For all of you Art History majors out there, prepare to be dazzled. Istanbul boasts some of the most fantastic buildings in the world. This list isn't exhaustive, but it does include the major sites.
Part of the reason the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire survived the Western Roman Empire by a thousands years is the impressive city walls built by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II in the early 5th century. After the western half of the Empire fell, the city was besieged by Persians, Pechenegs, twice by the Arabs, twice by the Bulgars, and three times by the Russians. All were unsuccessful. The walls were so thick and the city so self-sustainable that the city survived a siege as long as four years when the Arabs surrounded the city from 674 to 678.
The first successful attack came in 1203 when the Venetian and Frankish armies of the Fourth Crusade arrived. Instead of attacking the walls head on, they grounded their boats adjacent to the far less formidable sea walls. The masts of the boats were high enough and the sea walls short enough that although they ruined their boats in the process, they were able to climb into the city within hours. Latin kings ruled Constantinople for half a century until Greek rule returned in 1261. Although the Empire was the 14th century 'Sick Man of Europe' and the Empire never returned to its former glory, it survived for several hundred more years until the Turks invaded in 1453 with a siege cannon. Even then they only breached the walls after months of bombardment.
This is a picture of the sea walls.
Today very few of the walls are properly preserved, but you can still get a feel of what it was like to be inside the safest city of the Medieval Age, and see how much of the city the walls encompassed.
The Byzantine Empire was on the rise in the 6th century, adding conquests in Italy and numerous islands of the Mediterranean to the Eastern Roman Empire. For a century or two it seemed that the greatness of Rome was returning, and Emperor Justinian commissioned what was then the largest church in the world to celebrate the return of imperial power. When he entered his great creation for the first time he is reported to have exclaimed, "Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon! I have outdone you!"
The church is spectacular. There are bigger domes, but none built without the benefits of modern construction. The dome is covered inside with 30 million gold tiles and supported by 40 massive ribs built with hollow bricks. The name Aya Sofya means "Church of Divine Wisdom," or Hagia Sophia in Greek and Sancta Sophia in Latin.
From the Arab invasion of Anatolia in the 7th century that destroyed the Colossus of Rhodes, to the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, numerous works of art have been destroyed by Muslim invaders. Not the Turks. When Mehmet the Conqueror strode through the gates in 1453 to take possession of the greatest religious edifice in the world for Islam, he decided that the church would be preserved and converted to a mosque. The murals of Jesus and the saints were white washed, not chiseled out, and the building was converted into a mosque -- four minarets (towers on the perimeter of a mosque) were added. The building was converted into a museum in the early 20th century, and the plaster that covered the pictures of Jesus and Mary for 600 years was carefully removed, and they can now be seen today.
Unfortunately the building is currently undergoing serious renovations and I took few pictures inside because of all the scaffolding. The outside looks wonderful -- ignore the minaret on the left that is currently being repaired.
Sultan Ahmet decided in the early 17th century to build a mosque that would rival even Aya Sofia. He came close to his goal with the Blue Mosque. Built directly across the square from Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii in Turkish) is another triumph of architecture. The layout is classic Ottoman with a grand courtyard and an immense prayer gallery inside. The name "Blue Mosque" is a western nickname, given because the inside of the dome is covered with blue tiles.
Most mosques have one or two minarets -- occasionally, there will be four. The Blue Mosque has no fewer than six minarets. When construction was complete in the late 17th century, the only other mosque with six minarets was the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It wasn't long before a very peeved King of Arabia sent a message to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire that he was being overly extravagant with his new mosque and should tear down at least one of the minarets in deference to the tomb of Mohammed. Being a wise diplomat, the Sultan instead elected to send a team of engineers to Mecca to construct a seventh minaret. Thus the Blue Mosque is the only one in the world with six -- and Mecca the only one with seven -- minarets.
Located at the tip of the Golden Horn, the Topkapi Palace overlooks the Bosphorus. The capital of the Ottoman Empire, it was the location of the Sultan's harem and the grand court. For 500 years this was the stronghold of Ottoman political power.
St. Stephen of the Bulgars
Religious minorities (Christians and Jews) prospered under Ottoman rule, even in the capital city. The Orthodox Church, homogeneous under Byzantine rule, splintered into ethnic categories by the 19th century, which is how St. Stephen of the Bulgars came into existence.
Look at the architecture and material of this church and ask yourself if it looks unusual.
See anything unique? Get this: the entire church is made of cast iron! The Gothic structure was cast in Vienna and shipped down the Danube River on more than 100 barges. The mold used to make the structure was used only twice, and an identical church was erected in Vienna, but it was destroyed by aerial bombing in World War II. St. Stephens, although rusting at some places, remains intact, and is the only church in the world made entirely of cast iron.
Two Bulgarian caretakers were on the premises when I arrived, and they let me in and I walked around the premises, taking photos and marveling at the unique building. I entered inside, and although I was not allowed to take pictures, it was beautiful. Adorned with gold and icons, it was the first Orthodox Church I visited on my trip (but not the last) and it looked just as I imagined an Orthodox church would look like.
North of the city, outside the walls and across the river, is Galata, where I spent all Sunday and saw the Galata Tower, the Kamondo stairs, and Christ Church. Founded by Italian (Genoese) traders after the reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, the Byzantine emperors granted the district to the Genoese as a semi-independent colony.
One of the city's most striking landmarks is the Galata Tower, built on the highest part of the district and which is visible from many miles around. Originally known as the Tower of Christ, it was built in 1348 with the first expansion of the colony into a major urban district, but rebuilt from the ground up several times. It's now a major tourist sight with a restaurant and cafe on the upper floors, although I didn't go inside.
The fluttering flags you can see are advertising -- you guessed it -- a political party.
The Galata is a district not unlike parts of San Francisco in that it is very, very steep. Numerous sets of stairs allow the populace to navigate the city away from traffic. Most are pretty mundane, but this elegant, symmetrical staircase was build by the Jewish community's wealthiest merchant family, the Kamondo Family, at the end of the 19th century.
Istanbul is also the home of an Anglican/Episcopalian community, and Christ Church is the largest Protestant church in the city. Built in the mid-19th century by the British Ambassador Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, famous for his involvement in international affairs at the time (and who brought in Britain on the side of the Ottoman Empire against the Russians in the Crimean War), the church was my first stop on Sunday after breakfast.
Service began at 10am, and I arrived just in time. It was unique -- although it appears to be common in larger churches, this is the only Episcopalian church I have attended that uses incense, for example. The congregation was about 1/4 British, 1/4 South Asia, 1/4 African (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan), and 1/4 Turkish. I stayed afterwards for coffee and spoke to a number of people, learning a lot about the church's history and what brought these Episcopalian/Anglican churchgoers to Istanbul.
As I walked around the building I discovered that the church is directly adjacent to a mosque. I snapped this picture with the camera pointing into the sun, with the mosque's minaret to the left and the church steeple to the right.
Also commissioned by Emperor Justinian (who built Aya Sofia), this sunken cistern is filled by natural spring water and supplied the city with much of its water during the many sieges. Rediscovered only recently, you can now walk through the cistern and see the magnificent architecture. It was too dark to snap pictures of the entire cistern, but I did get this picture of a medusa head, which holds up one of the columns.
Again, this isn't an exhaustive presentation of what I saw, but it does just about cover all the main architectural and historical wonders I saw during my four days in the city.
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