Officially inaugurated as the capital of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great on 11 May 330, Constantinople was registered as the “queen of cities” in historical records. Keeping its status as the Byzantine capital (except for the Latin period) until 1453, the city confronted a myriad of calamities, in particular fires, during its long history. The city suffered extensive damage and loss of life and property as a result of rebellions, occupations, lightning strikes, and fires, some deliberately set and others accidental. The capital’s firefighting unit operated under the authority of the governor (eparchos) and was able to respond quickly to fires because of its presence in all 12 zones of the capital. This unit fought fires with water from the aqueduct and when possible from open or closed cisterns. However, despite their efforts, fire often destroyed an area. Like other calamities, fires were believed to be divine punishment for sins.1
The first fire in Istanbul that was identified in surviving historical records occurred during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (379–385) in the summer of 388. The home of Constantinople Patriarch Nectarius burned down, and a great number of residences and public offices were damaged during the fire, which was caused by Arianists (followers of Arius of Alexandria).2
A fire broke out on 12 July 400 owing to the request for a prayer hall made by Arianist Goths to Emperor Arkadius (395–408) and the rebellion of the Constantinopolitans, and culminated in an attack by the Emperor on the Goths.
The Goths had had long-lasting problems with the empire and directed their demands to the emperor. Their last demand carried reactions with it. According to parlance, provoked by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Ioannes Chrysostom, Constantinopolitans suspected that the Goths would establish a church promoting their own creed. Therefore, they shut the doors of the city and attacked the Goths, which resulted in a massacre. Some Goths who survived the initial slaughter took shelter in a building known as the Church of the Goths, but they lost their lives when the people burned it down. According to one account, about 7,000 people died. The fire spread rapidly and damaged the surroundings of the Great Palace.3
Another fire occurred in June 404 during the reign of Emperor Arkadios. The fire, set by residents of Constantinople who were angry because Arcadius had exiled the Patriarch, Ioannes Chrysostom, started in the area in which Hagia Sophia and the Senate were located. A variety of buildings including the Hagia Sophia burned, and precious sculptures disappeared; other parts of the city also suffered substantial damage. A fire on 25 October 406 damaged paths and roads that led to the entrance of the Hippodrome, and a fire on 15 April 428 devastated meeting places of the Arianists and their surroundings.4
In August 432 or 433, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II, another fire broke out. This fire started in Neorion, which is said to correspond to the present-day Eminönü-Sirkeci district, and rapidly spread. Reported to last for two days, the fire damaged public buildings, particularly the port and granaries situated north of the city. Even the bathhouse named after Achilles was reported to be affected by this fire. According to historical records, the emperor had this bathhouse repaired and inaugurated it 10 years later on 11 January 443. Another fire, which broke out in Constantinople in 448, damaged the Troadene Colonnades, including the columns within Zone XII and the Golden Gate;5 and a fire at the beginning of September 465, during the reign of Emperor Leo (457–474), was said to continue for four days and cause substantial damage in the city. Terrified, Emperor Leo was reported to have climbed to the rooftop of the church of Anastasia with a Bible and uttered prayers in tears while the fire rapidly spread from Neorion to St. Thomas Church and reached the Marmara Sea, covering the Sophia Port (Kadırgalimanı) and the districts now known as Beyazıt and Kumkapı. Eight districts in the city were affected by this unprecedented fire. In addition, the Forum of Constantine, Church of John, Forum of Theodosius, and two other nearby churches were damaged. Considering the fire, Emperor Leo is said to have left the palace for St. Mammas and rested there for six months.6
In 475, there was another fire that resulted in considerable damage to the capital. In addition to devastating a vast area spanning from the Gate of Chalke, the entrance of the Great Palace, to the Forum of Constantine, the fire destroyed the Palace of Lausus and its 120,000-volume library, which had been established by Emperor Julian. The surrounding residences were damaged as well. Started by the Greens in 498 during the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491–518), the fire had an impact on a large area spanning from the Gate of Chalke to the Forum of Constantine and the Hippodrome. A fire on 6 November 512 incinerated an area encompassing Chalke and the Forum of Constantine.7
The most dangerous fire in the capital occurred during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527–565). Great fires broke out in the capital during the Nika Riot in January 532, which was acknowledged as one of the most significant revolts in the history of the city. Spreading rapidly from the south part of the church to the church and its vicinity, the fire inflamed the area surrounding the residence of Probus, the Zeuxippos baths, Augusteion Square, the Hagia Irine Church district, Milion, the Senate, the Hippodrome, leather shops, and the Forum of Constantine. After having grown and been enhanced by the contributions of all the emperors after Constantine the Great, Constantinople was virtually destroyed by this riot. Continuing for six days and culminating in the death of thousands, the riot was eventually repressed; however, it left behind a city stripped of precious artworks and beautiful buildings.
Following the riot, Emperor Justinian commenced the reconstruction of the capital. The Milion and its surroundings, the Hippodrome, the Zeuxippos baths, the Senate, Hagia Irine, and the Great Palace were restored. The games were postponed for several years due to construction work in the Hippodrome. Augusteion Square was reorganized, covered with marble, and enclosed with columns. Upon the order of the Emperor, who financed the project, Hagia Sophia, destroyed in the fire, was reconstructed by two renowned architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidoros, over five years (532–537).8
Another fire, caused by a fight between the Blues and the Greens in July 548, resulted in the destruction of a large area encompassing the bronze Tetrapylon near modern Şehzadebaşı. During the fire, which killed many people, the crown of Emperor Justinian disappeared; it was not found until eight months later. On 13 May 559, the Neorion district was affected by other fires. Fires that had an impact on the Julian Port occurred in December 560.9
In addition to damaging the Bovis Forum (in present-day Aksaray) and the Theodosius Forum (in present-day Beyazıt), the fire of October 561, which broke out in the area around the Great Palace, burned down the entire residential and commercial area as well as the orphanage. The Neorion port district and Mese Street were affected by another fire caused by the Greens and Blues, probably in April 562. The whole area covering the Tetrapylon was reduced to ashes. The Hospital of Sampson, buildings in the Rufus area, and two churches near Hagia Irine were destroyed in a fire in December 563.10
In April 583, during the reign of Emperor Maurice (582–602), another fire broke out in the Forum of Constantine and damaged the city; a fire in 603, during the reign of Emperor Phokas (602–610), penetrated the area spanning from Mese Street to the Lausus Palace and ruined the residence of the Praefectus, the Forum of Constantine, and the Hippodrome district. A fire in 626 damaged the St. Nicholas Church in Blachernae. In a fire of unknown cause that broke out in 790, the area from xxx to the Milion was damaged. Fires in 886/887, 912, 931, 1040, and 1069 were reported to cause great damage in the city.11
The districts of Pera and Blachernae were particularly affected by a fire caused by the aggression of Crusade leader Godefroi Bouillouin during the First Crusade. Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komnenos asked western leaders to pledge an oath of allegiance to him as per their customs. Godefroi refused, but he was forced to take an oath by the Emperor, who cut the food supply for soldiers and animals simultaneously. Infuriated by the Emperor’s action, Godefroi retaliated by plundering residences in the Pera district and setting the area ablaze. He then moved on to the district of Blachernae and set fire to the fortress gate by the Palace of Blachernae. This fire is thought to have damaged the neighborhood.12
Arson committed by the Latins during the Fourth Crusade caused extensive damage in the capital. All buildings and residences within the area extending from Blachernae (Ayvansaray) to the Monastery of Evergetes (Balat) were burned down in a fire started by the Crusaders on 17 July 1203. The Crusaders started an even greater fire on 19 August 1203. This fire is reported to have started at the Mitaton, a building belonging to Muslim merchants, and to have quickly spread. The road starting at the Milion and extending into Şehzadebaşı, and the area between the Forum of Constantine and the Hippodrome, were burned down; the fire spread throughout the area from the Port of Sophia to Langa (Eleutherion). Having an impact on Hagia Sophia and spread by the wind, the fire destroyed everything beautiful in its way. Byzantine historian and eyewitness Nicetas described the fire in agonized terms:
The view was unprecedented. We had numerous fires in our city. However, these were nothing but a spark compared to the last one... Flames spread out in different directions and reunited like a fire river. Porches were toppled, buildings in the marketplace collapsed on top of one another, and large pillars were reduced to ashes.
Noting that the fire continued for two days, another witness, Villehardouin, asserted that “there was such great damage that it was impossible to make calculations.” In the meantime, the inhabitants were in extreme peril and could only visit their relatives by sea. Despite their struggles, people could not prevent the fire from burning their belongings.13
During the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantine Empire from the Crusaders in 1261, Constantinopolitans set ablaze the Crusader neighborhood located near the Golden Horn. Genevan residences were set on fire by inhabitants in 1305. Fire struck the Genevan neighborhood again in 1315, and an accidental fire which started in the Church of Blachernae caused damage in the district.14
Thus, Istanbul suffered from a multitude of fires from the time it became a capital city until it was conquered in 1453 by Fatih the Conqueror, and there was substantial damage from these fires. The city was even confronted with virtual destruction, as during the Nika Riot. Except for the records of the reconstruction work carried out by Emperor Justinian following this riot, historical sources do not include direct information except for other topics regarding the repair or reconstruction of ruined areas by the state. However, it is estimated that the Empire demonstrated enough effort for repair or reconstruction in the city.
Other natural calamities affecting Constantinople were heavy rains and the resulting floods. However, the available records on this subject are limited.
It was recorded that Constantinople suffered from walnut-sized hail in September 404 and that there was extremely heavy rain accompanied by thunder, probably in April 407; an earthquake occurred immediately thereafter.15 The documentary record indicates that the city witnessed floods caused by heavy rain in 467–468, and faced serious peril for the first time. As noted by the Byzantine historian Priscus, the flood formed as a result of three to four days of incessant rain which destroyed the capital; the district of Bithynia was also damaged. All villages were flooded and landslides followed heavy rain.16
The flood in Choirobachos (modern Çatalca) was one of the most striking natural calamities that the German armies faced during the Second Crusade. Armies led by French King Louis VII and German King Conrad participated in the Second Crusade, and their armies set out at different times. Departing first, the German Crusader army led by Conrad destroyed every place it passed in the Byzantine Empire and mistreated the people on the way. Aggressive acts by the army, which started following Sofia, continued in escalation in Philippopolis and Adrianople. Arriving in the plain of Çatalca (Choirobachos) on 7 September 1147, the Germans decided to establish a military camp because there was greenery and an abundant amount of water. However, an unexpected disaster befell them on the night of 7–8 September. Heavy rain, pouring down as if “the dams in the skies were cracked” in Nicetas’s parlance, caused the Karasu (Melas) River to overflow, flooding the German camp. People, animals, and belongings were swept away by the flood into the sea. Because of the great number of lives that were lost as well as property, the Germans immediately abandoned the location and proceeded on their way. However, they were demoralized by the experience. Nicetas reported that Conrad was deeply saddened and abandoned his arrogance and expressed awe that nature was at the disposal of Byzantium and even the seasons exchanged roles in order to assist the Empire. People believed this disaster befell the Germans as a consequence of their malice and that they were being punished by God.17
It is known that it rained like blood in May 1283; however, there does not exist clear information as to what type of impact this had on the city. Nevertheless, it has been noted that incessant heavy rain fell over the area near Galata and Beyoğlu districts for a day and ruined other parts of the city; trees were uprooted in the resulting floods, houses were dragged away, and the city was transformed into a lake. The sea appeared red or black at times due to the heavy rain and floods.18
Interesting incidents occurred during the siege of Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror. One of these was probably the extremely heavy rain on 22 May 1453. Reportedly, while inhabitants of the capital were praying and walking on the streets with an icon of Virgin Mary in their hands, a heavy rain mixed with hail started. The Byzantine historian Kritoboulos noted that people could not even take a step because of the rain. Children would be swallowed by the flood if they were not protected by their parents. This incident was the harbinger of a disaster that would cover the whole country and sweep off everything. A thick fog covered the whole city following the rain.19
Despite the fact that there is not sufficient information in the historical sources, it is understood that the capital Constantinople confronted heavy rains and floods throughout time and was damaged as a result. People went through frightening times, there were significant losses of life and property, and the artifacts were affected by all these calamities. As in all natural calamities, public opinion saw the heavy rain and floods as a punishment from God for their sins.
1 B. C., “Fire”, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, edited by A. Kazhdan, New York :, Oxford University Press, 1991, v. 2, p. 786; M. Hamdi Sayar, “İstanbul’da Geç Antik Devir Yangınları”, İmparatorluk Başkentinden Kültür Başkentine İstanbul, edited by Feridun M. Emecen, Istanbul: Kitabevi Yayınları, 2010, pp. 21-22, 24; Birsel Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda İstanbul’da Doğal Afetler”, Afetlerin Gölgesinde İstanbul: Tarih Boyunca İstanbul ve Çevresini Etkileyen Afetler, edited by Said Öztürk, Istanbul: İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi Çevre Koruma ve Kontrol Daire Başkanlığı Çevre Koruma Müdürlüğü, 2009, p. 30.
2 Hermias Sozomenos, The Ecclesiastical History: History of the Church, pp. 378-379, 384-385; A. M. Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, BZ, 1941, vol. 41, p. 382.
3 Sozomenos, The Ecclesiastical History, p. 401 et seq.; Zosimus, New History, translation by Ronald T. Ridley, Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982, p. 105 et seq.; Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, p. 382.
4 Sozomenos, The Ecclesiastical History, p. 413; Chronicon Paschale: 284-628, translation by Michael Whitby ve Mary Whitby, Liverpool Liverpool University Press,1989, pp. 59-60; Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, p. 383.
5 Chronicon Paschale, pp. 71, 73; Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, p. 383.
6 Chronicon Paschale, pp. 87, 91.
7 Chronicon Paschale, p. 99 et seq.; Ioannes Malalas, The Chronicle of John Malalas, translated by E. Jeffreys, M. Jeffreys and R. Scott, Melbourne : Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1986, p. 221; Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, p. 384; Sayar, “İstanbul’da Geç Antik Devir Yangınları”, s. 23; Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda…”, pp. 33-34; Birsel Küçüksipahioğlu, “Bizans İmparatorluğu Dönemi’nde Doğal Afetler ve Eminönü”, İstanbul’un Kitabı Fatih II, Eminönü-I, edited by Fatih Güldal, Istanbul: Fatih Belediyesi, 2013, p. 125.
8 Chronicon Paschale, p. 114 vd.; Prokopios, History of the Wars, translated by H. B. Dewing, London: Heinemann, 1971, vol. 1, p. 24; Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, pp. 384-385; W. Müller-Wiener, İstanbul’un Tarihsel Topografyası, translated by Ülker Sayın, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2001, pp. 51, 65, 112, 230, 248. Birsel Küçüksipahioğlu, “Bizans İmparatoru Iustinianos Döneminde (527-565) İstanbul”, Tarih İçinde İstanbul Uluslararası Sempozyumu, prepared by Davut Hut, Zekeriya Kurşun and Ahmet Kavas, Istanbul: MTT İletişim ve Reklam Hizmetleri, 2011, p. 157 et seq.
9 Sayar, “İstanbul’da Geç Antik Devir Yangınları”, pp. 23-24; Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda…”, p. 35; Küçüksipahioğlu,, “Bizans İmparatorluğu Dönemi’nde Doğal Afetler…”, p. 126.
10 Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor A.D. 284-813, translated by Cyril Mango and Roger Scoth, New York : Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 347, 353; Schneider, “Brände in Konstantinopel”, p. 385.
11 Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda…”, p. 36; Küçüksipahioğlu, “Bizans İmparatorluğu Dönemi’nde Doğal Afetler…”, p. 126; Ebru Altan, “VIII-XI. Yüzyıllarda İstanbul ve Çevresinde Doğal Afetler”, Afetlerin Gölgesinde İstanbul: Tarih Boyunca İstanbul ve Çevresini Etkileyen Afetler, edited by Said Öztürk, Istanbul: İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi Çevre Koruma ve Kontrol Daire Başkanlığı Çevre Koruma Müdürlüğü, 2009, p. 54.
12 Anna Komnena, Alexiad, translated by Bilge Umar, Istanbul: İnkılap Kitabevi, 1996, p. 314 et seq.; Steven Runciman, Haçlı Seferleri Tarihi, translated by Fikret Işıltan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1989, vol. 1, pp. 115-116; Birsel Küçüksipahioğlu, “Haçlı Seferlerinin Başından 1204’e Kadar Batılıların Bizans’ı Zapt Etme Plânları”, TD, 2005, vol. 42, pp. 50-51.
13 Niketas Khoniates, Historia: Niketas Khoniates’in Historia’sı (1195-1206): İstanbul’un Haçlılar Tarafından Zaptı ve Yağmalanması, translated by Işın Demirkent, Istanbul: Dünya Kitapları, 2004, pp. 114-115, 122 et seq.; G. Villehardouin, Konstantinopolis’te Haçlılar, translated by A. Berktay, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2001, pp. 76, 83 et seq.; D. E. Queller and T. F. Madden, The Fourth Crusade, Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, pp. 119 et seq., 145-147.
14 Ayşe Hür, “Yangınlar: Bizans Dönemi”, DBİst. A, VII, 426-427; Fahameddin Başar, “1251-1453 Yılları Arasında İstanbul’u Etkilemiş Olan Doğal Afetler”, Afetlerin Gölgesinde İstanbul: Tarih Boyunca İstanbul ve Çevresini Etkileyen Afetler, edited by Said Öztürk, Istanbul: İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi Çevre Koruma ve Kontrol Daire Başkanlığı Çevre Koruma Müdürlüğü, 2009, pp. 95-96.
15 Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda…”, p. 21.
16 Priskos, Grek Seyyahı Priskos (V. Asır)’a Göre Avrupa Hunları, translated by Ali Ahmetbeyoğlu, Istanbul: Türk Dünyası Araştırmaları Vakfı, 1995, p. 73; Küçüksipahioğlu, “IV-VII. Yüzyıllarda…”, p. 21.
17 Khoniates, Historia, s. 42-43; Ioannes Kinnamos, Ioannes Kinnamos’un Historia’sı 1118-1176, translation by Işın Demirkent, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu,2001, p. 58 et seq.; Ebru Altan, İkinci Haçlı Seferi, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 2003, p. 34.
18 Başar, “1251-1453 Yılları Arasında İstanbul’u Etkilemiş Olan Doğal Afetler”, p. 96.
19 Kritovulos, İstanbul’un Fethi, translated by Karolidi, prepared by Muzaffer Gökman, Istanbul: Kaknüs Yayınları, 2005, pp. 86-87.