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.
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.