The Roman Emperor Theodosius II was a prolific builder, and his fingerprints are all over modern Istanbul. This in spite of the fact that he was emperor some 1600 years ago. If you are a Byzantine buff, you probably know all about Theodosius II, who reigned when the empire was split between eastern and western rulers. Rome would be sacked in 410, when Theodosius II was a child and co-emperor with his father, and the balance of power was rapidly shifting eastward. Theodosius is likely most well-remembered today for the massive land walls that still stand to the west of the historical peninsula of Constantinople.
Also of interest to lawyers current and former, he compiled the various written law codes into a Corpus Juris Theodosianus, which served as a model for the later and much more famous Corpus Juris Civilis, or Justinianic code. The former was much more limited, summarizing edicts from the preceding hundred years or so, but as such it is truer to its source material than the somewhat slapdash later code, which attempted a much more comprehensive compilation.
But my interest today is not the walls or the laws. Rather, it involves something that barely exists anymore: The Bukoleon Palace, and specifically its ruinous remains. While the area of the Bukoleon had been occupied by housing for elites of one type or another for quite a while prior to the reign of Theodosius, it was this emperor who had the structure built as a palace. It was then expanded by Emperor Theophilos in the early 9th century to its final form, some of which is still visible today.
What was the Bukoleon Palace?
Simply put, it was a palace. The obvious out of the way, it was a part of the Great Palace complex, and it served as the main living quarters for Byzantine emperors in the 9th through 11th centuries. When expanded by Theophilos, it extended all the way to the water, although as is the case with most seaward remains today, there is now a strip of land between 50 and 100 meters wide separating the water and the remains as they stand today. This is partially due to natural silting, but also due to backfill for the road (Kennedy Caddesi) that rings around the palace point.
The palace was enclosed in fortifications by Nikephoros Phokas in the mid-10th century, but it had largely fallen out of use as living quarters by the early 13th century, the time of the “Latin” conquest of the Fourth Crusade. As living quarters, it was replaced by the palace in the Blachernae quarter, of which more later. That said, the Latin rulers certainly used the Bukoleon. The palace was held post-conquest by Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat, who thought himself a prime candidate for the newly-created “Emperor of Constantinople” after the sack of the city. Instead, his Venetian antagonists prevented him from becoming emperor, allowing that dubious honor to fall to Baldwin, Count of Flanders, who disappeared and was presumed captured or killed in battle with the Bulgarians very shortly after the conquest. Boniface of Montferrat went instead to Thessalonike, where he set himself up as “King of Salonica.”
Where is the Bukoleon, then and now?
When looking at a map of the historical peninsula of Constantinople, you’ll find the Bukoleon in the southeastern part of the point. The massive structure of the Hippodrome stood above the palace both in direction and in literal terms, as it was atop the first hill of the city. The sphendone of the Hippodrome still stands as a retaining wall of sorts today, just to the north-northwest of the remains of the Bukoleon. The Church of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus stands just to the west, and it is now called the Küçük Ayasofya, or Little Hagia Sophia. This is a very interesting little church, and I’ll write more about it later.
There is only one wall (plus a corner) of the palace that now remains, although as it was directly up against the water, it is connected to what remains of the sea walls. Sadly, much of the palace was destroyed in modern times, having been demolished in 1873 to make way for a railway line. You can still trace the approximate line of this railway on a map; the palace is more or less equidistant between the Kumkapı and Cankurtaran stations of the city rail. Some of the artifacts from the palace are now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, including lion statues that guarded the imperial steps and flanked the balcony.
What can you see of the Bukoleon today?
(N.b. Because I am working from old drawings of the palace pre-railroad demolition as well as graphical reconstructions of the Theophilos-era palace, I would suggest that you avoid taking what I say here as gospel. I guarantee a large degree of truth. I don’t guarantee the kind of in-depth proof that a real archaeologist would be able to.)
While much of the western part of the palace was demolished for the railway, some of the eastern part remains, including a facade that faces south toward the Marmara, which is the most impressive piece still standing. The first thing that stands out when looking at this facade are the three successive window frame-looking things. These are not window frames, but door frames from a balcony that stood above the imperial steps and looked directly over the water. It seems that there was an open colonnade running along this facade that included an enclosed balcony at this point, with a lion statue adjacent. When looking at this in the ruins, you can see stone blocks that protrude from the walls, and I presume that it was these which supported the balcony.
As you can see in the pictures, there is a fence around the remains. However, as you can also see, the fence is full of holes, to the point where it might as well not be there at all. This means that you can walk right up to the structure, and you can even find your way through a small crack in the walls into the substructure. It is difficult for me to tell, however, what this substructure really belonged to. Was it the western half of the palace? Was it a tower in the sea walls? I simply don’t know. In any case, the adventurous traveler can certainly go and have a look for himself. Security is, shall we say, a bit lax. I was able to poke around underneath the palace, and despite the graffiti and trash, it was a pretty cool look at a Byzantine-era basement.
Should I see the palace while I’m in Istanbul? How do I find it?
The Bukoleon is well worth a visit. Even if you have very limited time, it is no more than 20 minutes to walk down from the Hippodrome alongside the Sultanahmet Mosque and see the sphendone, the gate in the walls that was the Gate of the Lion, and the Bukoleon remains and substructures. On your way back, you can take a five minute detour and pop into Küçük Ayasofya and take a look at the dome.
I should mention at this point that neither the sphendone nor the Bukoleon facade are really marked on Google Maps. Not to worry. The sphendone simply follows the curve of Nakilbent Sokak as it approaches Aksakal Caddesi from the north (you really can’t miss it). And once you pass through Çatladıkapı, hang a left (eastward) and you’ll run right into the Bukoleon before you know it. You’ll be in the area anyway if you visit Istanbul. Taking a half hour or so to see these Byzantine wonders will absolutely be worth your time.