In July, I filmed my first video for BBC Travel: It’s about how Rome’s ruins are at risk — and what’s being done (or not) to save them. The video is part of what we hope will be a series called Dissolving History, about cultural heritage under threat around the world. You can watch Dissolving History: Rome here.
But even when I’m not writing about cultural heritage directly, I’m writing about it somehow. It’s rare that I write a travel story — or take a trip at all — without somehow touching on the destination’s monuments and museums, its artifacts and archaeology. And I have a feeling it’s the same for most of you.
So it’s an important topic. And a surprisingly fun one. Check out the video for more.
And here are some behind-the-scenes shots, if you’d like to see…
I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Italy’s Minister of Cultural Heritage Dario Franceschini. Here, I’m debriefing with his aides after the interview.
And let me tell you, grabbing night photos of those ruins while following a tour guide around was not the easiest….I’m glad my forgiving editor decided that at least one of the snaps was up to snuff. Here are a couple more..
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).
6. 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. 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, though, 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.
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
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.
At first glance, Istanbul appears anything but a city tied to ancient Rome. Mosques and minarets, not ancient temples, dot the Turkish capital’s skyline. Its forum is hard to find, most of its imperial monuments long gone.
For a city that became part of the Roman empire in 73 A.D., and was turned into the capital, and dubbed “Nova Roma,” by Constantine in 330, it can seem surprising. But to find hints of the city’s classical past, you have to look more closely.
Searching for Roman ruins in Istanbul? Here’s where to find them. I’ll post this in two sections, so look out for the second installment tomorrow (here it is!).
1. The basilica cistern. Even if you’re not all that interested in Istanbul’s ancient ruins, the cistern (shown above) is a must-see, if only for its eeriness: Descend down 52 stone steps, and you’re suddenly in a
cavernous chamber filled with ancient columns, each lit with a dim light, echoing
with splashes, the whispers of tourists, and (unfortunately, I think) “atmospheric”
The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian I in the early 6th
century, on the same spot as a basilica that had been first built by
Constantine two hundred years earlier. More than 105,000 square feet in area
and capable of holding 100,000 tons of water, the cistern provided water
filtration for Constantinople’s palace. More than 7,000 slaves were used to
And all of those columns holding it up? There are 336 in
total, and they’re all ancient, too—most of them taken from even older structures
elsewhere in the empire. (Sound familiar? That kind of recycling is something
Rome, too, is known for, from the ancient Egyptian obelisks that dot the city
to, later, the use of the Roman ruins themselves in Renaissance-era buildings
like St. Peter’s Basilica). Most of their origins are mysterious, but some—like
the two upside-down Medusa heads—are particularly intriguing.
2. Column of Constantine. Erected in 330 A.D. by Emperor
Constantine to commemorate his new capital, the 115-foot column would once have
been another 50 feet tall. It also boasted a statue of Constantine on the top,
carrying an orb with a piece of the True Cross. A sanctuary at the column’s
foot included a number of relics, including an alabaster ointment jar that
belonged to Mary Magdalene, the basket from Christ’s miracle of the loaves and
fish, and a statue of Athena from Troy.
3. The Valens aqueduct. Spanning one of Istanbul’s main
thoroughfares, the aqueduct is such a matter-of-fact part of the fabric of
modern Istanbul that it’s easy to forget it’s an ancient ruin. But it is. Built
in 368 A.D. by Emperor Valens, the aqueduct once ran for about 3,200 feet. The
surviving section today, at 3,020 feet, is nearly as long—not bad for a 1,600-year-old
structure. Just as the popes in Rome restored ancient aqueducts, so, too, did the
Ottoman sultans in Constantinople, meaning the aqueduct remained the city’s
main distributor of water through the Middle Ages.
4. The Hippodrome. You could walk right through
Istanbul’s ancient hippodrome—built for chariot races by Emperor Septimius
Severus in the early 3rd century, and restored and enlarged by
Constantine 100 years later—without realizing it. Today, all the seats and
most of the structures are long-gone. The only hint you have that the site once was a
stadium able to hold 100,000 spectators is in the shape and dimensions of
Sultanahmet Square, which more or less follows the lines of the ancient circus.
(Just as Piazza Navona in Rome today has the same shape as Domitian’s first-century
But some monuments do remain. Perhaps the
most evocative is the Serpent Column, brought by Constantine from
the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Also known as the Plataean Tripod of Delphi, the
column was cast in 479 B.C. to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians. Persian
armor and weaponry was melted down for the column, and all of the names of the
Greek city-states that fought in the battle were etched into the sides. A gold
tripod, later lost, initially sat on top, supported by three serpent heads.
For a visual of what the chariot races once would have
looked like, the Obelisk of Theodosius is a must-see, too. The obelisk itself is
actually ancient Egyptian, dating to the reign of Tutmoses III around 1450 B.C.
In Alexandria until 390, it was moved to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius
I. Underneath, a marble pedestal shows scenes including the chariot race
itself, and Theodosius giving the winner the laurel crown of victory. And then
there’s the typically-imperial inscription in which the emperor lauds none
other than himself—in this case, for supposedly moving the obelisk and
re-erecting it in just 32 days.