The city, now called Istanbul, was once known as Constantinople, the capital of the mighty Eastern Roman Empire, frequently referred to as Byzantium. The emperors and their courts that resided in the city required suitable accommodation, of the magnificent proportions reflecting their power and majesty. Sadly, almost nothing has been preserved of the Great Palace of Constantinople, the main royal residence from 330 to 1081 that served as the centre of imperial administration. The most of the remains of this palace currently lie below the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and other Ottoman-era buildings, to the south-east to the former Hippodrome, now the Sultanahmet Square. However, one part of the palatial complex is still visible above the ground, facing the waters of the Sea of Marmara. This building, known as the Bukoleon Palace, is located to the south of the Great Palace, and to the east of the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. Now partly demolished, it once served as the prestigious seafront residence of the emperors.
This attractive seaside location had been used much earlier not only as an imperial residence but also as a strategically situated point of defence and a convenient harbour. The previous uses of the location were commemorated in its names - Hormisdas Palace and Justinian Palace. We shall look into the stories behind these names, but it must be remembered that from the archaeological point of view only much later building activity of the 10th century has been documented.
The older of the names - Hormisdas Palace - is related to a prince of this name - whose history had been related by Zosimus. Zosimus himself deserves a quick mention as he was a historian that lived in Constantinople during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius I, at the turn of the 5th and the 6th centuries. Interestingly, even in those times, there were still adherents to the old polytheistic religion of Greeks and Romans, and Zosimus was one of them. His views were clearly reflected in his major work - New History (Historia Nova) - where he did not hesitate to point out the faults and crimes of the Christian emperors. He even condemned Emperor Constantine for rejecting of the traditional polytheistic religion. However, for our story, the most important fragment of his book is devoted to Hormisdas, a Sassanid Persian prince, the third son of King Hormizd II and brother-in-law of King Shapur II:
"At this time [i.e. around 324 CE, almost at the same time when the city of Byzantium was refounded] a Persian named Hormisdas, of the royal family, came over to Constantine for refuge, under these circumstances. His father had been king of Persia. He was once celebrating his own birthday after the Persian manner, when Hormisdas entered the palace, bringing with him a large quantity of venison. But as the guests at the table did not rise and pay him the respect and honor due to him, he became enraged, and told them he would punish them with the death of Marsyas."
Zosimus then proceeds to the details of Hormisdas' imprisonment in Persia and a clever escape designed by his wife. She had smuggled a file in a fish that was brought to Hormisdas as a meal while his keepers had been gifted with large quantities of wine. With this tool, he "filed off the shackles from his legs, he put on the robe of the eunuch, and passed through the midst of his keepers, who were by that time perfectly intoxicated." Thus, Hormisdas fled to Constantinople where "he got safe to Constantine, who showed him all possible kindness and respect."
In the memory of the Constantinople's inhabitants, Hormisdas received a palace near the shore of the Marmara Sea from Emperor Constantine. This residence was later remembered in the name of the neighbourhood - en tois Hormisdou - meaning "near the houses of Hormisdas". This was not the end of Hormisdas' adventures as he reappears on the pages of history over 30 years later, in Ammianus Marcellinus' chronicle. There, as prince Ormisda, he is the participant of the failed Persian campaign of the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate. It is even plausible that Julian's ultimate goal was the regime change in Persia and he intended to achieve it by replacing king Shapur II with his brother-in-law, Hormisdas.
According to Ammianus Marcellinus: "To this prince Ormisda, who was standing near him, and whose departure from Persia I have described above, replied with native wit: 'First, Sire,' said he, 'command a like stable to be built, if you can; let the steed which you propose to create range as widely as this which we see.' When Ormisda was asked directly what he thought of Rome, he said that he took comfort in this fact alone, that he had learned that even there men were mortal." The eastern campaign of Emperor Julian failed, and the ruler was assasinated. However, the line of Hormisdas continued, as attested again by Ammianus Marcellinus: "And immediately afterwards Ormisdas, a mature young man, son of the royal prince of the same name, was given the rank of proconsul, and therewith according to ancient usage the control of civil and military affairs."
Moving two centuries forward, we meet Justinian, the future emperor, residing in a palace next to the Marmara Sea. Again, it is a matter of speculation if he lived in the restored Hormisdas Palace or another one, located next door. Thus, this area was also called the Justinian Palace. However, the best-known structure of this district - Bukoleon Palace - got its name from the sculpted animals. In this location, a small harbour existed, again possibly dating back to Justinian's era. It might have been a part of his residence, as a private harbour with a flight of marble steps leading down to his ships. This harbour also had a lighthouse, located on the sea walls to the east. It is said that the statue of a lion attacking a bull decorated this location, but again when exactly they had been placed, remains a mystery. These statues, most likely overlooking a set of marble steps to the mooring for imperial ships, gave the harbour and the palace their names - because bous and leon are Greek for a bull and a lion. Today, the harbour is no more, as it was filled with soil.
On the other hand, two stone lions that once decorated the façade of the palace, as testified by the old photographs, can still be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul where they now flank a staircase. They were transported from their original location when the Bukoleon Palace was partly demolished in 1871. Today, these lions and the Great Palace mosaics are the most spectacular indicators of the grandeur of the imperial residences of the Byzantine rulers.
Speculations about the Bukoleon Palace abound, and there are hypotheses that it had been built as early as the 5th century, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II. Then, supposedly, Emperor Theophilos rebuilt and expanded the palace, adding a large façade on top of the seaward fortification walls in the first half of the 9th century. However, archaeologically and historically, only the building activity of the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas has been documented. He resided in the Bukoleon Palace starting from around 963 and 969, after a circuit wall was completed in this location. These fortifications turned the Bukoleon Palace into a castle, referred to by disgruntled contemporaries as a "tyrant's acropolis". The Bukoleon Palace offered its residents a sheltered environment. A private garden was created on the upper floor of the palace within a courtyard. From the side of the palace, the garden was closed by an arcade, while the other walls were windowless, so that nothing could disturb the emperor's calm in his Hanging Gardens.
From this period, the fortified sector of the Bukoleon Palace remained the principal location of the imperial court until the late 11th century. Then, the Komnenos dynasty moved to the Blachernae Palace, situated next to the Theodosian Walls, far away from the Grand Palace, the Hippodrome, and Hagia Sophia area. Thus, the Bukoleon Palace lost the position of the favourite imperial residence. At the same time, the Byzantine court distanced itself even further from the city and its inhabitants.
Although the main imperial residence was shifted to the Blachernae palace after 1081, the Bukoleon Palace was not totally abandoned and was still in use much later. In fact, the palace was then expanded, with new buildings added to the complex. The emperors resided there temporarily, for instance on important state occasions such as births and weddings of the imperial family members, coronations, triumphal returns from military campaigns, and when the games were celebrated.
Moreover, the Bukoleon Palace was used intensively for state and religious gatherings as well as diplomatic meetings. Not only Christian visitors were entertained there as for instance the Seljuk Sultan Kilij Arslan II arrived with the visit in 1161. This event was a show of submission on the sultan's side as earlier in that year he had been defeated by Emperor Manuel I Comnenus' nephew, John Contostephanus. The arranged peace lasted until 1175, when the hostilities were renewed over a territorial conflict.
An important event that was held in the Bukoleon Palace was a church council of 1166. This council was mainly focussed on the deliberations to the interpretation of the following passage from the New Testament "my Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). Demetrius of Lampe, a Byzantine diplomat, recently returned from the West, ridiculed the way this verse was interpreted there, that Christ was inferior to his father in his humanity but equal to him in his divinity. Emperor Manuel, on the other hand, possibly hoping for the reunion of the churches, claimed that the formula made sense. His opinion prevailed in a synod convened on the 2nd of March 1166 with the support of two patriarchs. The official edict was carved in stone and set in Hagia Sophia and remained there until 1567. The people who refused to submit to the synod's decisions had their property confiscated or were exiled.
There is a fascinating story behind the edict of Emperor Manuel I Comnenus that embodied the rulings of this council. When the Mausoleum of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent was restored in 1959, five large slabs of Proconnesian marble with a Greek inscription were identified as Manuel's original decree. They formed the ceiling of the porch in front of the mausoleum's entrance. These originals had been taken from Hagia Sophia on the orders Sultan Selim II, the son of Suleyman, when his father's mausoleum was built. While the original slabs were left in this location, their plaster casts were made by the staff of Istanbul Archaeological Museum. These casts have been installed in the outer narthex of Hagia Sophia - their presumed original location.
In 1171, another state visit was staged in the Bukoleon Palace. This time, Amalric, the King of Jerusalem, came to visit Emperor Manuel I Comnenus. He had married Manuel's great-grandniece, Maria Comnena, in 1167. A year later, they negotiated an alliance against Egypt, but the military campaign was not successful. Moreover, in 1170, arising star of Muslim warriors, Saladin, invaded Jerusalem and took the city of Eilat, severing Jerusalem's connection with the Red Sea. Saladin, who was set up as Vizier of Egypt, was declared the sultan in 1171 upon the death of the last Fatimid caliph. Saladin's rise to this position was an unexpected reprieve for Jerusalem, as he became preoccupied with reining in his powerful vassal. Nevertheless, in 1171, Amalric visited Constantinople himself and envoys were sent to the kings of Europe asking for military assistance, but no help was received.
During his stay in Constantinople, Amalric was subjected to the usual treatment of the distinguished foreign visitors - they were customarily offered the tour of statues in the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia and the numerous other holy locations. The visitors were also shown the precious and ancient imperial heirlooms, kept in the palace treasuries, such as sceptres, crowns, and thrones of the early emperors, going back as far as Constantine the Great. These regalia were then held in the Bukoleon Palace, while the sacred relics were kept in the palace chapel. Although the access to this place was limited, the Chrisitan visitors, such as Amalric were offered a private viewing of the relics, including the highlights such as the collection of objects associated with Christ and his crucifixion. All these parts of the tour were aimed at inspiring awe in the visitors and possibly intimidate them a bit with the ancient power of Byzantium.
However, by the end of the 12th century, this power was slowly waning, with new energetic states emerging in the east, such as the one led by the above-mentioned Saladin. The decisive blow that ended the era when Byzantium played a role of the mighty empire came from another direction - from the west, with the ships bringing the knights of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople. The Bukoleon Palace was also a silent witness of the tragic events of that ill-fated crusade.
Before we move on tho the fateful year of 1204, it is necessary to get acquainted with Emperor Isaac II Angelos who sat to the imperial throne from 1185. After a decade on the throne, he was overthrown by his older brother, Alexios III Angelos, who took advantage of Isaac's absence from camp on a hunting expedition. Alexios proclaimed himself emperor and was readily recognised by the soldiers. Isaac was then blinded as a traditional measure that was to prevent him from retaking the throne. He was imprisoned for eight years, and at least a part of this period he spent in the dungeons beneath the Bukoleon Palace.
After the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople and Alexios III fled from the city, Isaac II was brought back from the prison and raised to the throne again. However, the years of imprisonment weakened is body and mind, and his son, Alexios IV, was seen as the effective monarch. Both father and son did not last long on the throne, heavily burdened financially by their promises to the crusaders. At the end of January 1204 the influential court official Alexios Doukas took advantage of riots in the capital, imprisoned Alexios IV, and seized the throne as Emperor Alexios V. At this point, Isaac II died, officially of shock, while his son Alexios IV was strangled.
The death of Alexios IV was the last straw for the crusaders who soon started the siege of Constantinople, finished with the storming of the city in April of 1204. The Bukoleon Palace was then taken by Boniface I, the Count of Montferrat who moved swiftly to occupy the area. This strategy protected the holy relics, too, and they passed safely to the newly established Latin Emperor, Baldwin I. Sadly, the next decades of the Latin occupation was their dispersal throughout Western Europe - as gifts to various monarchs but also sold off in the attempts to repair the finances of the chronically cash-strapped Latin Empire.
The arrival of Boniface I to the Bukoleon Palace was described by Gottfried von Villehardouin, a knight and historian who participated in the Fourth Crusade. He is best-known for writing the eyewitness account "De la Conquête de Constantinople" (On the Conquest of Constantinople), where he related:
"[Boniface] rode along the shore to Bukoleon Palace, and when he got there, all who were in it surrendered to him on condition that they be left alive. In Bukoleon there was a large number of high women who had fled to the palace, there were Agnes, the sister of the king of France, who had been the empress, and Maria [Margaret], the sister of the king of Hungary, who had also been the empress, and very many other ladies. I cannot speak of the treasures that were found in the palace, because there were so many, there are no words to describe them and nobody could count them in any way."
Among the female prisoners taken by Boniface, there was Margaret of Hungary, daughter of King Béla III of Hungary and the fresh widow of the unfortunate Emperor Isaac II Angelos. Boniface was one of only two contenders put forth to be elected emperor, but he lost to Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders. As compensation, he was granted the territories on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus as well as the Peloponnese. Another form of compensation was the marriage to Margaret that took place later in the same year. The pair later had one son, Demetrius, who became the King of Thessalonica.
During the period of the Latin Empire, from 1204 to 1261, the Bukoleon Palace continued to serve as the imperial residence as the Catholic emperors from Western Europe favoured the seaside location. However, after the recapture of the city by Michael VIII Palaiologos, the palace, along with the whole Great Palace complex, was gradually abandoned in favour of the Blachernae Palace. Thus, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, the palace was only a sad ruin.
Over the next centuries, the various areas of the Great Palace were demolished, built over, and slowly forgotten. The Bukoleon Palace stood much longer than the other buildings of the complex. The final decades of its existence as a magnificent monument of the past were documented by the European travellers. Eugène Flandin, a French orientalist and painter, travelled to Persia with the architect Pascal Coste during the years 1839-41. One of the numerous drawings that he made depicted the sea walls of Constantinople with the beautiful façade of the Bukoleon Palace perched on their top.
Another French traveller, Pierre Trémaux, arrived at Constantinople during his 1853-1854 photographic trip to Libya, Egypt, Asia Minor, Tunisia, Syria, and Greece. He also took a photo of the Bukoleon Palace, still mostly intact.
Mary Adelaide Walker was a British traveller whose brother was the British chaplain in Constantinople in the 1850s. She must have arrived in Istanbul soon after the Crimean war, around 1856. There she met Lady Hornby, known for her chronicle "Constantinople during the Crimean War", and illustrated her work. Her lithographs also depicted the architectural fragments of the Bukoleon Palace. By then, the building seemed to be in much worse condition than 20 years before. While the photo of Pierre Trémaux showed its higher levels intact, Walker's lithographs show a tree growing on the top of the building.
Another precious source of knowledge about the state of the Bukoleon Palace was a photo taken by Guillaume Berggren, a fascinating figure himself. This Swedish photographer left his homeland in 1855 and eleven years later settled in Constantinople where he opened a photographic studio in the Grande Rue de la Pera. Luckily, he not only made studio portraits of travellers and dignitaries but also photographed the street scenes and architecture of Constantinople. Among these street photos, there is also one showing the ruined Bukoleon Palace.
Ironically, it was not the plunder of the Latin knights, nor the conquest of the Turks, but the arrival of modernity that almost completely destroyed the Bukoleon Palace. In 1873, the remains of its western part of façade were demolished to make room for a railway line to Sirkeci Station. Later, several fires and other construction works almost completely destroyed the palace. In 1959, the shallow waters near the sea walls were filled to make room for the wide road, called Kennedy Caddesi.
Today, the eastern part of the façade with a vaulted structure is still standing, with three entrances framed with marble. Below the ruin, there is also a trapezoidal cistern with six columns of the Ionic order. In 2018, the restoration plans were announced by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, aimed at the creation of an open-air museum, but they have failed to come to fruition so far.