Porphyria is named from the ancient Greek word porphura, meaning purple. The Greeks borrowed the term from the Phoenicians, who extracted a purple pigment from purpura mollusks to dye the garments of their royal family. Later, in the Byzantine Empire, the term porphyrogenitos, or “born to the purple,” literally meant that the imperial heir was born after the fathers accession to the throne, in a palace room draped in the color.Nick Lane, “Born to the Purple: the Story of Porphyria”
When we were standing in front of it, we didn’t really know what it was. I had assumed in my ignorance that this massive building was a part of the Theodosian Walls that we had been following. We moved on, distracted by the sudden sight of a large gathering of people in the near distance who, on closer inspection, were attending a market selling birds. Only birds and the crowd was made up mostly of men. I had never seen anything like it before.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I came across a post on the Tekfur Palace. Wondering where that was, I googled it and realized that I had seen that building before. The building I had assumed was part of the city walls was actually the Palace of Porphyrogenitus known in Turkish as the Tekfur Sarayı.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus literally translates to the palace of the purple born. Traditionally, those born in the purple were members of the royal family that were born during the reign of their parent. In this context, the color purple referred to both imperial and Tyrian purple which was once a rare and expensive colored dye. Because of this, it was used as a status symbol that was restricted by law and custom for imperial use.
The production of Tyrian purple was tightly controlled by the Byzantine Empire and subsidized by the imperial court, which restricted its use for the coloring of imperial silks. In the Great Imperial Palace of Constantinople, there was a room entirely lined with porphyry, where reigning empresses gave birth. Therefore, a child born to a reigning emperor was said to be porphyrogenitos, ‘born in the purple’.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus was the last imperial residence of the Byzantine Empire which came to an end in the 15th century with the Conquest of Constantinople. It was constructed on one of the many terraces that lined the slope of the sixth hill of the city; between the inner and outer fortification of the northern corner of the Theodosian Walls.
These images of the Palace of Porphyrogenitusthe are from the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection
Built on a rectangular plan, the place was three stories high. On the ground floor of the palace was an arcade with four arches which opened to a courtyard which was overlooked by the five large windows. The upper floor consisted of a vast throne room with a balcony that ran along its east side. The wooden floors and roof of the structure have long disappeared. The palace’s stone walls are elaborately decorated with geometric designs using red brick and white marble, typical of the late Byzantine period. Its overall architecture speaks of fortification and defense. Being so close to the outer walls it was necessary to take the necessary precautions against possible intruders.
In the 16th century, the palace was used to house the sultan’s personal menagerie of exotic animals. In the 18th century, it was the place where
Tekfur Sarayı tiles were produced – tiles that you can still see adorning the fountain of Ahmed the III located in front of the Imperial Gate of Topkapı Palace. After that, it was used for the production of glass until 1955. Currently, it is undergoing renovations. Rumour has it that it is to become a museum devoted to Ottoman tiles.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus remains the only example of Constantinople’s Byzantine palace architecture that is still relatively intact.