When visiting Istanbul, you will come to admire a lot of architectural styles, many of which date as early as the beginning of the Byzantine period. It is during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, when the Byzantine Empire was at its peak and its architecture also reached its greatest popularity and world recognition, inspiring future architectural builds for centuries to come, until the eventual demise of the empire and the city in 1453.
The very first Byzantine churches were originally square in design with a central floor layout. They were visibly different from the Gothic cathedrals’ “crux ordinaria” because they were constructed after the Greek cross or “crux immissa quadrata”. Early churches may have featured a single, large central dome rising from a square base on half-dome pillars or pendentives.
Byzantine architecture used elements from both Western and Middle Eastern architecture. The Classical Order was abandoned completely in favor of columns with Middle Eastern-inspired ornate impost blocks. Mosaic tales and ornamentation were a very common occurrence.
The early Middle Ages were a period of experimenting with building methods and materials. Clerestory windows were a popular technique to bring natural light and ventilation into a structure that was otherwise gloomy and smoky. Byzantine buildings featured large spaces and sumptuous decoration: marble columns, golden ceilings, a lot of mosaics on the vaults, stone pavements.
Notable periods of the Byzantine Architecture
Early Byzantine Architecture
Emperor Justinian I’s reign, saw the blossoming of Byzantine architecture and art as he went on a construction blitz in Constantinople and, later, Ravenna, Italy. This is when Western architecture saw a breakthrough, transitioning the church’s architectural design from square to circular with a distinct and recognizable dome. This is the period when the churches we associate with this period became standardized, with large domes supported by triangular pillars, and filled with regal ornamentation from mosaics, icons, and Acheiropoieta (the miraculous paintings thought to be created without hands).
Among the buildings from the Early Byzantine period, you can still see today are the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, and the Basilica di San Vitale, Italy.
Middle Byzantine 867-1204
This period is often called the Macedonian Renaissance and is named after Basil I the Macedonian, who, after being king in 867, reopened universities and fostered literature and art, reigniting interest in traditional Greek knowledge and aesthetics. Greek became the Empire’s official language, and libraries and researchers gathered massive collections of ancient writings. The already present basilicas and domes continued to be built, especially when large spaces were needed, but in places like Greece and Turkey, smaller basilicas persevered.
Late Byzantium 1261-1453
The Late Byzantine period began to refurbish and restore Orthodox churches after the Latin Conquest. This is where the decline of the Byzantium Empire started. However, because the Conquest had devastated the economy and left most of the cities in ruins, artists began to use less expensive materials, and small mosaic icons became fashionable. The suffering of the people during the Conquest led to a focus on themes of compassion, such as those depicted in Christ’s sufferings. They were very simple, usually, a hill and a chair were depicted, and very often the people were represented as pastors, as we can see in most of Christ’s paintings.
Examples of Byzantine Architecture
The Hagia Sophia (537), which means “holy knowledge” in Greek, is a huge church with a high dome and a light-filled interior. The Hagia Sophia’s many windows, colorful marble, vivid mosaics, and gold accents were the standard models for Byzantine architecture in the following centuries.
The Mytilene Castle is a medieval fortification on Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. The castle has a complicated history, with layers of walls and towers erected during Justinian I’s reign in the sixth century, John V’s reign in the fourteenth century, and the Ottoman Empire’s reign in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The beach stronghold is the island’s most powerful defense.
The Pantocrator Monastery is the second-largest Byzantine religious structure still standing in Istanbul. The Monastery consists of two different churches and a smaller chapel. All of these structures are made of bricks, with mortar joints that are substantially broader than the bricks themselves.
Basilica of San Vitale
The interior’s exquisite mosaics and sacred objects, including the Throne of Maximianan (mid-11th century), defined the Byzantine style. The shallow dome, placed on a drum, used terra cotta forms for the first time as construction material, while the interior’s exquisite mosaics and sacred objects, including the Throne of Maximianan (mid-11th century), defined the Byzantine style.
Due to its proximity to an earlier basilica, this cistern is known as the Basilica Cistern. It is a fantastic example of Byzantine infrastructure and urban design. There are 336 marble columns in the cistern, some of which are ornately carved and include column capitals, medusa heads, and decorative decorations. The Basilica Cistern is now accessible to the public, and visitors can wander amongst the massive network of columns on raised paths.
Walls Of Constantinople
The final significant fortification system of antiquity was Constantinople’s walls (since 1923) Constantinople has been known as Istanbul). They were continually updated over time, but the most significant works were completed by Constantine the Great in the fourth century and Theodosius II in the fifth century. The walls encircled the city, forming a great land wall on the western edge and a smaller but still powerful sea wall around the city’s eastern, northern, and southern borders.
Walls Of Thessaloniki
Within the Byzantine Empire, Thessaloniki was a powerful city. It was a major seaport with a powerful defense system that rivaled that of Constantinople. The walls stretched across the Heptapyrgion reaching down to the bay. The Heptapyrgion was the city’s primary defense, designed and built as a fortified structure.
Monastery of Our Lady of Saidnaya
Even though the Byzantine administration of Syria was brief in comparison to their dominance of modern-day Greece and Turkey, the Byzantines were nevertheless able to produce many magnificent works of art in the country. The Monastery of Our Lady of Saidnaya is one of Syria’s most magnificent specimens of Byzantine architecture. The monastery was built during the reign of Justinian I, often known as Justinian the Great, as were many of the other structures on this list. Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery was a popular pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages, with many pilgrims stopping through on their way to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, parts of the structure were destroyed during the recent Syrian Civil War, yet despite its antiquity, it is still in excellent condition.
Basilica of Saint Apollinare in Classe
The Basilica of Saint’Apollinare in Classe is the third church erected by Justinian I in the Ravenna region on this list. The church has a linear design in the Roman Basilica style, with the nave and aisles all heading towards the altar. The most important section in this church is the apse, heavily adorned with Byzantine mosaics.
Monastery of Saint John the Theologian
It’s named after Saint John of Patmos, a biblical author who is said to have penned multiple writings. The building’s living quarters are encircled by defensive walls that loom over the village below.
The castle’s initial construction date is uncertain, although historians assume it was erected during the 11th and 12th centuries. The castle’s walls were arranged in three concentric rings, with the innermost being the highest and most powerful.
Several times over the ages, particularly during Justinian I’s reign, the structure was abandoned and rebuilt. The majority of the architecture we see now originates from the Empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine successor state that thrived from the 13th through the 15th century. The monastery is located in a vast natural cave carved into the side of a rock, which provides a private environment.
Walls of Trebizond
Trebizond’s defenses consisted of a complex of walls, towers, gates, and bridges that encircled the medieval city center. Because they have been altered over the years, it is practically difficult to assign an accurate date for their creation. Some of the structure dates from the Roman era, while much of it was built during the reigns of the Byzantine Empire and the Empire of Trebizond. The Empire of Trebizond was a successor of the Byzantine Empire that operated as a distinct entity in the late Middle Ages when the Byzantine Empire declined. Trebizond was one of the major seaports on the Black Sea at the time the fortifications were erected.
Church of St. John the Baptist
This church, presumed to be one of the oldest in Eastern Europe, was built in 757 AD. It features semicircular recesses placed above cross-shaped columns which form the façade. These columns are built on top of marble columns with Corinthian capitals. This sort of architectural element is said to have appeared on basilicas established in the sixth century.
Church of the Holy Apostles
The earliest construction of this church was built in the 4th century, but subsequent emperors would add to it and improve it. Among the capital’s major churches, it was only second in size and importance to Hagia Sophia. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Holy Apostles momentarily became the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarch. Three years later, the Patriarch abandoned the decaying structure, and the patriarchate was relocated to the Pammakaristos Church. The Ottomans destroyed the Holy Apostles Church in 1461 to make space for the Fatih Mosque.
A Roman-Catholic basilica in the town of Porec, Croatia. A great example of early Byzantine architecture. The Euphrasian basilica has mostly preserved its original design, but a few elements have been affected by fires, earthquakes, and other accidents. Because it is the third church to be erected on the same site, it obscures prior structures, such as the 5th-century basilica’s magnificent floor mosaic. It has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1997 because of its extraordinary importance. The Basilica also serves as the Cathedral of the Diocese of Pore-Pula, which is Roman Catholic.
The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora is regarded as one of the most magnificent Byzantine churches still standing. The church is located in the Edirnekap area of Istanbul. During the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, the church was turned into a mosque, and then into a museum in 1948. Fine mosaics and frescoes fill the interior of the structure.
The interesting fact about this church is that it was utilized as an armory for storing weapons until the 19th century, making it one of the few churches in Istanbul that has not been transformed into a mosque. Today, the Hagia Irene serves as a museum and a performance venue.