The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul: Part II

Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

We've got the basilica cistern and the Hippodrome, the Column of Constantine and the Valens Aqueduct. But there are other not-to-miss ancient Roman (or Byzantine) sites in Istanbul, too. Below, three others not to miss — and one more (perhaps the most major!) coming tomorrow.

5. Walls of Constantinople. One line of fortifications was
built by Constantine in the fourth century; a second row of walls was added by
Theodosius II in the fifth century. Although they saved the city from some eleven
invasions, they couldn’t withstand the invention of gunpowder and the Ottoman
conquest of 1453. Remnants of both the walls remain visible along their
original lines. (To see what the walls would have looked like, check out the great reconstruction done by Byzantium 1200).

2nd-century AD Roman sarcophagus, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul6. Archaeological Museum. If you're searching for antiquities in Istanbul, there's no missing the Archaeological Museum. One of the world's preeminent archaeological collections, the museum is replete with some 60,000 artifacts from a swath of ancient empires, from Greek to Egyptian, Phoenician to Hittite — and yes, Roman too. Some of the stars of the Roman collection include a series of beautiful sarcophagi, including this tomb with elaborate carvings of the story of Phaedra-Hippolita, dating to the second century A.D. (left).

The museum's absolute show-stopper, though, is a Hellenistic piece: the Alexander sarcophagus. Because photos simply don't do it justice, I considered not posting one. But to give you an idea of what the piece looks like, here's just one detail of part of the sarcophagus. Seriously, though: This is something you have to see in person.
Alexander sarcophagus in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul Dating back to 332 B.C., the sarcophagus comes from Sidon, a successful Phoenician city-state that today lies about 25 miles away from Beirut. Despite the name, it belonged not to Alexander (we don't think), but probably to Abdalonymos, who Alexander made the king of Sidon in 332 B.C. Alexander, Reliefs from the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbulthough, is prominent on the tomb, immediately recognizable for his curly and once-blond locks. The scenes that sprawl across the sarcophagus — two war scenes, two hunting scenes — tumble with vigorous action and expression. Not until the Renaissance, more than 1,000 years later, would sculptors reach this level of skill. To top it off, the sarcophagus is still scattered with the paint traces of its once-colorful past, giving the viewer a real sense of how this piece — and all Hellenistic sculpture — would have looked. That's pretty rare.

All of this leaves out, by the way, hundreds of other treasures in the museums: the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, also taken from the necropolis at Sidon; animal reliefs taken from Babylon's Gate of Ishtar, built by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century B.C.; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the world's oldest known recorded peace treaty, signed in the 13th century B.C. by Ramses II and the Hittites. 

Not bad.

7. Hagia Eirene. A bit sightseeing-weary after three full days in Istanbul, I almost didn't go into this church. But I'm glad I did. Today part of the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Eirene (top of the post) stands on the oldest spot of Christian worship in Istanbul.

The first church, built here in the fourth century by Constantine, burned to the ground; the current one dates back to an 8th-century restoration. (Not bad, really, as far as longevity goes). And, incredibly, it somehow missed the Ottoman sweep of turning churches into mosques — meaning even its 8th-century mosaic, depicting a black cross, was left intact.

And it has nothing to do with St. Irene. Instead, its name meant
the "Basilica of Holy Peace." (It was designed in harmony with the
"Church of the Holy Wisdom," or the Hagia Sofia, and the "Church of the
Holy Apostles").

There's another major ancient Roman site in Istanbul that I'm still missing. Any guesses?

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of this three-post series.

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Santo Stefano Rotondo, for Strong Stomachs Only

Santo Stefano in Rotondo, Rome
If you get nightmares — or nausea — easily, don't visit the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Think you can handle it? Then welcome to some of the most graphic frescoes of 16th-century Rome.

First, though, there's more to this church than its frescoes. Built on top of the remains of a 2nd-century Mithraic temple (currently being excavated), the church was built in the fifth century A.D. to hold the body of Saint Stephen, which just had been brought to Rome from the Holy Land. The church's architecture is particularly unusual. As Rome's first circular church, it was modeled after Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Back then, with another entire ambulatory besides the two there today, it would have been much larger).

Santo Stefano in Rotondo also holds some odd treasures: a 6th-century mosaic of St. Primus and St. Felicianus; the tomb of Irish king Donough O'Brien, who died in Rome in 1064; a chair of Pope Gregory the Great from 580.

But if you go to the church, you could miss all of this for its frescoes.

Spiraling around the circular walls, the paintings depict 34 different martyrs — each being killed in gruesome ways. (Molten lead poured down the throat? Check. Breasts cut off? Check. Boiled alive? Check!) Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII near the end of the 16th century, the paintings are naturalistic in their graphic displays, making anyone who looks closely enough wince. The peaceful expressions on most of the martyrs' faces go somewhat toward mitigating the"ouch ouch OUCH" effect… although in all honesty, I find that eerie calm a bit more disturbing than convincing.  Scenes of martyrdom at Santo Stefano in Rotondo.

Charles Dickens may have put it best, writing of his visit of the "hideous paintings" that cover the walls. He wrote,

…such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.

So, what do you think: Can you handle it?

If you can, remember that Santo Stefano Rotondo is closed Mondays and Sunday afternoons; otherwise, it's open from 9:30am-12:30. It's also open 3pm-6pm in the summers, and 2pm-5pm in the winter. The address is Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo 7, about a 10-minute walk from the Colosseum or from San Giovanni in Laterano, and right nearby the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati. For more information about the church, click here. For a map, click here.

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A Special Opening of Villa Torlonia’s Jewish Catacombs

You've probably heard of Rome's Christian catacombs, but many visitors to the eternal city haven't yet discovered their older counterparts: the Jewish catacombs of Villa Torlonia. That's partly because they're not open to the general public.

That changes on September 5. Rome is opening the catacombs, which boast Jewish frescoes and tombs from the 2nd to 5th centuries AD, to visitors — for one day only. It's part of the city's participation in the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, celebrated by more than 25 countries. The free guided tours of the catacombs are available on the hour, all day.

Interested? Book now. Even though the announcement appears to be so new that those working Rome's main telephone line for cultural events and reservations hadn't even heard of it yet, most of the tours have already been booked up — leaving only those at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm. Call +39 3407368280 to book.

For more information about Villa Torlonia (in Italian), click here. For a map, click here. Hat tip: Katie Parla.

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This Fall, See the Sistine Chapel at Night

God2-Sistine_Chapel
Sad that Rome's many summer events are coming to an end? Don't fear — autumn brings a new roster of events. And from September 3 to October 29, the Vatican museums will be open at night.

If the September heat and crowds are getting you down, just book at the Vatican's online ticket office, print your voucher, and go. Since few people have caught on, the museums are usually almost completely empty. It's a much calmer, and cooler, way to take all the art in.

The details: The museums will be open each Friday from 7pm to 11pm (last entrance 9:30). Yes, fewer galleries will be accessible, but you'll be able to see all the greatest hits — including the Raphael rooms, Gallery of Tapestries, Gallery of Maps, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. As for reserved tickets during the day, the cost is €15 (€ 8 reduced, including students and under-18s: college students, bring an ID), plus a €4 reservation fee.

And if you're planning a spring trip to Rome, don't worry. The Vatican Museums at Night should return in April through July, as it did last year. Stay tuned.

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The Medieval Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati

Chapel of St. Sylvester of the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome
The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati boasts a 12th-century church (with 4th-century origins), a lovely cloister, and beautifully-preserved 13th-century frescoes (above). And it’s only a short walk from the Colosseum or San Giovanni in Laterano. But I’ve yet to see more than a handful of visitors there.

I’m not complaining: The basilica does, after all, include a convent, and it’s nice to see it all undisturbed by hordes of visitors. But. The church is a gem — and a must-see for anyone interested in Rome’s off-the-beaten-path sites.

The first church here was founded in the 4th century. Its name, “four crowned saints,” comes from its original dedication to the four soldiers who were martyred by Emperor Diocletian after they refused to sacrifice to a pagan god. But in 1084, the Normans burned the church to the ground during their sack of Rome.

Pope Paschal II built the “new” version of Santi Quattro Coronati in the early 1100s, but at only half the size of the original. (Imagine!) Still, the structure remains impressive, particularly for the lesson that the pope seems to have taken from the Norman sack: If you’re going to build, might as well build fortified. Even today, Santi Quattro Coronati has the appearance, looming from atop the Celian hill and surrounded by thick walls, of a military fort.DSC_0138

There are two parts of the basilica that you shouldn’t miss — but would if you didn’t know what to look for. One is the Romanesque cloister (right). Once in the main basilica, ring a bell on the left wall. One of the Augustinian nuns will come to let you into the peaceful, lovely space. (Donations are requested, though not required, for the upkeep of the convent and the basilica. These churches aren’t so wealthy anymore, and much of their art is suffering. If you can, give a euro or two).

Once you’ve exited both the cloister and the basilica and are in the main courtyard, you’ll see a door to your left. That leads to the Chapel of St. Sylvester. Glorious but intimate, the chapel highlights the incredible narrative power of medieval frescoes, even those done by artists whose names have been forgotten. Don’t miss it.

To enter the chapel, ring the little bell on the left after you’ve walked in. A nun will appear behind the grate and ask how many you are. The fee is 1 Euro per person. Once you’ve paid, she’ll buzz you into the chapel. There, you’ll find an entire 13th-century cycle of frescoes commemorating the life of St. Sylvester (below); they’re charming (they hadn’t quite figured out perspective yet!), but breathtaking, too. Not to mention that they’re incredibly rare for their state of preservation, giving you a chance to see 700-year-old frescoes largely as they’re meant to be seen — vivid with color and detail.

It’s not all that often that you get to see medieval frescoes in Renaissance art-laden Rome. Especially not alone, as you’re likely to be. Enjoy it.DSC_0171

The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is located at Via dei Santi Quattro 20; click here for a map. The basilica is open daily from 6:15am-8pm, but 6:45am-12:30pm and 3pm-7:30pm on Sundays and holidays. The Chapel of St. Sylvester is open from 9:30am-12pm and 4:30pm-6pm daily and from 9am-10:40am and 4pm-5:45pm on Sundays and holidays. In the Basilica, as in all churches in Rome, remember to bring some kind of covering for your shoulders and wear knee-length skirts or trousers; even if it’s not enforced, it’s a sign of respect for the church.

 

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La Notte di Caravaggio: On Saturday Night, Art for Free

Boy with basket

There may be no artist better suited to the night than Caravaggio — the tormented Baroque painter famous for his dramatic, almost theatrically-lit paintings.

And on Saturday night, Rome is offering up its Caravaggios to the public. From 7pm on Saturday, July 17 until 9am on Sunday morning (yes, all night), four different sites will be open and free: the Borghese Museum (right now, ordinarily a €10.50 entrance), with its "Boy with a Basket of Fruit" (above), "Sick Bacchus," and "Madonna of the Snakes," among other pieces; the Church of San Luigi in Francese, home to Caravaggio's first major commission, the three frescoes of St. Matthew; the Basilica of Saint Augustine, with its Madonna of Loreto; and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, with its Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul (open only until 1am).

Just be prepared for a queue at the Borghese, where Romans are most likely to flock… although the later you go (or the earlier Sunday morning), the more likely you are to to have the museum to yourself.

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Basilica of Santa Prassede: 9th-century Mosaics, 1st-century Relics, and Nearly No Visitors

Picture 631

Lots of travelers visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Few know that, just around the corner, Rome boasts an equally precious, way older — and, in my opinion, more moving — church. Just don't be swayed by its unassuming exterior.

The Basilica of Santa Prassede stands on the site of St. Prassede's own house where, according to tradition, she put up martyrs including St. Peter. A church was first built here in the 5th century, although an oratory might have existed as early as 150 AD. The ruins of those earlier buildings haven't yet been excavated. Some day…

But in the meantime, you can explore the current church — which was built in the 9th century. And it has frescoes and mosaics from the same period,
Picture 623 something that (no matter how much really, really old stuff I see) still blows me away. Check out the glittering mosaics in the Chapel of St. Zeno, right. You can also descend into the crypt, which the famous Cosmati brothers decorated in the 13th century, to see the sarcophagi of Prassede and her equally-saintly sister, Pudenziana. The tombs have relics of the sisters, including a sponge they used to soak up the blood of 3,000 different martyrs.

But the most famous relic in the whole church is the Column of Flagellation. It's pretty safe to say this probably isn't the real deal… but then, that's not really the point with relics, is it?

The Basilica of Santa Prassede is open every day from 7:30am-12pm and 4pm-4:30pm. Don't forget coins to light up the mosaics. 

Click here for a map.

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