Since we were anyway going to be in Istanbul for the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swimming Race, we took advantage and invested a few days in exploring the famous city…
ISTANBUL – SPANNING TIME AND CONTINENTS
Istanbul, an imperial capital for over 16 centuries, still exerts today an aura of fascination and mystery through its rich history and cultural diversity. Once the seat of the famous and feared Ottoman Empire, where diplomats would travel to pay tribute at the Sublime Porte (the High Gate), today Istanbul is Turkey’s economic, cultural and historic center, a transcontinental metropolis, straddling the Bosphorus Strait, which separates Europe and Asia, between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. A medley of historic sights, business skyscrapers, and countless residential neighborhoods covering the rolling hills of the Bosphorus, Istanbul is now home to almost 15 million residents, making it the largest city in Europe.
Founded in 660 BCE by Greek settlers as Byzantium, it is one of the most significant cities in history, serving from 330 to 1922 as the imperial capital of four major empires: the Roman, Latin, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. From 330 CE it became widely known as Constantinople, the City of Constantine, when Constantine the Great made it the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. During most of the Middle Ages Constantinople was the largest and the wealthiest city in Europe. In 1453, after an eight-week siege, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror captured Constantinople and turned it into the seat of the Ottoman Empire. After its dissolution and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the city became commonly known as Istanbul.
Today this bustling metropolis is one of the world’s most popular tourist destination, its biggest attraction being its historic center, found across the city’s natural harbor, the Golden Horn, partially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Walking the streets of the Golden Horn literally at each step we bumped into historical sites, from Greek and Roman ruins, Muslim tombs, madrasas, and mosques, to the most sought tourist destinations: Topkapi Palace, the Sublime Porte, Hagia Sophia Basilica, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Hippodrome, the Cistern and the old city walls.
TIME TRAVELLING – EXPLORING THE GOLDEN HORN
If hundreds of years ago one could hardly stand in front of the Sublime Porte, today we can walk freely, as once only the Sultan could, exploring many once forbidden places.
Wandering the streets towards Topkapi Palace, unexpectedly brings us in front of the famous Sublime Porte, so often mentioned in our history books. Surprisingly, the “High Gate” is actually a high gate :), beautifully decorated, marking the entrance to the Grand Vizier’s offices, where foreign diplomats were received.
Further up the street lies the entrance to the Sultan’s official residence, the Topkapi Palace. Built by Sultan Mehmed II after conquering Constantinople, on the site of the acropolis of the ancient city of Byzantium. Walking through the palace terraces, and taking in the splendid views overlooking the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara, we can easily understand why Sultan Mehmed II chose this place to build his palace.
The palace grounds are divided into several courtyards, from the outermost and the most accessible, to the innermost and the most inaccessible, access to these courtyards was once restricted by their high walls and controlled with gates, but nowadays we can move freely through imperial council chambers, the Sultan’s private quarters and even the Harem, though they are all now empty of their once illustrious inhabitants.
The courtyards abounding in trees and flowers, most distinctive the columnar cypress trees and the hollow plane trees, together with chambers covered in intricately painted ceramic tiles, provide a cool, refreshing heaven from the suffocating summer heat.
Walking through the palace we can only imagine what life must have been for the Grand Vizier giving council in the Divan, or for the Sultan’s consorts living secluded in the Harem, or for the cooks preparing food for the more than 4000 palace inhabitants.
Another once rare sight, now available on display to anyone visiting, are the sacred Muslim relics: hairs from Prophet Mohammed’s beard, one of his teeth, two of his swords, Moses’ staff, Joseph’s turban and the swords of the first four Caliphs, which long ago even the Sultan and his family were allowed to see them only once a year during Ramadan.
Leaving this mesmerizing palace, once witness to many secrets and some of the world’s most important moments in history, we head towards Hagia Sophia, lying within walking distance from Topkapi Palace.
Impressive in sheer size, richly decorated with golden mosaics, this byzantine basilica used to be a Greek Orthodox church, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum. Built by Justinian the Great, as the first Christian cathedral and seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, it remained the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years.
With the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, it was turned into a mosque, cross signs were erased, Christian images were covered in Muslim calligraphy, four minarets were added, gigantic circular-framed medallions inscribed with the names of Allah, Mohammed, the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman and Ali, and Mohammed’s two grandchildren: Hassan and Hussein were hung on the basilica’s walls, and two colossal candlesticks brought back from Budapest by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent were placed where the altar use to be, pointing to the direction of Mecca, where Muslims should face when praying.
Besides these additions, the basilica was surprisingly left unaltered, still preserving on its walls many of its characteristic mosaics depicting Christian figures. Standing where the Empress’ throne used to be in her lodge in the upper gallery of Hagia Sofia offers a humbling perspective of the basilica’s impressive interior, while on the ground floor we can stand where once Byzantine emperors were crowned.
Sitting next to Hagia Sofia is Istanbul’s largest mosque: Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors, it dominates the city skyline with its distinctive six minarets. At the time of its construction, this was a unique feature of the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca. To correct this presumption, the Sultan ordered a seventh minaret to be built at the Mecca mosque.
Known to Westerners as the Blue Mosque due to the blue handmade ceramic tiles that line its interior and the blue stained glass windows, it is opened to visit for non-Muslims outside prayer hours, though once inside the famous blue doesn’t appear so striking as to have earned it its name. Rather more impressive are the four huge marble columns that sustain the dome.
Outside, the mosque’s inner courtyard offers splendid views over the sunlit mosque dome and its minarets, and plenty of reading materials to familiarize yourself with Islam, free of the clothing restrictions applicable when entering inside the mosque.
Next to Sultan Ahmet Mosque used to lie Constantinople’s hippodrome. Today only two obelisks and a serpent column remain of what once used to be the social center of Constantinople. One of the obelisks, covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs, was brought from the Temple of Karnak, while the serpent column was brought from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Further back towards Hagia Sofia is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. This cathedral size underground chamber provided water filtration for the Great Palace of Constantinople.
Within walking distance, and enticed at each step with sweet, delicious boiled maize and freshly squeezed orange juice, we reach the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, a city within the city with its own gates and streets, it houses over 4000 shops selling anything from jewelry, ceramics, carpets, textiles, lanterns, Turkish delights, soaps, perfumes, teas, and probably anything we can imagine.
Even window shopping in this abundant bazaar proves an overwhelming and tiring experience, and calls for a well-deserved, refreshing walk on the promenade outside the Golden Horn’s ancient city walls, on the shore of the Bosphorus Strait. Locals come here to fish and enjoy a quiet evening away from the city’s bustling life.
Istanbul’s rich past and present have much, much more to offer to experience-thirsty travellers, and our story would become far too long trying to put into words all that we have experienced on the streets of Istanbul…especially since we are sure you are much more interested in reading about the far less accessible experience of swimming across the Bosphorus…
Keep close, it’s coming 😉
Tags: ahmet, bosphorus, constantinople, istanbul, mosque, palace, sophia, sultan, topkapi, unique