Imperial and ecclesiastical processions played an important role in the public life of Byzantine Constantinople. We are relatively well informed about these processions from a number of sources, but since our knowledge of the Byzantine street system is rather limited, the routes they took through the city are not always clear.
At the time of the founding of Constantinople in 324, a number of overland roads already existed outside of Byzantium, which remained in use when the city was enlarged, first by Constantine and then by Theodosius. The most important street was the Mese, the “middle street,” which ran from the city center to the Capitol, roughly at the location of the present-day Lâleli Camii. From the Capitol, the road split, with one branch leading southwest to the main gate of the city and the other leading to the northwest. Almost all public places of Constantinople outside the old town of Byzantium were later built along these two roads. The coastal roads along the shores of the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn also date back to the time before Constantine’s refoundation. These main streets were wide, with colonnades on both sides, and so even that they could be used with carriages; in contrast, many of the minor streets that gave access to the new residential neighborhoods of Constantinople lay on steep slopes, and sometimes were equipped with stairs.
The street layout inside the old town of Byzantium can roughly be reconstructed from the alignments of the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, and other buildings. After the founding of Constantinople in 324, first a new quarter overlooking the Golden Horn was built, with main streets running from south to north; among them was the so-called makros embolos, the “long portico,” whose successor is called Uzunçarşı Caddesi today. The remaining part of the city up to the Constantinian Wall was slowly filled with a street system, which can be reconstructed from the position of the gates in the sea walls and from the old passages through the aqueduct.
About the imperial and ecclesiastical processions in Byzantine Constantinople we are informed mainly by two sources. One of them is the Typikon of Hagia Sophia, from the early tenth century, which lists all ecclesiastical celebrations and processions in which the clergy of the patriarchate were involved. The Book of Ceremonies was compiled some decades later, on the order of the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetus; it describes protocols for a large number of imperial ceremonies. Not all of these protocols were active at the time the book was compiled; some were included out of historical interest. The emperor’s duties included his presence at ceremonies of both the state and the church, among them a large number of ecclesiastical processions on high holidays.
If we compare the protocols of the Typikon and the Book of Ceremonies for the processions on the same days, we notice differences between them, which are remarkable if we consider how close in time the two documents are to each other.
For obvious reasons, most processions in the early and middle Byzantine era moved through Constantinople along the colonnaded main streets, and entered the residential neighborhoods only in order to visit churches there.
The great processions on high holidays were performed under the personal direction of the patriarch and usually started at Hagia Sophia. The Typikon mostly mentions only the final destination of the procession, and as the only station in between, the Forum of Constantine.
The fact that ecclesiastical celebrations were held at the Forum is remarkable, for this public square had definitely not been built by Constantine for such a purpose, but rather for a semi-pagan cult of his own personality: a statue of the emperor in the shape of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun god, stood on a column, with a globe and spear in his hands, wearing a radiate crown. This column today is called the Çemberlitaş. In the early Byzantine age the difference between state ceremonies and ceremonies of the church was still observed, and so the Forum was reserved for state ceremonies, such as the commemoration of the founding of Constantinople on 11 May.
By the late ninth century, Constantine’s syncretistic religious concepts had long been forgotten, and he was venerated almost like a saint himself. During this time a small chapel was built in the Forum, at the foot of the column, and it was probably only after this event that the square could be used as a regular station for ecclesiastical processions. According to the Typikon of Hagia Sophia, many such processions went first to the Forum and then returned to Hagia Sophia or another church in the vicinity.
The church that was visited most frequently by processions coming from Hagia Sophia, either via the Forum or directly, was the nearby church of the Chalkoprateia, on the northern side of the Basilika (Yerebatan Sarayı), which has now completely disappeared. This church was dedicated to the Mother of God, and its great age and size made it a suitable ending point for such processions.
Almost as important as a destination of ecclesiastical processions was the Church of the Apostles, at the location of the present Fatih Camii, almost 4 kilometers from Hagia Sophia. The processions took a longer route only on a few occasions, for example to the Monastery of Pege (Balıklı), or even to the military center at the seventh milestone, the Hebdomon (Bakırköy), which is more than 10 km from the city center.
Only a few of the processions described in the Typikon had a starting place other than Hagia Sophia, such as the procession that took place on the day of the apostles Peter and Paul, 29 June. This celebration started with a service in the church of these saints in the orphanage at the old Acropolis (Topkapı Sarayı); then a procession went from there to Hagia Sophia and back.
On the day of Saint Stephanus (2 August), the procession started at the Zeugma (Unkapanı) on the shore of the Golden Horn and went uphill to the aqueduct where the saint was buried in a church close to the palace of Konstantianai. The special route of this procession is explained by the fact that it reproduced the interpretation of the relics of Stephanus: According to the legend, the ship that transported the relics to Constantinople in 439 had landed at the Zeugma because the relics were meant to be brought to the Church of the Apostles. But the mules that pulled the car with the coffin of the saint stopped at the palace of Konstantianai and could not be moved, so the church had to be built at this place.
A similar case is the procession in memory of Saint John Chrysostom on 27 January, where the translation from the Church of Saint Thomas of Amantios on the south coast (near modern Kumkapı) to the Church of the Apostles was repeated. Here, however, the procession started at Hagia Sophia, went downhill on the west side of the Hippodrome to this church, then again up to the Mese and to the Church of the Apostles along the usual route.
Most of the imperial processions described in the Book of Ceremonies took place within the Great Palace. Although this palace seems to have been accessible for everybody during the day, it was not a public space in the strict sense, and may be excluded from consideration here.
The imperial ceremonies were extremely important for the Roman and Byzantine idea of the state, since they provided, in a certain sense, a substitute for its lack of a constitution: if the emperor appeared in public in the city, this was always staged in a ceremonial way, usually with great sumptuousness. Even the short procession from the Great Palace to a church service in Hagia Sophia was used to carry out an impressive ceremony. Such an event was recorded in 912 by Harun Ibn Yahya, an Arabian prisoner of war. At this time, only the southern part of the Great Palace was still inhabited, and the usual route from there to Hagia Sophia did not pass through the slowly decaying northern part or through the old imperial gate of Chalke (whose remains have recently been rediscovered southeast of Hagia Sophia), but through another gate under the emperor’s box into the Hippodrome and then through it to the north.
The scheduled route for this procession was, as Harun Ibn Yahya wrote, strewn with herbs and other plants, and decorated with brocade carpets hung up on either side of the route. In the procession itself, the emperor was preceded by representatives of the circus factions in their red, white, green, and blue robes, by eunuchs and pages from the palace, the 12 patricians, and a number of officials, while the prime minister followed after the emperor. On the way, the emperor performed several repentance rites; since Harun Ibn Yahya mentioned that he wore one red boot and one black boot (instead of the red boots allowed to the emperor), and since a parallel tradition of Harun Ibn Yahya called him a half-emperor, it seems that on this occasion the emperor was actually represented by a caesar. While Harun Ibn Yahya greatly exaggerated the number of participants, it is obvious that the procession described by him was actually a rather small one—which means that it lacked ceremonial receptions along the way, as described for similar occasions in the Book of Ceremonies.
The Book of Ceremonies describes a number of great processions on ecclesiastical holidays in which the emperor and the patriarch took part. As mentioned before, it is impossible to reconcile these reports with those in the Typikon, in which purely ecclesiastical processions (with no participation by state officials) are described for the same days. There is no reason to believe that the emperor’s participation was an element that was added only in the course of the tenth century. The differences, therefore, cannot be explained only by the slightly earlier date of the Typikon. The only plausible explanation is that the presence of the imperial court at such processions was desirable but not mandatory, and that the Book of Ceremonies describes protocols that were not actually carried out every year.
The procession of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary on 25 March may serve as an example of how different the reports in the two sources are. The Typikon of Hagia Sophia describes the liturgy of the patriarch’s procession as follows:
At the Forum, the “praise be to God” is sung, and the deacon recites the great intercession. Then the singers begin the same chant [as before in Hagia Sophia], the procession turns back to the Chalkoprateia and sings the “praise be to God” there.
The Book of Ceremonies describes the same day (the translation quoted is Ann Moffatt’s, with revisions):
[The emperor] goes along the Mese and goes up to the Forum of Constantine, going along as far as the Column where the Chapel of St. Constantine is situated. He goes up the stairs in front of the chapel and stands there and rests on the right-hand side of the barrier. When he is about to go up the said steps he gives the processional candle to the praipositos. The patricians and the Senate stand below near the columns. Likewise the rest of the regiments stand in the middle of the Forum, to either side, while the protospatharioi and the rest of the emperor’s men stand to the right of the emperor in the middle of the Forum, and likewise to the left. When the patriarch arrives with the procession he goes through the middle of them. The city administration stands to the left-hand side of the procession, towards the Senate House, and the orphans stand in the middle of the title-holders. As the cross is about to go up the stairs where the emperor stands, the emperor lights candles and makes obeisance before the cross, and hands them back to the praipositos, and he to the master of ceremonies, and he fixes them in processional candle-holders. The cross stands in the middle behind the emperor near the door of the church, and the patriarch goes up into the church with those who customarily go with him. The rest of the clergy stand below with the ordinary people to the left of the emperor. While the prayer of supplication is being conducted, the emperor lights candles and prays, and hands them back to the praipositos, and he to the master of ceremonies, and he fixes them in the processional candleholders. The emperor goes down via the steps and, taking a processional candle from the praipositos and escorted by all those previously mentioned, he goes through the Anteforum and into the colonnade near the Palace of Lausos. From there he goes away to the church of the most holy Mother of God of Chalkoprateia.
It is also mentioned here that in case of windy weather the procession went through one of the porticoes of the Mese instead of the middle of the square, and that the whole ceremony was performed in the old Senate House at the Forum, which had otherwise been out of use for some centuries.
The Book of Ceremonies describes processions on several occasions during which the emperor was received at different stations of his route by the members of the so-called demes or circus factions—that is, the Blues and Greens, plus the Whites and Reds, which had actually been absorbed by the Blues and Greens a long time before. These receptions were performed by the leaders of these demes, called the demokrates and demarchos; the higher-ranking demokrates were, at the same time, also the commanders of two palace guards. The receptions took place at suitable points along the street, mostly public squares or open stairways; on the most common procession, from the Golden Gate (Yedikule) to the palace, they numbered between eight and ten. As an example, the text of the protocol describing the way back from the sanctuary of Pege (Balıklı) on the day of Ascension is quoted here in full, with the modern place names, where known, added in brackets:
Note that on the feast of the Ascension, when the rulers recline at table, the same ceremonial and ritual takes place as on the Monday of Renewal Week, that is to say, the acclamations of the two factions and everything as previously described, except that the Blues recite the chant, plagal mode 1: “Having found in you alone a holy spring, an ever-living stream, all-holy Mother of God, we Christians entreat you and appeal to you with unceasing voice: protect so-and-so and so-and-so with the wings of your intercession until the end.” The marching song, mode 4: “We, the people, fittingly praise you, the bridal-chamber of Christ, through whom Christ shone forth in the flesh for mortals. Mother of God, save the rulers as luminaries for the exaltation of the world and of the Blues who always have you as their strength and help.” The Greens recite the chant, plagal mode 4: “Virgin, Mother of God the Word, the spring of life for the Romans, fight alone alongside the rulers in the purple, who received their crown from you, since those in the purple have in you an invincible shield against all!” Another, mode 4: “We Christians having you, the all-holy, as our hope of refuge and salvation and promise of support, appeal to you as our shelter: favour (the rulers) with the wings of your intercession; for they have in you the strength that brings victory against enemies.”
For this feast the receptions take place as follows:
Reception 1, outside the vault of the colonnade, just where the column stands. The demokrates of the Blues, that is, the domestikos of the scholai, with the Peratic deme of the Blues, receives them there.
Reception 2, at the Aqueduct, where the water flows out. The demokrates of the Greens, that is, the exkoubitos, receives them there.
Reception 3, at Saint Mokios (near the Çukurbostan of Altımermer). The demarchos of the Blues, with the White deme, receives them there.
Reception 4, at the Exakionion (Altımermer, the Turkish name being a rendering of the Greek expression “with six columns”). The demarchos of the Greens with the Red deme receives them there.
Reception 5, on the Dry Hill (Avret taşı), opposite the Chapel of St. Kallinikos. The demarchos of the Greens, along with the White deme, receives them there.
Reception 6, at the Ox (near Murat Paşa Camii). The demokrates of the Greens, that is, the domestikos of the exkoubitoi, receives them there.
Reception 7, at ta Amastrianou (near Bodrum Camii). The demokrates of the Blues, that is, the domestikos of the scholai, receives them there.
Reception 8, at the Philadelphion (Lâleli). Continuing on back, the demarchos of the Blues, with the White deme, holds a reception there.
Reception 9, at the Bull (Lâleli). The demarchos of the Greens, with the Red deme, receives them there.
Reception 10, in the Arch of the Bakers (above Kapalıçarşı). Continuing on back, the demarchos of the Greens, with the Red deme, holds a reception there.
Reception 11, on the Forum (Çemberlitaş). Continuing on back, the demarchos of the Greens, with the Red deme, holds a reception there.
Reception 12, in the Praetorium. The demarchos of the Blues, with the White deme, receives them there.
Reception 13, in the Arch of the Milion (in front of Yerebatan). Continuing on back, the demarchos of the Blues, with the White deme, holds a reception there.
Again, a little after this reception, the demokrates of the Greens, that is, the exkoubitos, with the Peratic deme of the Greens, receives them.
Again, after a little, continuing on back, the demarchos of the Greens, with the Red deme, hold a reception there opposite the Achilleus, near the Gate of Melete.
Again a little after this reception, the demokrates of the Blues, that is, the domestikos of the scholai, with the Peratic deme of the Blues, receives them at the barrier of the Chalke.
It should be known that the acclamations for the receptions take place just as on the Monday of Renewal Week. The chants of the Blues, which they recite as dromika: “Hail, most powerful sovereign,” and what follows. The marching song: “Divinely crowned benefactors, having the Virgin as unassailable protection and shelter, and glorying in her immaculate intercession, you are invincible to opposing nations. On the day of battle she shields your heads and shows you crowned with victories, for the good fortune and glory of the Romans.”
The protocol concludes with the texts of a number of additional songs of similar content.
Processions of this kind must have lasted for several hours and covered long distances on foot. The Book of Ceremonies records that some of them were shortened, at least for the emperor and his close entourage: often the emperor went out by horse and only his return was a regular procession with receptions, or the other way round. At the Annunciation procession (discussed above), the emperor was even received while sitting on horseback on his return from the Chalkoprateia church to the palace.
Another way to make processions shorter was to go one way by boat. In sources predating the tenth century, processions that included boat trips, be they ecclesiastical or imperial, are mentioned only in cases where no other way was possible—for example, if the Bosphorus had to be crossed when the emperor returned from a campaign in Asia Minor. In the age of the Book of Ceremonies and shortly thereafter, however, the picture changed. A good example of this is the famous procession to the Blachernai Church of the Mother of God, which was northwest of the city in modern Ayvansaray.
The first procession that we know of to the Blachernai church was carried out when a great famine struck Constantinople in 602, and was led by Emperor Maurikios personally. Although the route from the palace to the church is not described in detail, it is clear that this procession passed through the Forum and the makros embolos to the Golden Horn shore and along it to the northwest. The procession was performed on the feast of Hypapante, that is, the Purification of Mary, on 2 February. However, his ostensible humility did not help Maurikios on that day; the discontented mob threw stones at him, and he barely escaped into a house on the way. This was the beginning of the events that led to Maurikios’s overthrow and violent death at the end of the same year.
We do not know what changes occurred later to this procession. According to the Book of Ceremonies, the feast of Hypapante was celebrated in the palace and church at the Blachernai, where the emperor had already arrived the evening before. Only in some special cases were these ceremonies preceded by a procession from the Great Palace to Hagia Sophia, and in any case, the emperor made his way from there to the Blachernai by horse, on the same route that the procession once had taken. Other sources tell us that a number of emperors, among them Theophilos, regularly went to the Blachernai church on horseback for prayer, or to the holy bath connected to the sanctuary.
Regarding the late tenth century, the so-called Patria of Constantinople, a popular local history of the city, tells a somewhat delicate story: it is claimed that a statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite stood on a column at the Zeugma, near an old brothel from Constantine’s time. This statue had the magical power to test girls and women suspected to have committed adultery. If such a woman approached the statue and was found guilty, her dress was lifted by a supernatural force. The story ends with the following words:
The sister-in-law of the former kouropalates iustinos [this is Justin II, who reigned from 565 to 578] destroyed the statue because her private parts had been shown when she had committed adultery and went by horse to the Blachernai bath, because an exceedingly strong rain had fallen, and it was impossible to go by boat.
There is no doubt that all this, including the non-supernatural parts of the story, is pure invention. But the fact remains that in that time, the route by boat already was regarded as normal, and horses were used only in case of bad weather.
The Book of Ceremonies also mentions a number of other imperial processions by boat, which led to the Pege monastery, the church of Kosmas and Damianos on the upper Golden Horn (near Zal Mahmut Paşa or Eyüp), the Studios monastery (İmrahor Camii), and the church of Panteleemon at ta Narsou (Gedikpaşa). In such cases, only the immediate entourage of the emperor went by boat, while the other participants, including the patriarch, had to go there beforehand on foot so that they could receive the emperor at the landing pier. The procession itself was then reduced to the short route from the pier to the church.
When the Komnenos family decided to make the Blachernai palace their main residence in the late eleventh century, one of the results was that the traditional imperial procession routes had to be abandoned. Imperial triumphs were no longer staged on the traditional route from the Golden Gate, which went along the Mese, touching the public squares and monuments. Instead, the emperor landed in the eastern part of the city close to the promontory which is now called the Sarayburnu, and paraded from there to Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and the old palace. This route of about 1,200 meters was less than half the length of the old route; it allowed a more impressive concentration of decorations and cheering crowds, but was rather uncomfortable to walk or ride because it led steeply uphill at the beginning. At one triumphal march in 1133, not only the Turkish prisoners of war and mules bearing the booty, but also representatives of the circus factions marched in the procession in front of the emperor. This indicates that the traditional receptions by the circus factions along the route had been given up by this time, although the route was certainly long enough to accommodate them. Thus the protocol of imperial triumphs had become similar to that of short ecclesiastical processions, such as the procession from the old palace to Hagia Sophia described by Harun Ibn Yahya.
We may assume that the emperor went on this route every time he took part in an ecclesiastical procession to Hagia Sophia, or in a ceremony staged in the Hippodrome or in the old palace: he arrived at the starting point of the procession by boat, either from the Asian shore, if he was returning from a campaign, or from his residence in the Blachernai palace. This boat route on the Golden Horn was probably the reason that two gates in the sea wall were called basilike pyle, the imperial gate, in the late Byzantine era. One of these gates was close to the pier where the emperor boarded the boat at the Blachernai palace, the other one was close to the pier where he landed. The eastern imperial gate has not been identified with certainty; it may have been the former Gate of Saint Barbara at Sarayburnu, or the Gate of Eugenios close to Yalıköşkü, east of the Sirkeci railway station.
The last known triumphal entry into Constantinople, which entered through the Golden Gate, was celebrated by Michael Palaiologos when he took the city back from the Crusaders in 1261.
The ecclesiastical processions, in which both the emperor and the patriarch took part, were probably performed until the late eleventh century in the way described by the Typikon and the Book of Ceremonies. After that time, however, their routes must have changed completely: as the emperor now started his route from the Blachernai palace, while the patriarch still lived near Hagia Sophia, two independent itineraries had to be followed at the same time. Also, in the course of time, a number of old churches that had been visited by processions fell into ruins, and new imperial buildings, such as the Mangana (on the east coast below Hagia Sophia) and Pantokrator monasteries (Zeyrek Camii), had to be inserted in the itineraries instead.
We do not know when and how these changes were gradually introduced, but we know the final stage of development of ecclesiastical processions in Constantinople. It is described in a text known as Pseudo-Kodinos, which was compiled around 1350 and which is our last source for imperial and ecclesiastical processions in Constantinople. By this time, the Byzantine empire had been reduced to a small state, so that the resources required for holding court as in previous centuries no longer existed. As a result, the imperial protocol had become much simpler. The high ecclesiastical holidays, on which the emperor had visited Hagia Sophia in the old days, were now celebrated in the palace and church of the Blachernai; the ceremonies began with the emperor’s morning prayer in front of his bedroom, where a portable iconostasis was set up. The old ceremonial route through the city was used only rarely; the Forum—or rather the column of Constantine, which was all that remained of it—was visited by an imperial procession only on 1 September, the first day of the Byzantine year, and perhaps on the anniversary of the city’s founding on 11 May. The Chalkoprateia church did not exist anymore, and so the processions, which commemorated the various days of the Mother of God, went to a number of other churches, such as the monasteries of Lips (Fenarî İsa Camii) and Peribleptos (Sulu Manastır). The day of Hypapante, on 2 February, was celebrated in the Blachernai church, and only the dormition was celebrated in Hagia Sophia. The memory of Constantine and of the Apostles was still honored in the church of the Apostles. On the day of Demetrios, the emperor went to the new monastery of Demetrios, which Michael Palaiologos had founded. Saint Basileios was celebrated in his monastery on the Golden Horn, Saint George in the Mangana, and Saint John the Baptist in his monastery at Petra in the northwestern part of the city, which has now disappeared. Finally, the transfiguration of Christ was commemorated in the Pantokrator monastery.
Pseudo-Kodinos reveals little about how the emperor went to these places, but we may suppose that he usually did this by horse or by boat. The route to the church of the Apostles probably still led through the old northern main street, but came from the city gate near the Blachernai palace and not from downtown. Only on three occasions, when the emperor went to the Blachernai church or the monastery of Petra, is he described as riding on horseback and being escorted by the Warangian guards on foot, bearing their axes on their shoulders. This suggests that such a procession did not take place on the other days, but only on the way to these two nearby sanctuaries.
Berger, Albrecht, “Imperial and ecclesiastical processions in Constantinople”, in Byzantine Constantinople: Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life, ed. Nevra Necipoğlu, Leiden: Brill, 2001, pp. 73–87.
Berger, Albrecht, “Sightseeing in Constantinople: Arab travellers, ca. 900–1300”, in Travel in the Byzantine World. The 34th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, ed. Ruth Macrides, Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002, pp. 179–191.
Macrides, Ruth, Joe Munitiz and Dimiter Angelov (ed.), Pseudo-Kodinos and the Constantinopolitan Court Offices and Ceremonies, Farnham , Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate, 2013.
Moffatt, Ann and Maxeme Tall (tr.), The Book of Ceremonies, Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 2012.