ten times the size of Rome. This sudden increase in population required a corresponding expansion in the construction of both public imperial monuments and private houses and apartment buildings. To become a New Rome that might be considered the equivalent of Old Rome, Constantinople first had to become an enormous construction zone. During these early centuries the residents of Constantinople were no doubt serenaded every day by the relentless rasping of saws and the pounding of hammers.

The rapid expansion of Constantinople was one of the most impressive accomplishments of the late antique period. On a larger scale it was the equivalent of the quick construction of the final version of Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom). The previous Hagia Sophia had been burned in January 532; the emperor Justinian dedicated his rebuilt church in December 537. In less than six years the emperor’s architects had completed the construction of this grandiose church, “an edifice that had no precedent in Roman architecture” (90). Great size was as difficult to accomplish in a city as in a building. Only the same sort of ruthless concentration of resources and labor could ensure that by the reign of Justinian, Constantinople had become probably the largest city in the world.

This survey of monuments at Constantinople by John Freely and Ahmet Çakmak was first published in 2004 and is now available in a paperback edition. Their book is an excellent introduction to the construction of the new capital’s architectural landscape. Two distinguishing features of their comprehensive survey are worth noting immediately. One is their very practical and utilitarian evaluation of architecture, which might reflect their backgrounds as a professor of physics and a professor of civil engineering. Their own training parallels the backgrounds of Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, the engineer and the mathematician responsible for the “nearly miraculous engineering” (127) of Hagia Sophia. Freely and Çakmak hence bring a different sensibility about buildings that nicely complements studies by art historians.

Another distinguishing feature is the reprinting of many lithographs from A. G. Paspates’ collection of topographical and historical scenes, published in 1877, and many plans and line drawings from Alexander Van Millingen’s surveys of walls and Byzantine churches, published in 1899 and 1912. Because modern Istanbul continues to infringe on ancient sites, these older books are important sources of information about Byzantine monuments. Even though the availability of older books through Google Books has led to a renewed appreciation for nineteenth-century scholarship, it is most useful to have these prints and plans reprinted in this book.

Over the 1100 years from Constantine I to Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor, construction at Constantinople sometimes was intense and extensive, but sometimes also seemed to lapse. Construction during the fourth and fifth centuries included walls, forums, and many churches, among them the successive versions of Hagia Sophia. Justinian dominates the central chapters of the book as “the greatest builder in the history of the Byzantine Empire” (82). His reputation has obviously benefitted from being the primary subject of Procopius’ treatise about buildings. After Justinian large construction projects practically vanished for about three centuries: “Not a single extant church dates from that period” (154). In the later ninth century the construction or renovation of palaces, monasteries, and churches finally revived. Although earthquakes were a constant threat to the buildings in Constantinople, the greatest devastation was due to the attacks of the Latin crusaders at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The fires they set “together destroyed about half of all the buildings in the city” (247). During the two centuries after the Latin occupation, the Palaeologan emperors lacked the resources to do much rebuilding. Instead, Byzantine notables and outside rulers seized the opportunity to advertize themselves. The brilliant renovations of the Church of Christ in Chora in the early fourteenth century, for instance, were credited to Theodore Metochites, an influential official at court. The Grand Duke of Moscow contributed funds for the reconstruction of Hagia Sophia (279). By now emperors had different priorities, however, and John Cantacuzenus used the funds instead to hire Turkish mercenaries.

This grand survey also raises important questions about the place of buildings and construction projects in an overall history of the city and the empire. Freely and Çakmak organize their discussion as a catalogue that follows the chronological sequence of the initial construction of each building or monument. In order to complete their comments, they sometimes also include flash-forwards to the fate of buildings in the later Byzantine empire and under Ottoman rule. The obvious advantage of their chronological catalogue is its clarity; but such a catalogue also previews issues that now need additional investigation.

One disadvantage of a catalogue is that the buildings and monuments themselves become quite inert. For each building Freely and Çakmak highlight physical characteristics, such as dimensions, architectural features, appearance, and decorations. Such descriptions are less effective at conveying a sense of how the building was actually used. During the celebration of the liturgy the churches were filled with congregations of worshippers. During their processions through Constantinople the emperors typically visited churches and other sites, such as the Hippodrome. These buildings hence acquired their meanings and significance not only through their appearance, but even more so through their use.

A second issue to develop would highlight the interactions among the buildings at Constantinople. Because the city of Byzantium was already an old city, even Constantine had not started with a blank canvas. The burning of churches and other buildings during the Nika riots provided Justinian with a wonderful opportunity to stamp his own ambitions on the monumental landscape. But most emperors had to contend with the presence of old churches. Although Freely and Çakmak focus on the construction of new buildings, emperors also had to maintain the older fabric of the city. In particular, Hagia Sophia became a drain on resources. Its central dome partially collapsed twenty years after its initial dedication and again in the later tenth century and the mid-fourteenth century. Each time reconstructing the dome and its supporting arches might be considered the equivalent of building a new church. Perhaps later emperors built fewer new churches because they had so many older monuments to look after.

A third issue to expand is the need to insert these buildings into larger contexts. Buildings were not just the realizations of architectural principles. Because of the expense of construction and maintenance, they were also embedded in the ancient economy. Because buildings were such durable indicators of authority and status, they were deeply implicated in the self representation of emperors, aristocrats, and churchmen. Because churches were so closely associated with the ideas of bishops, clerics, and monks, they were likewise deeply rooted in theological controversies. Freely and Çakmak’s straightforward survey deserves to be supplemented with a more symbolic, almost literary, interpretation of these buildings.

Freely and Çakmak provide an excellent introduction to the monuments and buildings as construction projects, emphasizing their architecture and engineering. Their survey can now also serve as a solid foundation for a more comprehensive examination of the significance of buildings in the making of Constantinople itself.

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