The best of old Istanbul
We immersed ourselves today in the old, imperial part of Istanbul. We had a full day exploring Topkapi Palace, the famous Sultan Ahmet Camii (better known in the Western world as the Blue Mosque), the incredible Ayasofya (translation = Hagia Sophia), and the ancient Basilica Cistern of Istanbul. It was fanastic – today was definitely our favourite day of sightseeing in Istanbul!
We started our early as we wanted to reach Topkapi Palace before the crowds descended (the palace receives some 12 million visitors every year, many of them day trippers who arrive on one of the many of cruise ships that pull into Istanbul every day between March and November). It was well worth the early start as we got straight through the gates and almost had the place to ourselves.
Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans and the administrative heart of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years (it was relaced by Dolmabahçe Palace, which we saw yesterday, in the mid-19th century). Built in 1465 the palace is today a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only part of the palace is open to the public, with rooms dedicated to exhibiting collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armour, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, as well as Ottoman treasures and jewelry. The pick of the exhibits was the Spoonmaker Diamond. This 86 carat, pear-shaped diamond was stupendous. We couldn’t take any photos in the Royal Treasury so you’ll have to take our word for it: that thing was HUGE and oh so sparkly!
Within the palace there was even a room dedicated to sacred religious relics, where the Muslim prophet Muhammed’s cloak and sword are kept, as well as Christian relics such as the skull of John the Baptist. This is also where we got to see what are reportedly the sword of Abraham and Moses’ staff. This was by far the busiest part of the museum/palace, with a long queue of people of all religious denominations quietly and respectfully filing past these ancient relics. Not being religious, we were interested in these relics from a historical perspective more than anything, but can certainly appreciate how significant it must be for some people to view these items.
Topkapi Palace is enormous (apparently it used to be home to 4,000-6,000 people during the years of the Ottoman Empire). The palace covers 700,000 square meters and includes 442 rooms, 4 courtyards and numerous gardens. It was a lovely palace – peaceful and quiet despite its location in the centre of Istanbul’s histoical heart, Sultanahmet. The characteristically Ottoman architecture of the buildings was fascinating, especially the rooms still tiled in intricate Iznik* tiles.
*Iznik is a small town about 150kms out of Istanbul made famous by the beautiful hand pianted tiles made there. Iznik tiles were used to decorate not only Topkapi palace but other official buildings of the Ottoman Empire, including the Blue Mosque.
We had a great morning exploring the palace and enjoying great views of the Bosphorous from the front terrace of the palace. Ah those Ottoman Sultans, they sure knew how to live didn’t they?!
From Topkapi Palace we went to see the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul’s largest underground cistern. We entered the immense cistern via a set of steps that descended 22m under the streets of Sultanahmet. This cathedral-sized water storage chamber is 138x65m and can hold 80,000 cubic metres of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, which are eerily lit by red lights. It was incredible down there, walking between the columns on the purpose-built raised platform.
The Basilica Cistern was built during the years of Roman rule in Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian I. He ordered the cistern and the aqueduct* that feeds it built to help ensure a steady supply of fresh water to the growing city. Over the centuries the Basilica Cistern was forgotten until the 16th century when a Dutch traveller and amateur archaeologist came to Istanbul to conduct research on its Byzantine remains. While he was in Sultanahmet he was surprised to see people getting water and even catching fish from well holes. He decided to find our where the fish were coming from and ended up discovering the cistern. The cistern was never used as a major water supply by the Ottoman Empire but has been a tourist attraction for centuries. You wouldn’t think a bit underground water tank would be so interesting, but it was!
*The cistern’s water was carried into Constantinople from the Belgrade Forest, some 20km north of the city.
Having filled our senses we decided to take a break and have lunch at a local eatery. It was like a school cafeteria in that you lined up with your tray and asked for what dishes you wanted from the available selection; difference being that, unlike most schools lunches, the food was actually GOOD! The place was packed with locals (and a few brave tourists), enjoying a cheap Sunday lunch out with their families. We generally take the approach that it’s always best to go where it’s busy because that tends to mean the food is good – definitely a good choice today.
After lunch we headed out to explore one of the most splendid mosques in the world: Sultan Ahmet Camii. Named after Sultan Ahmet I, the mosuqe was built in 1616 to revial the splendour of the Ayasofya, which is just across the square. It is better known as the Blue Mosque due to the many blue Iznik tiles that line its magnificent interior. Unique amongst mosques, the Sultan Ahmet Camii has 6 minarets, one for each of the principle tenets of Islam.
The mosque/church Sultan Ahmet I was trying to best is the Ayasofya, or Hagia Sophia. This iconic building, built in 537AD, was a Christian church for 900 years, then a mosque for 500 years, and now a museum. Famous for its massive dome and incredible mosaics, The Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years after its construction and is considered to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture by many.
In 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. The bells, altar and other Christian relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Islamic features – such as the mihrab and four minarets – were added. Ironically it was the plastering over of the mosaics that protected them and allowed many of them to survive. In 1931 the Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque; it was closed to the public for 4 years whilst renovations were carried out so that in 1935 it could be reopened as a museum.
The blend of Orthodox Christian and Muslim decorations within the Hagia Sophia is beautiful and unique. The atmosphere in the building is incredible – you can almost sense the 1,500 years of prayer and blessings that have soaked into the very stones of the building. Definitely a trip highlight for us.
Tomorrow we leave Istanbul and head out into the Turkish countryside. Our stop tomorrow is the open air memorial and museum of Gallipoli. Join us then for more tales from Türkiye!