Istanbul – “Miklagard”

Huge city walls facing the land and sea met the Vikings when they sailed in to Constantinople mooring at the harbour in the Golden Horn. The city was the largest the Vikings knew of and it is not so strange that the Vikings referred to the city as Miklagard (The Great City).

The great wealth of the city soon made it a tempting prey for the Northerners, though because of the size of the city the Vikings quickly decided to go into the service of the emperor. He established his own Viking-guard known as the Varangians. The best known commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada .

City walls

The wall was 7 km long, built in three parallel walls. The inside wall was 12 meters high. There were 100 eighteen meter high towers along the wall. On the outside there were moats. There were also several kilometers of walls along the sea side plus a heavy iron chain that blocked the harbor of Constantinople – The Golden Horn. The walls protected the city against intruders for 800 years before Constantinople on April 13th 1204 was conquered for the first time by crusaders during the 4th crusade.

The Miklagard of the Vikings

The city wall was 7 km long, built in three parallel walls. The inside wall was 12 meters high. There were 100 eighteen meter high towers along the wall. On the outside there were moats. There were also several kilometers of walls along the sea side plus a heavy iron chain that blocked the harbor of Constantinople – The Golden Horn. The walls protected the city against intruders for 800 years before Constantinople on April 13th 1204 was conquered for the first time by crusaders during the 4th crusade.

The Vikings sailed in to Constantinople, mooring at the harbor in the Golden Horn. In this city of several hundred thousand, the Hippodrome with room for 100,000 spectators dominated. It was the eastern Roman Empire’s ceremony and festival center. From here the emperor proclaimed his decisions and issued decrees. Above the entrance were four horses in bronze telling what the hippodrome was actually built for. The bronze statues were retrieved from Emperor Nero’s arch of triumph in Rome. The crusaders plundered Constantinople taking with them the statues to Venice where they today the church of St. Marcus’s west entrance.

Nearby was the largest church in the world, Hagia  Sofia – The Church of Holy wisdom. It was finished in 537 and was therefore quite new when the Vikings arrived. We know that the Vikings visited the church because on one of the columns you can still read “Halvdan was here” etched in the marble in Runic symbols. Halvdan was surely impressed when he gazed at the huge cupola which soared to 56 meters above, even though he didn’t understand much of the ceremonies that were taking place on the church floor.

In the senatorial building there was room for 2000 senators, together with the splendor of the royal palace it is not so strange that the Vikings referred to the city as Miklagard (The Great City).

A tempting prey

The Vikings couldn’t resist the city’s riches. In 860 they plundered Constantinople for the first time. They cut down everything that stood in their way, set fire to churches and houses, plundered and robbed. The emperor was forced to offer them some gold so that the citizens would be left in peace. Later the emperor had to pay the Vikings tribute for many years in order to avoid further plundering. But he didn’t trust them very much anyway. If they wanted to trade in the city they had to go through a certain gate followed by the emperor’s men. They had to leave their weapons outside the city walls and couldn’t be more than 50 at a time.

In the Emperor’s service

The emperor’s empire stretched over huge areas of the Balkans and Asia Minor. There were constant disturbances in and on the periphery of the empire and the emperor was in need of good soldiers. It was common for northerners to go to Constantinople to serve as mercenaries. Those who survived could go home again with their pockets full of gold, so they say.

The Varangians

In 980 emperor Basil II received an unusual gift from Czar Vladimir (Valdemar) of Russia. He got an army of 6,000 Scandinavian-Russian Vikings.

He incorporated them into his own army as a single unit. It became known as the “The Axe-toting Guard” – after the huge double-edged axes they used in battle. Posterity knows this unit as the “Varangians” – the sworn. They were the best paid troops in the empire. They were so well paid that you had to bribe the right people in order to get in. The Varangians were also allowed to keep the booty they managed to scrape up from the battlefields and towns they conquered. They also had a right to “polutasvarv” (palace plundering) whenever the emperor died. They then went through the palaces in the capital and grabbed all the treasures and valuables they could carry. The Northerners served the emperor for over 300 years.

Harald Hardrada in Miklagard

Most of the Vikings in Constantinople were from Sweden but there were also Danes and Norwegians. The most famous of the Varangians was perhaps Harald Sigurdsson (1015-1066) who later became King of Norway under the name Harald Hardrada. He was commander of the emperors bodyguard, the Varangians for many years. He led the Varangians into battle in North-Africa, Syria, Palestine and Sicily. He sent all the goods he could get hold of north to Holmgaard in Russia, to his father-in-law to be, King Jaroslav the Wise. “There was an accumulation of wealth such that no man of the north had seen in the possession of a single man”, said Snorre.

Harald Journeys Home

When Harald, after many years service, planned to go home he wanted to take with him the empress’s niece, Maria, but the empress said no. The Varangians said that there were rumours that Empress Zoe herself wanted Harald. Emperor Constantine imprisoned Harald, but Harald received help in escaping. He took Maria by force, grabbed a ship and rowed out of the harbour. When they reached the chain that protected the harbour he ordered everyone that wasn’t rowing to the back of the boat and the rowers rowed for their lives. When they had rowed the ship up on the chain he ordered everyone forward. The ship tipped forward and slid off the chain. They could continue on into the Black Sea towards Russia. But before going on to Norway he graciously sent Maria back to Miklagard with a company and married Jaroslav’s daughter Ellisif. They left for Norway in 1045.

Timeline of Byzantium- Constantinople- Istanbul

Byzantium

  • Byzantium was founded by Greeks in about 600 B.C. at the entrance to the Bosporous and Black Sea.
  • In 73 A.D. Byzantium was incorporated into the Roman empire.
  • Ca. 200 A.D. the Hippodrome was constructed as a copy of the Circus Maximus in Rome. It was 380 by 190 meters and held 100, 000 spectators.

Constantinople

  • Founded in the year 324 by emperor Constantine.
  • The city burned in the year 532.
  • It was first attacked by Vikings in 860.
  • In 980 emperor Basil II founded the Varangian Guard as a single unit of his army.
  • Conquered for the first time by crusaders from 1204-1261. The city never fully recovered from this.
  • The Sultan Mehmet II, ruler of the Ottoman empire, conquered the city in 1453.
  • The city was the capital until 1923.

Istanbul

  • The city’s name was changed to Istanbul in 1930.

This post is also available in: Norwegian Bokmål

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