Situated at the mouth of Bosphorus into the Black Sea, Anadolu Kavagi, which literally means Control Post of Anatolia (Asia Minor), has been an strategic outpost and fishing village since Roman times. Today, a small fishing community remained. The village also serves as the last stop of the Bosphorus tourist cruise. Compared to the bustling scenes of cosmopolitan Istanbul, the tranquil village expresses a distinctive ambience that keeps on luring foreign tourists and Istanbul inhabitants to come for a brief getaway.
After getting off at Anadolu Kavagi, the first thing that caught our attention was the street food vendors right by the dock. We picked a seafood restaurant, climbed the stairs to the upper floor, and ordered fish buns, fried mussels, fried calamari, etc. After lunch, we ascended the hill behind the village to the ruins of Yoros Castle. We wandered around Yoros Castle a little bit before finding ourselves at an open lookout overlooking the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Some say the towns along the Black Sea coast are quite picturesque and interesting, but we would have to leave them for the next time around.
Anadolu Kavagi appears as a lovely fishing village.
The waterfront of Anadolu Kavagi is occupied a cluster of fishing boats.
During our brief visit, several fishermen were busy fixing their fishing net while chatting causally.
The peaceful fisherman life at Anadolu Kavagi offered a pleasant contrast to the chaotic and busy scenes of Istanbul just 90 minutes of boat ride away.
Each fisherman we met seemed friendly and relaxed.
A handful of seafood stalls and restaurants can be found at the fishing village.
Just like Istanbul, we had all sort of cat encounters in Anadolu Kavagi. This cat sat right by the dock looking at the sea.
Even the cats seemed content with their hassle free lives in Anadolu Kavagi.
Located at the hilltop above Anadolu Kavagi, Yoros Castle guarded the confluence spot of the Bosphorus and Black Sea since the Byzantine times.
From Yoros Castle, we could see the Bosphorus as well as the Black Sea.
Our last day in Istanbul was spent for a leisure boat cruise on the Bosphorus Strait. For 1.5 hour’s time, boat took us from the pier of Eminonu to the village of Anadolu Kavagi where the Bosphorus Strait met the Black Sea. For the entire 31km journey, the boat sailed along the European side of Bosphorus. Our boat left Eminonu at 10:30 sharp. The first half was an exciting journey through the city of Istanbul, sailing under gigantic bridges, passing by luxury palaces and historical mosques. The boat made a few stops at different neighbourhoods in the city, until fishing villages and small suburban communities gradually took over. The entire journey was like going through a collection of postcards unfolding into an hour of motion picture. The experience reminded us of the last scene in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, where the protagonist sits by the Bosphorus watching the busy boat traffic passing by.
“To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic, and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea – that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus. Pushed along by its strong currents, invigorated by the sea air that bears no trace of the dirt, smoke, and noise of the crowded city that surrounds it, the traveler begins to feel that, in spite of everything, this is still a place in which he can enjoy solitude and find freedom.” Orhan Pamuk
Our boat left the pier at Eminonu as we bid farewell to Suleymaniye Mosque and Yeni Cami (New Mosque) in Fatih.
At the opposite side, the Galata Tower dominates the skyline of Karakoy.
We soon left the Galata Bridge behind to embark on our journey of the Bosphorus.
Built in 1820’s, Nusretiye Mosque in Tophane was designed in Baroque style.
Dolmabahçe Mosque (1855) and the modern skyscraper Süzer Plaza form a contrasting picture.
Dolmabahçe Palace was the main palace of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and from 1909 to 1922.
The former Ottoman palace Çırağan Palace has been converted into a 5-star hotel, and hosts one of the most expensive hotel suite in the world.
Locals taking causal breaks at Barbaros Park in Besiktas, with Sinan Pasha Mosque at the background.
Ortaköy Mosque (Büyük Mecidiye Camii) and the 15 July Martyrs Bridge forms one of the most iconic scene along the Bosphorus.
Histoical building Zeki Paşa Yalısı stands silently below the shadow of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.
Built in 1452, the Rumeli Hisari Fortress near Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was built by the Ottoman during their planned siege of Constantinople.
Apart from historical palaces and mosques, the waterfront of Bosphorus is also dotted with luxury apartments and villas.
There are all kinds of styles for villas along the Bosphorus.
Some villas have been converted into hotels or high end restaurants.
New villas in contemporary style have been constructed along with the traditional ones.
Some traditional timber villas still await for their chance of renovation.
The waterfront of Bosphorus has been popular among the wealthy class of Istanbul for centuries.
Some of the historical buildings were in really bad shape after years of negligence.
Further away from the city, some waterfront areas are occupied by less privilege communities.
Other than tourist boats, the Bosphorus is busy with all kinds of boats.
After the mosques, we found ourselves arriving at a Roman fortress tower. The security guard was kind enough to show us around. When we were done, he suggested we should take a short walk to visit the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II. We followed his instructions to exit the old city and walk for a kilometer or two, before seeing our destination beyond Tundzha River. The Tundzha River was lovely and the surrounding was peaceful. The Complex of Sultan Bayezid II was a unique compound consisted of a mosque, a medical university, and a hospital during the Ottoman era. Nowadays, part of the hospital complex is turned into a museum where visitors can get learn about Ottoman medicine, their medical treatment and long-term health facilities. This hospital complex once treated a wide range of sicknesses, from eye disease to mental illness. It was one of the first mental hospitals that treated patients with music, sound of water, and scents. After the visit, we hopped on a minibus returning to the otogar for our return trip to Istanbul. In Istanbul, we discovered a local eatery at Aksaray called Nederi Urfa. We ordered lentil soup, meat kebabs, pizzas, and dessert, a hearty meal to end the day.
On our way to the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II we passed by a produce vending truck.
The youngest vendors appeared to be the most enthusiastic.
The complex of Sultan Bayezid II stood beyond Tundzha River. Two men sitting at the back of tractor waved at us as they drove by.
At Tundzha River, a shepherd dog appeared from below the bridge, looked at us at a distance, and ran away.
A kid and probably his father were fishing by the Tundzha River.
Near the entrance, we had a brief encounter with a talkative lady.
The scenery of the complex and Tundzha River is quite picturesque.
Built in 1488, the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II contained a medical centre that was in operation for almost 400 years.
Centered of the külliye stands the mosque with a 20.55m dome. The complex is now a museum of the history of medicine, and a tentative World Heritage site.
The courtyard in the museum is a lovely garden. It was here where patients with mental illness were treated with various methods including music, water sound and scents.
The complex offered holistic treatment including medicine and water and music therapy.
Similar to other Ottoman complexes, courtyard and lovely colonnades are essential component of the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II.
Continuous maintenance in the last few centuries ensure the complex is still standing today.
Often compared to his contemporary Michelangelo in the west, Mimar Sinan was the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire. Out of the 370+ projects in his 50-year career, the famous chief architect of the Ottoman Empire considered Selimiye Mosque his true masterpiece. The UNESCO seems to agree on this and granted Selimiye Mosque the status of a world heritage. The huge complex is organized as a külliye, with a wide range of functions managed by the mosque. At Selimiye, Sinan experimented with various configuration of domes, semi-domes and galleries to form an impressive and unified interior bathed with natural light. The famous mosque was even depicted on the Turkish 10,000 lira banknote from 1982 – 1995.
A statue of Mimar Sinan was erected in front of the Mosque to commemorate his architectural achievement.
Instead of a series of small domes, Sinan built a large central dome instead. The size of the dome is similar to the one at Hagia Sophia.
As a külliye, the mosque complex also includes schools, covered market, clock house, outer courtyard and library, all being managed under one single institution.
Four identical minarets were erected by Sinan instead of a series of distinctive minarets like many of its predecessors.
At the four corners, minarets point up to the sky.
The interior is dominated by a series of semi domes and the central dome. Lines are symmetrical, simple and elegant.
Just like the Hagia Sophia, celestial windows are provided at the dome base to lighten up the interior.
Supported by eight pillars, the dome is a stunning spectacle from below.
A drinking fountain is housed under a richly decorated structure.
Considered as one of the finest in Turkey, the mihrab is visible from any location in the mosque.
Several circles of lights are suspended over the vivid carpet to provide a warm ambience in the evening.
Close to the border between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, about 240km northwest of Istanbul stands a small city with a big history. Founded by Roman Emperor Hadrian upon an earlier Thracian settlement, Edirne was known as Hadrianopolis in the Antiquity era. After conquered by the Ottomans, the city was renamed to Edirne, and served as the capital city of the Ottoman Empire from 1369 to 1453, before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. With Selimiye Mosque, the UNESCO World Heritage site that has been widely considered as the best work of architect Mimar Sinan, and several other impressive mosques and historical complexes, Edirne is one of the most popular excursion destinations for tourists in Istanbul. Taking an early morning bus (2.5 hour) from Istanbul Bus Station, spending a full day at Edirne and returning to Istanbul by a late afternoon bus was exactly how we spent our day.
In the morning, we took the tram and then metro to the main otogar, the main bus terminal of Istanbul where one can catch a bus to any destination in Turkey, and even to neighboring countries. We picked one company (worth the time and effort to check out the options) for Edirne. Bus companies in Turkey come in various prices, comfort and service levels. In general, the buses are clean and pleasant. Our first impression of Edirne, the main gateway city between Europe and Turkey, was pretty laid-back and peaceful. It felt like a completely different world from bustling Istanbul.
Built in 1447, the Üç Şerefeli Mosque is one of the most well known mosque in Central Edirne. With a 24m diameter dome, the Üç Şerefeli Mosque had the largest dome in the Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Constantinople.
Üç Şerefeli Mosque literally means the “Mosque with Three Balconies”, referring to its unique minaret.
Opposite to Üç Şerefeli Mosque, Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Bath was a public bath designed by Mimar Sinan and completed in 1569. Part of the building was demolished to make way for road construction in the 1960’s. The demolition was ultimately stopped but its damage remains visible today, epitomizing the careless urban planning back in the 20th century.
Completed in 1414, the Eski Camii (Old Mosque) is the oldest mosque in Central Edirne.
The most notable features in Eski Camii are the large calligraphy on the walls.
The calligraphy were created at various times by artists from all over the Ottoman Empire.
Most of the interior decorations dated back to the 19th century.
The Eski Camii is covered with nine small domes instead of one large one.
We managed to walk around the city and explored different streets in the heart of Edirne.
On the streets of Edirne, we bumped into several groups of kids wearing football jerseys.
On our way downhill from Suleymaniye Mosque, we passed by an area full of hardware and toy shops. Then we found ourselves arrived at the famous Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Since establishment in 1455, the Grand Bazaar has been the most popular shopping venue in Ottoman Constantinople. With 91 million annual visitors in 2014, the Grand Bazaar remains as one of the most visited tourist attractions in Istanbul. We spent over an hour in this gigantic covered market (over 50 covered shopping streets). Most shops were selling tourist souvenirs, t-shirts, pottery, jewelries, etc. It was interesting to wander around the maze-like bazaar, a shopping arcade that predates modern shopping centres for several centuries. Similar to all tourist shopping areas in the world, it was impossible to find one-of-a-kind merchandise there. We left the bazaar empty handed.
Several blocks north the Grand Bazaar stands the equally vibrant Spice Bazaar. Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar was established in 1660 and has served as the main spice market of Istanbul ever since. Today, the Spice Bazaar has become quite touristy, with souvenir shops mingled with shops selling spices, nuts, sweets and Turkish delights.
The Grand Bazaar is a huge maze of shopping arcade network where tourists may find joy to get lost in.
Today, most shops in the Grand Bazaar are catered for tourists.
Signage in the Grand Bazaar may help tourists to orient themselves if they are familiar with the street names of the neighborhood.
The warm lighting from the shops and the indirect sunlight from the celestial windows make visitors to easily lose track of time in the Grand Bazaar.
In the area near the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, all sort of street vendors and small shops can be found. Gözleme flatbread is a common street food in Istanbul. It is a traditional food made with Turkish yufka dough cooked over a round metal hot dome.
Gözleme is somewhat crispy outside and soft inside. It is simple and delicious.
At the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Turkey has long been a trading hub in the midst of caravan routes. In the past, spices were among the most important commodities in international trading.
Spices have played an important role in Turkish cuisine.
Built in 1660, the Spice Bazaar is one one of the most popular covered market in Istanbul.
Perhaps because of the aroma, colours, and vibrant interactions between vendors and customers, we found the Spice Bazaar much more interesting than the Grand Bazaar.
It is full of surprises in the Spice Bazaar.
Smoking shisha with a traditional hookah water pipe has become a must do activity for tourists in Istanbul. In the Spice Bazaar or Grand Bazaar, it is easy to find a water pipe.
In the area around the Spice Bazaar, streets are lined with shops selling different merchandises from hardware to toys.
There are several famous mosques worth noting near the Spice Bazaar. Built in 1564 by the famous imperial architect Mimar Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque is well known for its Iznik tiles in the interior.
Outside Rüstem Pasha Mosque, street vendors lined along the small lane.
We were attracted by the busy street scenes near Rüstem Pasha Mosque.
Situated near Galata Bridge, the Yeni Camii, or New Mosque, is another iconic building in Fatih.
Completed in 1665, the Yeni Camii is another great place to admire traditional Iznik tiles.
Like Rome, Constantinople was founded as the city of seven hills. The First Hill was the heart of the ancient capital where the Greeks found the city of Byzantium. For today’s tourists, the First Hill is equivalent to Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, while the Second Hill is dominated by the Great Bazaar. Upon the top of the Third Hill stands Suleymaniye Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Istanbul. Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, Suleymaniye Mosque was completed in 1557 as the fourth imperial mosque. For Sultan Suleiman, erecting the Suleymaniye Mosque was like building his version of Hagia Sophia of Temple of Solomon. For architect Mimar Sinan, the most prominent architect in Ottoman history who was responsible for at least 374 structures and worked as the chief imperial architect for nearly 50 years, the Suleymaniye Mosque was considered as a fine example of work from his mid-career.
The four minarets of Süleymaniye Mosque are some of the most visible features of historic Istanbul from the Golden Horn.
The ablution facilities for wudu line along the exterior wall of the mosque.
To the right of the main entrance is the mosque cemetery, containing historical tombstones and the octagonal mausoleum of Suleyman and his wife Haseki Hurrem Sultan.
The design of Süleymaniye Mosque was strongly influenced by the Hagia Sophia.
The dome of Süleymaniye Mosque is 53m high and has a diameter of 26.5m, smaller than the one of Hagia Sophia.
A fountain stands in the centre of the first courtyard of the mosque.
The interior space is square in plan. Although simple in design, the white mihrab is undoubtedly the focal point inside the mosque.
Looking north, the skyline of Karakoy across the Golden Horn lies right in front of us.
Suleymaniye Mosque is surrounded by the campus of Istanbul University. We met two university students who were more than eager to chat with us about their beloved city.
Several restoration staff of Suleymaniye Mosque reminded us that maintaining such a huge amount of historical buildings in Istanbul required continuous efforts and techniques of many generations.
In 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II began the construction of Topkapi Palace. The palace remained as the main royal palace of the Ottoman sultans until the 18th century, when sultans preferred to stay in their new palaces along the Bosporus. Similar to other royal palaces around the world, Topkapi has become a huge draw for international tourists nowadays. We spent part of the morning to tour around the complex, which is consisted of four main courtyards and many small buildings. Many visitors consider the small museum housing the treasures of former sultans the highlight of the palace, though the intriguing architectural details of the Ottoman architecture are equally interesting. We didn’t spend time to see every single building and rooms in the complex, but we spent quite a bit of time at the Harem, the inner court of the palace. It was at these royal private apartments that we came face to face with the lavish decorations of imperial Ottoman architecture. Over the past few years, the palace has been undergoing massive renovations. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent to bring back the former glory of the palace.
The Gate of Salutation serves as the main entrance to the Topkapi Palace Museum.
A series of courtyards lead visitors into the inner section of the palace.
The Courtyard and Apartment of the Black Eunuchs housed the black eunuchs from Central Africa. They were in charge of the security of the Harem (inner court).
In 2006, the Imperial Hall was awaiting for a thorough renovation and repaint. Also known as the Throne Room, the Imperial Hall was built in 1580 during the reign of Murad III. Today, after extensive renovation in recent years, the ceiling and walls have regained their former colours.
Built in 1608 by Ahmed I, the Privy Chamber of Ahmed I features beautiful green Iznik tiles and window shutters.
The Twin Kiosk, also known as Apartment of the Crown Prince, was built in the 1700s. There is an elegant fireplace in the middle.
Window shutters are inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory.
Magnificent window shutter of the Twin Kiosk enclosed the seclusive life of the Crown Prince.
The Twin Kiosk is decorated with Iznik tiles and richly painted ceiling.
The Twin Kiosk is one of the best examples of the richly decorated buildings in the Harem.
Next to the Twin Kiosk, the Courtyard and Apartment of the Favorites was built by Osman III in 1754. After touring the Harem, we left the palace and moved on to visit the other sights in Fatih.
After Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, we have decided to get away from Sultanahmet and cross the Golden Horn over to Karakoy District. Spanning almost 500m across the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge holds a significant place in Turkish literature and culture. Apart from its atmospheric setting and picturesque views, the bridge also represents a physical linkage between the more traditional, imperial and religious Fatih District and the more commercialised and cosmopolitan districts like Galata and Beyoğlu. Walking across Galata Bridge is like crossing the frontier between the old Constantinople and the new metropolitan Istanbul. We ended up reaching as far as Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul and the city’s commercial hub.
At Taksim Square, we went up to a cafe roof patio for a cup of coffee and spent some time to watch trams and people criss-crossing the lively square. On our way back to Sultanahmet we dropped by the vibrant Karakay Fish Market near the Galata Bridge at the Karakoy side. Tourists and locals came for fish sandwiches or seafood snacks. We were too full to get one, and that was probably a mistake. It is hard to believe that such an atmospheric and popular waterfront market doesn’t exist anymore as the market has been demolished and relocated in 2015.
Looking north to Karakoy at the head of Galata Bridge from the Fatih side.
Restaurants below and vehicular traffic and fishermen above make up an iconic scene of the Galata Bridge.
Completed in 1348, the Galata Tower was the tallest structure in Medieval Constantinople, and still continues to dominate the skyline of Karakoy today.
We hopped on a tram of the heritage line towards Taksim Square. The first horse trams in Istanbul began in 1872, and the network turned electric in 1912. The extensive tram network ceased operation in 1966 to give way for other means of transportation. In 1990, a heritage tram line (using old train cars mainly targeted for tourists and nostalgic locals) was re-established in Istanbul and a few years later, a completely modern tram system was built in 1992 and has since then expanded to two modern lines and two heritage lines.
As the most vital transportation hub in the city, the Taksim Square is undoubtedly one of the busiest spot in the city. At the heart of the square stands the Republic Monument, a monument erected in 1928 to commemorate the founding of the republic.
Located at the main commercial heart of Istanbul, Taksim Square is also a popular spot for people watching.
The police force is always present to maintain the security of Taksim Square.
After some people watching and a cup of coffee, we left Taksim Square and returned to the Galata Bridge. Along our way, we passed by some beautiful buildings.
In less than half an hour, we reached Galata Bridge once again. Mainly made up of old and unlicensed market stalls, the once vibrant Karakoy Fish Market right by Galata Bridge was demolished overnight in 2015. A new fish market was built nearby, and understandably many consider the new market less atmospheric.
The bygone Karakoy Fish Market has become part of the neighbourhood’s collective memory.
It was only a short walk from Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque. During our stay in Istanbul, we passed by Sultan Ahmet Park between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque numerous times. The Hagia Sophia represents the engineering marvel of the Byzantine Empire. 1000 years after the completion of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque was erected to showcase the poetic beauty and the architectural genius of the Ottoman Empire. Unlike Hagia Sophia where the building has turned into a museum, the Blue Mosque remains as an active religious venue frequented by worshipers. Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it took 7 years, 5 months and 6 days for Sultan Ahmet I and his architect Sedefkar Mehmed Agha to complete the project. Being an apprentice of Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect that was responsible for 300+ projects across the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha epitomized the high Ottoman architecture with the Blue Mosque. With its 6 minarets, five main domes and eight secondary domes, the Blue Mosque has become a prominent icon of Istanbul’s skyline. Staying in Sultanahmet allowed us to pass by the Blue Mosque at various times of the day, and witness the beauty of the architecture under different sunlight.
Early morning is the best time to photograph the Blue Mosque from Sultan Ahmet Park when there is still a tint of violet in the sky.
Before the arrival of tourist groups, we could still have a moment of peace to photograph the mosque.
At dusk, atmospheric lighting lit up the Blue Mosque in front of the purple sky.
In early morning, we could freely move around and photograph the mosque without tourists.
While some mosques have only one dome, the Blue Mosque has a series of main and secondary domes.
Beautiful sunlight casts an orange tone onto the marble facade of the Blue Mosque.
Wudu is the ritual purification for the Muslims. The process involves cleansing of hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, head and feet. This process is usually done before formal prayers and handling of the Quran. A designated wudu area is provided at the entrance courtyard.
After the wudu area, worshipers enter the forecourt through the raised gateway.
The raised archway bring visitors into the forecourt.
The forecourt is consisted of a fountain in the middle and vaulted arcade around the perimeter.
The vaulted arcade is decorated by a series of domes.
Details of the wood work and metal ornament reveal the marvelous craftsmanship of the Ottoman Empire.
The Blue Mosque is one of the two mosques in Turkey that contains six minarets.
It was nice to take an early morning walk in the Sultanahmet area. To visit Hagia Sophia, one of the country’s most popular attraction, an early morning start allowed us to beat the crowds to walk around the marvelous structure and enter the museum at 9am. Hagia Sophia to Istanbul is like Colosseum to Rome, Parthenon to Athens or the Great Pyramid of Giza to Cairo. These architecture represent the architectural and engineering marvel that has defined an era in world history. The current building was built in 537 AD during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian. Back then, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world. Its great dome has a diameter of 107 feet, and remained as the largest in the world until the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in the late 16th century. In fact, one of the biggest achievements for architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus was to create the gigantic dome without resting on any solid wall support, but instead, constructed triangular pendentives to transfer the force of the circular structure to a square base.
Throughout history, Hagia Sophia has gone through times of destruction and alterations due to earthquakes and regime change. From 537 to 1453 AD, Hagia Sophia served as an Eastern Orthodox church and housed the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, four minarets were added, Christian figures and decorations were destroyed while mosaic art were plastered over, and the building was converted into the city’s primary mosque, until the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, converted the famous structure into a museum.
Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey. We came early in the morning to avoid the tourist groups.
The 1500-year-old structure has been altered several times in history.
After almost a thousand years as an Eastern Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in 1453. Then in 1935 the building was converted into a museum.
The 40 windows at the dome allow plenty of natural light to enter the interior, and reduce the overall weight of the dome structure.
The interior of Hagia Sophia contains artifacts from the Byzantine and Ottoman era.
The windows in the dome allow natural light to enter the interior.
Richly decorated with mosaics and marble pillars, Hagia Sophia is the most important example of Byzantine architecture in the world. One of the highlights for a visit to check out the mosaic work on the upper level.
Outside the building, the splendid fountain built in 1740 is an Ottoman addition after the conversion into a mosque.
Served as a social gathering pavilion outside of the Hagia Sophia, the Fountain of Ahmed III was built in 1728 during the Ottoman era. The rococo-style fountain stands right outside the gate of Topkapi Palace, the royal palace of the Ottoman Empire.
Our Middle East journey began from Istanbul on 29th of April, 2006.
Formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire for over 1500 years, Istanbul is a city full of layers, where kingdoms came and go, and new buildings being built upon ruined ones. Occupying both sides of Bosporus Strait that separates Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a venue of cultural exchange between the east and west. The Sultanahmet area in Fatih District was the historical centre of Constantinople, where the emperors of the Roman Empire (330-395), Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395-1453) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1923) chose to establish their splendid capital. Bounded three sides by water, the Historic Area of Istanbul is an UNESCO World Heritage site with a concentration of iconic cultural heritage that are precious to human civilization, including Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, etc. Like many tourists, we specifically chose our hostel in Sultanahmet, just a stone throw away from the Blue Mosque. In Sultanahmet, we never needed to walk far to encounter the former glory of the empires.
Legends has it that in 667 BC, the Greeks came to the intersection of Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea and found the city of Byzantium at the peninsula where the current Sultanahmet area is situated.
Because of its strategic location at the sole access point of the Black Sea, Byzantium was soon developed into a trading city. After Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium in the 4th century, Byzantium became Constantinople, and its glorious time as Europe’s largest and wealthiest city officially kicked off.
Defensive walls had been erected to protect Constantinople since Constantine’s time. Walls were also constructed along the waterfront to protect the city from sea attacks. After the partitioning of the Roman Empire, Constantinople remained as the capital of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).
In Istanbul, hundreds of underground cisterns were constructed during the Byzantine era. Measured 138m x 65m, Basilica Cistern was constructed by thousands of slaves in the 6th century under the orders of Emperor Justinian.
Probably taken from earlier Roman buildings, two stone heads of Medusa were used as column bases in Basilica Cistern. This mysterious cistern was forgotten briefly in the Middle Ages. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, local residents knew nothing about the cistern, but soon discovered that they were able to obtain water and even fish below their home basement by just lowering a bucket through a hole in the floor. The cistern was rediscovered by scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.
The most prominent Byzantine icon is undoubtedly Hagia Sophia. Built in 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world, and housed the patriarch seat of Eastern Orthodox Church until the the 15th century.
Standing opposite to Hagia Sophia is another cultural icon of Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Inspired by the Byzantine icon Hagia Sophia, the Ottomans left their mark in Constantinople more than 1000 years by constructing the Blue Mosque over the former palace complex of the Byzantine emperors.
Smaller in scale than the iconic monuments, Sultanahmet also host many lesser known historical buildings in the residential neighborhoods.
Walking in Sultanahmet was like going back in time, as if every other street bend was marked by splendid timber houses and pavilions from the Ottoman era.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the Cities introduces readers his childhood Istanbul with a melancholic depiction of the Ottoman houses.
Pamuk’s writing and black and white photos showed me an unique Istanbul beyond the historical palaces, churches and mosques.
Searching for the Ottoman houses in Istanbul was not as easy as I thought, since many had been torn down in recent years.
Due to continuous urban renewal in the historical centre, many Ottoman houses were at risk for redevelopment.
Today, Sultanahmet has become a tourist hub, where many buildings have been converted into hotels and restaurants. In the time of commercialization, even the ruins of a 550-year bathhouse, the Ishak Pasa Hamam, is up for sale.
In Istanbul, we stayed at the friendly Sultan Hostel just two blocks behind the Blue Mosque.
At night, tourists would gather at restaurants in Sultanahmet to enjoy dinner and nargile or Turkish water pipe, along with live performance of the Sufi whirling dance.