The Columns of Palmyra

Constantinople is the city of porphyry, the purple-coloured marble that the emperors so much liked. Here can be found a high number of pieces made of this material, especially statues and sarcophagi, e.g. the famous Constantine sarcophagus. There are also many ancient porphyry columns that were reused to support and adorn the mosques of the Sultans, even the famous Topkapi harem. In the gardens of the Archaeological Museum, scattered in apparent disorder, fragments of this valuable material can be seen. Who knows? Perhaps some of these remains come from that room called 'Porphyrion', completely covered with this material, where the women of the Byzantine imperial family gave birth to their offspring, also known as 'porphyrogennetus'. Nowadays these stone fragments serve as a hiding place and habitat for the many cats that populate the museum and in fact any corner of the city, ancient or modern.
The first time I went to Istanbul, in 1990, I knew nothing about all this. In my memory, that great city remained as an amalgam of sensations in which were mingled the indescribable light of the Blue Mosque, at dusk, the motley, almost suffocating streets of the bazaar, and the boat trip to the Asian side. The grandeur of Saint Sophia, the spicy taste of food in those little restaurants in the old city and the apple tea served by the shop-owners, eager to sell you a leather garment or any other item for tourists.

When I returned to Istanbul in 2015, I knew many more things, though that did not make this second trip a better experience than the first. It just made it different. I knew that there were some magnificent mosaics that belonged to the old imperial palace. I knew that the columns and obelisks of the now-disappeared hippodrome could still be seen. I knew there were huge cisterns underground, and in one of them a Medusa turned upside down. I knew, too, that in some corner of Hagia Sophia there were some columns made of porphyry. And that somewhere in the city, one of those places where the streetcar passes, the porphyry Column of Constantine, often referred to as the 'burnt column' due to its current appearance, still stands.

We entered Saint Sophia in the early hours, when tourists had not yet invaded the place, which gave us the opporubity to contemplate its beauty completely undisturbed. Once again, as on that distant journey of my youth, I was again struck by this peculiar place. This time, moreover, I was looking for some particular detail, which added a new frame of mind to the mere diffuse curiosity of the tourist. I soon found the imposing porphyry columns, located around the apses.

They are old, worn-out columns, some of them protected by iron hoops along the shaft. But there they are, in this building which is the summary of an entire empire, with its marbles brought from the most varied corners of its vast territory for the sake of the Emperors' grandeur. It was Justinian who gave this temple its definite shape, a Christian temple which would later become a mosque after it fell into Ottoman hands.

The porphyry columns are indeed very ancient, much older than Justinian's church itself. Alaric Watson, in his extensive biography of Emperor Aurelian, tells us briefly the story of these columns, quoting Byzantine sources. A little-known story, which, I think, is worth remembering.

In 272, after a long and bloody war, Emperor Aurelian defeated Zenobia of Palmyra's army, thus putting an end to the so-called Palmyrean Empire, which had been challenging the supremacy of Rome in the East for years. Queen Zenobia was taken to Rome with her son Vaballatus, where they were exposed to public scorn in the celebration of the triumph. Aurelian decided not to punish the city of Palmyra, which was then given a new, unexpected opportunity to live on. However, the Palmyreans rebelled the following year against Rome, and this time Aurelian was not so magnanimous. Once the insurrection was suppressed, he ordered the destruction of the city, turning it into the set of ruins that we admire so much and that have recently undergone a new aggression, this time at the hands of the Islamic radicals.

Aurelian's troops plundered Palmyra before destroying it, as was common practice in antiquity. None of the buildings, including the temples, were spared. According to some ancient chronicles, Aurelian took with him some impressive porphyry columns, to use them for his new project: a temple dedicated to the Sun god in Rome, a divinity of Syrian origin of which he was a worshipper. According to ancient sources, the Temple of the Sun was located in the Field of Mars, and possessed all kinds of riches and ornaments, besides those majestic columns from Palmyra. A huge silver statue of Aurelian himself presided over the place, exotic elephant tusks adorned one of the naves of the sacred building.

At that time Rome was still a pagan city, and the empire authorities protected the places of worship dedicated to an increasing variety of gods. But it was another god from the East, that of the Christians, that would eventually rule over all of them. In the middle of the fifth century the city of Rome fell into the hands of Odoacer, an event that put an end to more than a thousand years of ancient Roman civilization. The following century, in one of those strange turns of history, the troops of another Roman emperor, this time from the Orient, conquered the city again. It is difficult to imagine in what state the ancient capital of the Empire was when Justinian's troops crossed its gates. The wars between Byzantines and Ostrogoths on Italian soil had further accentuated the long process of decay that had begun with the fall of the Western side of the Empire. The ancient temples were then looted. The first major centres of Christian worship, e.g. the basilica of St. John Lateran, began to be erected. Aurelian's  temple of the Sun was completely destroyed, and its columns were transported to Constantinople, the most flourishing city of those times, the capital of Justinian and many other emperors who maintained, in their own way, Rome's legacy. Justinian used these columns to give greater brilliance to his opus magum, by which he is still remembered: the remodelling and aggrandizement of Saint Sophia.

Such is the story of these porphyry pillars. From Palmyra to Constantinople, stopping at Rome, on a journey  thousands and thousands of kilometres long over a time-span of many centuries. There they are, still standing, welcoming countless tourists full of curiosity: the columns of Palmyra, of Aurelian, of the sun god, of Justinian. Of all.