In 330, Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, had chosen the ancient Greek city of Byzantium as the site of his new capital because of its location. It lay on the hills of a naturally defended peninsula beside the great harbour of the Golden Horn, along the sailing route through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. Constantine’s palace complex adjoining the hippodrome and colonnaded avenues replicated Old Rome, but he also adorned public spaces with bronze and marble statues taken from many other, mostly Greek, cities and sanctuaries. These, whether displayed formerly as dedications to pagan gods at Delphi, like the Serpent Column, or as loot in Rome, were appropriated and re-purposed to convey the new secular propaganda that Constantinople was the inheritor of the Greco-Roman past and the centre of the world for the future. (Bassett 2004) A few generations later, emperors added hundreds of Christian relics from the East, imbuing Constantinople with an acquired religious mystique as a Christian city while still surrounded with its pagan past.  

A thousand years later, western pilgrims had been attracted to the City by its concentration of religious relics and treasures accumulated from the East. After being admitted through the gates of the largest city in Christendom, visitors would see an enclosed world of vineyards and orchards and aqueducts as the undulating skyline of domes rose up before them in the distance. Vast open spaces along the main colonnaded avenue were adorned with pagan statues so life-like that they seemed as if they would move. The citizens even dressed distinctively, wearing garments woven of the gold and silk threads whose secret method of production and exclusive trade Constantinople had monopolized for centuries. Scores of churches and monasteries were embellished with floors and walls of coloured marbles and silver and gold, and mosaic ceilings of glass and gold gleamed in candlelight. Most stupendous of all was the ancient cathedral of Saint Sophia, built centuries earlier by Justinian’s architects, with an enormous dome so high it could encompass the tallest of the commemorative columns around the city. A favoured few were allowed into the ancient palace to see some of the treasured relics and marvel at the automata displayed in the throne room: a golden tree with mechanical singing birds, lions that roared and moved, and a throne worthy of Solomon that would rise up toward the ceiling, all designed to strike awe in impressionable visitors.

The tales of the wealth of the city were legendary, reaching as far as the Vikings who called it Miklagarth, ‘Great Town.’ Visitors would be showered with gold coins as presents, again intended to impress. Such largesse was made possible by the 10% customs tariff charged on all imports and exports passing through the city, and by the silver and copper mines south of Trebizond in Anatolia. But such displays of wealth inspired not only wonder and fear but also avarice and greed. 

Intending to attack Moslem Egypt in a Fourth Crusade c. 1204, Frankish crusaders needed ships from Venice for transport but lacked the funds to pay for them. To raise money, they supported a losing claimant to the Byzantine throne but after he was murdered they remained unpaid. After breaching one of the gates, the western crusaders poured into Constantinople to extract as much as they could from the defenseless citizens. These assailants torched and pillaged the city ‘for three days, the customary and accepted period of time for the sack of a conquered city.’ (Queller and Madden 1997: 193) The occupiers neither understood nor appreciated what they were destroying. Not satisfied to destroy, they raped women and slaughtered men. Formerly well-to-do Greek refugees scurrying away to escape from the city were despoiled of any movable wealth. These French and Italian crusaders were western Christians who mercilessly plundered Orthodox Constantinople in April 1204. 

All available gold, silver, and bronze objects were seized to be melted down for coinage, including ancient Greek statues and cult figures. Walls were stripped of their tapestries of silk and gold. The Franks were particularly keen to seize hundreds of religious relics to take back to France. Among the most celebrated may have been the Image of Edessa or the Shroud of Turin. Except for their jewel-encrusted covers, manuscripts were fortunately of no interest to the illiterate barbarians. A few Venetians at least preferred to preserve some beautifully carved sardonyx bowls such as the Tazza Farnese and chalices encrusted with enameled gold and jewels as well as the wonderful team of copper horses from the Hippodrome to be displayed at the Doges’ chapel, now St. Mark’s in Venice. A Greek senator in Constantinople observed that Saladin, the Moslem conqueror of Jerusalem in 1187, had recently treated the defeated Christian inhabitants there with more respect and chivalry than did their fellow Christians from the West in 1204. In Rome Pope Innocent III was shocked and appalled when he learned the extent of the sacrilege, rape, and theft of relics in churches and monasteries. Two centuries later with a Turkish siege imminent in 1453, many in Constantinople still believed ‘better the Turkish turban than the Papal tiara.’