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Tekfur Sarayi (Palace of the Porphyrogenitus)

PALACE OF THE PORPHYROGENITUS (TEKFUR SARAYI)

Dilapidated Vicinity...

Tekfur Sarayi (Palace of the Porphyrogenitus) is a rare and outstanding example of Byzantine palace architecture, situated just within Istanbul’s city walls near Edirne Kapi Gate. Although a large number of superb Byzantine buildings have been preserved in Turkey, Greece, and Italy, these are almost without exception churches or monasteries. The fear of God and religious sentiments prompted societies to protect and repair sacral buildings, enabling them to survive intact to the present day.

No such safeguard applied to palaces and houses, however. What is more, styles of palace architecture were condemned to frequent change, because society was in a constant state of flux and requirements and tastes did not remain constant. The palace was a symbol of power and financial clout, and monarchs were often too proud to live in palaces built by their predecessors. That is why we find so many churches of a great age, but so few palaces and houses.

Tekfur Sarayi is such a rarity. Yet precious as it might be, hardly anything is known about it, despite the interest in Byzantine history and culture in the West particularly. The literature on the subject provides very little information about the secular Byzantine buildings of Istanbul.

The Comnenus dynasty is known to have settled in this section of the city, and Alexius Comnenus I to have constructed a magnificent palace on the site of the present Ivaz Efendi Mosque. Manuel II Comnenus added another building, turning the palace into a complex known as the palaces of Blachernae. There is no doubt that Tekfur Palace is part of this complex. Even reduced to a shell over the centuries, we can see that this three-storey building was striking and beautiful. There are six windows on the ground floor looking onto what was once a courtyard, and windows on all four façades of the third floor, which would have commanded a spectacular view over the city and the Golden Horn to the north, and the countryside and forests to the west. Indeed that green landscape still existed until the 1950s. There was evidently a chapel on the upper floor, its location indicated by an apse in the form of a bay.

The facades are elaborately decorated with geometric designs in red brick and white stone. The massive stone section flanked by two splendid marble columns in the façade overlooking the courtyard forms the monumental entrance. The word "tekfur" was the Turkish term for the Byzantine emperors, who were their neighbors until the conquest. During Ottoman times, the long-abandoned palace was used first as a menagerie housing strange beasts from distant Africa, and in the 18th century as pottery producing tiles. Since then it has remained empty. Ensuring that The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus is preserved for future generations requires that the four walls are prevented from collapsing and discrete repairs carried out to the stone and brick walls. Some years ago, Istanbul municipality proposed reconstructing wooden floors, but I believe that this would spoil the atmosphere and character of the palace. Ideally, the ravages of time should be accepted and the walls should be left as they are, perhaps constructing a glass roof to protect the structure from snow and rain.

Restoring the dilapidated vicinity of the palace should be a first priority, including repairs to the last remaining Ottoman houses, so that this area is preserved as a historic corner of the city. Then this rare building will be ready for unveiling to the world. As in all countries with a commitment to their cultural heritage, the palace should be illuminated at night. Perhaps, cultural activities could be held in the courtyard. Many historic buildings have been brought to life in similar ways. But this is unique as the only Byzantine palace left standing in the world!