Skip Navigation LinksIstanbul - 2010 English Exploring The City History Historical Documents Before Conquest
Istanbul before Conquest

( Istanbul Researches, issue: 2, Page: 7. Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Istanbul Researches centralized publishing of Department of Cultural Affairs)

Prof Dr. Semavi Eyice

In the frame of Habitat II meeting, organized in Istanbul, 1996, it had been planned to publishing of also two great books. For one of these books, I was asked for an article about foreign people who had seen Istanbul before conquest and written memories about this. My works in this subject kept me engaged between 1995 and 1996, in winter time. When the document, I wrote which they were scanned from their originals and translations of the works of people, came to visit Istanbul and wrote what they saw during the Middle Ages, was finished, it was understood that the document was quite volumed.  Then, abandoning to publishing of whole document, it was approved that only a part of document was published in Habitat II Book. So, separating three memories which was written by West European crusaders, attended to 4th Crusade, I submitted as an independent article. (1) Whole of the document was thought to publish as a separated book.

However this draft did not accrue in that time. If the work about Istanbul which foreign people had seen during middle age, became a book, some defects which can be excused in an article, should be completed. Also, seeing of some publishing which could not find in Istanbul, and filling the blanks of writings which had been written by travelers, mentioned in text, making explanations with many foot notes and brightening of old miniatures and figures even, above mentioned old works with their last pictures, had been useful. According to this program, I thought that recovering of the text which I had already prepared, was true, and I left delivery of book for publishing to future. By the way, “According to some Islam authors, Istanbul, before conquest” which I presented in Istanbul researches is the small part of more detailed works. Also, writings about what they saw and information which was taken from other people between 10th and 15th centuries had been summarized as giving information. The translation of submitted parts from source text was truer. But, since we didn’t know these languages and preparing an edition critique was not our aim, we found adequate to benefit from translations of these authors from western languages. Publishing and translations which we used, had been determined with footer notes. Also, with making short explanations about workings which authors who gave information about Istanbul in Byzantine Era, saw and told, in order to extend size of our article, we avoided from giving bibliography references in this respect.

There is an obsession, when writings of old travelers were applied: Did travelers really see these sites where they told? This question can be asked for subsequent travelers as so Arabic travelers and geographer. Even same doubt is current for some Western travel book authors. We will submit to information which was collected from works of some Islamic author, not accenting on this title and not enlightening this question.

Basic Authors

Harun Ibn Yahya (end of the 9th cc or 912)
The first of Arabic people who saw and told Byzantine Era, is Harun Ibn Yahya in 9th century. The memories of Harun who came to this city as a capture, placed in the book of Ahmed Ibn Rüsteh, titled Kitabü’l Alak al-Nafisa about geography. He had come to Antalya with a ship which he was taken from Port of Ashkelon which places in Israel Board now, and then passing from “mountains, canyons, planted areas”, he reached to great and very crowded city Nikiya.

According to some people, here is Konya (Ikonion), and according to others, here is Iznik (Nikaia). According as Harun had arrived to Sankarah, on a plain area, in three days, Nikiya cannot be İznik. And he had arrived to seaside on foot in two days and he had been brought to Istanbul with a sailing ship which he was taken.

Some researchers allege that Harun is in capital city of Byzantine in the time of Emperor Basileios I (867-886) and others says he is in capital city of Byzantine in the time of Emperor Alexander (912-913), in winter and he left from here spring of 913 year. Although Harun was a capture, he could move about freely. It is thought that his freedom took root from being Christian or changing his religion after taken prisoner.

According to Arabic capture, great Constantine is sea girt from east. A flat also lengthen at west. The door of infested city wall which opens to way of Rome is gold. So the name of this door is Gold Door. There are sculptures of four elephants and a person who holds their bridles on it. There are another door whose wings are gold and named as Bigas, the Emperor used this door when he went on an outing. This must be Pighi Door.
After that, Harun tells to Hippodrome which is on the center of city and neighbor of church and palace. “There are sculptures which represent to bronze horses, people, wild animals, lions.”

After saying that “The whole of the palace was surrounded with walls. A side of it is at seafront. This wall has a door with three iron wings.” Harun tells that defenders who were waiting in there. There is emperorship church near the entrance. And near it, entrances of four dungeons which belong to Muslims are seen. Declaring Kathisma which is lodge, as el-maksura, point that here was decorated with precious stones.

There is a festival hall which belongs to Empreor.In here, feast is given to Muslims. Harun gives information about work of el-urkana (organum) which was brought during feast. This kind of feast was given during feast which remained along with 12 days until Epiphaneia epulation in 6th January. At the end of the feast, while emperor left from hall, he gave two dinars and 3 dirham to each Muslim captures.

Arabic Capture tells visiting ceremony of Emperor to Hagia Sophia after memories of Istanbul. There is a case which is notable that there were many Turkish and Khazar Youngs who held dart and gilded guard plate and wore sectional armor. Getting into Hagia Sophia of 3 brown horses which are true-bred and have harneses, decorated with gemstones, is another important case for Harun. If the horse takes the reins which are hanged on wall with its mouth, the people would scream as “We have a victory in the Islam Country.” However, sometimes the horse approaches, smells rein and steps back.

Harun gives some useful information for topography of the city. For example; near the church, there is a tomb on the square marble plinth and there is bronze sculpture of Emperor who is founder of the church with horse on it. There is also a golden crown which is decorated with pearls and rubies on the head of Emperor. His right hand is erect as calling people to Istanbul.

Harun saw Horoglion, near west door of Hagia Sophia. Each of the 24 doors on it refers to 24 hours in a day. Harun tells 3 bronze horse sculptures near the door of palace. These horses that are called as amulet (in actually four) were moved near to Hagia Sophia while they had been in Hippodrome and in 1204 they were brought to Venice by crusaders when city was asorbed. Now, they were on front eave of San Marco Church.       

Harun says that passing on the aqueduct, water whose a branch drains to the palace, the second branch drains to dungeon of Muslims, the third branch drains to baths of Patrises and people drinks this little salty water. The capture gives the name of Satra monastery which accommodated 500 people. It is estimated that this is Great Studios Monastery which is in Golden Door, Yedikule and was established in 461 and whose church is transformed into Imrahor Ilyas Bey Mosque after the conquest. It is impossible to identification of other monasteries, far from the city.

Mesudi (10th cc)

Ebu’l Hasan b. El-Hüseyin Mesudi who lived in 10th cc, circled many parts of the world, and wrote many books and he died. In his famous work whose translation is “Golden Grassland”, he mentions about a canal which is approximately 350 miles, in his book. Two sides of this canal covered with residences from end to end. The city is at the west and belongs to western earth. Constantine had the city founded and gave his own name to it. There is a city, called as Mosnat which belongs to Greek. From here, invasions of Russian and other ships are controlled. Mountains and best fountains are seemed.

Water of Canal surrounds Constantine from North and East. The western part of city is connected with city. The Golden door which decorated with bronze doors, is in this part. This direction of the city was protected with high-rise city walls and castle. The highest part of western walls is Turkish yard, the lowest part is approximately 10 Turkish yard.

The beaches which lengthen along with canal, surrounded with insulating wall which included many castles and towers. The city has many doors from land and sea. But the weather condition of this city is so variable, because of sea it is so clammy.
Hassan Ali el-Herevi (12th cc)

When Hassan Ali el-Herevi accomplished a long trip to Syria, Iraq, Byzantine, Mesopotamia, Iran, Yemen, Hedjaz, Egypt, Aegean Islands, coming to Byzantion, he stayed in here. In that time, Emperor Manuel Komnenos (1143-1180) had ruled. This Arabic traveler who died in Halab, 1215, thought that detailed information which he saw in his travelled, took place in his book, was named as “Wonder book.” However this book didn’t find. On the other hand, in his other work which came to these days, he tells about Istanbul shortly:

 “ There is the Tomb od Ebu Eyyub el-Ensari who is friend of Prophet Mohammed. The great mosque which was built by the son of Abdulmelik, Mesleme, is in the city. In here a tomb of a person who descend from Hussein who son of Ali, son of Ebu Talib. The bronze, marble sculptures, columns, great amulets, obelisks, architecture which are not taken place in any other Muslim Countries, evoke admiration. The name of this great church is Hagia Sophia7. According to rumours, an angel waits here, the place where the angel stands, had taken into golden cage. “I will tell this legend as the occasion arises.” said el Herevi. I will also mention about architectural organization, planning height, doors, length and expanse, columns of this church. Constantine is a great city.”
A monument in Horse Square where horse racing was done, bend towards wind direction. Also there is also bronze monument which is impenetrable. The third monument which is near the hospital, is covered with bronze. This is the tomb of Constantine. The sculpture of this emperor with horse put on it. The three feet of horse are banded only its right feet is up as stepping. The right hand of Constantine reaches to sky. Thus, he directs to Islam Country. He also holds a ball. This monument can be seen from one-day way by sailors.

The views about this monument are different. According to some, the ball is an amulet which prevents to entrance of Christians to Islam countries or stop to invasion of Muslims to christian countries. And also some people says that: “ I was owner of the world, and I held it but I couldn’t take along it.
“There is also a monument which decorated with a great art, in bazaar, named as İstoborin (eiston phoron). It is encircled with an integral fence, it is believed that it is an amulet. I will tell about it in Wonders Book, and I will mention about respect of people to the monument. And also I will tell about amulets, angels and cross, named as “çımgın”. This cross had been replaced on direction of Muslim kiblah.
Sentences of El Herevi were placed into Kozmografya Book of Zekeriya Ibn Muhammed (el-Kazvini) and also were repeated in geography dictionary of Yakut. Kazvini mentions a clock which has 12 windows on it and a puppet is hourly appered from each of them. This must be Horoglion in Hagia Sophia. According to Kozmografya there is also an amulet which is boronze horses, near the entrance of Great Palace. It was built by Apollonius, in order to prevent noises of horses in this city.

IDRISI (1120 – 1140)

Ebu Abdullah Muhammed b. Muhammed is also known as El Idrisi (1100 – 1165/1166) was an Arab geographer and traveller. Idrisi was born in the North African city of Ceuta then belonging to the Almoravid Empire (nowadays Ceuta, Spain). He traveled in many places of the world and wrote a book named “Kitâbü’n-Nüzhetü’l-Müştâk fî İhtiraki’l Âfâk” .

Since 1145, Idrisi lived in the palace of  the Norman King Roger II of Sicily in Palermo and drew the Tabula Rogeriana ("The map of Roger" in Latin) in 1154 for the Norman King. Although there is no direct evidence to prove that the geographer made a brief visit to Istanbul, but he had already travelled in Anatolia in his tender age, he gives some  information about this city in his travel book. There is also no clue that it was really his own observation about the city or he compiled from other sources.

Arab geographer, who specifies the distance in Thracian towns, gives a  brief description of Istanbul after the general description of such towns as Rodostu (Rodosto=Tekirdağ), İraklia (Ereğli), Selimiria (Silivri), Bature (Athyra=Büyükçekmece), Reo (Rhegion=Küçükçekmece).

“ This capital city, located on a triangular peninsula, was surrounded by sea on two sides and Altinkapı (Golden Door) was located on the other (land) side. The total length of the city is 9 miles. It was surrounded by walls from both the land and the sea side and a powerful fortification with the city front wall by a dimension of approximately 10.50 m to 5 m . There is a tower on the top of height 25m between outer wall and sea. The city has around 100 gates. The Altinkapı is the most important iron door and its valves covered with gold sheet”. Idrisi stated that there was no such a great city in size as compared to other cities of the  Roman Empire.

“The palace is famous for its height, width of its field and beauty of its structures situated inside. Hippodrome (bedrun) which is an area while going to the palace, is an amazing race track. While going to the palace on foot, there are  statues of humans, horses and lions on both sides of the road that they sculptured in realism and mystified many master sculptors,. All of these statues are greater than normal statues. There are also many more interesting artworks in the palace.


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