• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Muslims in Constantinople before 1453

“O Hagia Sophia that great temple! O the wonders and antiquities in the Hippodrome!... Constantinople is greater even than its name! May God make it [an abode] for Islam by His grace and generosity, God the exalted willing.”


Such was the praise Muslims bestowed upon Constantinople. Al-Qazwini upped the ante even further by claiming “Nothing like it was ever built, neither before nor after.” Such innocent aims cannot be attributed to the Arab spy who arrived in Basil I’s reign, however, who sought to assess the power of the Roman navy. Subsequently discovered, he was accompanied to the fleet so that he could be aided towards the conclusion that the Arab navy had no chance against it.

Muslims also entered the city as prisoners of war. Harun ibn Yahya referred to four prisons in Constantinople, two of which were reserved for Muslims. The first dedicated to his co-religionists, the second to people from Tarsus. Though other sources indicate the Byzantines segregated prisoners along class lines. Those of the lowest standing being forced to work in the imperial silk workshops.

Others were soldiers. Mosulian (soldiers from Mosul) and Farganian (soldiers from Fergana in Central Asia) troops served in several armies, not least the one that Romanos I sent to Longobardia in 934. Though perhaps the most prevalent Muslim was the merchant, especially the Arab variety, who wore black robes and brick-coloured shoes. Merchants from Islamic lands usually stayed in their own quarter for three months, though those of great standing could reside for more than a decade. ‘Abd Allah ibn Mohammad, for example, lived there for a dozen years in the thirteenth century and described the quarter as a walled area that was two-thirds the size of Damascus.

Visiting Constantinople could often offer the opportunity to further one’s learning. Abu Nasr al-Manazi, for instance – a poet in the Marwanid court – took advantage of his diplomatic duties to buy books in the capital. Eleutherios, who was probably a Christian, also decided to live in Constantinople to further his studies in astrology. Ibn Butlan, the Christian physician and theologian of Baghdad, also travelled to Constantinople to write a treatise on the Eucharist for the patriarch.

More interesting than these chance coming and goings, however, are the Islamic attempts to enfilade the Christian city’s form with its own symbols, myths and identities. Their success is testified by the fact many Turks even today still celebrate at the various sahaba (Mohammad’s companion) shrines. These started as oral traditions in the times of the failed Islamic assaults on the city until al-Ansari’s tomb erupted on the literary scene in al-Tabari’s tenth-century History. In this book he recorded that the Romans “frequent this grave and renovate it. They even pray for rain at it in times of drought.” He also claimed “his grave is at the foot of the fortress in Constantinople.”

Whatever the truth, there are now up to thirty of these “martyr graves” around Constantinople, many with names (and hagiographies) that are disputed not only by locals and government signposts but scholars too. One of the more renowned tombs was revealed by a dervish dream in 1640, leading Murat IV to build a shrine for them near the modern-day Yeralti Camii. This is famous today because women leave handkerchiefs on them for forty days to form invincible love charms. Two tombs further are supposedly situated at the citadel between the walls of Leo and Heraklios. Additionally, two more are located on the Ayvansaray coast.

Indeed, the city rarely fell out of the Islamic mind. Take, for instance, the story of the spying mirror in the Kitab al-A’laq al-nafisa. Its tale revolves around a mirror in the lighthouse of Alexandria that allowed viewers a peep into Constantinople – a little like Tolkien’s palantir. Amusingly, Muslims who couldn’t afford to make the long journey to the imperial city were told they should try the quicker trip to Tunisia where the town of al-Mahdiyya apparently resembled it.

Perhaps what caught the imagination most, however, were the statues which were recast (by Byzantines and Muslims alike) as talismans. Bronze horses were celebrated for preventing their living brethren from fighting, bronze snakes stopped real snake venom from functioning, and others provided portents for the future. Many of these were manipulated for Islamic means. Al-Harawi, for instance, claimed a monument miraculously turned in the direction of the qibla. While ibn Rusteh claimed Justinian’s equestrian statue beckoned the Muslims to Constantinople.

Further Reading: N. M. el-Cheik, Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs (1992)

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