The Theodosian Walls

This week I’ve been in Istanbul.  The purpose of visiting Istanbul, besides the fact that it’s a beautiful city, is to better understand the urban boundaries and the locations of churches and cemeteries of late antique Constantinople.  To that end, I spent one day this week following the famous land walls of Istanbul, largely building the first half of the fifth-century, during the reign of Theodosius II.   The walls are still an impressive sight, as is clear in the image below of the (partly reconstructed) walls and gate located near the middle of the original line of fortifications.  

 The walls run from the Bosporus to the Golden Horn, and thus defended Constantinople from land attacks.  The walls consisted of a lower, outer wall, visible above, backed by taller walls and regularly placed towers.  This system of fortification, combined with Constantinople’s sea walls, natural geography, and other defenses, preserved the city from outside invaders until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453.  As can be seen in the photo below, some parts of the outer wall are today graced with nice sidewalks, shady trees, and lawns, giving the area a park-like feeling. 

Other areas outside the walls can be more overgrown with vegetation or near busy roads that made them difficult to walk on the outside.  In such cases, it is generally possible to walk inside the walls, where I found some interesting example of modern re-uses of the walls, such as using them as shady nooks for a cafe, as seen below.  At a few locations, the inside walls permit access to the top, via modern concrete stairs.  The stairs are somewhat crumbly, and have no guard rails.  So, for the acrophobic, the climb is harrowing.  However, the reward at the top is great.

cafe tables in the walls
gate from inside the walls

From the top (also without guardrails) you can look over the Golden Horn and down towards where the wall met the sea.  

There are a number of churches and mosques located near the walls, such as the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (Kariye Camii).  The name “Chora” indicates that the church was originally in the countryside.  The title is usually explained as coming from the fact that the church is outside the walls of Constantine (4th c.), but is inside the (5th c.) walls of Theosodius.  However, there appears to be no trace of the original 4th c. church.  The earliest phases of the present church date to the 11th c., and the rebuilding and mosaics for which the church is famous date to the early 14th c. 

Chora Church
Mosaic of Mary in Chora Church

 Near where the walls meet the Golden Horn, I came across an Ottoman-20th century cemetery, located just outside the gates, in a manner similar to a classical necropolis.  However, in that there is an Ottoman cemetery near my apartment, well-inside the city walls, exclusively extra-mural burial does not appear to have been an Ottoman practice. 

Ottoman to 20th century cemetery outside of Theodosian Walls. 

To journey back inside the walls, I took a ferry, now part of the Istanbul public transportation system, and in this image, taken from the boat, you can just make out the final towers of the land walls as they near the sea.  

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