A short flight westward from Nevşehir in Cappadocia deposited us into a rainy early evening in Istanbul. A taxi from the airport dropped us in the historic Sultanahmet neighborhood. The Angel’s Home Hotel was on a block lined with similar small hotels, the narrow streets damp and golden in the light rain.
We ate dinner at Balıkçı Sabahattin, a well-known but neighborhood-y seafood restaurant nearby, where we were plied with mezze plates and a choice of many species of perfectly cooked fish.
We began our first day in the city with a visit to Topkapı Palace, home of the Ottoman rulers from the 15th century to the 19th and now a huge museum complex visited by over three million tourists a year. Wisely following the advice of previous travelers, we arrived before the museum opened at 9 AM to beat the worst of the crowds.
Waiting on the outer grounds, which are a public park, we bought Museum Passes, which included admission to Topkapı and most of the other Istanbul museums we were planning to visit. Then, when 9:00 struck, we were just about the first through the gates.
We found the maps confusing but tried to see everything, or at least everything important and beautiful: exteriors, interiors, views.
And the crowds, how they did pour in.
But the palace grounds are so big, you can still find peaceful moments. Depending on how you measure it, the grounds measure either 146 or 173 acres.
From Imperial Treasury to privy and bath, Tower of Justice to Circumcision Room, extravagant tiles and fixtures are everywhere.
On the outskirts of the Topkapı Palace complex is the Hagia Irene (Church of Saint Irene or of Peace), Aya İrini in Turkish. This cavernous Eastern Orthodox church-turned-museum, long ago stripped of its furnishings and artwork, makes an interesting contrast with the splendor of the well-preserved, ornate buildings of Topkapı.
Hagia Irene has its own management and hours, separate from Topkapı. In fact, at the time we were there the published information we found said it would be closed. But it was open.
There’s pretty much nothing here. It’s used for exhibitions and concerts. The acoustics must be quite something.
The site is said to be Istanbul’s oldest place of Christian worship. The church dates from the Byzantine era, in the fourth century. Rebuilt on orders of Emperor Justinian I after the Nika riots in 532, it has been through many changes since, but unlike Hagia Sofia and other Istanbul churches, it was not turned into a mosque by the Ottoman conquerors.
Later that same day, but still in the Byzantine era, we descended into the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground cistern built during Justinian’s 6th-century reign to supply filtered water to Istanbul’s Great Palace (which no longer exists) and later Topkapı. Now a major tourist site and social hub, its dark orangey gloom is lightened by the presence of a cafe, souvenir stands, and other signs of the bustle of modern ancientness.
But step away from the entrance and walk along the wet platform paths over the pooled water, among the phalanx of columns, and through the humid air and it’s another world.
The biggest individual attractions in the Basilica Cistern are two Medusa heads, taken from some earlier Roman structure and used as column bases. One is on its side, the other upside-down.
Popular lore has it that this was to negate the ossifying effect of the Medusa’s gaze, but it was more likely just to match the size and surface needed.
If the Basilica Cistern looks familiar, maybe you remember when James Bond passed through (From Russia With Love, 1963).
Heading for Istanbul’s most famous landmark, the Hagia Sophia, we passed the Milion Stone (Milyon taşı in Turkish), a remnant of the city’s zero-mile marker to other cities, thought to date from the time of Constantine I in the fourth century. It’s analogous to Rome’s Milliarium Aureum (golden milestone”). A “mílion” is a Roman mile, equal to 5,000 Roman feet, a fairly well-established standard by the time of Constantine.
If “all roads led to Rome” during the Roman Empire, it’s fair enough to say that later they all led to Constantinople, when it was the “New Rome” of that hegemony’s Eastern successor, the Byzantine Empire.
Modern-day Istanbul has retained (or re-established) the spirit of the Milion.
If there was one thing I knew about Istanbul before I ever thought of coming here, it was the Hagia Sophia (“holy wisdom”). I may not have known how to pronounce it (“Ayasofya”) but I knew it was one of the world’s most famous buildings, in the same category as the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame, or the Empire State Building.
The enormous domed roof, wrote Prokopios in the year 544, “seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven by that golden chain and so cover the space…No matter how much [visitors] concentrate their attention on this side and that, and examine everything with contracted eyebrows, they are unable to understand the craftsmanship and always depart from there amazed by the perplexing spectacle.”
Built in the sixth century, the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum is a gigantic avatar of Constantinople’s religious history a well as a marvel of architectural engineering. As such, it is frequently, if not constantly, in maintenance and restoration modes both inside and out.
The best view of the interior is from the upper level. Even with half the space enclosed by restoration scaffolding, the enormity of the space is breathtaking.
Uncovered mosaics reveal the Hagia Sophia’s past as the center of the Eastern Orthodox church. Actually, it gets even more complicated than that, as the church was used instead for Roman Catholic services for a period in the 13th century.
Christian and Islamic iconography and messaging coexist in peace, a mute lesson for a terror-wracked world.
Hagia Sophia and indeed the whole Sultanahmet Square area are spectacular at night, too.
After visiting Hagia Sophia, we took a walk through the Hippodrome to see its three obelisks, stopping first at the German Fountain (Alman Çeşmesi) dating from the turn of the 20th century. It commemorates the 1898 visit to Istanbul of German Emperor Wilhelm II, who was hoping to build a railway from Berlin to the Persian Gulf.
Instead, he built a fountain in neo-Byzantine style. The Germans of old seemed to leave fountains everywhere. We came upon a German Fountain on our previous trip – in Santiago, Chile.
The early Byzantine emperors set up the Hippodrome (circus) as Constantinople’s sporting and social center, where it hosted chariot races and statues of famous horses, and during Ottoman times events such as the elaborate circumcision ceremony of Sultan Ahmed III’s sons, as Wikipedia relates.
Today people visit the Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Meydanı) to see the three columns the Emperors placed here to signify Constantinople’s status as the capital of the Empire and thus (in their minds) of the world. The first is the Serpent Column, brought here from Delphi by Constantine. Then known as the Tripod of Plataea, it was created to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians in the fifth century BCE. The column supported a golden bowl and three serpent heads, but the column, which you can see takes the form of three intertwined snakes, is all that remains here.
The Obelisk of Thutmose III is also called the Obelisk of Theodosius because the Roman emperor Theodosius I brought it over to Constantinople from Egypt in the fourth century. It was originally erected at the Temple of Karnak by Pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century BC. Despite its enormous age and various travels over the millennia, this pink granite artifact is in amazingly good condition, hardly looking its 3,500 years.
Finally, there’s the Walled Obelisk (or Constantine Obelisk), which at first glance looks more ancient, but is the newest of the Hippodrome spires – not even 2,000 years old. Though its exact age is unknown, it seems likely that it dates from the original construction of the Hippodrome, around 200 AD.
It’s believed that 13th-century Crusaders ripped off its bronze plaques, leaving the bare rough stone you see today.
I’ll close this chapter at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque because of the abundance of blue tile inside.
Unlike the Hagia Sophia (the other main focal point of the Sultanahmet district), the Blue Mosque is still an active house of worship. Tourists stream in and out, but worshippers also come in to pray in a large roped-off section.
Visitors aren’t permitted to enter during certain prayer periods. Arriving during one of these, we were waylaid by an overly helpful young man who advised us of the prayer schedule and then tried every tactic in his arsenal to get us to walk over to his family’s carpet store in a nearby market. When visiting Istanbul, you must be firm against this kind of pressure. If you’re not planning to buy a Turkish rug, keep your non-intention uppermost in your mind!
Entering the inner courtyard at the appointed time, we made the preparations that are required when entering any mosque. We took off our shoes (interiors are carpeted) and Elisa put on the head covering she had brought. Mosques that are commonly on tourists’ itineraries provide head coverings for women who haven’t brought their own, but if you want to feel like you’re in the know, make sure the women in your party have scarves to tie over their heads.
The interior is glorious.
We walked by the Blue Mosque many times during our sojourn in Istanbul, and while it’s supposed to have six minarets, no matter hard hard I tried I could never count more than five. There must be some sort of magic involved. Something to contemplate overnight.
To be continued.
All photos © Jon Sobel and Elisa Peimer, Critical Lens Media[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1400033888][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0241184282][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0307407969]