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From Istanbul to Constantinople

by Mirela Ivanova, ANAMED Post-Doctoral Fellow (2021­–2022)

November 2021 saw two exhibitions about Byzantium open simultaneously at the Pera Museum, a mere few hundred meters away from the ANAMED research center which had come to be my temporary home. Despite their obvious differences, there was a strong thematic unity between the two. Both were interested in Byzantium as an object of study and an object of the imagination, and not with the factual histories of the medieval Roman emperors.

On the top floor, and open until March is What Byzantinism is This in Istanbul? Byzantium in Popular Culture. The exhibition traces the refractions of Byzantium from video games, graphic novels, and sci-fi fiction to high fashion runways and metal music.

And whilst I recommend this exhibition wholeheartedly, I want to dwell on the other Byzantium, the one found in Brigitte Pitarakis’ exhibition From Istanbul to Byzantium: Paths to Rediscovery, 1800–1955. Also open till March, this exhibition traces the re-emergence of Constantinople in the historical imaginary of Istanbul. From the mid-nineteenth century, when Sultan Abdülmecid took an interest in restoring the Hagia Sophia, a long process of monumentalization began, which transformed organic urban landscapes into objects to be observed and visited. This transition was absolutely formative to the modern fabric of Istanbul.

This late nineteenth-century moment in which objects of everyday life became objects of conscious historical monumentality has been elsewhere termed the nascence of modernity. In his study of the use of the ruins of Ancient Greece in Greece, Yannis Hamilakis, discusses the difference between what he calls “indigenous” archaeology and modernist archaeology.[1] He gives the example of a caryatid statue formerly thought to be of Demeter, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The statue was found in the village of Eleusis, in Attica, by the Cambridge scholar Edward Clark in 1801. Prior to him removing it from Eleusis, the villagers had developed a peculiar relationship with the marble figure. Because of its decorations, the villagers assumed it to be a deity of harvest. So they buried it in dung, and turned to it for good weather each year. Their praxis was fused with Christianity. A burning lamp would be lit before the statue on Christian feasts, as is normally done with icons. The view of Edward Clark was that the villagers did not appreciate the statue correctly: that they were simply mistaken. For him, the only way of understanding the statue was as an ancient monument to Demeter, and the only appropriate way of engaging with it was cleaned up from the feces, in a whitewashed museum room, preferably in Cambridge. A number of interesting threads emerge from this story which Hamilakis teases out with great dexterity–not least the fact that Edward Clark’s own perceived superior understanding of the statue as Demeter was in fact later proved to be incorrect. But as Hamilakis rightly notes, it is by no means the case that the villagers’ engagement with the statue is simply a mistake: their engagement with it is, in his words, a kind of archaeology. Their relationship with the statue was creative, and it opened up new words of understanding and praxis which are just as valuable an object of study as the statue’s original intended significance.

The beauty of the exhibition  From Istanbul to Byzantium, is that it catches, in motion, the same process on the streets of Istanbul. In a fantastic array of images, we see how the cityscape shifts from, for lack of a better word, “indigenous,” or pre-self-conscious engagement with the medieval remains around it, to a structured exhibition approach interested in recovering the original shapes and meanings of its objects, like Edward Clark did with the statue from Eleusis. In some instances, the exhibition captures this transition from consciousness to self-consciousness, or from life to history, with extraordinary precision.

A photograph from the early 1850s displays the dusty uneven plain of what used to be the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Two men are in a heated exchange over a table. Wooden houses hover in the background. Somewhere amidst this image, half buried by the uneven sand stands the Theodosian Obelisk, an ancient Egyptian monument brought to the imperial capital in the fourth century by Emperor Theodosius I and placed upon a lavish base with a bilingual Greek and Latin inscription. In the photo the inscription is mostly under ground level, covered in dust. A man sits slumped on the Obelisk’s base, his feet dangling over the fourth century text. One is reminded of Pieter Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus”: a man pushes a plough cart in the foreground, a shepherd tends to his sheep, some ships sail peacefully on the horizon. Yet somewhere in the distance, something of extraordinary import to the observer of the image goes unnoticed: Icarus falls from the sky. The bilingual inscription of Theodosius I lays buried in the ground!

Less than a decade later, in 1856 another image was taken of the same space from nearly the same angle, after the excavation work of British archaeologist Charles Newton. Some things have remained the same: a man with a table of goods looks away from the Obelisk uninterestedly awaiting custom. Yet, the difference is immense. The dusty ground has been levelled. The earth around the Obelisk has been dug up. The inscription has been revealed. And most importantly, that universal symbol of museumification has appeared: a barrier stands around the Obelisk. Stand back! Look! Do not touch! This is no longer a part of the living and changing urban fabric, this is now a frozen monument of history.

But earlier image begs so many questions. What did that man resting on the Obelisk base think the ancient monument meant? Did he wonder about the text beneath his feet? Was it noted, noticed? Were there myths and legends about how the Obelisk got there, what it could do? And how were the rest of the surviving monuments of medieval Byzantium engaged with by the communities that lived in Istanbul in the nineteenth century? What “indigenous” archaeologies surrounded the Boukoleon Palace or the Galata Tower? Was anything covered in dung?

One small vignette from contemporary Istanbul may give us a glimpse. In the Fatih district of Istanbul, a short walk from the Viaduct, lay the ruins of the Church of St. Polyeuktos. It was built in the sixth century by the Roman aristocrat Anicia Juliana. It narrowly predated Hagia Sophia, which it only seconded in size and splendor. After its abandonment in the thirteenth century however, it lay buried underground for over five hundred years, to be rediscovered accidentally in the 1960s during the engineering works for an overpass. Thus, the building bypassed the late nineteenth century moment of museumification to be spat out into a late twentieth century world, a world which was much less interested in revising the canon.

The ruins are remarkable, even after decades of looting. They reveal mostly the underground corridors of the church and lay in the open air: you can walk through them at any time of day. A slim metal fence forms an enclosure, but the door is never locked nor particularly insurmountable. There is no ticket office, no museum, no security. 

The ruins have thus spilled over into the park adjacent. Marvelous capitols sit next to benches and swings, their flat square tops clearly used as tea tables over the years. A large standing column hovers over four bins by the road.

One part of the ruins is a covered shelter, resembling an arched cave. Perhaps it is an old relic chamber which stood under the main church floor. If you walk through the complex today, you might catch a glimpse of sleeping bags and belongings stored inside. If you go in the evening, you may also see the people who have been driven to living inside the ruins. They are almost all men, some much older than others. I wonder what they make of living in one of the grandest monuments in sixth century Constantinople. What is Constantinople to them? How different is it to the Constantinople of the man resting on the Obelisk base in the 1850s?

These are all stories of Byzantium, and they are all stories that must be told. The two exhibitions on offer at Pera are an important step to a broader critical engagement with the recent history and contemporary life of our remains and what they mean to the people that use them.

Mirela Ivanova’s co-edited book with Benjamin Anderson, “Is Byzantine Studies a Colonialist Discipline?” will be out with Penn State University Press this year and engages with some of the questions of heritage and the history of Byzantine scholarship raised above.


[1] Yannis Hamilakis, “Decolonizing Greek Archaeology: Indigenous Archaeologies, Modernist Archaeology, and the Post-Colonial Critique,” in A Singular Antiquity, eds. D. Damaskos and D. Plantzos (Athens: The Benaki Museum, 2008), 273–84.