What’s under the Blue Mosque?

Jan 04 2011

Norman asks what’s buried under the Blue Mosque.

Ever since Indiana Jones found that ‘X’ sometimes does mark the spot, Hollywood- and armchair historians everywhere- have been salivating at the prospect of finding some lost treasure hidden just below the surface.   Most of the time this is just wishful thinking.  Archeology is slow, painstaking work, not treasure hunting.  But Constantinople is more a city of ghosts than most- its modern custodians are the very people who destroyed it, and they show little interest in preserving or exploring an alien past.  So Byzantium keeps its secrets and provides a richer ground for future discovery than perhaps any other ancient megapolis.  The Blue Mosque is a perfect case in point.

Directly beneath it lies the oldest part of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors.  It was built by Constantine the Great as his personal residence and was nicknamed the Palace of Daphne because of a famous statue of Apollo’s nymph displayed on the grounds.  Some of the most prominent early Byzantine structures were within its walls- the octagonal bedchamber decorated with a cycle of mosaics of the imperial family, the subterranean walkway and stair to the imperial box in the Hippodrome, and the chapel of St. Stephen where on Christmas Day in 820 one of the most cold-blooded murders in Byzantine history was carried out.  (The previous evening, emperor Leo V had thrown his scheming friend Michael the Amorian into prison for a conspiracy, and sentenced him to die by being bound to an ape and cast into the furnace that heated the imperial baths.  Early Christmas morning Michael’s supporters snuck into St. Stephens disguised as monks, and dismembered their unarmed sovereign)

The Palace of Daphne was also the original coronation hall, and as late as the Macedonian Dynasty was still being used for imperial weddings.  The emperors of the eleventh and twelfth centuries preferred the gentler views of the Blachernae Palace in the nortwestern corner of the city, so Daphne gradually fell into decline.

It was still mostly intact (though partly in ruins) when the city fell to the Turks, but in 1606 after a sharp military defeat, the Ottoman Sultan decided to distract the population by building a huge mosque.  He pulled down a large section of the Hippodrome (including the lavish imperial box), leveled the Palace of Daphne and erected the Blue Mosque.  Only the walls above ground were destroyed, however.  The southern side of the mosque rests completely on the foundations and vaults of the Byzantine Palace.

Given the history of the building, even its ruins would be a gold mine of information.  Don’t count on seeing it anytime soon though.  Even if it wasn’t under a mosque, imperial remains aren’t exactly a high priority.  Justinian’s magnificent Bucoleon Palace was pulled down in 1873 to make way for a railway station, and the surviving part of the Blachernae Palace was converted to a tile factory.  Until Turkey discovers an appreciation of Byzantium we’ll have to settle for this virtual reconstruction from our friends at Byzantium 1200: http://www.arkeo3d.com/byzantium1200/daphne.html

4 responses so far

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by patris eliadis, Lars Brownworth. Lars Brownworth said: What's under the Blue Mosque? http://bit.ly/dWA9gx […]

  2. I was actually in Istanbul recently, and after visiting the Blue Mosque, journeying outside, we did see excavation work, it seem there actually has been work around the perimeter of the Mosque, to uncover the ruins. Also for those of you that actually would like to see what it really looked like; at the Istanbul National Museum, which holds among a treasure cove of classical works (including Alexander’s the Greats tomb to be) a exhibition similar based on reconstructing the city, similar to the one which Mr. Brownworth provided. Also held there, is bits and pieces uncovered from the palace like lamps, utensils and the such.

  3. There are still a number of places where you can see remnants of the Great Palace (I like Constantine’s term Palatium Magnum). The most famous is the Mosaic Museum in the markets behind the Blue Mosque. A fire in the early 20th century uncovered beautiful peristyle mosaics dating from the time of Justinian (although this is debated- the exact period is uncertain) and they were preserved in situ. The excavations you saw were from the Four Seasons hotel. They were discovered in 1997 when workers renovating the hotel broke through into a series of vaulted chambers. (I wrote about it here http://www.losttothewest.com/?p=143) Unfortunately, what should have been a sensational discovery was buried by a mixture of politics, legislation, and mutual ill-will between the private stakeholders of the hotel, the director of antiquities, and Turkish authorities. Despite the mountains of red tape (how ironic that a Byzantine excavation is held up by what can only be described as a ‘byzantine’ bureaucracy!) there are occasional signs of optimism on the part of the hotel. In the nine years between my first and most recent visits, the Four Seasons put up glossy signs advertising the coming ‘archeological park’, and I believe two years ago a ticket booth was installed. Maybe this is the decade it all comes together. For a more intimate glimpse of the palace you can go to the Albura Kathisma Cafe Bar & Restaurant. The owner knocked through an adjoining wall and found a long tunnel- which he will happily show you after your meal. As you may be able to tell by the name, it is supposed to be the subterranean passageway from the Palace to the Kathisma (imperial box) in the Hippodrome. It’s in the wrong place for that- it’s more likely a supporting chamber to one of the palace buildings- but it’s as close as you’ll get for now. Which brings me back full circle. The Palatium Magnum was not one building but a complex spread out over 4.5 acres. We have these glimpses of some of the structures, but the oldest wing- the Palace of Daphne- is completely hidden below the Blue Mosque and likely to stay that way.

  4. Stvlianvs Kardam

    Actually what is referred to as “Alexander the Great tomb” is the larnax from the tomb of Abdalonymus, an Phoenician noble, made king of Sidon, by Alexander! The larnax is elaborately decorated with Alexander and his nude Macedonians, like a contemporary Achilles and his Myrmidons!

    It was found at the Sidon Necropolis in 1887, by two Ottoman officials, a Muslim Greek, Osman Hamdi Bey, and an Armenian,Yervant Voskan, just a few years before the Hamidian Genocide (1894-96), that spelt the demise of any notion of solidarity towards the Ottoman Empire..

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