One of Istanbul’s most venerable monuments is the Column of Constantine. It’s called the Hooped Column locally, for obvious reasons, and this in Turkish (Cemberlitas – Chem-ber-lee-tash) gives its name to the neighbourhood. To confuse things further, in English it’s commonly known as the Burnt Column, because over the centuries it was scorched by the numerous fires which broke out amongst the crowded wooden buildings here.
When the plush and sparkling new city of Constantinople was dedicated on 11th May 330 as the capital of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great erected this very column at the heart of his Forum of Constantine to celebrate the event. It was an oval forum rather than the usual oblong one and was lined with columned porticoes. Its original splendour has been compared with that of Bernini’s portico at St Peter’s in Rome, and it would have been surrounded by the usual Roman public buildings such as a Senate, a Praetorium and several churches and temples. It was also decorated with Christian and pagan statues but all that grandeur now lies deep beneath the modern road surface, with only the mutilated remains of the column itself protruding into the air.
The six porphyry drums which surmount the ugly masonry base are hooped with iron bands and at its apex are ten courses of masonry and a marble block. Originally, instead of the present masonry at the top there was a Corinthian capital which supported a statue of Constantine as the god Apollo. The hoops were added in 416 for support and the statue was blown off in a fierce wind in 1106. Five decades later the emperor Manuel I Comnenus put the masonry courses in and added a huge cross to the top of the column.
In the dedication ceremony of 330, a fabulous collection of holy relics was buried within and under Constantine’s column. These included Noah’s hatchet; remains of the loaves Christ used to feed the multitude; bits of the True Cross discovered in Jerusalem by Constantine’s mother Helena; and the stone which Moses struck to make water flow out.
This array of holy hardware obviously worked very well, because Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire survived for more than a thousand years. All good things must come to an end eventually, but the Ottomans were in their own way almost as impressive, and certainly just as colourful.