Constantinople’s Walls: The Alive Memory

26 March 2016


The Walls of the City are the very history of Byzantium. They are the strategic choice that ensured the survival of the Empire for so many years, arming it against “all kinds of danger” and rendering it “invincible” to every attempt on it. One cannot imagine Constantinople without them, one cannot conceive of an architecture glorifying Divine Peace and Divine Wisdom without them. They constituted the defining precondition for the grandeur and glory of the Byzantine world.
From the moment its limits were defined by Constantine the Great until the very last moment of the entry of the Conqueror, the history of the City is connected with its activity in fortification.
At the beginning of the 5th century, New Rome, with its three hundred thousand inhabitants, its dazzling development and its lofty ambitions, felt insecure with its then fortifications. Whatever brilliant it had achieved up to then and whatever admirable lay ahead in terms of the imperial dream had to remain intact from the mania for conquest of the world of the Middle Ages.

Theodosius II, the Little, in 413 fortified the final circumference of the Queen of Cities with a six and a half kilometre double land wall and another fourteen kilometres along the Propontis and the Golden Horn.
This work of fortification, the greatest after the Wall of China, is remarkable not only for its size, but mainly for its technique. It is enough to be told that what we call the land walls are a group of two walls: the inner, great wall which is 13 m high and 3-4 m wide, and the outer wall which is 8 m high and 2 m wide, between which is inserted an oblong space, 18 m wide, the so-called “peribolos or periboleion”. Another space of the same width, the “proteichion” (rampart), separates the outer wall from the 20 m wide ditch, which in times of siege was filled with water by means of a special hydraulic system, based on “diataphrismata” (crossing ditches), many of which were used to supply the City with water until the middle of the 19th century.
About every 48 metres rise 94 large and 80 small towers, cylindrical in form, tetragonal or octagonal, which strengthened the defence provided by the Walls, while about ten large gates, for “general” use, and several smaller ones led out of the City, ensuring the communication of the Queen of Cities with the Thracian hinterland.
The sea walls, with 150 towers and eight gates, which according to the circumstances and the times permitted or prevented the entry of foreign sailors, have been destroyed and have disappeared as a result of uncontrolled reconstruction and road works; they can only be made out here and there by the presence of some ruins. One must look with patience and search carefully to locate the remains of the Great Palace, which once rose proudly above the imperial wharfs of Boukoleon, “where, according to Anna Komnene, the stone lion siezes the bull; it takes hold of the bull’s horn and having broken its neck, the horn is planted in the lion’s neck; hence the whole area is called Boukoleon”.
If, as you wander around the Walls, you happen to wish to interpret writings and inscriptions that decorate towers and gates and about whose origin historians and archaeologists quarrel, you will certainly get lost in the labyrinth of history. Without understanding how, you will arrive at the twilight of legend and myth! Then forget all you have heard and read, and start studying only what rises before you. Raise your head high and gaze at the ramparts of the towers as they project into the blue of the sky. Stand opposite the sealed Golden Gate and call to mind kings and emperors, on their return from victorious battles, passing through it to the cheers of the crowd and the waving of banners with their symbols of power and faith.
Then continue on your way, north, walking along the filled-in ditch, next to the cracked towers that are ready to collapse under the weight of years and because of lack of care. Thus as you walk parallel to the wall, every now and then you will come across an inscription which commemorates and declares the owner or the restorer. You start by reading the beginning of the history, which refers to the building of the outer wall …
You continue with many others:
and towers of many kings and lords: Michael and Theophilos, Angelos Isaakios, Basileios and Constantine, Romanos and others. And all the time attempts to defend the City are increasing, relying on planning, faith and luck.
but the more time goes by and Byzantium becomes smaller and smaller, tending to be limited entirely to within the walls, the more anguish overflows and the hopeless attempt of effective fortification at the last minute is recorded: t John in Christ Emperor Palaeologos restored the whole fortress in the year (ςϠ΄μ΄ α’) 1433, John in Christ loyal to God King and Emperor Palaeologos in the month of August of the year (ςϠ΄μ΄ θ’) 1441 Constantine Palaeologos being emperor.
You follow history as you inspect the Walls, now from outside, now from inside, until without realizing it you have arrived below the Palace of Constantine — “Ta Kyrou”. You raise your head to admire its harmony one more time. But as you slowly lower your gaze which ecstatically was examining the decoration in the arch of the windows, you become aware of that unimportant small gate through which “the soldiers poured … into the city”. It is the Kerkoporta. The Kerkoporta of the walls or of fate or strength or planning or provision, forever present, always dangerous, continually lurking. A monument to waste and carelessness.
(translated by R. Rooke)

 Chapter of the photographic album of M. Plato “To the Queen of cities”