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Constantinople (İstanbul): Sea Walls


The Sea Walls. Photo Marco Prins. The Sea Walls of Constantinople go back to the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, who sacked the city (which was then known as Byzantium) in 195, and ordered its reconstruction in 203. Parts of these walls still exist, for example in the northeast, below the Topkapı Palace, near the confluence of the Golden Horn and  the Bosphorus (cf. the photo below).

During the reign of Theodosius II, in 439, these walls were improved and expanded to connect them to the Land Walls that been built in 412-414. The design is more or less identical, although the Sea Walls are lower. Further improvement was therefore necessary when the Muslims started to build a navy and conquered Cyprus in 643. In 672, the Arab navy entered the Bosphorus; large catapults threatened the city, but the Byzantines retaliated with "Greek fire", a flaming liquid made -according to Marcus Graecus- of sulfur and petroleum, that destroyed the enemy fleet. In 678, the siege was broken off. Still, several emperors improved the walls: they were made higher and were strengthened with square towers. However, they turned out to be the weak spot of the Constantinopolitean defenses: in 1204, the Crusaders breached the Sea Walls and sacked the city.
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The Sea Walls near the Church of S. John of Studius. Photo Marco Prins. The Sea Walls; with Windows from the Boucoleon Palace. Photo Marco Prins. The Sea Walls. Photo Marco Prins.
The Sea Walls, with the ancient Lighthouse. Photo Marco Prins. A Gate in the Sea Walls. Photo Marco Prins. The Sea Walls, close to the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Photo Marco Prins.

Part of the marble decoration of the Royal Gates. Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.Part of the marble decoration of the Royal Gate (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)
The six photos above show several parts of the southern Sea Wall, which is along the Sea of Marmara and has a length of about 8½ kilometers. The first photo on the top row was taken near the Church of Saint John the Forerunner of Studius, in the southwest of the city. The second and third photo show the fortifications near the Bucoleon Palace, south of the imperial palace. It was famous for its relics, which were believed to help defend the city: in the chapel was a crystal phial that contained some of the blood of Christ. (It is possible that this phial is now in the Flemish city of Bruges.) Not far from the Bucoleon was the ancient lighthouse, which is seen on the left-hand photo of the second tier; the modern lighthouse is a stone's throw away from here. The gate on the second photo is still in use and is known as Ahırkapısı. The sixth photo shows the Severan section of the Sea Wall, northeast of the Topkapı Palace, near the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.

The wall along the Golden Horn was about 5½ kilometers long. The beautifully decorated Royal Gates (photo to the left) gave access to the Blachernae palace in the northwest.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 27 August 2008
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