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.