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.