Byzantine architecture is the building style of Constantinople, now Istanbul, formerly ancient Byzantium after AD 330. Byzantine architects at first draw heavily on Roman temple features.
But they carved their own signature style in the next years. Fun fact: Byzantine architecture might be descendant to Roman architecture, but it also fall in the group of Islam architecture. That is because the Byzantine Empire interaction with Islamic culture had a profound effect on its art. Islamic leaders were impressed by Byzantine mosaics and invited people to work on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
At the same time, Byzantine artists adapted Islamic motifs in their own work.
The architecture of Constantinople extended throughout the Christian East and in some places like Russia.
Who were the Byzantines?
What was the Byzantine Empire? Who were the people in the empire? The simplest explanation is the Byzantine were the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire which survived from the 5th century CE until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE.
The Romans and Byzantines were very similar. They had a similar government structure, cultural values, and both remained some of the most influential powers in their time.
Byzantine rulers referred to themselves as Romans. The term Byzantine Empire didn’t even emerge until long after the fall of the empire in 1453.
There are three main differences between the Byzantine and Roman Empire. The first one is that the population spoke Greek, they were mainly Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the capital was in Constantinople.
Byzantine Architecture main Characteristics
As we said before, mosaics were the signature characteristic of Byzantine architecture and Byzantine style. These mosaics illustrated religious scenes and important historical figures. Mosaics decorated the walls and ceilings of many different churches from the period.
Byzantine artists created mosaics for the Empire, but also for Venetians and Norman Kings of Sicily.
The round arch was highly utilized by the Ancient Romans. It remained an important feature in Byzantine architecture as well. They were the main defining characteristics of the Romanesque style as well. And that style was heavily influenced by Byzantine works of architecture.
Roman and Greek influence
The column capitals found in many Byzantine buildings evolved from the original big three types of Greek Columns, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. For example, the column at the Hagia Sophia still has the overall proportions of other Ancient Greek Columns.
Best Examples of Byzantine Architecture
Byzantines were master builders. They created some of the most incredible and amazing works of architecture all over their empire and beyond. At the same time, they invented building techniques, styles, and technologies. Some of their work remains intact to this day to serve as witness to their greatness.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
This is the best and greatest example of Byzantine architecture. It remains the biggest museum of Byzantine mosaics and art. Built under the reign of Justinian I, or better known as Justinian the Great.
The period of his rule is known as the high point of Byzantine history. Think about this for a second. This church at the time (nowadays mosque), was constructed in just 5 years and 10 months.
That is impressive considering that cathedrals in Europe at the time took about 100 years to complete. At the time of its completion it was the largest building in the world. And the Dome of Hagia Sophia was the largest dome in the world, surpassing the one of the Pantheon in Rome.
When the Ottomans took over Constantinople, the church was converted into a mosque. Turks also modified the building, adding in prayer halls and four large stone minarets.
Basilica of Saint’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy
Ravenna was conquered by the Byzantines in 540C and they made it their regional capital city on the Italian mainland. The basilica was heavily influenced by Byzantine architecture. Most of the mosaics were completed by Byzantine craftsmen.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
This place was originally a host to chariot races and related activities. It was also the site of a series of political upheavals and social unrest.
Much of the once richly decorated hippodrome is long gone. Yet, many statues and obelisks remain like the Serpent Column, Obelisk of Thutmose III and Walled Obelisk.
One of the earliest churches built in the Byzantine capital, it was commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine the great. Unfortunately, the original church was destroyed during the Nika riots in 532. Yet, Emperor Justinian I had it rebuilt in the mid-6th century.
Hosios Loukas, Greece
This monastery in the Greek town of DIstomo (near Delphi) is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture from the so-called Second Golden Age.
In 1990, the monastery was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was famous for its splendid decoration including lavish mosaics, frescoes, and marble works.
This place is also part of UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is another example of the Middle Byzantine Period. Built in the 11th century on a site of an earlier monastery.
It is situated on the top of a 1,000 feet tall hill on the island of Corfu, Greece. It was one of the most important Byzantine strongholds in the Ionian Sea. The castle played a key role in the defence of the island. It withstood three sieges by the Ottomans.
Church of Saint Catherine, Thessaloniki
As you can see, much of the Byzantine architecture spread to the rest of the world, not just Constantinople.
This church in the old town of Thessaloniki is one of the most beautifully preserved Byzantine churches in the world. Fun fact: it served as a mosque for much of its existence.
Walls of Constantinople
The walls of Constantinople were the last great fortification system of antiquity. They were modified continuously over time. But the major construction was done by Constantine the Great in the 4th century and Theodosius II in the 5th century.
They wrapped the entire city, creating a large land wall on the western edge. They are still largely intact today.
These walls helped the Byzantine Empire defend the city for more 1,000 years. Finally, in 1453 the Ottoman Empire was able to conquer the city after a 7-week siege with cannons.
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
When you walk outside the Hagia Sophia, you are actually walking over underground water storage tank. The cistern is an incredible example of Byzantine infrastructure and urban planning.
The space can hold up to 2,800,000 cubic feet of water. Or to put it in simple terms, 32 Olympic size swimming pools worth of liquid.
Heptapyrgion and Walls of Thessaloniki
During the reign of the Byzantine, Thessaloniki was an important seaport. It contained a formidable fortification system that could even rival Constantinople.
Monastery of the Panocrator, Istanbul
It is the second-largest Byzantine Religious building that still exists in Istanbul. Made up of two separate churches and a smaller chapel, they were constructed using brick masonry with mortar joints.
It was a technique typical for Byzantine architecture and one that can be seen in buildings all over Greece, Anatolia, and the Balkans.
Following the Ottoman conquest, the Monastery was converted into a mosque. It is now called Zeyrek Mosque.
The influence of Byzantine architecture can be seen all over Europe. The Byzantines spread their culture and influence through conquest. But many also tried to imitate Byzantine art. For centuries, Constantinople was the capital of Christianity.
Christian rulers everywhere tried to capture the prestige of its glorious buildings. For example, in the 11th century, the CE Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice copied a Byzantine model which was by then already 500 years old.
Russian princes were impressed by Byzantine architecture and built orthodox churches which were Byzantine in style.