We stopped in Istanbul for 2 days as we made on our trip from Portugal to Georgia. The first thing that struck us is the incredible number of mosques in the city—a number one of our guides estimated at 1,500. While we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the 15+ million-person city, we did visit some of Istanbul’s primary attractions.
The city is divided into four primary districts, of which we actively explored key sights in three. These are, by district:
Seraglio Point District
Seraglio Point is the headland on which the city’s Topkapi Palace, several museums, and numerous other historical sights are located. The historic area was added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985.
The Palace was built by Ottomans and home to about 5,000 people 400 years ago. After a disappointing visit to the Palace on our first trip to Istanbul, we decided against a return visit.
But we almost changed our minds after seeing replicas of some of the treasures in the gift shop. These included the Topaki Dagger, and jeweled, navy blue floral patterned Hasaki bronze vessels modeled after the sultan’s belt as well as pictures of other treasures and palace rooms.
Although we didn’t have the time even if we wanted to visit again, our appetites were further wetted by walking through the impressive Middle Gate and seeing some of the towers beyond. We did, however, settle for these plus a walk through the surrounding gardens. The palace along with its extensive harems housed and employed more than 4,000 family members, concubines, eunuchs, slaves and administrators during the time of the sultans. The were responsible not only for affairs of state, but also for administering the Empire and and for training soldiers and civil servants.
Amazingly, the church was not transformed into a mosque as were most other churches. As the oldest known church in the city, it was originally built in 360.
The elegant early 18th century structure’s exterior is inscribed with poetry.
This narrow street is lined with 12 restored traditional 18th– and 19th-century wooden homes that are now in evidence in pockets of the city.
This district, located just south of Seraglo Point is home to one of the city’s largest, most famous churches, the Byzantine-style Hagia Sophia and the even more famous, historic Blue Mosque, along with several other historic sights.
Hagia Sophia is one of the highlights of any trip to Istanbul. To avoid the incredibly hours long lines that would take almost all day to get in, hire a guide or a tour (we were told the crowds were smaller very late in the day). We negotiated our guide from 60 euros to 25 euros and it was well worth it. In addition to avoiding the lines, he brought the magnificent building life for us.
The multi-story Byzantine church was built by two Greek architects employed by Emperor Constantine who first legalized and then established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. He commissioned its construction in 537 AD as an orthodox church when the seat of the Holy Roman Empire was moved from Rome to Constantinople.
The Ottomans converted the church into a mosque in 1452. Much of the building’s majesty is attributable to its incredibly sophisticated architecture–especially its huge 188-foot dome which is supported by two stories of 104 pillars that in turn support four arches on which the dome was constructed. There was no sparing of expense in sourcing the finest marble, in creating Corinthian columns from Rome and Greece, in shipping them to Constantinople (not to speak of replacing the many that were lost in a storm which sent the ships and the columns to the bottom of the sea between the Aegean and the Bosporus Strait. Several of the columns are still submerged.
Then there was the technology that was required during the building including:
- Lifting the 12-meter, three-ton columns to the second floor
- The incredibly precise slicing of marble slabs to accentuate the beautiful grains. Our guide explained that it was done by continually wetting raw silk as it was drawn back and forth through a crack.
- The artistry in creating the incredible mosaics that cover the ceilings, walls, arches, and domes and
- The carving of marble column capitals.
When the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque, they added minarets and an ablution fountain at the entrance. They also removed much of the Christian crosses and other symbols and images of apostles and saints. Replacing many with Islamic symbols. A few, such as an image of the Virgin Mother, were covered with cloth instead of being removed. As we exited the prayer room into the entrance, we were struck by a mosaic of Mary on the outside of the entryway. Asking our guide why such as image was allowed to remain, he explained that the religious authorities were somewhat more lenient in permitting such images outside the prayer rooms.
Although the floor, as with all prayer rooms, is carpeted, one roughly 15×15-foot marble square that remains uncarpeted. This square, called the Omphalion, is where the Pope coronated the Eastern Roman Emperors.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is not far behind Hagia Sophia in its majesty. Built with six minarets (which was criticized by some as blasphemy), the mosque, named for the blue Iznik tiles that line its dome, ceiling and walls. Sultan Ahmet I commissioned it in the early 17th century, when the Ottoman Empire was already in the early stages of decline. Its dome, unlike that of Sophia, is supported by four massive piers, rather than by a system of columns and arches.
The height of its primary dome is echoed in and accentuated by a cascade of continually smaller domes that flow down to the arcades surrounding the courtyard. Each of these domes, meanwhile, is decorated with painted arabesque designs. These designs, along with the beautiful tiles are complemented by intricately carved white marble.
Cistern of 1,001 Columns
The cistern, which was constructed in the 4th century, is the largest of a number of cisterns that were spread through the city. And just how big is it? Measuring 210×184 feet it can hold 2.8 million cubic feet of water, enough to supply 120,000 people for one month. Its ceiling consists of a series of brick vaults supported by 264 marble pillars (somewhat short of the hyperbolic claim, but impressive nonetheless). The lines to get into the cistern are almost as long as those for Hagia Sophia.
Column of Constantine
The Column was constructed in the early 4th century in commemoration of Constantinople as the new Byzantine capital. A statue of Constantine dressed as Apollo was originally at the top. A storm toppled the statue and the top of the column. It was rebuilt and reinforced by metal rings and later damaged by several fires. While it is not very impressive in its current state, it is interesting for its history.
A large open square marks the spot of the approximate size and location of the huge, 100,000-person 3rd century Roman stadium that used to reside here. The stadium was part of a much larger palace. The square retains only a few remnants of the original—a couple of arches and parts of three of columns that used to be located on the site. These include:
- The Egyptian Obelisk was looted from Egypt’s Luxor Temple. Displayed is the top one third of a giant, 3,500-year-old column as the bottom of the column broke off during transport.
- Serpent Column is the remains of 2,500 year-old bronze column that was looted from Delphi.
The baths which were built in 1584, is one of several in the city. Although we have not yet partaken in a Turkish Bath, they are supposed to be similar to Roman baths except they can entail many options. A fellow traveler told us that the full treatment can include steam baths, between which you are exfoliated with soap and sandpaper-like sponges and “beaten” by a masseur or masseuse for women in a massage that is like a pummeling, Men and women, of course, are segregated in separate sections of the baths. Our fellow traveler who did it was not a fan.
The district is named, not surprising, for Istanbul’s huge, sprawling and hectic Grand Bazaar and its prettier, more manageable (and in our opinion, more interesting) Spice Bazaar. The quarter is also home to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which many in the city consider to be its most beautiful and the city’s Golden Horn harbor area which houses everything from tour ships to ferries and yachts.
Sultan Mehmet II created the bazaar in 1453 after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. It is a massive place, formally enclosed in an arcaded structure with vaulted ceilings (especially the historic Bedesteni area). Informally, it spills out in every direction through main streets and small alleyways. The result is a jumble of roughly 4,000 small shops and booths selling everything from slippers to sandpaper and oriental rugs to jewelry. Wares are stacked, piled, and stuffed into every square inch. Combined with the mass of people that pack the walkways and the salespeople beckoning and bribing people to enter their generally customer-less shops can be overwhelming. Overall, not our scene.
The Spice Bazaar also manages to spill from its formal 17th-century confines. However, it is much more spacious, much less chaotic, and to our tastes, much more interesting. Most shops specialize in an amazing array of spices, incredibly tempting sweets or both. And they are so attractively, and imaginatively arranged and displayed as to be fun to explore, not to speak of to sample. One particularly fun display had faces with various expressions carved in the pyramid-like spice piles. You can also find a large range of other merchandise including jewelry, table services, dried meat and more.
The city’s most important religious site also happens to be an architectural masterpiece, a noted charitable foundation, the resting place of Suleyman the Magnificent, his family, and his two successors, and a hilltop space with views of the city. The yard surrounding the tomb is filled with beautifully-carved headstones of lesser nobles. The mosque itself, built 1,500 years ago, is huge with a dome that soars 170 feet above the floor and minarets that are visible for miles.
New Mosque (Yeni Cami)
The construction on the Ottoman-era mosque began in 1597 and was completed around 1665. The lovely mosque is situated near the water and is visible from across the Bosporus, especially at night when its minarets, dome, and its angular shapes are brightly illuminated. It has a large attractive courtyard and its interior is decorated with lovely blue and turquoise tiles.
Golden Horn Estuary
The estuary separates the European side of Istanbul from the Asian side. It has a constant flow of all types of maritime traffic, modern high rises, luxury hotels, and waterside restaurants.
This district on the Asian side of the Bosporus accounts for roughly half the city’s area, perhaps a third of its population, less of its income, and few tourist attractions. Three bridges and three tunnels (two for cars, one for trains) as well as by regular ferry service joined it to the rest of the city. Although we didn‘t venture onto that side of the strait, we had any views of its primary tourist attraction, the 196-foot Galata Tower, from several vantage points on the European side and from a sunset sightseeing cruise across the 32 kilometer strait from the Black Sea to the Aegean.
Bosporus Sunset Cruise
We are skeptical of these types of cruises, however our concierge convinced us to go on it. Although certainly less dramatic than cruising the Mosel or Douro Rivers, and with far fewer sites than a boat tour around Manhattan, we found the trip quite worthwhile. First, the tour was not on a standard, sparse, crowded tour ships with metal seats and floors. It was on a luxury, carpeted cruiser with sofa seating with most passengers having access to wooded tables. Seats were available on the front and back decks and atop as well as in an enclosed cabin. The boat had enough room so that each party could have its own sofa and plenty of room to move around and take pictures from anywhere on the boat. We were picked up and dropped off at our hotels (or other chosen locations). Juices, tea, fruit, cookies, and other snacks were served throughout the 2.5-hour cruise. (Alcoholic beverages were available for purchase.) A narrator announced and provided background on the sights and walked throughout the ship to address additional questions.
We learned how the strategic channel serves as a chokepoint that serves as Russia’s only year-round ice-free access to the open seas and provides the only access to countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Among the many sites are:
- The three bridges and three tunnels that span the river, from the landmark 5 km Bosporus bridge to the shortest at which the width of the channel is only 800 meters;
- Dozens of mosques including all the most famous plus the largest in the country (in Beyoglu) which can accommodate up to 30,000 people;
- The three royal palaces which lined the route
- Historic buildings including fortresses, the Galata Tower, a 19th-century sultan’s hunting lodge, and Egyptian Consulate (which used to serve as its embassy before the embassy moved to Ankara);
- Neighborhoods and famous residences that lined the shore;
- The 3rd-century watchtower on the strait’s only island; and
- The 1,040-foot communications tower which is the country’s tallest manmade structure.
Overall, it was a very worthwhile excursion which, at 60E per person, seems like a bargain.