Among the many historical attractions of Istanbul, the Mosaic Museum of the Grand Palace of Constantinople is distinguished not only by its wonderfully preserved relics of the former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, but also by its surprisingly low popularity among tourists. Situated right next to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, this museum attracts only a few tourists who will find their way through the souvenir stands of Arasta Bazaar.
The Mosaic Museum is one of the few remains of the Grand Palace of the Eastern Roman Emperors, known as the Holy Palace, which occupied a vast space in the southeastern area of the peninsula in the central part of Constantinople, by the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. This palace was built during the times of Emperor Constantine, who transferred the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium, renamed to Constantinople in honour of this ruler.
The palace complex, extended many times, was severely damaged during the Constantinople uprising known as the Nika riots, which lasted from the 13th to the 18th of January 532. Soon the palace was rebuilt at the behest of Emperor Justinian I. It had an excellent location, adjacent to the Hippodrome of Constantinople and the Church of the Holy Wisdom, i.e. Hagia Sophia. On the south side, the Bukoleon Palace was connected to the Grand Palace complex. The expansion of the palace complex was made by the emperors Justinian II and Basil I, but in the 10th century the palace needed a thorough renovation, which was carried out by Constantine VII.
The Great Palace was not one gigantic structure, but a huge complex of buildings with various functions, just like the much later Ottoman Topkapı Palace. It occupied an area of about 19,000 square meters on a steeply sloping hillside, descending 33 metres from the Hippodrome to the shoreline. This location necessitated the construction of large substructures and vaults that supported six terraces of the complex.
The plans of this palatial complex have not survived, and the researchers have recreated its appearance and the location of individual buildings on the basis of documents describing the imperial ceremonies. Several gates led to the area of the palace, the most important of which was called the Chalke (Bronze) Gate, located in the vicinity of Hagia Sophia. Right behind this gate stood an edifice known as Magnaura, most likely from the Latin words Magna Aula meaning the Great Hall. Researchers believe that the Magnaura building was the seat of the senate. This structure, on the plan of a three-nave basilica, was also used as a throne room and a place for receiving foreign diplomatic missions. The barracks of the palace guards were located right next to the Chalke Gate.
Another building of the palace complex was the Daphne Palace, in which there was another throne room - Chrysotriklinos - built by Justin II, serving as a coronation hall. It also housed a banquet hall called the Room of Nineteen Couches and the Consistorium, i.e. the meeting place of dignitaries and senators. There was a direct passage from the Daphne Palace to the Imperial Box at the Hippodrome.
The next buildings were the seat of the imperial family, along with the famous Porphyry Chamber - the birthing room of the empresses. There were also many chapels and churches, a treasury, cloakrooms and stables in the complex, and at the back of the palace the emperors had their own equestrian stadium to play polo - Tzykanisterion.
One of the most famous churches of the palace complex - Nea Ekklesia, i.e. the New Church - was built by Basil I in the second half of the 9th century. It was the first monumental church of Constantinople erected after Hagia Sophia, which had been built over three hundred years earlier. The church of Nea Ekklesia was constructed in a new architectural style. It was erected on the plan of a Greek cross and topped with five domes, with the main placed at the intersection of the arms of the cross, and the others at the four corners of the building. This church survived until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, when it was turned it into a gunpowder magazine. In 1490, the building was struck by lightning and was completely destroyed in a great explosion.
The Great Palace served as the main seat of the Eastern Roman emperors until the early 11th century, when the rulers of the empire began to reside in the Palace of Blachernae, on the opposite end of the city, right next to the defensive walls erected by Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century. However, the Great Palace still remained the administrative centre of the state and the location of many official ceremonies. In the course of the 12th century, the palace fell into decline and some of the buildings of the complex were demolished or filled with rubble.
During the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in April 1204, the Great Palace was looted by the soldiers of Boniface of Montferrat. Latin emperors, who controlled Constantinople until 1261, used the palace rooms, but financial problems prevented them from carrying out repairs. The last of these emperors, Baldwin II, even ordered the sale of the palace's lead roof to fill the empty treasury.
After Constantinople was recaptured by the army led by Michael VIII Palaiologos, the Great Palace was no longer usable. The Palaiologos emperors ruled from the Blachernae Palace, and the ruined Great Palace only served as a prison. After the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, the Great Palace of Constantinople had already been long abandoned. The Sultan reportedly wandered its empty halls and pavilions, whispering the words of the Persian poet Saadi: "The spider is curtain-bearer in the palace of Caesars, the owl sounds the relief in the castle of Afrasiyab [the oldest district of Samarkand]".
During the early days of the Ottoman rule in Constantinople, most of the buildings of the Great Palace were demolished and small mosques were built in their place. Sultan Ahmed I had demolished the palace when he ordered the erection of a mosque bearing his name. It still stands at the location of the Daphne and Kathisma palaces and the Hagios Stephanos church.
Today, little remains of the Great Palace, and the Mosaic Museum is one of the most interesting souvenirs of this magnificent complex. It is located in its southern part, where researchers found floor mosaics decorating the palace courtyard. Their discovery was made by British archaeologists from the University of Edinburgh during extensive excavations in the Arasta Bazaar, led by J. H. Baxter in 1935–1938 and 1951–1954.
These works revealed a vast courtyard, an adjoining hall with an apse, and fragments of a large group of buildings. The complex was built on an artificial terrace supported on underground vaults. The courtyard floor was completely covered with mosaics. It is estimated that it originally had an area of about 1,900 square meters, but only a quarter has been preserved to our times. The researchers calculated that the mosaic required around 80 million multicoloured cubes with 5-millimetre sides. One square meter of the floor was made of about 40,000 such cubes.
Unfortunately, the area of the courtyard with mosaics was for many years covered only by a temporary roof, which did not provide adequate protection. In addition, unsuccessful conservation attempts using cement mortar as well as humid, salt-rich air from the sea significantly damaged the valuable mosaics. Around 1980, the Turkish Monuments and Museums Board began looking for a foreign partner who had the necessary skills to save the mosaics.
Work in this area was undertaken by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which in the years 1983–1997 carried out conservation and renovation works as well as additional excavations. The mosaics were dismantled at that time, moved to a workshop in the former Hagia Eirene Church, and then placed back in their original location. In the meantime, the ground was examined and a roof was erected to protect the mosaics. They have been open to visitors since 1987.
The site of the Mosaic Museum includes the remains of buildings from various periods, from the early 5th century to around 700. For example, the paved road and the cistern come from the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, and the courtyard with mosaics and the hall with an apse - from the turn of the 6th and 7th centuries. Currently, most researchers believe that the mosaics can be dated at the earliest to the reign of Emperor Justinian I, i.e. the years 527-565, but perhaps they were created later, in the times of Justin II (565-578), Tiberius II (578-582), Maurice (582-602), or Heraclius (610-641). Moreover, later, between the end of the 7th century and 9th century, the mosaics were covered with marble slabs.
The scenes presented in the mosaics in a realistic manner are not related to each other and do not tell a single story, they also differ in scale. Right next to idyllic scenes of rural life and children's games, drastic scenes of fighting and hunting are depicted. You can also see mythological figures and three surviving male figures, most likely representing the seasons of the year.
Hunting scenes show tigers, lions, leopards, gazelles, boars, and hares, as well as hunters armed with spears, bows, and swords, hunting on horseback or on foot. On the other hand, the scenes of fights between animals show, for example, an eagle and a snake, a snake and a deer, or a lion and an elephant. The mosaics depicting the animal world feature a bear by a pomegranate tree, a monkey catching birds, a group of chamois, horses, and cattle.
Bucolic scenes from rural life include shepherds, fishermen, the milking of goats, children with geese, and field workers. The buildings of the water mill and the well house are also shown. Many scenes depict children at play, riding camels, taking care of animals, and playing the trochus game popular in antiquity, i.e. rolling a wheel with a stick.
The mythical figures shown in the mosaics are Dionysus in childhood carried on his shoulders by Pan and Bellerophon fighting the chimera. Fantastic monsters such as griffins, including those with an okapi head, occupy a special place among the scenes.
In total, 150 human and animal figures are visible on the preserved fragments of the mosaic. The whole mosaic, about six meters wide, is framed by a pattern consisting of geometric motifs with animals and fruits woven into them.