Accidental Discoveries: The Search for Byzantine Eagles in Modern Istanbul
Gary Audas Jr.
A traveler would be hard pressed to discover overt displays of Byzantine lordship in modern Istanbul, the successor to the imperial city of Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire.
When Constantinople at long last fell to the armies of the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it ended an empire that stretched from the fourth to the fifteenth century (330-1453). Most vestiges of the long lived Byzantine Empire; were erased or coopted by the Ottomans for their own uses; notable exceptions being; magnificent churches such as Haghia Sophia, the great palaces of Blachernae and Bucleon, and the indomitable Theodosian Walls, long the shield protecting Western Europe from invaders as diverse as the Avars, Arabs, Rus, and Bulgars . Each still stands today, albeit in various form of decay and disrepair.
Commonly associated with the Roman Empire in the east is the double headed eagle; representing an empire stretching east and west, the occident and the orient, ruling over portions of Europe and Asia, as well as the dual sovereignty of the emperor in both secular and religious matters.
(Coat of Arm of Palaiologos Dynasty)
On two occasions I was able to track down two separate examples of these elusive displays of Byzantium’s past glory. The first in 2008 while spending the day with my wife Sandra hiking up and down the Theodosian land walls, exploring the crumbling guard towers, walking through Muslin cemeteries that abut the walls, and posing for pictures at the gate where Mehmet the Conqueror, the Ottoman Sultan, with the help of massive siege cannons ended over one thousand years of Christian rule.
The second, and possibly more rare find, in 2012 while sightseeing in sections of Istanbul that hold the still best examples of Byzantine church architecture, St. Savior in Chora, the Church of the Pantocrator, and the Church of St. John of Studious.
(Entry Point of the Turkish Armies 1453/Gary Audas 2008)
Not far from the site of the current archaeological excavation at Yenikapi, workers and scientists have been unearthing the remains of some 35 sunken ships at the old Byzantine harbor which had silted over, probably in the 10th century, sits the Turkish castle of Yedikule. Built at the southern section of the great land walls it offers dramatic views of the Marmara Sea. Current guide books list Yedikule as one of the only places to view an actual Eagle up close.
Spending part of the day wondering through the castle looking for traces of the Eagle to no avail, I finally sought out and asked one of the guards on duty at the site for help. My Turkish is beyond nonexistent, so I kept pointing at the picture of the eagle in the guide book and waving my arms around the breadth of the castle. The guards quietly took the book and led us to the back of the castle, through a portal and quietly opened a locked gate, pushed it open and let us walk through to the grassy area beyond. Scouring the area, we weren’t able to find our Eagle, but it slowly dawned on me that we had just walked through the “Golden Gate.”
Built by Theodosius, possibly as a triumphal arch, it had been the entrance to the city used by the emperors and their retinues.
(Golden Gate from the Inside of Yedikule Castle)
Disappointment at not finding the Eagle was quickly overcome by the sensation that we were getting to walk where the greatest emperors had walked. Justinian, Basil and Alexius had entered their city by these gates and by accident we had been allowed in.
As we walked out of Yedikule, I turned to get that last look of something that to me was so amazing, and sitting discretely over the traffic entry gate next to the castle was the Byzantine Eagle we had spent most of the day looking for. Not marked with anything to call attention to it, just quietly observing the passing traffic.
(Byzantine Eagle 2008/Gary Audas Jr.)
(Byzantine Eagle at Yedikule Gate 2008/Gary Audas)
Accidental sightings of Byzantine Eagles seem to be my forte. In May of 2012 while again visiting Istanbul, I found myself semi-lost in the Fatih District of the city. The area dominated by Fatih Mosque the site final resting place of Mehmet the Conqueror. The Mosque complex is built on the ruins of the Church of the Holy Apostles the burial site and place of worship of Byzantium’s Christian Emperors. It is also the area where many of the still standing and non-converted Christian Churches still stand; St. Savior in Chora, with its mosaics and frescoes chronicling scenes from Christian pageantry is most conspicuous among the many.
Loosely following the pre-printed Google map I had made for reference, turning the map to mirror the street signs and corners with what I thought were points and guides along my journey, I eventually found most of the churches and buildings I was looking for (I need remember to bring the hand-held GPS my wife got me for Christmas next time). Looking around and trying to decide to go left or right, east or west, north or south, I found what I wasn’t even looking for. A second Byzantine Eagle, part of the rear wall of a crumbled building. Nondescript and an indictment of the current state of antiquities in Turkey, it might not last to much longer without preservation or at the very least attention.
(Byzantine Double Headed Eagle/Gary Audas Jr. 2012)
The Eagles stands watch in two very different ways, witness to the new world that replaced their long ruling Empire. One, on display and prominently placed, sees modern Istanbul, bustling with traffic and the commerce of the modern Turkish state, the successor of the Ottoman Empire, the other sits quiet, unnoticed, and in a state of decay waiting to be rediscovered, almost gone from memory, but not quite. It is still there if you look for it.