We can say we’ve been to Istanbul twice. Indeed no other major city as significant straddles two continents. Well to be honest it is really challenging to determine where exactly Europe ends and Asia begins if one looks at the map. The Ancient Greeks used the Ionian and Aegean seas as a delimiter while in the middle ages the area of eastern Mediterranean was part of a region called the Levant.
Perhaps we can start by telling the story how we arrived into the city.
On the first occasion it was by a cruise ship. We were at the start of a week-long cruise from Athens and the first port of call was Istanbul. It was still early morning and we were still sailing to the city. Before we can get to the city, the ship must steer through the Bosporus strait. This strait is a treacherous stretch of water and connects the Black sea with the Mediterranean. Imagine the currents from the pressure of water flowing between both seas. We sailed past Gallipoli, the site of a terrible battle during the Crimean war. But because it was early all we could see was the mist. But slowly the city emerges at the other end. We’re here!
On the other occasion it was by air. That time we were coming as a tour group of 40+ folks. We arrived before 7am and it took a while to clear customs for this lot of people. And it was get go when we were done. For some reason the coach was not on time… so we all had to ‘loiter’ in the terminal, half sleeping actually. Some took the opportunity to change some local currency while waiting till 8am before we were finally able to get on the coach. The difference from getting in on the ship? We hardly slept on the plane and had to depart for a full day of tour…choose your poison well we suppose!
There are so much to see and do in this historical city.
The palace has its origins in 1459 when the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II decided to build what was to be the center of Ottoman power until 1839. We got here as a first stop on both occasions as it is an immensely popular site.
In the 16th century, the harem was added and contrary to what is popularly believed, the harem was a private family living space of the Sultan where his children were brought up and educated. Rather than having a bevy of beautiful women, it was actually a place where family apartments were built to house the various members of the Royal family. The misinformation what most people have today stemmed from the fact that it was a jealously guarded private sanctum, hence the rise of what some may have thought the harem was. Darn those gossipers and fake news…
A walk to the back part of the former palace facing the strait is a must, ships steaming from the Black sea to the Mediterranean in the background. From here, the entire view of the city can be seen – both the European and Asian side of it. Of course, no visit is complete without viewing the Ottoman treasures which are displayed in the various buildings formerly used to host visiting diplomats. No photos were allowed…so it’s challenging to describe to you that the intricate nature of the pieces. Hopefully this piqued your interest to get there yourself.
If there is no other place to go, then head to the Haghia Sophia that sits in the heart of old Istanbul. Not that we recommend this as a last resort. For it is one place you cannot miss. This Orthodox church was previously converted into a mosque, but has since been restored as a museum. The interiors are decorated with mosaic from the Byzantine era and still exude a sense of awe from those who gaze upon their creation.
Many of the mosaics depict the Christ, the Virgin Mary and his apostles. Of course the Byzantine emperors who built and embellished it along with their Queens are also depicted in obeisance to the Christ. First built in 325AD by Constantine (whom the city if named after), it was rebuilt in the 6th century by Justinian to its most glorious level. There are still iconic paintings of Christ on the walls inside the buildings and it is remarkable that they are still preserved despite years.
The Haghia Sophia means “divine wisdom” and it had the largest dome in the world when it was constructed during the reign of Justinian. It had collapse once due to the enormity of the dome and was rebuilt with a smaller one. Today, it would still take a significant effort of civil engineering to reproduce the same domed building using stone (now we use steel and glass). Notice that the halo that surrounds the Christ, Virgin Mary and the apostles. According to our guide, these showed influence of Buddhism – as the halo effect was not evident in the original art of Occidental cultures. Someone verify this? And at the exit from the museum, you have to turn around to see the last mosaic piece.
Next to this architectural marvel is the fabled Blue Mosque.
Finally, after battling with the crowd for well over an hour we finally managed to get out of Haghia and over to the Blue Mosque. One can see both the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia from the road that separates the two. But since they face each other, it was not possible to take a picture of two except from a distance. Time, which was a luxury when in a tour group was in short supply on both occasions we were there…
The Blue mosque is actually the Sultan Ahmet mosque. Did you know it is the only mosque in the world with 6 minarets? Only the mosque at the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia has 8. Do you know the meaning behind the number of minarets for a mosque? This one got its modern name from the beautiful blue and greenish tiles that decorate the interior. And they are said to be really valuable. Some are said to be able to fetch prices of US$50,000!
So it is no surprise that security is high to enter the mosque. No nicking of the tiles here! There are said to be 21,000 pieces of these tiles and they hail from Iznik (ancient Nikaia). Do note that it is an active mosque and has limited times when visitors can enter in case you come on your own. For us the most intriguing thing is the brightness of the mosque. With its numerous stained glass windows (there are 260 windows in all); the interior is well lit and pleasant.
An odd piece or two standing there
Not far from the mosque is the Hippodrome area. Originally a chariot race venue, it has been built over and we cannot see any trace of it. There are however two interesting monuments in the center of the Hippodrome: an Egyptian Obelisk and a Colossus restored by Constantine VII.
The former was captured as a trophy and brought back to Istanbul during its early days of conquest while the latter was a remnant of the early Byzantine days. You need to know that the Ottoman empire was at one time covering all of the middle east. It even controlled territory up till the gates of Austria! In the last 150 years as the western powers became more formidable, the borders of the Ottomans receded to the present borders of Turkey.
A reservoir in the city
You might know we are obsessed with water. For it is life, that without none can be sustained. Rome had its aqueducts that fed water at a constant and daily basis. What did Constantinople have? Would you have guessed that large underground cisterns stored water much like reservoirs these days, supporting life in the city? This is unlike the Romans that had the aqueducts supplying daily without a lot of storage.
The ancient cistern was built by the Byzantines as a means to store water for use and also as reserve when under siege. It was fed by a series of aqueducts that ran from the nearby water sources.
While not much of the aqueducts stand today, the cistern is very well preserved, though forgotten about as the Turks who captured the city did not like the idea of drinking from the still waters of the cistern. So the guide told us.
Because it was built well under the city, to hold up the cistern the Byzantines employed the use of unused or recycled columns, which were sometimes too short and were supplemented with large stone carvings. Can you see the photos of how these makeshift cobbled “columns” were put together? You see, ancient folks were thoughtful about it too and practiced the 3Rs.
Cruise the Bosporus
And being Istanbul it seemed to be mandatory to take a boat trip along the Bosporus. We started down the European side of the strait and as it came to a confluence the waves were so strong we were tossed about like rag dolls! And this should be expected as the strait is so narrow that the current flowing between must indeed be tempestuous. Still rivers run deep and this one’s especially calm until… As we sailed down, we saw the exterior of Yildz palace, which we will visit later. Many palaces along the waterfront have been turned into hotels or museums and one of the palaces is now the Four Seasons hotel (not at our pay grade).
This narrow stretch of water that connects the Black sea and the Marmara and hence Mediterranean was said to have formed within the last 10,000 years. Some say the story of great flood has something to do with it. You think about it ok? Today it is of strategic importance especially for the Russians’ oil exports and other merchant navy activities.
Many people live on the Asian side and work on the European side. With the challenging road traffic, water traffic seemed to be a good alternative. Indeed it is, as ferries connect both sides such that it only takes 15 minutes to cross. The journey from the other side to the office though – is not guaranteed… though on the first occasion we were there we did drive across the bridge that links Asia to Europe and it did not take too long.
As we came back down the Asian side of the strait, we saw luxurious homes built on the top of the hills overlooking the city. The guide told us that recently some large mansion was sold for more than USD50 million. Even real estate in Turkey has not escaped the effect of the euphoria!
Passing by the Bosporus bridge it was time to disembark and head for Yildz palace. The queue was very long and we had to wait for our allotted time. Now we were told one cannot enter the Palace without being part of a group. So independent travelers are clubbed grouped together. Oh man! While we were in the palace itself we were shadowed by a member of their security detail, who job was to watch and ensure no photos were taken or items touched. Picky folks! Even if we walked off the designated carpet path we were admonished. Wow. Alright so the artifacts inside are very valuable – especially the staircase with handrails made from Baccarat crystal.
That was our Istanbul exploration and we think we did most of the ‘beaten’ sights. Being in a group made it easy for us. No thinking required. Just follow that little flag. Make sure it’s the right one. Ok, so we might not have mentioned the culinary delights that some folks might have be curious about. Indeed you should! For it was sufficient to warrant having a separate story on eating and shopping in the city here.
It is noteworthy that the Ottomans took about 300 years to capture Constantinople. It was a prized catch, and it ended the last vestiges of the Roman Empire for which the Byzantines claimed to be successors of. So it was also symbolic. The city withstood countless sieges before it finally fell. But the new owners did a good job. For they did not demolish all traces of the previous owners, but instead went on to embellish the city further and taking it to heights of prosperity and sophistication.
We enjoyed both occasions we were in the city. It is safe and it was easy to get around. Sure we had the security and organization of being in a group. But that did not stop us from having a wonderful time. Yes we also know there are probably many many ‘unbeaten’ sights in the city. But considering the time we had, it was all good. Will we be back? Oh yes, if not for the low sugar baklava.
Touched the city in August 2003 and October 2010