Istanbul has been a ‘world city’ for millenniums and there is no better place to start than where it all began. Historians tell us that there was a Mycenaean settlement here from around the 13th century BC then Byzas the Megarian founded a Greek settlement here in the 7th century BC and this led to the name Byzantium. The town became an important centre of trade over the next thousand years and in the 4th century AD, Constantine chose it as the site for the new capital of the Roman Empire. Thus Constantinople was born.
Constantinople grew to become a great city, protected by water on three sides and by a great wall on the other. Grand buildings were built and the city remained safe until the beginning of the 13th century when the Christian crusaders sacked and destroyed much of it. The Byzantines finally regained control but the city fell to an Ottoman siege in 1453. The name Istanbul was used in Turkish alongside the original Constantinople, during the period of Ottoman rule. This period saw a rebuilding of the city with new palaces and many mosques and these are today some of the great attractions in the Old City.
This is a magnificent building completed in 537. This was the greatest Christian church in the world until 1453, when it was converted into a mosque. In 1935 it became a museum. It is a place that everyone ‘must visit’ when in Istanbul as it is probably the city’s greatest historic site. It is the interior with its huge dome that visitors find so magnificent. The dome is supported by 40 massive ribs which are held by hidden columns. The effect is stunning and no rival was attempted anywhere in the world for the next thousand years.
Most of the millions of gold mosaic tiles which covered the church’s interior have recently been restored and the result is something quite spectacular. There are several Islamic touches from the buildings time as a mosque. Most noticeable are the large 19th-century medallions inscribed with gilt Arabic letters with the names of Allah, Mohammed, Ali and Abu Bakr.
The Sultan Ahmet Camii was built in the 17th century by Sultan Ahmet I and he planned to build something that would surpass the Hagia Sophia. With the instantly recognised exterior and its six minarets he has achieved that but the interior falls far short. The domes billow upward as we enter into the huge courtyard which is the same size as the mosque itself and is surrounded by a portico with thirty small domes. From here the full grandeur of the exterior is revealed.
The interior space is huge but somewhat dark and the four huge pillars which support the dome seem oversized and almost overpowering. The mosque derives its popular name from the twenty thousand or so blue Iznik tiles that adorn its upper interior but many areas are difficult to see properly. The lower walls and arches are covered with arabesque stencilling.
This 1500 year old underground water reservoir is a wonderful escape from the outside heat and we linger here. It was first used to store water for the palace and surrounding buildings but apparently hasn’t been used for this purpose for the past 1000 years. Now the structure has been restored and opened as a unique attraction.
The cistern is huge and the roof is supported by 336 columns arranged in rows. We had been told about two columns supported on upside-down Medusa heads and we find them at the far left-hand corner of the reservoir at the end of one of the raised wooden walkways. There is still a small amount of water in the reservoir and there are carp swimming around. The lighting in nightclub colours throughout the reservoir is very attractive and we end our visit in the candlelit café, where soft lighting and classical music contributes to the overall atmosphere of the place.
This was the home of the sultan from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The complex is huge and you can’t see it all in less than half a day. The palace is a series of pavilions built around four courtyards. The Imperial Gate behind the Hagia Sophia leads to the first courtyard. This is open to everyone and it is here that we buy tickets for other areas. This courtyard houses the Byzantine Aya Irini, a former Eastern Orthodox church, and an entrance to the Imperial Mint.
Middle Gate leads to the Second Court where there are some important buildings such as the Palace kitchens, Imperial Council Chamber and Inner Treasury. All these have displays or things worth seeing. This court also provides access to the Harem which some say is the highlight of their palace visit. The sultan was allowed four wives and as many concubines as he could support and you can see a small section of their quarters including some of the dormitories, a bedchamber with a large indoor swimming pool, a charming small hamam, library and a dining room.
The famous Grand Bazaar at first appears chaotic but actually there is some order to it. This has been the heart of the Old City for centuries and you must visit even if you don’t want to shop. There are over 4000 shops, 3000 different traders, several kilometres of covered lanes, and mosques, banks, restaurants and workshops. Construction started in 1456 and repairs, expansion, and reconstruction have continued to the present day.
There are many opinions about the Grand Bazaar but a visit can be very enjoyable. Some say it is a tourist trap while others swear that many locals shop here all the time. Probably both are correct. Spend some time looking at the array of goods, or searching out the little cafes that hideaway among the shops. The architecture, colour and the tea men who run around with small glasses of hot tea are fascinating.
Probably nothing says that Istanbul was once a Roman city better than this. Only a small section of the original now remains but it is still an impressive sight. This was part of the major water supply system for Constantinople which at one time formed a 250 km network of water supply canals and aqueducts. The surviving section is just under a kilometre long as it crosses the small valley between Istanbul University and the Fatih Mosque. The most impressive view is where the wide Atatürk Bulvarı road passes under its arches but we are fascinated by the remains further to the east where it is incorporated into some old buildings.
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Along the way, he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide, and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award, and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guidebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore, Experience Melbourne, and Experience Ireland. They are available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com