Fires in Constantinople (Byzantine period)

1. Introduction

In the scale of human fears, the fear of fire and the fear caused by a solar eclipse are considered to rank the highest.1 It took a long time for man to overcome his primitive fear of fire, but the fear of conflagration, and particularly the fear of being burnt alive on the fire remained. Besides, in the Byzantine era, as well as in the subsequent periods, fires remained an everyday danger. And fires, as well as earthquakes, comets or solar eclipses, were interpreted as announcement of enormous evils. A characteristic example of this was the fire of September the 1st, 465, which was included in the Synaxarion of Constantinople and was annually commemorated in the liturgical calendar.2

2. Fires in Constantinople

In Byzantium, the danger of a fire threatened mainly the largest cities, especially Constantinople. The great city at the Bosporos had in every quarter a fire brigade (which consisted of the so-called collegiati), who were under the authority of the eparch, the prefect of the city.3 However, in the long history of Constantinople, as Nikephoros Gregoras points out,4 numerous fires were recorded. It has been estimated that about thirty-nine major fires broke out in the Byzantine Constantinople, from 388 the earliest to 1434 the latest.5

Sometimes fires could be used as a threat in times of riots or political conflicts. Such was the case in 1057, in the riots that brought about the dethronement of Emperor Michael VI Stratiotikos (1056-1057). In that case, the rebels roused the city, caused turbulences, threatened with fire and other hardships. As regards fires in other cities and regions of the Byzantine Empire, olny scarse evidence has been preserved. This is further proof that, in the eyes of the Byzantine writers and the subjects of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was literaly the centre of the world. An exemption is Trebizond, mainly because of the thoroughness of its chronicler Michael Panaretos, who has recorded five fires in the capital of the Empire at the Pontos.

3. The testimony of Niketas Choniates

Among the Byzantine writers, especially those who lived in the later Byzantine centuries, Niketas Choniates is the one who has recorded wrote most about the fires in Constantinople. Certainly, this comes as no surprise, since Niketas witnessed the tumultuous events of the years before and immediately after the conquest of the Byzantine capital by the crusaders. And it is precisely his account of the fire that broke out in August 1203 - due to arson by the crusaders - that is the most elaborate and extensive. On the contrary, he refers to a fire before 1194 only en passant, and offers only a summary account of the fire of July 17, 1203.

The account of the fire of August of 1203 in Constantinople is very detailed. Knowing that there was no more fearsome a way to take revenge of the city and to frighten its inhabitants, the crusaders decided, after the most recent fire – Choniates here means that on July 17, 1203 – to expose Constantinople once again at the mercy of a fire inferno. They set fire at certain points which quickly spread to all directions, completely out of control. Destroying everything that stood on its way, the fire was raging all night and the entire next day, and it was reduced only when it started getting dark. Niketas Choniates deplores that major fires had plagued the city before, but compared to this one, those were merely sparks. It was impossible to describe the spectacle of this fire. Flames seemed to break off and spread at all directions, and then again were united to a huge river of fire. The colonnades were collapsing, the sculptures at the squares were breaking down and the beautiful columns were vanishing in flames like bushes on fire. Nothing could resist against the heat of the fire. Pieces of fire were flying in the air in front of the eyes of helpless and terrified inhabitants of Constantinople and were causing new fires in houses, which until then had been saved from the menace and had remained untouched by the tongues of flames. It looked like they were being launched by war machines, and in a flash they were consumming the intervals until any buildings that had not been on fire yet; and then, after they had destroyed everything there as well, they were returning back. At the beginning the fire, carried away by the force of the north wind, followed a straight course; then, however, changed direction as though it was driven by the south wind, and turned back to destroy everything on its way. The fire even threatened the church of Hagia Sophia, and turned many quarters into mere ashes. Not even the bricks or the deep substructures were spared; everything succumbed like a torch to the power of the fire inferno. The first spark was set in the trader's inn (mitaton) of the Muslims, namely on the northern coastal part of the city, and from there the fire spread towards the direction of Hagia Sophia. Directed westwards it reached as far as Perama, on the shores of Golden Horn and from there it poured out to the entire city. Driven by an enormous force and surpassing in scale any previous incidence, the fire destroyed buildings outside the walls, whereas the burning coals flying over the air set on fire a ship that was sailing nearby. Vast parts of the capital were burnt down, not even the Hippodrome was spared - its entire western side was totally burnt, as well as everything lying at the interval between it and Hagia Sophia. With the fire roaming across the city like an endless burning-hot river, it was impossible for the people to help each other. Most of the inhabitants were throwing their things away as soon as the fire arived; and the fire reached even places that nobody expected it to reach. Some people tried to carry over things to other parts of the city, but to no avail, since the fire seemed to be everywhere and threatened every part of the city. In short, it was impossible for anyone to hide from the fire inferno. «Woe! – Niketas Choniates concludes his account – «where are now all these beautiful and splendid palaces with their rich ornaments, with their abundant wealth and with all these things that were enchanting anybody?»6

4. The testimony of Geoffroi de Villehardouin

Another eyewitness, Geoffroi de Villehardouin – from the enemy side of the Latins – also draws a picture of what happened at that time in Constantinople. He insists that the fire was so great and fearsome, that nobody was able to put it down or to control it. When the Latin barons saw from their military camp - located on the other side of the harbor - the way tall churches, rich palaces and traders' quarters were collapsing and disappearing in flames, they expressed their deep sorrow, but were unable to help. The fire won accross the harbor and affected the largest part of the city, as far as the shore on the other side and the church of Hagia Sophia. It roamed for eight days and nobody was able to put it down. Nobody could estimate the extent of the damage, or the money and the wealth lost during those days, or the men and the women and children that had been burnt alive. The Latins settled at Constantinople, who according to the sayings of the French nobleman amounted to fifteen thousands, were getting ferried across the Asian seashore of Bosporos. Geoffroi Villehardouin concludes his description of the fire inferno (a description which is briefer, but in no point contradictory to the one by Choniates) with the telling claim that this event shattered any confidence between the Greeks and the Latins.7 Moreover, it was the prelude of the impending destruction, not only for the inhabitants of Constantinople, but for all the subjects of the Byzantine Empire.

5. Fires before and after the Fall in 1453

About the last major fire that affected Constantinople in its Byzantine days writes George Sphrantzes. The fire broke out on January 29, 1434, three hours after the sunset, and burnt down the beautiful church of the Virgin of Blachenrai. The Byzantine historian learned about this event by an unknown man while on a journey – he was crossing the river Nestos in Macedonia – two days after, namely on February 1, 1434. In the beginning he did not believe, especially when, during his journey, passed through five monasteries and nobody knew anything about this fact. However, while in the sixth monastery that was on his way, located on Rhaedestos in Thrace, he realized that the unknown man had not lied to him: the news about the great fire in the capital were finally confirmed.

Constantinople, which fall into the hands of the Turks in 1453 and became thereafter the capital of the Ottoman Empire, experienced a long series of fires in its later history as well. According to the afore-mentioned study, the available historical sources have recorded ninety-two fires at the city, throughout its Ottoman and Modern period; the earliest in 1490 and the latest in 1941.

1.  Jerotić, V., "Strah i religija", Bogoslovlje 32 /46 (Beograd 1988), p. 105.

2. Synaxarium ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae: Propylaeum ad Acta Sanctorum Novembris, ed. H. Delehaye (Bruxelles 1902), p. 6, 3-9.

3. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, II (New York – Oxford 1991), p. 786, s.v. "Fire" (B. Croke).

4. Nicephori Gregorae Byzantina Historia, ed. L. Schopen – I. Bekker, I (Bonnae 1829), pp. 87-88.

5. Schneider, A. M., «Brände in Konstantinopel», Byzantinische Zeitschrift 41.2 (Jan. 1941), pp. 382-9. Cf. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 2 (New York – Oxford 1991), p. 786, s.v. "Fire" (B. Croke).

6. Νικήτας Χωνιάτης, Χρονική διήγησις, ed. J. A. van Dieten, Nicetae Choniatae Historia I (CFHB 11, New York-Berlin 1975), pp. 553-5. Cf. Quotation 2.

7. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. Frank T. Marzials (London 1908), pp. 51-2. Cf.