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ISTANBUL – hiding in plain sight

The Milion: Istanbul’s Ancient Beacon

Nestled in the vibrant district of Eminönü, near the iconic Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern, lies a relic of profound historical significance—the Milion. This ancient marker, erected by Emperor Septimus Severus in the 3rd century AD, served as the Byzantine Empire’s zero-mile marker, from which all distances across the empire were measured. It mirrored the Golden Milestone in Rome, establishing Byzantium as a crucial topographical and cultural reference point.

The Milion stood proudly as a domed structure supported by four large arches, adorned with statues and paintings that reflected the grandeur of the Byzantine Empire. Despite the ravages of time, including the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the Milion remained a symbol of the city’s resilience and historical continuity until it disappeared in the 16th century. Fragments of this monumental structure were rediscovered during excavations in the 1960s, offering a glimpse into its storied past.

When Emperor Constantine I rebuilt Byzantium, renaming it Nova Roma, he sought to emulate the grandeur of Rome. The Milion was transformed into a tetrapylon surmounted by a dome, from which the distances to all major cities of the Byzantine Empire were inscribed. It marked the beginning of the Mese, the city’s main thoroughfare, and was crowned by statues of Constantine, his mother Helena, and a cross, symbolizing the city’s new Christian identity.

Throughout its history, the Milion was more than a mere milestone. It was a ceremonial hub, adorned with sundials, equestrian statues, and depictions of ecumenical councils and scenes from the Hippodrome. It witnessed pivotal moments in Byzantine history, including conflicts during the Comnenian Age and its transformation into church property after the fall of the Latin Empire.

Today, the remnants of the Milion stand as a testament to Istanbul’s rich heritage. Exploring this hidden gem offers a unique journey through time, allowing visitors to connect with the city’s ancient past and appreciate the enduring legacy of Byzantium. The Milion is a must-see for those seeking to delve deeper into the historical tapestry of Istanbul, beyond its well-trodden tourist paths.

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