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.
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 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.
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.