The Bogdan Saray, Istanbul
The Bogdan Saray, Istanbul

By Nicholas Melvani | Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz


The chapel known as the Bogdan Saray is a small Byzantine church with a crypt in Istanbul (former Constantinople). It is constructed of broad alternating bands of brick and stone, with each band consisting of four rows of stones or brick. This construction technique, which resembles the masonry of the Palaiologan additions to the Chora monastery, suggests a date in the 14th century. The lower part (the crypt) is an oblong hall terminating in an apse and is covered by a barrel vault. Its layout and the fact that three sarcophagi were found in it show that it had a funerary function. The upper story, which is also of the hall type, is vaulted and culminates in a circular bema, which is five-sided from the exterior.

Remains of adjacent walls indicate that it was originally an integral part (the northwestern section) of a large residential complex; a door on the south wall of the chapel seems to have connected the small church to the rest of the complex. The building follows an unusual orientation, to the northeast, due to its position within the residence. The simple plan and condensed size of the chapel are also consistent with this function. According to the sources, the chapel was dedicated to St. Nicholas. Although the Byzantine identity of the adjoining residence is unknown, it has been suggested that it was the private property of the Raoul/Ralles family, one of the most prominent Byzantine families before 1453, which was later purchased by descendants of the Byzantine imperial family of the Kantakouzenoi and subsequently by the rulers of the principality of Moldavia, to whom the site owes its name Bogdan Saray (Moldavian Palace). The building was badly damaged by fire in the 18th century, and today lies in ruins within a car repair store.


The symbolic importance of the monument within the history and topography of Ottoman Istanbul can be understood on the basis of its archaeological remains and relevant textual sources. The Bogdan Saray church is a rare example of what appears to have been a chapel within an aristocratic mansion of the Late Byzantine period. No other such example is known from pre-1453 Constantinople, but judging from the information in textual sources about the nature of Byzantine aristocratic houses, it is possible that such chapels were common in residential complexes of wealthy families in the Byzantine capital. Of even greater significance is the continuous use of the chapel (and apparently of the entire compound) after the fall of Constantinople and its reuse by the Moldavians.

In fact, the proximity to the seat of the Patriarchate, which in the latter half of the 15th century and most of the 16th century was based in the Byzantine monastery of the Virgin Pammakaristos, ca. 300 meters to the east, was an important factor in the installation of the Moldavians in this area, in relation to the Danubian principality’s ideological claims to the legacy of Byzantium, as it was embodied by the Patriarchate. Indeed, the links between the Moldavian and Wallachian princes and the patriarchs of Constantinople are well known, and the rulers of both principalities consistently offered their financial support to the Patriarchate and its building complex. Since the ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy (the so-called archontes) gravitated around the neighborhood of the Pammakaristos, interaction with these elements was part of the efforts of the Moldavians to integrate with the circles of the Orthodox elites. This support was part of the general policy of the Danubian principalities toward the Christian religious foundations of the Ottoman Empire, which included the monasteries of Mount Athos, the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Moreover, the Byzantine past of the Bogdan Saray was also important in this context: by occupying an extensive Byzantine site in the capital of the former Byzantine Empire, the Moldavians were probably aware of the implications the property of a former Byzantine family had for political and ideological purposes. The installation in a recognizably Byzantine building preserving the tangible memory of Byzantium must have reinforced Moldavian aspirations to the legacy of Byzantium within the post-1453 Orthodox context. The proximity to the site of the monastery of St. John of Petra, a few hundred meters to the west, which was traditionally the object of Serbian patronage, may have also been relevant in this regard, as part of Moldavian and Wallachian policy of claiming the Byzantine heritage through connection with Serbia.

When Prince Peter the Lame of Moldavia (r. 1574–77, 1578–79) donated the Bogdan Saray to the Patriarchate in 1580, he stipulated that the building would function as his family’s residence, whenever they visited Istanbul. Over the next few decades, the building’s importance for the area remained strong within the framework of the topography of the Orthodox community of the Ottoman capital, even though the seat of the Patriarchate was transferred to its present location in the neighborhood of Fener, closer to the shore of the Golden Horn. During the 17th century, the Bogdan Saray hosted envoys from Moldavia to the Ottoman court and was occasionally leased to diplomatic missions from other countries, such as the Swedish ambassadors in Istanbul.

A similar case seems to be the so-called Eflak or Vlach Saray, which was the residence of the Wallachian representatives and followed an analogous historical course. Although the identity of its Byzantine predecessor is unclear, it appears that it was likewise a mansion once belonging to a wealthy Byzantine family, which remained in Christian hands after the transition to the Ottoman period. Like the Bogdan Saray, it also included a chapel attached to the residence. Thanks to the proximity to the Bogdan Saray and to the fact that both buildings are located in the wider area of the Patriarchate (both the Pammakaristos – its seat until the end of the 16th century – and St. George – the headquarters from the 17th century onwards) the two complexes formed a Romanian hub in the heart of the Christian community of Istanbul, the heir to Byzantine Constantinople.

Further Reading

Cazacu, Matei. “Stratégies matrimoniales et politiques des Cantacuzène sous la Turcocratie (XVe-XVIe s.).” Revue des Etudes Roumaines 19-20 (1995-96): 157–181.

Explains how the residential complex passed from the Byzantine family of Ralles to the Moldavian nobility.

Dark, Ken, and Ferudun Özgümüş. Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis. Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998-2004. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013.

A recent assessment of the site and its current state of preservation (p. 60).

Luca, Cristian. “Le rappresentanze diplomatiche dei Principati Romeni presso la Porta Ottomana nei secoli XVI-XVII.” Mélanges de l'École française de Rome 119 (2007): 99–107.

An account of Moldavian and Wallachian diplomatic missions to the Ottoman Empire; important for understanding the historical framework of Moldavian activity in Istanbul.

Müller-Wiener, Wolfgang. Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls. Byzantion – Konstantinupolis - Istanbul bis zum Beginn des 17. Jahrhundert. Tübingen: Wasmuth, 1977.

Concise entry with accurate topographical map (p. 109).

Van Millingen, Alexander. Byzantine Churches in Constantinople. London: Variorum Reprints, 1974 [1912].

The earliest complete documentation of the surviving building complex, with detailed architectural drawings (esp. pp. 280-287).


Nicholas Melvani, "The Bogdan Saray, Istanbul," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,