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The Best of Istanbul

In both its geography and history, Istanbul is literally a land where East meets West. The largest city in Turkey, it straddles two continents on either side of the Bosphorus. With a population of 14.1 million people, its commercial and historical centre lies in Europe while a third of its population lives in Asia.

Founded around 660 BC, Istanbul was known as Byzantium. Re-established as Constantinople for sixteen centuries after 330 AD, it served as the capital of four empires: the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). It was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times, before the Ottomans Conquered the city in 1453 and transformed it into an Islamic stronghold and the seat of the last caliphate. While the capital of the Republic of Turkey is in Ankara, palaces and imperial mosques still line Istanbul's hills as visible reminders of the city's previous central role.

Back to the present, our first day in Istanbul started off early enough, with an 8:30 am pick up from the Levni Hotel by our tour group driver. Stopping off at the True Blue head office at Sultanahmet to pick up our tour guide, Elif and the other guests, we were transferred to the foot of the Pierre Loti hill, where we hopped on a cable car to the top. Named for the famous French writer and naval officer, Louis Marie Julien Viaud a.k.a. Pierre Loti (1850 -1923), who wrote fiction based on his experiences in Istanbul, we enjoyed the view over Golden Horn as we climbed.

Our next destination was the Rustem Pasha Mosque, a surprisingly majestic mosque, given its small scale. Designed by the most famous of Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, for the Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha who had married Princess Mihrimah, one of the daughters of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, its construction took place from 1561 to 1563. Fortunately for us, prayers were not in session. Donning a scarf and covering my head, we walked inside and viewed the exquisite Iznik tile work, set in beautiful floral and geometric arrangements, that covered not only the facade of the porch but also the mihrab, minbar, walls, and columns of the interior. 

A short distance from the Rustem Pasha Mosque, we walked to the famous Egyptian/Spice Bazaar, an enclosed market located next to the 17th century New Mosque, the Galata Bridge and the shore of the Golden Horn. 

A visit to Istanbul is never complete without a cruise along the Bosphorus, a historic waterway that connects the Black Sea and the Maramara Sea. Viewing fine palaces, pavilions, Ottoman houses and seaside neighborhoods, we were struck by the contrast of activity upon the water, as fishermen in small wooden boats dropped their lines next to commuter ferry boats, giant cargo ships and tankers as they shuttled back and forth between Asia and Europe.

Disembarking our cruise on the Asian side of the city in Uskudar, our guide gave us some brief information about this area of the city before we boarded the newly opened Marmaray, a train in a sub-sea tunnel that links Europe and Asia. This amazing feat of engineering was first conceived by a legendary Ottoman sultan in 1860. Designed to withstand earthquakes, this is the world’s first underwater tunnel that connects two continents.

Getting off the Marmaray back on European soil, we made a beeline for the Underground Cistern. Built by Justinian after 532, the Basilica Cistern stored water for the Great Palace and nearby buildings. Lost to memory, it was rediscovered in the mid sixteenth century by Petrus Gyllius, who had been sent to Constantinople by the French King Francis I in search of Byzantine monuments and manuscripts. Gyllius, who noticed that the local people were lowering buckets through holes in the floors of their houses to retrieve water, found an entrance and thus put this mysterious subterranean architectural surprise back on the map. We marveled at the almost 10,000 square meters of space supported by 336 marble columns, each nine meters in height.

Lunch was at the delightfully quirky Kybele Hotel Restaurant.

After lunch, we visited a destination that I’ve only ever dreamed about when I was in Art School, the magnificent Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia that stands today was the primary church of Byzantine Constantinople and was built upon the site of two earlier churches that had been destroyed. Emperor Justinian I (527-565) commissioned the project and had materials brought in from all around his empire for the massive church’s construction. The Hagia Sophia was the most important church of the Christian East. Structurally, it was the first of its design and boasted the largest dome that had yet been engineered which provided a voluminous and well illuminated interior that continues to be impressive in its sheer scale. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and was used as such throughout the Ottoman period. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the modern Turkish Republic’s most revered founding father and its first Prime Minister, initiated the process to have the Hagia Sophia transformed into a museum which opened for visitors in February 1935.

Right next door to the Hagia Sophia stands the Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque, which was built by Sultan Ahmet I between 1609 and 1616. Distinguished by its six slender minarets, the central dome is 43 m in height and 33.4 m in diameter and there are 260 stained glass windows throughout the mosque. The intricately decorated blue, green and red tiles of its interior gave this mosque its name; the Quranic inscriptions throughout the mosque were made by Seyyid Kasım Gubari, one of the most famous calligraphers of his time.

Located within the same square as the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia is the ancient Hippodrome, the center of Byzantine social life and the scene of fiercely competitive chariot races and is still the site of ancient relics from its glory days. These relics are the Obelisk of Theodosius, the bronze Serpentine Column and the Column of Constantine. Remains of the curved end of the Hippodrome wall can be seen on the southwest side of the three monuments.

By the end of the day, my legs felt like lead and my body like a wreck. Unable to last much longer after such a punishing yet exhilarating pace, Peter and I settled on an early dinner at a charming restaurant with great food and (gentle) live music, called "Sirevi." Sitting back as we sipped on a cold beer and watched the world go by from our table, we had to pinch ourselves over what we’d seen in the course of one day. After all, we’d been walking on the footsteps of Emperors and Sultans. 

Divan Yolu Caddesi Hoca Rustem Sokak
Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Posted by Victoria Ugarte on 20th September, 2014 | Trackbacks
Categories: Turkey

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