Putting together a comprehensive guide about the city of Istanbul is an extremely daunting task…which is why yours truly has attempted to do so!
Similar to Jerusalem, Rome, London, Damascus, this city has just been around for so long and has seen so much over the centuries that it is virtually impossible for any writer or historian to fully cover in words.
Think about it. How can one encompass the splendor of a city that has been such an integral and influential part of human history for centuries? It’s the only city on the globe straddled between two continents (Europe and Asia) that has also been the capital of not only two of the largest empires the world has ever known (Byzantine and Ottoman), but also the political center of two competing faiths, namely Christianity (the Orthodox version) and Sunni Islam. The history of the city goes back over 2600 years, making it an archaeologist’s and historian’s paradise. Greeks, Persians, Romans, Crusaders and Turks have all held the city at various points of it’s existence, each group leaving their own lasting influence and impact. Today, Istanbul is the largest and arguably the most dynamic city in the modern Republic of Turkey.
To truly understand Istanbul, one really has to go there and experience all that the city has to offer for themselves. Though Istanbul has ample archaeological and historical sites, it is also very much a vibrant and modern city. In addition to its long history, the sights, sounds, smells (especially of the kebabs) and city’s people are what make Istanbul the dynamic place that it is today.
Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul – one city known by three different names throughout the ages and ruled by many empires. The history of Istanbul, Turkey is a long and storied one that is unlike most other cities of its size in the world. To understand what Istanbul is now, it’s important to take a look at what it was like in centuries past.
A Quick Tour of Places and Things to See and Do
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia)
The Aya Sofya, known in the West as the the Hagia Sofia, is the attraction to see in Istanbul. Located just between the Blue mosque and the Topkapı Palace, this monumental church from another age used to dominate the city’s skyline for nearly a thousand years until the Ottomans came and built mosques with taller minarets. Though no longer one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Hagia Sofia is the foundation for the world’s fourth largest dome (the others being St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, Il Duomo in Milan and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London).
The Aya Sofya was known as the “Church of the Divine Wisdom” and commissioned in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The church, built on top the ruins of an older one that had been destroyed in riots, was designed to be a symbol of Byzantine power and unlike any other structure in the world. It’s safe to say that the Emperor accomplished this as the church put visitors in awe for centuries until the Ottomans arrived.
Putting the thirty-meter dome atop such a large and empty space supported by the building’s perimeter walls was obviously not common in those days. In fact, the architects weren’t even sure if such a large dome would even be able to sustain itself. Still, the architects went forward and what they ended up with was magnificent. They were able to complete the church relatively quickly in just five years. Unfortunately about 20 years later, the dome collapsed due to an earthquake. The task of rebuilding the dome was given to a particular Isidorus the Younger who was also the nephew of one of the original architects of the church. Isidorus raised the height of the new dome and expanded some other parts of the church to make it even more grand.
The Byzantine Empire and the city of Constantinople never recovered from the onslaught of the Crusaders. On the 29th of May, 1453, the final blow to the Byzantine Empire came when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman forces of Mehmet the Conquerer. The sultan rode into the Aya Sofya and ordered the building to be cleared of its relics. The next Friday, he held the communal Muslim prayers there, effectively converting the building into a mosque, which it remained from that point onward until 1932 when the Aya Sofya was turned into a museum.
Today there is work being done to restore the Byzantine aspects of the church and several icons that had been covered up by the Ottomans have resurfaced after much restoration.
The Aya Sofya is open daily from 9am–7pm except on Mondays.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Instantly recognizable by its six tall and slender minarets, the Sultanahmet Camii, commonly known as the Blue Mosque, is one of the most famous and imposing buildings in Istanbul’s skyline. Along with the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia), it is also one of the most popular destinations for visiting tourists. Don’t go around looking for a big shiny blue structure because you won’t find one. “Blue Mosque” is a misnomer since, at least from the outside, the building is more of a stony grey color. The name actually comes from the more than 20,000 Iznik ceramic tiles and stained glass that decorate the interior of the mosque.
In the northeast part of the mosque is the nicely decorated royal pavilion. The sultan would access the pavilion by riding his horse up a ramp to the his own personal chamber inside the mosque. Today, this area is the home of the Museum of Carpets (Halı Müzesi) which displays and gives an overview of the history of Turkish rugs and the symbolism found in many of their designs and patterns.
The mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I in 1604; his tomb is also inside the back part of the building.
In the summer months from May to September, there is a multilingual, outdoor sound and light show conducted in the area between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya.
As of this writing, the mosque is open for tourists daily from 9am until about an hour before evening prayers. It’s worth taking a step inside and also exploring the area surrounding the mosque where you’ll find the Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace and several really cool museum.
The Chora Church and Museum
Though a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey still has some of the best early Christian and Byzantine art in the world. One example is the Chora Church and Museum, one of the most beautiful Byzantine churches ever constructed and located in Istanbul’s Fatih neighborhood. The foundations of the church (and later monastery) were laid in the 5th century with the structure being expanded up until the Ottomans conquered the city, after which the building was converted into a mosque. However in 1948, the building was turned into a museum for all to enjoy. The church is most famous for the many frescoes and mosaics that depict the life of Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary.
Though a bit out of the way, it is worth making the trip across town to see this spectacular building.
Buttressed by 12 rows of 336 columns, the Basilica Cistern was once the water reservoir for the Byzantine Emperors of Constantinople. Started by the Emperor Constantine the Great and not completed until 300 years later by the Emperor Justinian, the Basilica Cistern was made not only to supply water but to be an impressive work of art as well. The columns may seem mundane until one takes a closer look at the delicate carvings and artwork that make up and surround them, for example the Medusa carvings found in the cistern’s northwest section. Visiting this place when there are few people is an especially intimate experience as you witness the dimly-lit subterranean silence with the exception of the sounds of drops of water trickling down from the ceiling.
The Topkapı Palace is the place where everything (and I really mean everything) happened in Ottoman Turkey from the 15th to the 19th century. It was here that wars were planned, assassination plots contrived, eunuchs and jealous women schemed and where the Ottoman sultan carried out all aspects of his daily life when he was not on the road. The palace was a little city within itself and contained opulent pavilions, beautifully landscaped gardens and courtyards, works of art including the royal jewels and everything that was befit for one of the most powerful rulers in the world.
Most people upon entering the palace grounds pass through the famed Imperial Gate (Bab-i Humayun) which leads to what is known as the “First Court.” This place was also known as the Court of the Janissaries, the famous elite soldiers of the Ottoman sultan. Towards the left is the old Byzantine Church of Hagia Eirene, known locally as Aya Irini. The next large courtyard is conveniently known as the “Second Court” and used to contain one of the Sultan’s audience pavilions, the royal kitchens, a barracks and a treasury in which at the moment a collection of military armor from around the world is on display. The western part of the Second Court contains the Imperial Council Chamber, the place where the Sultan met with foreign dignitaries, issued edicts and proclamations and also listened to the petitions of ordinary citizens.
Probably the most fascinating and scandalous part of the palace is the royal harem. One of the more opulent areas of the palace complex, the royal harem contained the private quarters of the sultan and his family, not just chambers for his many concubines as is commonly believed. In order to protect the people who lived inside, the harem was guarded by eunuchs who often, at least indirectly, wielded considerable power.
The sultan’s Audience Chamber was the place where VIPs and foreign dignitaries were met as well as guests entertained. It is also where gifts were presented to the sultan.
Behind the Audience Chamber is the Library of Sultan Ahmet III. Along with many rare and useful books, it is best known for the impressive inlaid woodwork that covers its surfaces. One should also visit the Imperial Treasury where the famous Topkapi Dagger is housed. This priceless weapon is adorned with three enormous emeralds on its hilt. Another exhibit within the treasury is the Kasıkçi Diamond, an 86-carat teardrop-shaped glittering rock that was worn by Sultan Mehmet IV at his coronation in 1648. It is believed to be one of the largest known diamonds in the world. It is also worth visiting the nearby Dormitory of the Privy Chamber where the portraits of 36 Ottoman sultans are stored.
More information can be found on the palace’s official website.
Back in the day, a hippodrome was a stadium-like place where Greeks would gather to watch horse and chariot racing. The Romans later took this concept to the next level when they began building hippodromes (along with colosseums) to keep the masses amused and entertained. Arguably the most famous of these types of structures in all of history was Istanbul’s (or rather Constantinople’s) Hippodrome.
Though built upon an older version, the Constantinople’s Hippodrome dates back at least to 203 when the then Roman/Byzantine emperor Septimius Severus was gentrifying what was at that time the Greek city of Byzantium. Work on the project went on for another century or so until the main part of the structure was finally completed in 330 under the emperor Constantine the Great. Initially the Hippodrome was covered with the statues of various Roman deities and later Christian saints with the odd Byzantine notable placed in the mix as well (after all, the Byzantine emperors and those who made up their courts felt that they had been appointed by God to rule). It is believed that at its height, the Hippodrome was capable of holding approximately 100,000 people. Along with being the best place to host live sporting and entertainment events, the Hippodrome was the center of public life for the citizens of Constantinople. It was a popular place for the day’s political activists to stage events and demonstrations. One of the most infamous events to occur at the Hippodrome was the Nika riots of 532 against the emperor Justinian; nearly 30,000 people are believed to have perished in those riots
Despite this and other events (both joyous and gruesome), the Hippodrome more or less remained the center of public life in Constantinople until the early 1200s when it was looted by the soldiers of the 4th Crusade. Both the Hippodrome and really Constantinople never recovered from the Crusader onslaught, leaving it ripe for conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Renaming the city Istanbul, the Ottomans were not too fond of the city’s old Roman and Byzantine heritage and did little, if anything, to preserve it. Though today the Hippodrome is all but overtaken by what is now Sultanahmet Square, though vestiges of its glorious past are still visible with the many monuments that still dot the area.
One of the more famous objects still on display is the bronze Serpent Column. Brought over from the ancient Greek city of Delphi in 324 by Constantine the Great, the Serpent Column was built to honor the Greek soldiers who fought against Xerxes I and the Persian Empire in the battle of Battle of Plataea (479 BCE).
Another famous artifact found on the Hippodrome’s grounds is the Obelisk of Thutmose III. Originally housed in Luxor’s Temple of Karnak, the Obelisk was brought over and installed in the Hippodrome by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius the Great. Built around 1500 BCE, the Obelisk is over 3500 years old!
Thutmose III’s is not the only Obelisk; another, the “Walled Obelisk” was built in the 10th century by the emperor Constantine VII. This structure was originally covered with various plaques made of bronze until these were stripped off by soldiers of the 4th Crusade.
Archaeology MuseumSo by now, you’ve probably figured out that Istanbul specifically and Turkey in general are replete with history. There is probably no better place to demonstrate this to the world than at the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul. Spanning over 5,000 years, the museum has one of the world’s best collections of ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman artifacts, sculptures, statues, ceramics, mosaics and more.
The museum was started in 1881 by Osman Hamdi Bey, the grand vizier’s son in order to help preserve Turkey’s heritage and educate the population about the history of their ancient land. Highlights include the must-see Istanbul Through the Ages exhibit, the Tiled Pavilion of Mehmet the Conqueror, the Treaty of Kadesh, the lion of Halikarnassos, the Hattuşaş Sphinx, the Sidon Sarcophagi and many other ancient relics and artifacts.
Istanbul Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)A mix between a museum and giant mall, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is filled with countless stalls and stores. Everything from traditional objects such as carpets, metalwork and spices to modern appliances, electronics, motorbikes and computers can be found here. Architecturally, the bazaar is famous for it’s beautiful and detailed painted arches and colorful lanterns that adorn its ceilings.
The bazaar was built in 1461 by Sultan Mehmet II but expanded and renovated several times. Mehmet’s goal was to create a complex of commercialization fit for an empire that stretched between two continents.
Along with the stalls and shops, the Grand Bazaar complex contains mosques, religious schools, bathhouses, banks, cafes and gyms. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll find it there.
Süleymaniye MosqueNamed after Sultan Süleyman I, the Süleymaniye Mosque was built between the years 1550-57 and designed by the famous Ottoman architect, Sinan. Dominating Istanbul’s skyline, the mosque is one of the finest works of Ottoman Turkish architecture and includes religious schools, a bathhouse, caravanserai and even a hospital.
Both the Sultan and his wife Roxelana are buried in the mosque’s courtyard.
Galata TowerThe once prominent Galata Tower (originally known as Christea Turris) is one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. Built in 1348 by Genoese colonists when the city was under Byzantine rule, this cone-capped tower was once the tallest building in the city. You can climb up the tower’s stairs to the top to get a really great panoramic view of the old city of Istanbul and the surrounding areas.
Theodosian Walls and Yedikule FortressThese walls were built by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II from 412-22 and protected the city (then Constantinople) from attack. The wall stretched at least from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. However, most of the wall has been dismantled and/or is in ruins, though certain sections (like those along the Sea of Marmara) can still be walked on top of. The best part of the wall is the Yedikule Fortress, which from the top gives a good view of the Sea of Marmara and beyond.
Alongside this wall there used to be a moat, much of which today has been converted into a vegetable garden.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic ArtsAs the name implies, this museum focuses on Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past. The museum’s collection mainly consists of beautiful calligraphy, miniature paintings, books, ceramics, Qur’ans, textiles, weapons and different styles of intricately woven carpets from all over the Islamic world. As a bonus, the museum itself is impressive since it’s the former palace of İbrahim Paşa, the famous Grand Vizier the powerful Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.
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