My Forgotten Footnote To The Haghia Sophia

The Byzantine world claimed another devotee when I discovered the architectural gauntlet thrown down by a scorned princess.

My Near Eastern archaeology baccalaureate program ended with Constantine founding New Rome at Byzantium.  I left the Byzantine world undiscovered when I forgot my college diploma in a rental car and professionally drifted toward pop-culture...tv, music, film. Later when I married a Turk and moved to Istanbul it was natural to neglect Constantinople’s first millennium since Ottoman civilization felt much closer to home.  Then in the summer of 2007 near the aqueduct of Valens, I stumbled over a patch of lumpy turf and found a forgotten footnote to the world’s most famous Byzantine landmark.

Opposite the glass Istanbul Municipality building, a triangular plot of land on Atatürk Bulvarı was inexplicably not developed. Perhaps I could use it.  I needed another attraction to round out the Süleymaniye-area walking tour I was creating for National Geographic Traveler. Travel historian Saffet Emre Tonguç confirmed the overgrown archaeological site above the Haşim Işcan underpass was indeed notable if not much to look at. The sixth century remains of Anicia Juliana’s palace church, Haghios Polyeuktos. I needed more detail. Not for me of course, for National Geographic.

A sensational, gossipy twist:

My friend Edda Renker Weissenbacher, author of books on the Chora church and Iznik tiles, added that the massive ruin, mostly unexcavated, represented a social grudge of royal proportion. A little research showed that the obscure-sounding princess Juliana of the Anicii (462-529) was the wealthiest and most aristocratic resident of Constantinople. She could trace her roots to Constantine the Great and counted other Western and Eastern Roman emperors in her lineage. But the glory was coming to an unbearable end. Offered the throne when a revolt seemed likely her husband, a general, ran off in fear. Her only son had married into the ruling emperor’s family yet the commoners Justin and his nephew Justinian ascended to the throne instead.

Juliana struck back with the most patrician of socio-political weapons: faith-based art and architecture patronage.  By 527 she had enlarged her ancestral church, making it the capital city’s vastest and richest. Carved with pomegranate flowers, cherubim, palmette -- and peacocks, the symbol of empresses –  in pointed ways it proclaimed her fitness for the throne.  At the 2006 Byzantine Studies Congress art historian Matthew Canepa described Juliana’s use of Oriental motifs as the kind of “cross-cultural political savvy” that could only spring from an imperial background, someone familiar with diplomatic gifts and spoils of war from the East.

The project also conveniently sunk her fortune into her own legacy. New peasant dynasts planned to expand the empire but they wouldn’t be doing it on her dime! Kateryna Kovalchuk, a Byzantine doctoral student in Belgium I stalked online, directed me to a 6th century story told by Gregory of Tours which describes Juliana receiving the young Justinian on a fund-raising mission. The princess pointed upwards.  Her gold was pounded into tiles and affixed to the church roof.

Recalling that the adjective ‘byzantine’ characterizes elaborate scheming to gain political power, I checked the date of Juliana’s architectural ultimatum. Polyeuktos, described by scholars as perhaps the most decorated building in history, predated the world-changing Haghia Sophia by ten years. Justinian’s response, and response it was indeed, had a much sparer design and was fifty percent bigger. Other irresistible facts: The emperor’s wife and co-ruler Theodora was the daughter of a bearkeeper and a scandalous carny if ancient historian Procopius was to be believed. He sniped in his Secret History that she raised her skirts “to show off her feminine secrets”.  My scorned princess -- yes Juliana was now mine -- built a pious hot-seat for a low-born ruler and his checkered-past queen!

Why hadn’t the pivotal Juliana and her provocative church lived on in the general imagination? A special-permission visit to the library at verdant Robert College in Arnavutköy showed it wasn’t for lack of trying.

I was now officially losing money on the National Geographic assignment as I pored over dig reports in A Temple for Byzantium by Martin Harrison, head of Harvard University’s Center for Byzantine Studies.  Mysterious relics are often uncovered in Istanbul but when foundations were dug at the civic center in 1960 the marble arches found were unusually explicit. Greek inscriptions identified a ruin known through literature to historians since at least the 10th century. (The grandiose verses, from the Palatine Anthology’s collection of classical and Byzantine poetry, recounted the construction and dynasty of its patroness.)

Houseguests came to town.

I spirited them to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, whose Turkish archaeologists also took part in six seasons of excavations at the site. The small H. Polyeuktos section was crowded by a marble column inlaid with amethyst and green and gold glass that once held a canopy over the altar, as well as epigrammed arches decorated with acanthus vines and feathery tails of peacocks. Preeminent Byzantine historian Steven Runciman detected immense meaning in these few Juliana commissions. He thought they display the elusive origin of Byzantine style: the first combination of Roman craftsmanship, Greek balance and Oriental ornamentation, for the purpose of Christian ritual.

If the technique of Polyeuktos was mid-6th century zeitgeist, Juliana upped the ante with its decidedly nostalgic form. Laid out in the Biblical measurement of royal cubit, the floor plan matched a Holy Writ account of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem – a legendary structure intended to house the Ark of the Covenant and itself modeled after Moses’s moveable Tabernacle. A supremely tough act to follow, even for an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  It’s no wonder when Justinian dedicated his Haghia Sophia he exclaimed ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’  He meant to best the Queen of Kings down the road.

Anicia Juliana has never really been lost to history, or to us.

Along with the throngs, I’ve unwittingly admired her pioneering handiwork scattered in the gardens of the Haghia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace, as well as in the Piazza San Marco in Venice.  Three deeply carved basket weave capitals from the Polyeuktos adorn the western façade of the Venetian basilica, while a majestic duo of pomegranate-flowered piers guard its south door across from the Doges Palace – all plundered during the Fourth Crusade.  Those knights failed to reach Jerusalem to wrest the Temple of Solomon from the Muslims, but returning with Juliana’s inspired replicas I imagine them rationalizing a mission complete.

My own mission has just begun. Juliana awaits underfoot.  Who wants to sign my petition to have the municipality building relocated to a new site?

 

See my Byzantine princess board at Pinterest, and my Ottoman & Byzantine board.