Monday, October 25, 2010

The Great Palace of Constantinople was constructed by the emperor Constantine in 330, and used, expanded and remodelled by Byzantine emperors for nearly a thousand years. The palace complex was most likely a series of pavilions, halls, churches, courtyards, baths and even another hippodrome, all richly decorated with mosaic and painted walls. The palace was made up of some 100 buildings that we know of and covered the area between Hagia Sophia and the Hippodrome all the way to the sea walls. The Great Palace would have been a monument great enough to rival Hagia Sophia, but no trace of it remains above ground today. The site was not only abandoned but demolished and covered up, the Blue Mosque now sits on top of what would have been the main section of the palace.
Mosaic Peristyle

Although the Palace no longer exists, it still may be possible to determine it’s design using the little bit of information that has survived. Probably the most important clue about how the palace was arranged is the tenth century book De Ceremoniis, which describes imperial ceremonial protocol. It’s this document that gives us the names of palace buildings, some of their uses and even their relationship to one another, though generally not in enough detail to paint a full picture. Putting the descriptions together is a bit like trying to solve a riddle as they only offer the relative locations of buildings rather than a straight description. For example the passage:

“The dignitaries enter the Ivory Door from the Covered Hippodrome and then ascend the Spiral Staircase to the Daphni where the procession is opened.”

tells us that the Covered Hippodrome is lower than the Daphni Courtyard and suggests that the two might be adjacent, but not much else. Even combined, the passages in De Ceremoniis are too ambiguous to ever create a full plan of the palace on their own.

To be of any use, the literary sources need actual buildings to identify and put into context, but there are not many locations that can be easily excavated around the palace site. The biggest archaeological find in searching for the Great Palace is the Mosaic Peristyle, a 6th century building that was unfortunately discovered in the center of the palace complex, far away from any landmark that could help identify it.
Recently discovered wall painting near the Great Palace

Despite these difficulties, it may be possible to uncover the design of the Great Palace, or at least a design at one point in it’s thousand year history. Recent excavations have uncovered new buildings with rich wall paintings around the palace site which, if they can be identified, may create a clearer picture of the layout of the palace.