Can East meet West, or about Turkey, which unites Asia and Europe. Part Two: Meeting with Byzantium

View of the Bosporus and historic center of Istanbul on the Sarayburnu or Palace Cape, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

Editor of Tourism Section of BlackSeaNews

Continued, click here for part I:
Can East meet West, or about Turkey, which unites Asia and Europe. Part One: Meeting with the Bosporus

There is one more place on the Bosporus which, for centuries used to link east and west – the Altın Boynuz or the Golden Horn harbor.

The shape of this harbor really resembles a horn, which is stuck for 12 kilometers deep into the European shore of the strait. The harbor with an average width of 100 and a depth of 47 meters, is considered to be one of the best in the world. In modern Turkey, it is much more known under the name Halich (Turkish – Haliç BlackSeaNews note), i.e. «the mouth of the river».

In fact, this bay of the Bosporus, formed as a result of confluence of two rivers, near Sarayburnu Cape really looks like a river estuary. The cape, extended towards Asia and shaped like a triangle, in the northeast is washed by the Golden Horn, in the south by the Sea of ​​Marmara.

Protected by water on both sides, the Cape makes an excellent natural fortress where the defensive walls were usually constructed from the side of the land surface. Right there for centuries, on the Sarayburnu Cape and in its vicinity – on the shores of the Golden Horn there was the site of settlements of people of different civilizations. And right there is the historic center of modern Istanbul with its major tourist attractions, which were visited by participants of the 52nd World Congress of FIJET (World Federation of Travel Journalists & Writers, BlackSeaNews note).

The name Sarayburnu (or Palace cape; Saray - palace, Burnu - Cape, BlackSeaNews note) reveals that one of the architectural masterpieces of Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire period - the Topkapi Palace is really located there. But strolling along the vast grounds of the palace, one cannot help looking at the views of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn and remembering that long ago before the modern metropolis and the palace complex the area was the site of a small settlement of Byzantium.

And then, quite naturally you start to think about what actually brought the representatives of the great Greek civilization, which one can call the Western civilization of antiquity, to this, so distant from their homeland, and, moreover, wild and dangerous coast.

View of the Bosporos, the Golden Horn harbor, Sarayburnu Cape and the Sea of Marmora, Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

The easier way to find the answer to this question is to look through the Greek myths associated with the Bosporus and other sections of the ancient strategic trade route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

For example, the strait, connecting the Sea of ​​Marmara with the Aegean Sea, is known throughout the world as the Dardanelles, and in Turkey is called the Çanakkale-Bogaz (after the Turkish town of Çanakkale located on its shores, BlackSeaNews note), while in the times of ancient Greece it was called «Hellespont», which means «the Sea of Helle».

This is the name of the daughter of King Athamas, son of wind god Aeolus, who ruled once in Boeotia (now the prefecture in central Greece with capital town of Livadia).

Her husband's infidelity forced her mother – the cloud-goddess Nephele to leave, and a new wife Ino used intrigues to convince her husband that the fertility of the local fields could be restored if to sacrifice Phrixos, his son from his first marriage and Helle’s brother, to Zeus. But mother – goddess Nephele sends the golden-fleeced ram, and it carries Phrixos and Helle away from the place of the sacrifice.

They fly for a long time over the strait, which separates Europe and Asia Minor, and Helle’s hands slide off the golden fleece of the ram. Thus, from the vertiginous height she falls down into the strait, which in her memory was called the Hellespont.  

Her brother survived: the golden-fleeced ram carried him over the Bosphorus, then over the Black Sea and brought him finally to the distant Colchis (modern Georgia). There Phrixos was hospitably greeted by the son of the god Helios, a king and magician Aeetes. Being grateful for this warm welcome, Phrixus sacrifices his ram and presents the Golden Fleece to the king, who places it in the sacred grove of the war god Ares under protection of the dragon.

The first thing we learn from this ancient myth is that the route from the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus into the Black Sea was well known in antiquity.

The myth perfectly describes the flight of the ram: i.e. the route leading to the Black Sea, which some people say was called by the Phoenicians as «Ashkenas», or «the Sea of ​​the North», while the Greeks called it the Pontus Axinus or Inhospitable Sea. Explanation of this name we can find in the «Geography» of Strabo and other ancient authors who wrote about the storms, the need to sail along the coast due to unavailability of navigational aids and the danger of attacks of local coastal tribes.

In the myth about Helle, we see that Phrixos is forced to flee and make quite a perilous journey that led to the death of his sister, as he was given no choice: his own father was ready to sacrifice him to the gods, to kill him to avoid the consequences of the crop failure.

The threat of famine in the mountainous country, where plots of arable land are scarce and enough scanty to feed growing population is the main reason for the Greeks to leave their western, developed at that time civilization, for faraway lands, where soil is rich and area is abundant, but, where the symbol of this prosperity – the Golden Fleece – is meticulously guarded.

The hero of another Greek myth Jason is to get this Golden Fleece. His choices are limited as well: his uncle, King Pelias, the ruler of Iolcus (modern-day Volos in the north-eastern Greece) does not want voluntarily to leave the throne of his deposed brother Aeson. Therefore, choices are: either the war to gain back the throne of his father or hazardous journey to obtain the Golden Fleece.

And off goes Jason into the neighborhood of the city – to the magic mountain of Pelion, the home of the Centaurs, poetized as the most beautiful mountain in ancient Greece, and there skilled shipbuilders under the command of the famous master hand, shipwright Argus build for Jason the ship Argo from the wood of special Mediterranean pines growing on the mountain.

One version claims that the ship is named in honor of the shipbuilder Argus, while the other one insists, that it translates as «quick or fast». Athena herself watched the ship being built and then from the sacred grove of Zeus brought a piece of oak, which was fixed to the bow of the ship and it acquired a magical gift of prophecy.

Then and there, the myth tells us: the new era is to come as the new type of ship has come into being: the ship, which allows you to make not magic, but real, distant sea journeys and is able to sail not just along the coast, but survive through the white water of the Black Sea. It is the era when the Black Sea will change its name into Pont Euxeinos or «Hospitable Sea».

View of the Bospors and, the Golden Horn harbor. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

But before all this, the Argonauts are to make their famous journey. They started in Iolcus, then crossed the northern part of the Aegean Sea, and through the Hellespont Strait (Dardanelles) and Propontis (modern Sea of ​​Marmara) entered the Bosporus.

On the European shore of the Strait, they found Phineas, the former king of Thrace, who was punished by Apollo for his kindness: he too extensively used his gift of prophecy to tell the mortals about their future in too much detail. God blinded him, but, besides, he also sent to the Bosporus and to Phineas, the geeks of the human race, the harpies (the name comes from the Greek word «to snatch»). They, who preserved only faces and breasts of what once used to be beautiful women, were always considered to be among the ugliest and the most brutal creatures of Greek mythology.

Emanating the unbearable stench, like birds of prey, these vultures continued to indulge in the addiction of theirs: they continued to snatch and they did not let Phineas to eat, grabbing all his food away. But the abhorrent bird-women – harpies did not expect that, despite their hideous cries of rage and blazing eyes, Calais and Zetes, the winged sons of Boreas, the god of North Wind, would forever drive them off the trough and throw them out of the house of Phineas.

Being grateful to the Argonauts, the predictor reveals them the secret of safe entry into the Pont (the Black Sea): it is possible to pass safely between Symplegades (Clashing rocks, also known as Cyanean (azure) Rocks) by allowing a dove to fly between them, and if she manages to do it uninjured, then their ship will pass between them undamaged as well. And they followed his piece of advice. Just several tail feathers of the dove and tiny fragment of the stern of Argo were lost between the clashed rocks. After their safe passage through Symplegades, the ship continued her journey to Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece.

On the shores of the Golden Horn harbor. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

The reasons of emergence of the ancient settlement on the site of the present day Istanbul are encrypted in these, so ancient and so familiar Greek myths.

The voyage of Jason was a harbinger of a great epoch. As population of Greece has reached its limit in order to avoid famine, wars and revolts they started the colonization of nearby regions, which lasted, according to different data, from 200 to 300 years.

As the result, the shores of the Mediterranean and Black seas from the south of France to the Caucasus were dotted with hundreds of new cities. But still the settlement with the name of Byzas deserves special place among them.

Participant of the expedition of the Argonauts, son of the sea god Poseidon and a nymph Keroessa, the mythological king Byzas was a native of the town of Megara, located on the Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the central and southern Greece. This area was always known for its rocky and unfruitful soil, and its residents had already founded several colonies on the shores of the Bosporus and Propontis. Byzas, the military leader of future colonists, contacted the Delphic oracle, who gave him the answer: the new colony would be best to develop opposite the settlement of the blind…

And Byzas, participant of the voyage to claim the Golden Fleece, discovers the area of golden opportunities on the coast of the Thracian Bosphorus, which then was called so to differentiate it from the other Bosporus – the Cimmerian one, which used to identify the strait in the Black Sea, known now as the Strait of Kerch.

Upon seeing the colony of Kalhedon (currently the Kadıköy district of Istanbul), on the opposite shore of the strait Byzas understands the prophecy of the oracle of Delphi: only the blind ones could not see all the evident advantages of settling on the opposite – European shore.

The bay, deeply cut into land surface at the confluence of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, is located almost half way of the difficult route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It is predestined to be developed into a great place for berthing, repair and sailors’ stopover for rest. The natural harbor is surrounded with the valleys with fertile soils, which provide rich harvests. Bay and the mouth of two rivers – Kidaris and Barbissy – abound with fish, while coastal forests are full of deer and other game.

Byzas and his fellow colonists from Megara decided to found here a city and offer the traditional foundation sacrifice to the gods. But suddenly a kite snatched the sacrificial animal and flew away to jutting into the Bosporus sharp-pointed cape. Byzas and his friends perceived this event as the will of gods, and laid the city’s foundation stone on the pointed cape.

The circumambient bay by the cape was called by king Byzas «Hrizokeras» or «Golden Horn» in honor of his mother, the nymph Keroessa, who was born on the shores of the bay as the daughter of Zeus and Io. Thus, the grandmother of Byzas was the same Io, after whom the strait received its name of Bosporus («cow-ford», see the first part of the article), and the settlement itself will soon be named after him and become known as Byzantium. And this very name will become the origin of the name of the empire, which is to come into being right here almost a thousand years later.

But before it the humble settlement is to survive through its really turbulent history. First of all, Byzas and his fellow colonists would soon figure out the cause of «blindness» of their predecessors, who left the European shore for the safer Asian one.

Their time would come to defend themselves from the numerous raids of the Thracian tribes and, therefore, soon the growing city would be secured with huge stone walls and the other fortifications. And then the time would come when the great Greek colonization, which started in the middle of the 8th century BC and reached its apogee in the 6th century BC, would come to its end, while its remains can be still found almost everywhere along the Black Sea coast: in the Crimea and southern Ukraine, as well as in Romania and in Bulgaria, etc.

Advantageous geographical location of Byzantium, which controls the middle of a trade route meant to supply Greece with grain and other farm products from the Black Sea area, develops it into one of the most famous and successful maritime centers, as well as center of crafts and trade between west and east. The natural wealth of the region, where in accordance with the apt expression of the Dionysius of Byzantium, famous from the beginning of II-III century AD due to his first detailed description of the Bosporus, «the land competes with the sea» in abundance, provides Byzantium opportunity to sell salted fish, game, wine and grain to the entire ancient world.

But all the wealth and success attracted a lot of enviers and invaders.

Among them there were the Persians, who crossed the Bosporus over the bridge built by Darius at its narrowest point and then would rule the ancient town for more than a decade. Greek city-states Athens and Sparta would with varying degrees of success rival each other for control over this strategic trading city. Celtic Galatian tribes attacked Byzantium as well, but the most complex relationship the city would have with the new and growing Roman Empire.

Initially, the Romans granted it the status of free city and the ally of Rome, and then completely deprived it of all the privileges and made it part of the Roman province of Thrace, which fell under the control of Roman emperors already in the I century BC. But then the empire itself starts to suffer from the feud, and one of the rivaling emperors Septimy Sever would begin his long siege of the city in 196 BC. When three years later, he finally occupies Byzantium, he literally wipes it off the face of the earth by ruining its walls, destroying the major substantial buildings and stripping it of the city status. Byzantium was revived by his son, and for more than 100 years the city will bear the name of Antonia in his honor.

Istanbul is the renown city of commerce. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

Not a lot is left in modern Istanbul to remind us of a Greek settlement, founded by the Byzas in 667 BC, as well as of the tumultuous era of the Roman Empire. But the time-honored trading spirit of the city is alive as always.

Advantageous geographical location of Istanbul makes shopping in this city to be an exotic pleasure. Modern shopping malls, small shops and stalls of the city are still bursting with merchandise to suit every taste: local Turkish-made goods and exported from both east and west.

Yet the most exotic and exciting shopping place is still the Grand Bazaar or Kapalıçarşı (Kapalı - covered, çarşı - market) with its more than fifty streets and four thousand shops.

View of the Golden Harbor from the Top Kapi Palace and Sarayburnu Cape. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

By the Nur-u Osmaniye kapısı, the central gate of the Grand Bazaar, the shopping fans can once again see the evidence of the ancient age of the city, which surrounds them. It is another attraction of the historic part of Istanbul - Chemberlitash column or a column of Constantine. The square there is also called Çemberlitaş Meydanı or Hooped Stone Square (in Turkish Çemberli – hoop, taş stone BlackSeaNews note), as the column there is really tightly laced with iron hoops.

The bustle of modern city, the rattle of the passing by tram and typical hustle of the shopping district make it hard to imagine that right here at this very site, the era of Byzas and started by him settlement of Byzantium once came to the end and the new, even more ambitious but no less dramatic epoch of the history of Istanbul - the era of the Byzantine Empire commenced.

This was preceded by the decline of another empire - the Roman, which had reached so large dimension, that already in 293, Emperor Diocletian decided to divide the imperial power into four and it was simultaneously ruled by 4 emperors.

Constantine (272 - 337) was perhaps the most famous of them. Crowned in 306 at York (modern Great Britain), he became famous for his challenging decrees. In 313, he enacted the Edict of Milan, which granted the right to profess Christianity freely throughout the empire, in the year of 319 passed a law prohibiting the murder of slaves, in 321 adopted the law proclaiming Sunday as «the honored day of sun», which meant introduction of a day of rest.

The joint rule led to constant conflicts between the emperors, which ended in victory of Constantine. He defeated his last opponent in 324 not far away from Byzantium on the Asian shore of the Bosporus.

Since then till the year of 337 he is a single ruler. During this short period of time he takes decisions that are to become pivotal for the history of not only west and east, but of the whole world. Pagan gods of the ancient world are to be buried in memories of the past, while Christianity is to become the official religion of the Roman Empire and imperial capital is to be moved from west to east - from Rome to the provincial Byzantium.

He is not to make this decision instantly: on November 8, 324 Constantine founds here on the Bosporus his new residence and takes the spear to draw on the ground the line of the walls of the new city which reaches far beyond the borders of Byzantium. Thus, the new city has been laid, but still a 20-year anniversary of his reign in 326 he goes to celebrate in Rome. There, he orders to build a mausoleum for his family and adorns the city with the Arch of Constantine and many other beautiful buildings.

But then, the personal reasons would make him to wish come back to the old capital never ever again: intrigues of his wife Fausta forced him to execute Crispus, his eldest son from his first marriage and then not able to stand reproaches of Helen, his grieving and missing her grandson mother, he would issue another order, and Fausta would die by «accident» falling in a bath of hot water.

For these personal reasons, or after explicit analysis of the shortcomings of Rome as his capital for that period of time, or just because of the human desire to start all over again, Constantine returns to Byzantium and on 26 November, 326, starts ambitious rebuilding of the city on the Bosporus.

Perhaps there is one more reason for him to make such a decision – this area is familiar to Constantine: he grew up not far from Byzantium in Bithynia, where his mother Helena was born into the family of a humble innkeeper.

Soon the developments occur, which can be interpreted as the sky-sign: after conversion to Christianity, at the age over seventy in 327 the mother of Constantine will make the grand pilgrimage to the Holy Land and bring to his new town her astonishing finds - the True Cross of the Lord and other relics.

And here comes the November, 4th , 328, the new defensive wall is already partially built and following astrologers’ recommendations, Constantine dedicates the new city already as the new capital of the Roman Empire.

Column of Constantine, photo by ИРЭН@ from the site

But the ultimate official ceremony will be held on May 11, 330. It will be mutually conducted by the priests of the fading pagan religion and of the new official religion, so long persecuted by the imperial Rome.

This very ceremony will be a sign of the official dedication of the new Christian capital.

On this day pagan believers pray in their temples, preserved by the emperor. Constantine is present in the Church of St. Irene at the solemn liturgy which officially acknowledges dedication of the new city to the Holy Virgin.

This is followed by the joint procession of Christian and pagan priests to the center of the giant Forum of Constantine. This event is to become the apogee of the ceremony to celebrate the silver jubilee of the emperor’s reign.

And precisely at the prescribed by astrologers moment, Constantine with his own hands immures into the base of the column the most valuable relics of the pagan and Christian worlds associated with the names of the goddess Athena, as well as Noah, Moses, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and then the base of 7 blocks of porphyry, brought from the deserts of Egypt, is raised above.

And once again west and east have met at this point of the Earth, and May 11, 330 is considered to be the day of foundation of the empire, but already another one, the new one - the Byzantine. And from this very moment Byzantium goes down in history forever: by order of Constantine the city is to be called New Rome, and its official name is to be proudly engraved on a special stone pillar.

But very soon it will be ousted by the unofficial name - Constantinople or «the city of Constantine», the name which the city will bear for sixteen out of the 25 centuries of its history.

View of the Cape of Sarayburnu, the palace complex of TopKapi and St. Sophia from the Galata Bridge, Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

The great emperor, but the earthly man, Constantine, had, perhaps, the presentiment that he might not live long, thus he was in a hurry: within 6 years – from 330 to 336 – Byzantium, which existed in this place for almost a thousand years, was meticulously rebuilt and its size increased 4 times. It was said that never before in the west and the east there was the city of such size, wealth and beauty: the best pieces of art and relics had been gathered there from all over the empire.

In February 337 Constantine the Great decided to visit the Holy Land, but illness did not allow him to drive off too far from his Constantinople. Hence, his baptism took place not in the waters of the Jordan, but not that far away from his capital city. And it was in May, on the 22nd day of this month, at the Easter off he went to the better world at the age of 65 and after 31-year reign. But, still every year on September 1 Byzantines would be coming to his column and sing hymns in honor of Constantine, the founder of their city. And long after his death his statue with scepter in right hand and the sphere containing a fragment of the Holy Cross in the left one would continue to decorate the top of his column.

But then the imperious time turned it into a column Chemberlitash and the only one, preserved almost intact, church of the Byzantine period – into the concert hall. This is the church of St. Irene, situated in the first courtyard of the palace of Topkapi, where according to the legend, there is the sarcophagus containing the remains of Constantine the Great. This church, which was once built in Byzantine times on the ruins of the temple of Aphrodite does not commemorate any particular Christian saint, but its name the Hagia Eirene (St. Irene) Church or Aya İrini in Turkish, means the Church of the Holy Peace.

By analogy, St. Sophia, situated next to the Topkapi, also constructed on the site of the ancient acropolis of Byzantium, was known in those days as the Church of Holy Wisdom. But that's another story which will be told by us in the next chapter, which tells how the Byzantine Empire met the Ottoman one.

To be continued