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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of the Column of Constantine in Istanbul

What is the Column of Constantine?

The Column of Constantine is a Roman monumental column built to celebrate the dedication of Constantinople to Constantine the Great.

Column of Constantine

Column of Constantine History

Çemberlitaş Square was once the centre of the new city of Constantinople. It marks the point immediately outside the walls of Old Byzantium where the Column of Constantine was erected, atop the Second Hill of the seven hills of Constantinople. The column was headed by a statue of Constantine himself, nude and crowned in the style of Apollo, in reference to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. On completion, it was likely around 50 metres tall. The surrounding square became the Forum of Constantine.

While little of the old forum remains today, the area is still a public square in which two significant roads meet: the main route between the Hagia Sophia and the city’s western gates, and a road leading to the Galata Bridge to the north and the Hippodrome to the south. Where there once stood the original Byzantine Senate, there are now restaurants and shops, as well as buildings such as Sinan’s Çemberlitaş Hammam and the mosque of Gazi Atik Ali Paşa. The narrow streets lead away to the Grand Bazaar and the Ottoman Baroque Nuruosmaniye Mosque. One of the few sites that does remain from the era of the forum – albeit in a sorry form that shows its age – is the Column of Constantine.

A number of misfortunes have befallen the column over its long history, though it still stands proudly, if a little singed, at 35 metres above ground level. Its eight cylindrical porphyry blocks may have supported a statue of Constantine as Apollo, but at the foot of the column was a sanctuary full of Christian relics, supposedly dating back to the life of Jesus. This spread betting of affiliations with both Roman and Christian divinity could not save the column from Istanbul’s recurrent bane: earthquakes. The requirement for the column to be held together with ringed metal bands may date back to as early as the 5th century, and it was an earthquake in 1779 that precipitated the fire that left behind the scorch marks visible today, giving it the nickname ‘Burnt Column’ to go with the Turkish Çemberlitaş, meaning ‘ringed stone’. The statue of Constantine was lost to a hurricane in 1106 along with the uppermost cylinders of the column. Emperor Manuel I Komnenos put up a cross at the top of the column instead, but this was removed by the Ottomans in 1453. The column also used to be adorned with bronze, but this was looted and taken back to Italy by the occupiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, along with practically anything else of value they could find in Constantinople.

Nowadays, the column remains one of the most important works of Roman art and architecture in Istanbul, if not worldwide, given its original size and the significance of Constantine I and Constantinople in Roman history. Restoration and preservation of the column has been undertaken regularly since 1955, and it’s amongst the monuments of the historic city granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. One might wonder what Constantine would make of his city in the 21st century. Certainly, despite the disasters and upheaval it has witnessed since he ordered the column to be placed, the city has not only endured, but thrived. It may not be very Roman anymore, but it still remains as one of the greatest cities on Earth.

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