Lecture 7: The Decline of the Byzantine Empire


José Moreno Carbonero. The entry of Roger de Flor and the Catalan retinue into Constantinople. 1888 / WIkimedia Commons

In this series of lectures, Byzantinist, Iranian scholar, and Turkologist Rustam Shukurov shows us how Byzantium interacted, engaged in conflicts, and forged alliances with the Turks, tracing the path leading to the empire's eventual downfall at their hands. The seventh lecture explains how the Ottomans gradually became the leading power in the region. It continues with the narrative of the Christian churches within the harems of the Turkic rulers. Indeed, the wives, concubines, and mothers of the sultans were usually Christian women.

The decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople, can be traced back to the rulers of the Palaiologos dynasty founded by Michael VIII Palaiologos. In the reign of Michael VIII, especially after the recapture of Constantinople, the empire experienced a significant transformation. It shifted from being a regional, primarily Anatolian power to actively seeking a role in broader Mediterranean politics. However, this expansion came at a cost as the Byzantine frontier zone in Anatolia weakened because of the empire's focus on consolidating its position in the Balkans, particularly in Thrace and Macedonia.

During this tumultuous period for the Byzantines, the second wave of nomadic migration occurred in Anatolia, which led to the extensive Turkicization and nomadization of territories, especially along the Byzantine-Turkic borderlands and the borders of the Anatolian Plateau. Unfortunately, the Byzantines failed to respond to these historical challenges adequately. Consequently, they relinquished control over Asia Minor, allowing the Turks to establish a firm foothold in the Balkans.

The Prelude to Catastrophe

The fate of Byzantine territories in Asia Minor was sealed during the rule of Andronikos II (1282–1328), Michael VIII's son. In the 1280s and 1290s, the Turks exerted unprecedented pressure on Byzantine territories in western Anatolia. A significant number of Turks had sought refuge within Byzantine borders, fleeing from the Mongols and seeking opportunities to plunder. Additionally, the Mongol khans of Iran (Ilkhans) were concerned about the nomadic raids and plundering in the Seljuk Sultanate, which was under their control. The Mongols launched punitive campaigns in the western and northern regions of the Seljuk Sultanate to suppress the nomads, resulting in an influx of nomads into Byzantine territories, reaching as far as the Aegean coast.

Andronikos II dispatched his best commanders to western Anatolia to address the issue. The campaigns led by the legendary general Philanthropenos between 1293 to 1295 achieved considerable success. Philanthropenos managed to capture many Turkish captives and won over the nomadic clans. However, his fellow commanders incited him to revolt against Andronikos II. As a result, Philanthropenos was arrested, blinded, and imprisoned in Constantinople, and the Turks allied with him either fled or were killed.

The blinding of Leo Phokas. Miniature from the manuscript "Skylitzis of Madrid". 12th century / Alamy

The blinding of Leo Phokas. Miniature from the manuscript "Skylitzis of Madrid". 12th century / Alamy

In September 1303, the so-called Catalan Company, a force of Catalan mercenaries, arrived in Constantinople. They were led by Roger de Flor, a half-German, half-Italian former Templar knight. In 1302, Roger offered his services to Andronikos II, promising to reclaim Anatolia for the empire. The Catalans, numbering around 6,000 to 8,000, were a formidable force known through the Mediterranean for their exceptional skills as warriors. They were in demand for their services, consisting of heavy cavalry and sailors with their families and servants. The Almogavars, as they were known, fought on foot, armed with short spears, throwing darts, and short daggers. They displayed remarkable efficiency in combat against cavalry, including heavily armored knights; their strategy was to target the horses and then finish off the riders with their daggers.

When the Catalans arrived, the Sea of Marmara was visible from the European coast, teeming with Turks on the Asian side, and the threat of a Turkish invasion loomed over the European provinces. Byzantine Anatolia was occupied by nomads, ‘thirty days’ journey deep’ as described by chronicler Montaner. The Catalans launched rapid forays, covering considerable distances throughout Byzantine Anatolia, consistently defeating the Turks, who withdrew to the Anatolian Plateau. However, at that moment, Andronikos II recalled the Catalans back to Europe without allowing them to consolidate their success.

There were several reasons for recalling the Catalans, with Roger's clear intention to rule independently in Anatolia as its own kingdom being the primary one. Moreover, the Catalan expedition had a highly ambivalent character for the local Greek population. Their successes were accompanied by violence against local Greeks and excessive monetary demands from Greek cities needing protection.

Around the end of 1304, the Catalans returned to European Byzantium and occupied Gallipoli. After an assassination attempt on Roger de Flor and his subsequent murder in Adrianople by the Byzantines, the Catalans retaliated by devastating Thrace and Macedonia, then moving into Thessaly and ultimately capturing the Latin Duchy of Athens (1311), where they settled for several decades.

The Turks’ mastery of maritime affairs led to a unique phenomenon in this part of the world: the emergence of ‘maritime nomadism’, famously known as the Turkish corsairs.

Undoubtedly, the Catalans inflicted significant damage on the Turkish emirs in Anatolia, demonstrating the vulnerability of the Turkish victories in the region. However, the Byzantine authorities failed to capitalize on the fruits of this success. The Greeks only controlled major cities and fortresses, lacking the strength to restore the border and protect the territories beyond these strongholds. Once the Catalan Company left Anatolia, the Turks descended upon Byzantine territories with seemingly redoubled force. They not only returned to the valleys they had previously occupied but also actively seized cities and fortresses. This marked the end of Byzantine Anatolia, with only isolated Byzantine enclaves persisting in the following decades.

After Philanthropenos's defeat, a new wave of nomadic raids spread chaos in Western Anatolia. The Byzantines lost control over the fertile valleys outside their cities and forts, which they had previously held using fortifications and leveraging the disorganization of the nomads. Despite these setbacks, the Byzantines still had a chance to reclaim lost territory by launching a counteroffensive, relying on their control of cities and forts. This opportunity presented itself at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Death of Roger de Flor. Engraving in the book "Illustrated History of Spain". 19th century / Alamy

Death of Roger de Flor. Engraving in the book "Illustrated History of Spain". 19th century / Alamy

The Beyliks of the Turks

The pressure from the nomadic tribes was accompanied by the rapid formation of independent Turkish emirates in the western part of Anatolia, known as beyliks (see map). This swift emergence of new states indicates the significant manpower of the nomads who occupied Byzantine territories and their alliances with both settled Anatolian Muslims and Byzantine Greeks.

One of the first Turkish groups to consolidate their position, starting in the early 1280s, was led by Menteshe Bey (who died before 1294). They sought control over the valleys around the Little Meander (known as Kaistros) and Great Meander (known as Meandros) rivers. They fiercely resisted Philanthropenos and the Catalans. The Mentesheogullari emirate fully developed by the end of the thirteenth century. In the early fourteenth century, the northern part of the contested area fell under the control of the Aydınoğulları Turks, forming a powerful maritime emirate that included Izmir (known as Smyrna) and Ephesus.

Another early beylik formed around 1286–87 was the Germiyan Turks under the leadership of Emir Yakub Ali-Sher. The Germiyan emirate was centered around the fortress of Kutahya (known as Kotiya). The Germiyan emirs later sought to expand their territories south to the Great Meander, west to the Aegean coast, and north to the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Its territories extended eastward, reaching as far as Ankara, becoming the most powerful Turkish principality in western Anatolia, with the Aydın Turks and possibly even the Ottoman emirate as its vassals, which we will discuss separately.

Shortly afterward, the Saruhan emirate began to form in the first decade of the fourteenth century. Saruhan Beg conquered Magnesia (Manisa), while his brother Ali Pasha took over Nymphaeum (now Kemalpasa) near Izmir. Around the same time, the northernmost emirate, Karasi, was formed along the coast of the Sea of Marmara, extending south to Pergamum (known as Bergama). The Karasi emirs traced their lineage back to the ancient Danismandid dynasty. However, the emirate was eventually captured by the Ottoman Turks and turned into one of the provinces of the empire in the 1330s.

The most remarkable aspect was that the Turks, who had reached the Aegean Sea, soon established their own military and trading fleets. Local Greek inhabitants actively assisted them in shipbuilding and navigation. It is possible that even in the early fourteenth century, Greek members of Turkish units were called martolos, possibly derived from the Greek word amartolos, meaning ‘sinner’, which was also used to describe Greek renegades during the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Camp of nomads. Miniature from a 16th century persian manuscript / BNF, Paris

Camp of nomads. Miniature from a 16th century persian manuscript / BNF, Paris

Nomads at Sea

The Turks’ mastery of maritime affairs led to a unique phenomenon in this part of the world: the emergence of ‘maritime nomadism’, famously known as the Turkish corsairs. The Western Anatolian Turks took to ships or, more accurately, embarked on boats with their horses. They continued their strategy of conducting devastating nomadic raids, but now, armed with a maritime fleet, they directed their attacks toward the islands of the Aegean Archipelago and the coastal areas of Thrace and Macedonia.

The paradox emerges from the fact that the nomadic ethos of raiding, claiming military victories, and subsequently seizing loot in the form of valuables and captives found expression not only on land but also at sea. This was despite the Turks having no maritime history—even during the early fourteenth century and later in the Ottoman era, they viewed the sea with distrust and fear.

This paradoxical extension of the steppe mentality to maritime spaces probably did not fundamentally alter the basic Turkic way of life, as is evident in Enveri's Düsturnamä, the epic history of the Aegean Turks of Aydın. The sea was not seen as significant or independent but as an extension of the land, a materialized ship's deck. Alternatively, the sea was like an abyss, a void through which the Turkic steppe hero crossed using the ship's deck like a bridge.

The ethos of these Turkish sea raiders in the first half of the fourteenth century was the opposite of the mentality of the Mediterranean ‘maritime nations’, European pirates, including the Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, French, and English, who saw the sea as a source of power and prosperity.

Turkish corsair activities affected both Byzantium and Western Europeans in the eastern Mediterranean. A significant obstacle for the Turks was the establishment of the Knights Hospitaller (the Knights of St. John) on some Aegean islands, especially Rhodes, where they drove out the Menteshe Turks. The Hospitallers dealt the first significant blows to the Menteshe Turks at sea, causing their fleet to suffer several defeats and seemingly decline.

However, the decisive factor in the fight against Turkish corsairs was the Holy League, created by Venice in September 1332, which included Byzantium, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Cypriot king Hugh IV (1324–58). The Holy League's main target was the emirates of Aydın, Karasi, and Saruhan. Between 1334 and 1338, the league repeatedly sank and burned the fleets of Aegean emirs, forcing them into peaceful agreements and even abstaining from building new ships. From then on, the power of the Aegean emirates began to decline, although they remained a formidable military force in the region in subsequent years. The decline of the Aegean Turks indirectly contributed to the rapid rise of the Ottoman emirate, which did not engage in sea battles and positioned itself more as a continental power.

Fausto Zonaro. Mehmed II at the siege of Constantinople.  1896-1909 / Alamy

Fausto Zonaro. Mehmed II at the siege of Constantinople. 1896-1909 / Alamy

Turkish Allies

Constantinople's failures on the Anatolian front prompted the search for new strategies against the Turks. Internal conflicts within the empire also played a role in this. Andronikos II and his grandson and successor, Andronikos III, were at odds with each other, leading the country into civil war. Despite eventually reconciling and becoming joint rulers in 1325, the power crisis and the sluggish civil war paralyzed the state machinery. The devastation of Thrace and Macedonia by external invasions and clashes between Andronikos II and his grandson pushed the economy to the brink of collapse, depleting financial resources and human capital.

Efforts to establish contact with Aegean Turks intensified during the joint rule of Andronikos II and Andronikos III. The idea was to use both force and diplomacy to counter the growing pressure from the Turks on Thrace, Macedonia, and the Aegean islands under Byzantine rule and reclaim revenues from Anatolian territories still under Byzantine control. The grand domestic John VI Kantakouzenos, a friend of Andronikos III and de facto second-in-command, actively participated in shaping this new program. The policy of alliances with Aegean Turks became even more pronounced when Andronikos III took sole control in 1328.

In the late 1320s, Constantinople tried to establish alliances with the emirs Timur Khan of Karasi, Saruhan Beg, and Muhammad Beg of Aydın. Byzantine authorities sought to construct a protective diplomatic framework in western Anatolia. They recognized the de facto legitimacy of the emirs of Aydın, Saruhan, and Karasi, intending to turn them into allied principalities, acting as buffers against potential threats from within Anatolia and as a counterbalance to the Latin presence in the Aegean Sea.

Later on, the main ally of the Byzantines became the Aydın emir Umur Beg. The friendship between the grand domestic Kantakouzenos and Umur Beg developed through correspondence. It was later solidified during a four-day personal meeting in Klazomenai, a city in Anatolia near Smyrna, in 1335. From then on, for over a decade, the Aydın allies, led by Umur, actively fought alongside the Byzantines, both at sea and on land. After the death of Andronikos III, Umur's Turks played a significant role in the civil war on the side of John Kantakouzenos, who declared himself emperor and waged armed conflict against the rightful emperor John V Palaiologos, the son of Andronikos III. It was Umur’s assistance in the 1340s that enabled Kantakouzenos to avoid defeat and total political downfall.

The Byzantines employed the allied Turks in all the wars they fought in the Balkans at that time, including civil conflicts among Greeks, as well as against Bulgarians, Serbs, and Albanians. Emir Umur Beg was also involved in the fight against the Golden Horde, which often acted as allies to the Bulgarians (let us recall the Pecheneg roots of the Second Bulgarian Empire) and periodically carried out devastating raids on Thrace.

While the policy of alliances with Anatolian emirs adopted by Andronikos III and John Kantakouzenos brought positive results for both leaders personally, the unprecedented activity of the Western Anatolian Turks and the Byzantines' manipulation of this situation led to another quite logical but perilous outcome—Turkish contingents were now almost constantly present on Byzantine European territory.

Isikhast council in Constantinople in 1351. Miniature from "Theological Works" by John Kantakouzenos. 1370-75 / Agefotostock/Legion

Isikhast council in Constantinople in 1351. Miniature from "Theological Works" by John Kantakouzenos. 1370-75 / Agefotostock/Legion

The Ottoman Ally

The Byzantines had another crucial Turkish friend: the Ottoman Emirate. The early history of relations between the Ottoman emirate and Byzantium is a continuation of the pattern of Turkish alliances. The founder of the Ottoman dynasty was Emir Osman I ibn Ertugrul (1281–1324) from the Kayi tribe. Both his father, Ertugrul, and Osman himself consolidated a diverse group of nomadic Turks. They also settled Greeks in the mainland region of northwestern Anatolia near strategically significant locations for the Byzantines like Prusa (Bursa) and Nicaea (Iznik). The Ottomans presented themselves as a land-based emirate, actively expanding their power by incorporating the mainland territories of neighboring Turkish emirs.

The Ottoman emirate became a significant player in Western Anatolia with the capture of major Byzantine strategic strongholds in northwestern Anatolia under the new emir, Orhan ibn Osman (1324–1362), including Bursa in 1326, Nicaea (Iznik) in 1331, and Nicomedia (Izmit) in 1338. By taking control of this rich and heavily urbanized region known as Vithynia among the Greeks, the Ottomans gained a powerful economic resource, significantly contributing to the emergence of the Ottoman emirate as a full-fledged state. On the other hand, Byzantium suffered yet another fateful defeat as Vithynia was perhaps the most crucial Byzantine stronghold, guarding the narrow Bosphorus, on the European side of which lay Constantinople itself.

After suffering catastrophic defeats at the hands of the Ottomans, Andronikos III and John Kantakouzenos engaged in contact with Emir Orhan. However, a comprehensive peace agreement with Orhan could only be concluded by John Kantakouzenos, who became regent to John V, the son of the late Andronikos III, in 1341. From this moment on, Ottoman military assistance to Kantakouzenos became constant, with Ottoman contingents landing in Thrace. With the help of Orhan's warriors, Kantakouzenos managed to decisively defeat his political rivals in the civil war that erupted in the late 1340s between Kantakouzenos and Empress Anna Savoy, John V's mother.

From the very beginning, Emir Orhan proposed a special model of relations with John Kantakouzenos based on equal partnership. The Ottomans refused to adhere to the established diplomatic protocol, which would place them lower than Byzantine autocrats. The alliance with Orhan was sealed by the marriage of Emir Orhan to Theodora, Kantakouzenos's daughter, in the summer of 1346. The marriage alliance was most likely initiated by Kantakouzenos himself, who feared a closer connection forming between Anna Savoy and Orhan. According to one Byzantine writer, Orhan was passionately in love with Theodora even though he had only heard about her from others. Theodora was indeed renowned for her beauty. Another story about her says that a few years earlier, Kantakouzenos offered his friend, Umur Beg of Aydınoğulları, the opportunity to marry one of his daughters. However, Umur Beg was troubled by the offer and declined it. He considered Kantakouzenos his brother and according to Muslim laws, one cannot marry the daughters of a brother. Then, surprisingly, Theodora herself met Umur Beg while hunting and confessed her love to him, proposing marriage herself, which he also indignantly rejected.

Orhan Gazi. Ottoman miniature of the 16th century / Alamy

Orhan Gazi. Ottoman miniature of the 16th century / Alamy

Despite this, Theodora eventually married a Turk, Emir Orhan. The first part of the wedding ceremony took place in Selimvria in the presence of representatives of Orhan. The ceremony was conducted following Byzantine customs and followed the protocol of the so-called ‘prokypsis’. At the appointed hour, Theodora ascended a platform (called a prokypsis) concealed from the audience by silk and golden curtains. Then, the curtains were drawn open, and the attendees saw the bride. Eunuchs knelt on both sides of her, holding lit lamps in their hands, and music played while the onlookers praised Theodora. After the festivities, the girl departed to the territory of the Ottoman emirate to be with her groom.

Theodora's marriage was unprecedented in the sense that an imperial daughter was married to an Anatolian Turk. Although Theodora's marriage was non-canonical and violated the church's strict prohibition against marriages between Muslims and Christians in place since the twelfth century, the church chose to overlook this particular case. And soon, the assistance of the Ottomans allowed John Kantakouzenos to declare himself emperor in 1347.

However, the marriage of Orhan and Theodora did not put an end to the Turkish raids on Byzantine territory. The pirate campaigns of the Turks continued to devastate Macedonia and Thrace. Apparently, Orhan was unable to stop other Turks from approaching Byzantine territories.

The Ottoman Enemy

The military alliance with Orhan, which had initially contributed to Kantakouzenos’s victory in the civil war, soon stopped yielding the desired results. In 1348, Kantakouzenos decided to put an end to the growing Serbian expansion. The conquests of Serbian king Stefan Dušan (1331–55) had practically extended Serbian rule over all of Macedonia except for Thessaloniki. However, when over 10,000 Turks led by Suleiman arrived, they refused to fight. Instead, they began plundering the very territory they were supposed to liberate from the Serbs, enslaving the local inhabitants. The same thing happened the following year as well.

During this time, Kantakouzenos and Orhan grew increasingly alienated. The Turks showed no intention of fulfilling their promises and embarked on plundering raids. The Turks became a separate force in the Balkans, significantly altering the balance of power. Thus, the Turkish contingents no longer left Thrace, seeking to establish themselves in the captured strategic locations.

During the civil wars, John VI Kantakouzenos introduced a significant innovation to the usual methods of using the Turks in the internal political struggle, which had genuinely catastrophic consequences. Kantakouzenos resettled a considerable number of Turks, along with their families, in the southern part of Thrace as a pronoia, a land grant that paid for their services. On 2 March 1354, a powerful earthquake struck south Thrace, causing considerable destruction. Suleiman, who had hastily crossed from Asia to Thrace, relying on fellow compatriots, settled in the region. He took control of the crucial location of Gallipoli on the Dardanelles, which had also been affected by the earthquake. The Ottomans immediately began to develop and consolidate their success and by 1355, they had gained control over the entire coast of the Sea of Marmara up to Constantinople.

Thus, Kantakouzenos not only used the Turks as mercenaries but also facilitated their mass resettlement in Europe. The Byzantines clearly understood the magnitude of the foreign policy catastrophe that had occurred with the Turks’ occupation of the coastal territories of Thrace. Their presence in Thrace, especially their demonstrative pursuit of independent policies there, spelled imminent doom for the empire.

In Constantinople, panic set in after the capture of Gallipoli. The city's inhabitants began to move to Italy and even Spain. The people of Constantinople justly blamed Kantakouzenos for such an unfavorable turn of events, and a resolution came soon after. In November 1354, John V Palaiologos easily entered Constantinople and dethroned Kantakouzenos. Taking monastic vows under the name of Joasaph Christodoulos, Kantakouzenos focused primarily on literary work but occasionally intervened in politics again. Byzantium entered a new era—existing under the looming shadow of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.

The convergence of the Turk-Ottomans and Byzantines was primarily facilitated by the high degree of Hellenization of the Ottoman emirate's population and the ruling emir's house. This is not surprising since the emirate was situated on a culturally and demographically significant Byzantine territory, the core of which was Vithynia with Nicomedia, as well as the cities of Nicaea and Bursa. Although the dominant religion of the emirate was Islam, Greek Christians and Greek converts to Islam played crucial roles. In March 1354, the famous theologian and archbishop of Thessaloniki Gregory Palamas was captured by Turkish pirates during his sea journey from Tenedos to Constantinople. He remained in captivity in northern Anatolia for about a year. Palamas visited many towns and villages and spent several days in Orhan's summer residence near Bursa. According to Palamas, the Anatolian territories he visited (Lampsakos, Pegai, Bursa, Nicaea) were inhabited by many Greek Christians (and also Greeks who had converted to Islam), some of whom were quite influential. Churches and monasteries continued to function in all these territories. Disputes between Muslims and Christians, occasionally leading to clashes, were part of everyday life in these regions.

It is important to remember that the Ottoman emirs themselves had Greek blood. Three of Orhan's wives were Greek: Asporça Hatun (possibly Suleiman's mother), Nilüfer Hatun (the mother of Sultan Murad I), and Theodora (the mother of Halil). Gülçiçek Hatun, a Greek woman, bore Murad I a son who would become the future Sultan Bayezid I. Mehmed I's mother, the wife of Bayezid I, was called Devlet Hatun, and she was a Christian woman who converted to Islam. The mother of Mehmed II, who eventually captured Constantinople, was a Greek slave named Hüma Hatun. The origins and names of only some of the mothers of the Ottomans are known, but it is evident that the vast majority of them from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries were Greeks and other foreigners.

Gustave Boulanger. The slave market. 1886 / Alamy

Gustave Boulanger. The slave market. 1886 / Alamy

The Harem Churches

In the Seljuk palaces, churches intended for Christian women and concubines of the sultan, as well as Christian courtiers and servants, were constructed. Two such churches were found in the palace complexes: the now lost Church of St Amphilochius (Eflatun Mescit) in the Citadel of Konya and the still intact church in the Seljuk palace in Alanya.

The Church of St Amphilochius was located on Alaeddin Hill in Konya. It stood within the citadel of Konya, part of the Seljuk palace complex, about 50 meters from the famous mosque of Ala al-Din Kay-Kubad I (1219–36). The church was probably built in the tenth or early eleventh century and was destroyed in the 1920s. The church housed holy relics of St. Amphilochius, the renowned Bishop of Iconium (who died after 394 CE, commemorated on 23 November). During Seljuk times, Muslims believed that the relics of St. Amphilochius belonged to the remains of the philosopher Plato (hence the Muslim name of the church, Eflatun Mescidi).

Until at least the fifteenth century, Christians and Muslims considered the church a holy place. However, it was later deemed unsuitable for Muslims, its mosque was closed, and it served as a clock tower and storage in its final days. This small temple was ideally suited for the needs of the palace Christian community, consisting of Christian women and, apparently, Christian servants and courtiers of the Seljuk sultans. The church was likely converted into a mosque only during Ottoman times, between 1460 and 1470, as earlier reports from travelers refer to it solely as a church. Therefore, during the Seljuk period, the Church of St. Amphilochius probably remained a church and was explicitly used as a palace church.

Byzantine church of the 13th century in the fortress of Alanya. Turkey, Alanya / Alamy

Byzantine church of the 13th century in the fortress of Alanya. Turkey, Alanya / Alamy

Another church in Alanya, now known as Arap Evliyası (The Arab Saint), also likely served the needs of Christian courtiers and Christians. Alanya (Kalonoros) was handed over to Ala al-Din Kay-Kubad I by the local Greek ruler, Kyr Vard, presumably in 1221. A few years later, the palace of Kay-Kubad I was built on the site of the city citadel. In the territory of the palace, along its eastern outer wall, stands a domed, three-conch church. The church was either reconstructed simultaneously with the palace or built with it, which seems more likely. The interior of the church in Alanya does not show any traces of a mihrab (a niche in the walls of a mosque that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca), and the fresco fragments in the nave remain untouched. This church was never converted into a mosque and in the thirteenth century, it served as a harem church.

The churches in Konya and Alanya specifically served the harem of the Seljuk sultans. There are two more harem churches in eastern Anatolia, but it is currently impossible to determine which Muslim ruler built them. Both churches can be dated to the early thirteenth to the late fifteenth centuries.

The Ispir Church is located within the citadel, which rises to the west of the modern town. The fortress is built on a high rock on the right bank of the Chorok River (Akampsis) and controls the fertile valley of the river, extending southwest. Ispir played a vital strategic role on the road leading from Erzurum to the north to the Pontic coast. Today, the citadel still preserves the Sultan Melik Mosque with a minaret (Sultan Melik Mescidi), constructed either during the Saltukid or Seljuk period, most likely in the thirteenth century. A portion of the fortification walls also remains, and the fragments of the apse and narthex of the church can be found a few dozen meters from the mosque. This quite spacious church, built of stone and representing a ‘cross-in-square’ type of temple, presumably had a dome on four free-standing pillars and a narthex.

A 13th-century castle. Turkey, Ispir / Shutterstock

A 13th-century castle. Turkey, Ispir / Shutterstock

The Bayburt Church was situated inside the city citadel on a hill adjoining the northwest part of modern-day Bayburt. Bayburt served as an important transit point on the trade route between the Black Sea coast from Trabzon and Of to Erzincan, leading further into Inner Anatolia and western Iran. Moreover, Bayburt, which came under Turkish rule as early as 1072, served as a pivotal military base for Muslim rulers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, occasionally functioning as the capital of minor emirates. For instance, in 1348, the city was ruled by a specific independent or semi-independent emir named Mahmates Eikeptaris, and from approximately 1355 to 1361, it was governed by Emir Hodja Latif. The remains of the church in Bayburt are so insignificant that it is challenging to determine whether it had a dome. The church was constructed using stone blocks larger than those commonly found in the coastal Trabzon architecture, and there is a possibility that the church contained a crypt.

The Ispir and Bayburt churches date back to the time of the empire of the Great Komneni, which existed along the Pontic coast from 1204 to 1461. They represent typical Trabzon-type churches, widespread within the empire's territory. Similar to the churches in Konya and Alanya, it is highly likely that the Bayburt and Ispir churches were intended for Christian women, concubines, and the Christian servants of Muslim rulers. This assumption best explains why these churches were built inside the citadels, where the rulers resided. This is especially evident in the case of Ispir; the citadel's area was too small to accommodate the homes of ordinary residents. The Ispir fortress was explicitly intended for the ruler and his court.

Of course, there must have been churches for ordinary Christian residents of Bayburt and Ispir that have not survived to this day. However, they were likely located in the lower city outside the citadels. These fortress churches were apparently built for Orthodox inhabitants of the harem, for whom Armenian and Georgian types of churches might have seemed foreign, unfamiliar, and therefore undesirable.

Georges François Guyot. Harem dancers. 1880 / Wikipedia commons

Georges François Guyot. Harem dancers. 1880 / Wikipedia commons

It is impossible to definitively link these churches to specific Greek despoinai who married Muslim rulers. Moreover, it should not be assumed that the churches' Trabzon origin necessarily indicates they were built for Komnenian princesses; they could have been erected for other noble Trabzon ladies or Greek women from different regions. These churches were evidently constructed by Muslim rulers whose territories were in this region and who frequently visited Bayburt and Ispir with their entire court and harem. Equally important, these rulers were wealthy enough to fund the construction of churches.