When I arrived in Istanbul, I felt like I was going to be there forever. Somehow though, forever wasn’t quite as long as I thought, and soon enough it was my last day in the city. I, of course, hadn’t done everything that I wanted and had no time to finish it all, so I was faced with the decision of how to spend my final day.
My friend Zoe (from Armenia) told me that while she was in Istanbul, some of her friends went to the islands near the city, rented bikes for the day, and just biked around exploring. The weather was beautiful on my last day, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than on a boat and on a bike.
I asked my friend Gareth if he wanted to join, he said yes, and we were off! Yay! There are some things that are way more fun with a friend, and this was definitely one of them.
The Princes’ Islands are a series of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, southeast of Istanbul. During the Byzantine years, they were a place of exile for princes and other royalty, hence their name. At the time, they seemed extremely remote, and only the exiles and some monks lived on them. In the 19th century, everything changed with the arrival of the steamboat. Then, they became more accessible and were transformed into a popular resort for the wealthy people of Istanbul. Historically, the islands were dominated by minority groups. There were significant Jewish, Greek, and Armenian communities living on them. Those populations are now much less prominent, but traces of them can still be seen in the buildings on the islands.
Out of the nine total islands, five are inhabited. Three have no settlements, and the last one is a private island. The four largest are popular tourist destinations, great for escaping the chaos and noise of the city because there are no motor vehicles allowed besides service vehicles. The popular forms of transport are horse-drawn carriages and bicycles! That’s my kind of place!
We went to the biggest island, Buyukada (meaning “big island”… creative, right?). It’s a little over 5 square kilometers in area and has a population of around 7,000 people which increases tenfold in the summers! It was still early in the season when we went, but even so, our ferry was fairly crowded. The best part of the ride was when this dude put on a live infomercial for a vegetable peeler. From the sound of the crowd, it was like he was putting on a magic show. People were cheering and clapping, eager to see what food he would pull out of his bag to peel next. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I am nearly certain that I’ll never see anything like it again.
When we got to the island, we walked around a little first to get our bearings and then decided it was bike time. Well, I decided it was bike time because the day was required to consist of two things, remember? Boats and bikes, and we had already crossed off the boats.
We rented some bikes and biked one of the loops on the island. There’s a short loop and a long loop, and we only ended up having time for the short one because we took a long break in the middle to go to the highest point on the island. The bike rental guy told us that we would need to walk up to the lookout point because it was too steep to ride. We decided he didn’t know what he was talking about and started to ride. I made it approximately 5 minutes before I changed my mind, decided that riding was more effort than it was worth, and pushed my bike the rest of the way while Gareth rode next to me.
The view at the top was really nice, so we sat and looked at the sparkling water and talked until it was time to ride back and return our bikes. I guess I was kind of happy to have a bike for the way down the hill, but at the same time, that’s not true at all because the whole way was cobblestones, and the however many minutes it took us to get to the bottom were completely uncomfortable. Plus, you never know how functional the brakes are on a rental bike, so I was constantly braced for the moment when mine decided to quit on me. Gareth, on the other hand, seemed unfazed by the whole thing, so maybe I’m just crazy.
We returned our bikes and drank some horrible tea with the bike rental guy (seriously, why does any tea besides apple tea even exist??), and I passed out on the ferry ride back to the city. Who knew I was so tired? I guess it’s a good thing that I slept a little because after we got back to the hostel, I had some packing to do!
As soon as I left church, my aggressive sightseeing itinerary started. I walked across the river, back to the southern Europe part of Istanbul, ready to get going on my list. I got off to a great start… I tried to see the New Mosque, or Yeni Camii, but it’s apparently so new that it’s not finished yet. Okay! No problem! 0/1. I continued on.
Next to that is the spice market. I generally hate markets because they usually involve a lot of people yelling at you, but if you want to see the market, you don’t have much of a choice except to go and deal with it. I walked through, snapped some pictures, did a stand-up job of ignoring everyone who yelled at me, and got out as quickly as I could.
I tried to go to another mosque a couple blocks away, but I literally couldn’t find the entrance (and I walked around the block TWICE before I gave up). These seem to be the rules of mosques:
Hidden entrance – I would say that 9/10 times, me entering a mosque involves me walking at least 90% of the way around the building before figuring out how to get inside. The 1/10 time is when I never enter because I can’t find the door.
Beautiful ceilings – They are top notch. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Insane chandeliers – I think this might be an Istanbul-specific thing, but I don’t really know. I don’t actually love this feature, but they all have chandeliers that are the size of practically the entire mosque and require approximately 9483958 anchor points on the ceiling.
Comfy carpets – If you’re taking your shoes off, the carpets had better be comfy. Plus people are on their knees a lot during prayer, so it makes sense that they would be wonderfully cushiony.
Construction – It MUST be a rule that at any given moment, at least 70% of the mosques in the city must be under construction or at least have scaffolding up. This is the only explanation that makes sense to me for how SO many mosques could be under renovation at the same time. It must be a quota thing.
From there, I zig-zagged my way across the city to see the rest of the mosques on my list. Zeyrek Mosque was at the top of a hill (ugh), and I managed to find it impressively easily… you might be thinking, “Lara, it’s at the top of a hill… how hard could it possibly be to find?” My only answer to that is, you go to Istanbul and try to find a specific mosque and THEN tell me if you’re impressed. AND I only walked halfway around the building before I found the door.
Instead of taking the main road to my next stop, I decided to be adventurous and go on the smaller streets. Well, I don’t know how adventurous you’re being if you’re following a map, but I felt like it was a big step because I had gotten lost about a million times already (while using the map).
My “back route” took me by a park where a bunch of locals were hanging out, there were shops all around, and everything was bustling. It was cool! So there I went, just bopping along and enjoying the chaos, when out of nowhere, the aqueducts emerged!! I knew that they existed, but I didn’t know exactly where and had totally forgotten about them. They are hard to forget after you’ve seen them. So big and impressive and beautiful! And they stretch for blocks and blocks. On the other side of this particular part, there was a big park FILLED with people. I loved it! Seeing people living their normal lives. And all of that happening with the most epic Roman ruin backdrop you could imagine. How cool to live in a city like that, where there’s so much history surrounding you everywhere?! I did what anyone would do in this situation and got an ice cream to eat while soaking in the history.
My next stop was Fatih Camii which had been recommended to me by multiple people. The mosque complex was MASSIVE. I walked through the gates, and it was like entering a different world. There were people everywhere. Kids were running around and playing, people were sitting and chilling, and it really felt like the mosque was a social hub. I could have sat there for hours just watching people. I didn’t have hours though, so I found the visitors’ entrance (maybe, who even knows?) and went inside.
The inside was marvelous. It was kind of like being inside a frilly layer cake. There was a big central dome and then layers and layers of half-domes that spread out from there. And TONS of stained glass. And another ridiculously large chandelier, hanging low near the ground. I don’t understand why they do that. The painting in the dome was beautiful but standard. It was the rest of the ambiance that made it special.
Just like outside, there were kids running around and people talking and people studying and a guy teaching some kids how to pray. I’m going to say this a million more times, but I just loved how it was like a community gathering place. It felt open and welcoming.
The next mosque was a bit quieter… the only other person inside was this dude sleeping in the corner. As far as interior décor goes though, this one is my #1 favorite from my trip. It’s called Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque, and from the outside, it looks like any other mosque. The inside though… A bunch of the mosques have the painting style where the main dome is mostly white except for this circle decal in the center and then little circle decals around it. They’re pretty, but after you see two of them, they start to blur together because they’re all kind of the same. This one was completely different. Blue was the main color (which makes it bound to be a favorite for me), and every surface was painted. It was so elegantly done. I think it also helped that there was just one chandelier string hanging down from the main dome instead of the million support strings that the big chandeliers need. I was totally obsessed and definitely could have stayed there all day.
That made me wish a bit that I had just gone into every single little mosque I passed by. I’m sure some would have been underwhelming, but there must be others lurking that are just amazing. And the smaller the better probably because the big mosques mostly had that boring circle painting deal.
From there, I went to Laleli Mosque, this little one kind of hidden off the streets. I decided to try looking for it in a little alleyway (yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I’m telling you… they’re all hiding!), and there was the mosque, sitting above me! This one was back to the similar painting style, and even though I say that it’s boring, it’s still spectacular no matter how many times you see it. And there are always amazing stained glass windows. There is no shortage of things to marvel at.
Prince Mosque was next, and it was another one of those mosques that’s more than just a building, it’s a compound. This one was a little quieter, not as much chaos on the inside. The ceiling painting was similar to the usual circle thing but with enough of a twist that I thought it was exciting, plus the colors were some of my favorites. The outdoor area had a lot of grass and a nice personality, so I decided to spend some time sitting under a tree. There were families and couples and other people out enjoying the day and the pretty landscaping around the mosque. It was a little oasis in the center of the city.
From there, I had a series of fails. Beyazit Mosque was mostly closed for renovations and the Grand Bazaar was closed because it was Sunday (whoops… bad planning on my part, but honestly, I don’t think I would have loved it anyway). I went to look at the entrance gate to Istanbul University because someone told me to, but it was another one of those “okay so I’m here… but why?” moments.
Since I was in the neighborhood, I popped into two mosques near the Grand Bazaar, Nuruosmaniye and Atik Ali Pasa.
Since one ice cream in a day isn’t enough, I went and got another one. This was one of the special Turkish ice creams which I’ve mentioned before. It’s like Arabic ice cream that uses a binding resin that helps to prevent melting, and the scoopers always put on a big show when they’re scooping it.
My last big stop of the day was Suleymaniye Mosque, and it ended up being the perfect way to end my day. It’s at the top of a big hill, and there’s an awesome view of the city, plus the mosque compound was huge and brimming with people again. The inside was pretty, though it was all pink and not necessarily my favorite one. That’s okay though. They can’t all be my favorite.
By the time I left, I was pretty exhausted. I wandered my way back towards the hostel before deciding that I really did need to eat an actual meal (especially since lunch consisted of two ice creams… hehe I love being a grown up). I found my way back to the usual food street and got a couple of lahmajuns before heading home and practically collapsing. Punishment day #2 successful.
One thing that was on my “definitely do” list for Istanbul was wake up to watch the sunrise over the Bosphorus. The icky weather was a bit of an obstacle to that goal, but luckily, the weather got better and better during the week. If I was going to wake up early to see the sunrise, it was going to be on a clear morning.
Well, time was running out. With only two more mornings, I checked the weather, and it looked good for the morning of Easter Sunday. I thought that given the day, it was an extra fitting start… watching the sun rise on the day when the Son rose. (That gave me a good giggle for at least half the day.) I was, of course, running kind of late, which meant that I was literally running to get to the water before the I missed the whole thing. I forgot about the fact that the published “sunrise time” is when the sun breaks the horizon, and that’s the worst time to watch because it’s when you start going a bit blind. Oh well. I ran and made it there with plenty of time to watch pre-blinding.
Honestly, I had some high hopes, and it was pretty magical. There wasn’t another person in sight, the world was quiet, and the orange sky was reflecting off of the water. It was a good time for some reflection (pun absolutely intended) and prayer. Sometimes it’s nice to just press pause on the chaos of life.
That was the last pause of the day because after that, I had my aggressive sightseeing plan for the day. I was going to church at 11, but before then, I worked out, ate breakfast, and had a few mosques that I wanted to cross off my list on the way there. My mosque sightseeing plan was basically this: visit any that someone specifically recommended and then visit any others that I found on google maps or happened to walk by. Very specific, I know.
My first stop was Yeralti Camii, an underground mosque that wasn’t terribly interesting except for the fact that it was underground. It was good though because I was still getting used to visiting mosques, and since it was quiet, I didn’t feel like I was in anyone’s way.
I happened to walk by another mosque, Kilic Ali Pasa Camii (camii means mosque, in case you haven’t guessed that yet), so I popped in there because why not. This one was more typical than the underground mosque and equally empty which meant I could take my time figuring out the layout and get a system down for taking off my shoes and covering my head. After that, I felt pretty comfortable and confident that I could manage more mosque visits without doing anything disrespectful, and that’s good because I had a mosque-filled day ahead!
I wanted to squeeze in one more mosque before I headed to church, but it looked like it was locked. As I walked by, the groundskeeper called me over and started speaking to me in Turkish. One negative about looking like you fit in is that people don’t automatically assume that you can’t speak the language. Well, he figured it out pretty quickly anyway from looking at my wide eyes and bewildered face. The facts that I couldn’t speak Turkish and he couldn’t speak English were apparently not a deterrent to him, though, because he persisted in inviting me into his groundskeeper hut thing for tea. I refused, he took that as a yes, and that’s how I found myself sipping tea (horrible, horrible chai which I attempted to improve by saturating it with sugar… didn’t work) with a random Turkish man.
I’m certain that he knew I couldn’t speak Turkish, but that didn’t keep him from trying. What I gathered from our conversation is this (I’m giving a 5% guarantee of accuracy): He asked if I was married. I said no (I wasn’t wearing my fake engagement ring, unfortunately). He proposed that I could marry him. He said that he already had three wives. These are all things that I’m making up now because I have no clue what he said, but if I had to guess from the hand motions and the few words I knew in Turkish by that point, that’s about what I would guess.
When I finished my cup of tea, I pointed to my watch, signed that I had to go (because I really was going to be late to church if I waited much longer), and said goodbye. I think that he told me to come back at 4, and I said no. He told me to take a picture of him. He asked for my phone number, and I told him I didn’t have one (I am getting a little better at the whole “no” thing).
The tea stop eliminated all of my “leisurely walk to church” time, so I had to hustle up a ridiculously steep hill and showed up at the church sweaty and out of breath. I attempted to make myself look presentable and like I wasn’t about to pass out, went through security, and entered into the tiniest church on the planet. That’s an exaggeration of course, but it’s VERY small and has more pews crammed in than I ever would have imagined possible. I found a seat somehow, and my pew was so close to the one in front that I couldn’t even straighten my legs to stand up properly.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, I’m so glad that I went. They played all of my favorite songs, and you should be able to sing your heart out on Easter! And I did! And the sermon was good, and it was nice to be surrounded with Christian community. I love going to churches internationally because it’s a little taste of what heaven will be like, with people from all the nations gathered together and worshipping the Lord.
After I left Dolmabahce Palace, I still had a lot of things on my to do list for the day. I knew that I was going to get home feeling like I wanted to collapse, but I have this habit of punishing present Lara for the actions of past Lara. For example, if I eat a whole tub of ice cream one day, the next day at the gym I might make myself run an extra few miles (which is a significant task for me) as ‘punishment’ because past Lara has no self-control. This time, in ‘punishment’ for being a lazy bum my first couple of days, I didn’t allow myself to take things off of my sightseeing list for lack of time. No, no. Too much walking was not a valid excuse because if I hadn’t been lazy, I would have easily been able to see the same amount while enjoying slightly more leisurely sightseeing days.
From the palace, I walked to the funicular that goes uphill to Taksim Square, one of the major public squares of the city. It’s a major venue for public events like parades and other celebrations, as well as for protests and demonstrations. Otherwise, there are a lot of restaurants, shops, and hotels nearby, but since I wasn’t interested in any of those, I wasn’t quite sure what I should do there. Does that ever happen to you? You know that you’re supposed to go see something, but once you get there it’s like, “Hm. Well, there it is. What now?” There’s a little park by the square, so I settled on getting myself another nutella bagel, sitting under a tree in the park, and watching the other people in the square who seemed to have a better idea of what to do there than I did.
(This was actually my second time in Taksim Square. The first was in transit to my hostel from the airport when it was raining, I had all of my bags with me, and I spent most of my walk through the square grumbling about the fact that it was so darn big and I couldn’t figure out where to go and I had to walk forever to get from the side where the bus dropped me to the side where I was getting on the funicular. Thankfully, I was less grumpy this time.)
When I was thoroughly covered in crumbs and ran out of nutella to drip on myself, I left my tree behind and took a stroll down Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a big pedestrian shopping street. Besides foot traffic, there’s an old trolley that runs along the route. It’s kind of cool, but if you’re going for speed, I think it would be way faster to just walk. With how long it takes for people to move out of the way of the trolley, it moves along at a snail’s pace.
I had a few churches that I wanted to check out in the area. It does almost seem like there are more churches in that neighborhood than mosques. Maybe that’s not true though. It could be that just none of the famous mosques are around there, and that’s basically where all of the churches are.
The most well-known church (I just made that up) along the road is the Church of Saint Anthony, a huge Roman Catholic church. The first church was built on its site in 1725, but the building that stands today is from 1912. The modern-day church was rebuilt to replace the earlier church that was demolished to build a tramway. I really liked the outside because I felt like it had a little local flavor. So often, churches look the same no matter where they’re built, so I liked that this one seemed to fit. The inside was pretty typical (and kind of forgettable to be honest), but I’ll take what I can get.
I made two other church stops in the neighborhood. The first was Hagia Triada, a Greek Orthodox church that was built in 1880 and was the very first domed church allowed to be built in Istanbul. During the Istanbul pogrom in 1955, mob attacks were directed primarily at the Greek population, and rioters attempted to burn the church down. It was pillaged and damaged but remained standing, despite having kerosene poured on it. It was restored, and thank goodness because it’s beautiful. The ceilings, in particular, are pretty fabulous. I also have some good feelings towards the church because someone invited me to Easter services the next day (now you know how far behind I am with writing), and while I didn’t end up going there, their offer was what I needed to motivate me to find an English-speaking church to go to.
Second, I stopped in at Surp Hovhan Vosgeperan Armenian Catholic Church (quite the mouthful). It has a somewhat similar history to the Greek church… It was originally built in 1837, was destroyed and burned down, and was rebuilt in 1863. One thing that I noticed while visiting these churches was how much security they have (aka they have more than the zero security that most churches have), and now I understand. I guess that’s what happens after people burn and loot the church.
My last major destination of the day was Galata Tower. The first tower built on this spot was by the Byzantines in 507, it was made of wood, and they called it the Great Tower. In the 1300s, it was rebuilt in stone and was called the Tower of Christ. During the Ottoman years, it was used first as a dungeon and later as a fire tower. Now, it’s an incredibly claustrophobic tourist attraction. I’m not exaggerating.
First, you have to wait in a painfully long line to get in (I had to wait an hour, and I have a feeling that’s not even as bad as it gets). Then, you get whisked to the middle-ish of the tower in an elevator… and then you have to walk to the top up some narrow, spiraling stairs. At the top, there’s a restaurant where you can eat if you like to look at people’s backs (because there are windows, but there are so many people on the walkway outside that you’re not going to see any sort of pretty view while you’re eating).
There’s also a walkway around the tower that is just wide enough for one person to press their body against the rail and have enough space for someone else to pass behind them. You’re supposed to walk around it clockwise, but of course there are always those people who decide they should go against the grain and walk the other direction. And then there are the people who stop walking and block the entire walkway while doing so. I went around twice, and about halfway through the second time, I started regretting my decision because I was getting a little claustrophobic and about ready to start smacking people (don’t worry, I controlled myself). For reference, I don’t get claustrophobic easily. I think it was the combination of the frustration at not being able to walk and the people bumping into me and the fact that once I wanted to get out, I couldn’t.
On the positive side, the view really was spectacular. I was there as the sun started setting, so I got to see the city turn from daytime Istanbul to dusk Istanbul. I thought I might stay for the whole sunset, but once I made it to the end of my second round, I wanted nothing more than to be on the ground again.
To get back to my hostel, I had to go back across the water to Old Town. I walked on Galata Bridge which is a pretty cool spot, especially at night. There are two levels to the bridge. The top has fishermen lining the railings at what seems like every hour of the day and night. The bottom is full of restaurants, and while it seems like a bit of a hazard to have a bunch of fishing lines flying over the walkway in front of the restaurants, no one asked me for my opinion. It would be funny if when you ordered a seafood dish from one of the restaurants, the fishermen above pulled it straight out of the water for you. Can’t get much fresher than that! Even though that doesn’t actually happen, you can buy fish sandwiches on and near the bridge that are made from super-fresh fish.
Since I’m not a fish person, I didn’t do that. Instead, I wandered down this big food street near the hostel, I imagine looking something like a zombie. I walked all the way down the street without seeing anywhere I wanted to eat… and when I got to the end, I remembered that I was starving, and not finding a dinner spot was not an option. So, I turned around and walked back down the street, attracting the attention of one of the restaurant’s yell-at-you-as-you-walk-by people. He tried to get my attention the first time I walked by, and I successfully ignored him. This time, I didn’t have the energy. He told me that he would give me a chicken kebab platter for 15 lira instead of the 20 lira listed in the menu (20 lira was about $5 at the time). I knew 20 was high and figured 15 was reasonable. Plus, if I decided to eat there, I didn’t have to walk around hungry anymore. Okay, deal.
Maybe it’s just because I was starving, but I think that platter was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten (okay, it was definitely good, but I think the “best food I’ve ever eaten” statement comes from the fact that moments before that, my stomach was eating itself). I guess the guy took a liking to me during the course of the meal because when I asked for the bill, he told me not to worry about it. I couldn’t accept that though, so I insisted on paying SOMETHING at least, and he agreed to 10 lira. Imagine that, one second I’m bargaining for a lower price and the next I’m bargaining for a higher one. Interesting turn of events.
Anyway, my punishment was successful. By the time I got back to the hostel, I was ready to collapse. I had to pull myself together quickly, though, because the next day’s schedule was no less grueling!
Following my unexpected Bursaexcursion, I went into a mini-panic because I only had three more days in Istanbul, and there was so much more that I wanted to do and see. My days of going out with only a half-baked plan were behind me, and I made myself an ambitious schedule for the days ahead.
I decided to go north for day 7 and try to visit all of the things on my list in the northern part of the Europe side of the city. The first of those destinations was Dolmabahce Palace (pronounced dol-ma-bah-che), another Ottoman palace that was built after Topkapi. This one is more of a traditional palace in that it’s on these big palace grounds and there’s one primary building, whereas Topkapi is more spread out and has courtyards instead of exterior gardens.
In fact, Dolmabahce was built with the intention of being more similar to the “typical” European palace. Sultan Abdulmecid I decided that a new palace was necessary because Topkapi was “medieval” and lacked the style and luxury of the palaces of other European monarchs. I can’t say that I walked through Topkapi and thought for even an instant, “Hm… I mean, this is nice and all, but it’s a little medieval for my liking. It could be more luxurious because at the moment, only 30% of the ceiling is covered in gold leaf and I think it would be better at 80%.” But then, of course, I’m also not royalty so maybe that’s why my vision for these types of things is inadequate.
Anyway, once Sultan Abdulmecid decided that he needed a new palace, his court architects got down to business designing it. Fun fact… the architects were Armenian. The Balyan family served as court architects in the Ottoman Empire for five generations! That’s pretty cool. Nine different family members served six different sultans. They designed a huge number of palaces, mosques, Armenian churches, and public buildings in the empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. Garabet Balyan and one of his sons worked on Dolmabahce.
Want to venture a guess at how much Dolmabahce cost to build at today’s money value? More than $1.5 BILLION. Yeah, that’s right. Billion. Did they have enough money for this? Not quite… This was ¼ of the annual tax revenue in the empire. It was built at a time when finances were already becoming a bit of a problem, but the sultan wanted to make a statement that everything was fine, and the empire was as strong as ever. What better way to do that than to spend an exorbitant amount on a frivolous construction project?
The palace is like the anti-tiny house. You know how people these days are all into minimalism and not taking up more space than they need? The sultans were totally not on the same page. There are 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets in the palace. You know, just in case every wife, girlfriend, and child in the family simultaneously decided to find an empty room to sit in.
Between 1856 and 1924, six sultans used the palace as their residence. After that, it was used as a summer residence by Ataturk, the first president of the republic, and now it’s a museum. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside of course, but I kind of feel like Turkey owes me something, so I didn’t feel bad sneaking a few.
Honestly, I can’t even begin to describe the interior of the palace. It’s one of those places where you could spend a month in each room, and even then you wouldn’t have enough time to take in the full splendor. The details are insane. I think I had a crick in my neck by the time I left because I spent so much time staring up at the incredible ceilings. Guess how much gold was used in the gilding of the ceilings? I almost don’t even want to say because it’s too ridiculous. Fourteen tons. Like… what?!?! The extent of my notes for the entire visit was “gold leaf radiators”. Honestly, I think that says more than enough. Why do you need gold leaf radiators???
There were two rooms in particular that I could have spent the rest of my life in. The first was a staircase, and trust me when I say that it’s the most beautiful staircase in the universe. You can look up pictures of the Dolmabahce Palace crystal staircase if you don’t believe me or if you just want to see how marvelous it is. The balusters (the vertical posts that support the railing) are all made of crystal, there’s a crystal chandelier hanging in the middle, and the ceiling/roof is made of translucent glass that floods the space with light. Besides all of that, the surrounding ceilings are amazing. I think I stood in that staircase so long that the guard had time to get a little suspicious of me and then get un-suspicious again because I spent the entire time not touching anything and just staring up with my eyes wide and my jaw dropped.
The other room was the Ceremonial Hall, and I think that my parents’ entire house could fit inside that single room like 15 times. Does anyone really need such a room?? But “need” isn’t exactly the motivating word in these situations, so I’ll stop trying to make sense of things and instead just enjoy the masterpieces that resulted from too much money and too big egos. The world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier hangs in the hall, and it weighs 4.5 tons. Ha. The ceilings though… they’re something else. I did manage to sneak an illegal picture of those though, so it’s your lucky day. Don’t turn me in.
The grounds surrounding the palace are also quite nice, though they aren’t nearly as big in area as the Topkapi courtyards. It’s right on the Bosphorus, so there are gates that lead directly to the water. The view on the day I went was beautiful because, for once, I was smart and visited an outdoor space when the weather was nice. Imagine that.
Nearby, there are two other Dolmabahce-related structures. The first is a clock tower just outside the gates, and it was designed by Sarkis Balyan, son of Garabed. It cost $350 million in today’s currency which is, in my opinion, a VERY reasonable amount of money to spend on a clock. You know what they say, time is money!
The second is a mosque designed by Garabed. It was originally commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid’s mother, and he continued the work after her death. As a result, the building has a bit of a feminine quality to it. The towers are more slender than those of other mosques, and there’s a lightness and delicacy to the design that goes beyond what is seen in most mosques.
After visiting the palace, clock tower, and mosque, I felt like I had adequately seen the Dolmabahce collection. I still had a lot more to see, though, so I kept moving!
To be continued for now… I don’t want to overload you (any more than I already have, that is).
I was feeling ambitious on Istanbul Day 5. I made this long list of things that I wanted to visit, and I didn’t think it through at all. I mean, at the time, I thought I was thinking it through, but that was using the incredibly limited information that I had in my brain.
The major planned destination was Topkapi Palace, a former palace of the Ottoman sultans. The weather wasn’t very good, but I heard the word “palace” and very mistakenly thought that corresponded to “good rainy-day activity”. Anyone who has done one millisecond of research about Topkapi would tell you that’s definitely not true because the palace prominently features four very large courtyards. Uncovered courtyards. Aka outside. Aka when it rains, it will rain on you. Brilliant, Lara.
Even after realizing that maybe I hadn’t planned things out perfectly, I pressed on because I was just happy that I managed to make a plan at all. You don’t go messing with the plan when you have nothing to replace it with. I mean, now I would happily offer multiple ways that I could have reworked my schedule to better accommodate the weather, but hindsight’s 20/20 and as we’ve seen, my foresight was essentially blind. Literally the only commendable planning I did that day was deciding to take my raincoat and the plastic bag I modified to cover my backpack when it’s raining. Better than nothing I suppose.
The hill where Topkapi is located was once the home to the Greek acropolis during the Byzantine years with huge temples dedicated to the Greek gods. During the years of Roman rule, these temples were repurposed but eventually started to fall into ruin. After the Ottoman conquest of the city, a palace was constructed in place of the temples from 1460-1478AD.
In the years that followed, the palace was gradually expanded and was home to the Ottoman sultans and their court until the 1850s. At that point, it was no longer able to adequately support the ceremonial needs of the government, and Dolmabahce Palace was built. Despite the end of use as a royal residence, it continued to operate as the imperial treasury, library, and mint and host state ceremonies until it was converted into a museum in 1924 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The palace has a prime location on the tip of the Istanbul Peninsula and covers somewhere between 590,000 and 700,000 square meters (145-175 acres). The general layout of the palace is four courtyards surrounded by various rooms and structures, and as you move from one courtyard to the next, the spaces get increasingly more private.
The first courtyard, or the Parade Court, is massive. I came in the side entrance which doesn’t have an epic gate or anything, so I didn’t initially realize that I was inside the palace compound. It’s mostly a huge open space with a few randomly scattered buildings including a church, Hagia Irene, the very first church built in Constantinople. It was the head of the Byzantine Orthodox Church until the completion of the Hagia Sophia. Hagia Irene is one of the only churches that wasn’t converted to a mosque during Ottoman times. Instead, it was used as the armory for the palace. (Fair warning – get ready for a TON of pictures in this post.)
The Gate of Salutation leads into the second courtyard and the beginning of the main palace. The second courtyard was home to the administrative buildings and palace kitchens. The courtyard itself was also used for ceremonies. Now, the museum houses exhibitions about the palace kitchens, weaponry, and clocks and has some extravagant rooms that you can poke around.
I was completely mesmerized by the kitchens exhibit. It’s always incredible how many people it takes to maintain the lifestyles of various rulers. At its height, there were 10,000 people living and working in the palace, and there were 1,300 working in the kitchen to feed everyone!
They had some interesting records that showed menus from different years, supply orders, etc. They really put things into perspective. Ready for this? Here’s a list of the palace’s meat consumption in 1184:
2335 yearling lambs
17,600 large intestines (eek!)
3,700 abomasums (one of the stomachs of cattle, sheep, etc.)
162,370 sheep’s feet (FEET??)
31,390 sheep’s heads (what are you doing with all of those sheep’s heads????)
They also had a crazy amount of Chinese porcelain. I laughed at one caption that said during the month of Ramadan, the sultans ate from porcelain dishes instead of gold and silver. WOW. Really depriving themselves of the finer things in life.
My favorite list, though, was a list of spoons purchased in 1839. Just spoons. They were made from all sorts of different materials: tortoiseshell, walrus ivory, walnut, ebony, horn, pistachio wood, and more. The list is not short, and I’m mostly just confused because how many spoons do you really need?
The next exhibit was weaponry which I’m not that interested in, but a lot of it was just ceremonial and as a result VERY decorative.
The third courtyard was much more private and was surrounded by the living quarters of the page boys who served the sultan.
This courtyard is also the location of an exhibit showing various religious artifacts including some of the most random things in the universe. These include the saucepan of Abraham, Joseph’s turban (Old Testament Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and ended up working for the Pharaoh), David’s sword, Moses’s staff, John the Baptist’s arm (ew), a footprint of Muhammad and a piece of one of his teeth. You get the idea.
The fourth courtyard had the best tiles in the whole palace, and it was filled with various pavilions and commemorative buildings.
The Harem is the most private part of the palace, and it’s where the sultans and their families lived. Residents included the sultan, his mom (the Queen Mother), his wives (he could have up to four), concubines (female slaves), favorites (the Sultan’s girlfriends), eunuch guards, and the children.
The Queen Mother was basically in charge of the sultan’s social life. She decided who socialized with him and which women he could have relations with. The eunuchs were slaves brought from Africa to help guard the harem, and their genitals were removed.
The rooms in the harem were generally spectacular. I think my jaw dropped every single time I walked into a new room. You’d think I would have started to expect it, but I never did. I would walk in, stare in amazement at the rooms for way longer than anyone else (most people just walked in, click clicked a couple pictures, and walked out again), take a few pictures, and then walk into the next room and repeat. I think it’s a shame when people only see things from behind their cameras. Take a second to enjoy things with your eyes, people! Sorry, mini rant…
Here’s a tour in photos and captions:
My day at the palace was long and VERY cold, but also awesome. I mean, it definitely could have been more awesome if I had checked the weather, but we won’t think about that. I had plans to go to another museum after I finished at the palace, but I ended up spending more than 5 hours there which meant that everything was closed by the time I made it out. Oops. I think it’s better to do a few things thoroughly, though, rather than a bunch of things halfway.
By the time I hit day 4 of my time in Istanbul, I decided that I need to step up my game if I wanted to leave the city feeling like I had seen what I wanted to see. I always have these grand plans of waking up early, working out, sightseeing, getting home at a reasonable hour, being productive, and going to sleep at a time that allows me to wake up the next day to do it again without feeling like I’m dying. As you might expect, things rarely go this way. Usually I have one day where I wake up, work out, sightsee… and then end up meeting people and hanging out and getting back late… and then either passing out or staying up late to get work done. And the next day, the plan falls apart before it even starts.
As much as I love routine and being productive, I’m making a huge effort not to skip out on opportunities to spend time with people because that’s always what I remember the most about my trips. I have so many awesome friends that I never would have met if I had stayed in my comfort zone. My comfort zone, by the way, is a place where I never talk to strangers or put myself in a position where I’m uncertain about the outcome. Comfortable, yes. Boring, also yes. So yeah, things didn’t go exactly according to the grand plan, but I think they turned out even better.
Point of that tangent was that by day 4, I still had a lot to see. Since I just needed to get moving on SOMETHING, I picked the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) as my destination for the day and was off.
We learned about the Hagia Sophia in my architecture history classes in university, but heck if I remember anything from those. That’s not true, I do remember a few things, but apparently not the historic details of the Hagia Sophia because I felt like I was going in blind again. No problem! I had a written guide from the internet, and with no expectations, you’re setting yourself up to be amazed.
The current Hagia Sophia started out as a church, built in 537AD by the Byzantines. There were two churches previously built on the same site. First, the Great Church was built in 360AD and destroyed in 404AD during riots that took place in the city. A replacement church was built in 415AD and destroyed in 532AD during a revolt that burned down half the city. When the last structure was built, Europe was in the Dark Ages, and Istanbul was emerging as a center of Christianity.
The main dome of the structure is 182 feet tall and 104 feet wide, and at the time of its construction, it was the largest dome in the world. It held that title for 900 years until it was overtaken by the Florence Cathedral (fun side fact: construction on the Florence Cathedral was started before anyone knew a way to complete the dome. They figured that was a problem for the future generations to figure out – since building a church took an eternity – and the final solution was some brilliantly engineered machinery that no one besides the inventor thought would work). The entire Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris can fit inside!
The Crusaders took over in 1204, and for almost 60 years, it was under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Shockingly (not), during this time, many of the riches inside were stolen and sent to Italy, though the golden ceiling mosaics were left mostly untouched. I guess those are slightly harder to steal than other things.
When the Ottomans took the city in the 1450s, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. This involved covering or removing any images of living beings, and the mosaic ceilings were plastered over and forgotten about. Despite this unfortunate redecorating, the conversion to a mosque kept the building safe and maintained. Four minarets were added to the outside, and the prayer niche was moved to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem.
At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the mosque was closed and converted into a museum. The golden mosaics were rediscovered beneath the plastered ceilings and were in generally good condition. Now, the building is a clear mix of Christian and Islamic elements with many of the furnishings remaining from the mosque, including giant, calligraphed medallions, and the original Christian architecture and décor.
I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea how long it would take me to visit, and I definitely went a bit later than I should have… oops. It wasn’t a big deal though because I wasn’t in Istanbul at a terribly busy time, so waiting in the line to get inside only took maybe 40 minutes. I people-watched to entertain myself, and before I knew it, I was inside.
The building is under construction, but it doesn’t even matter. I mean, I’m sure it would have been great if half of the main hall wasn’t filled with scaffolding, but even with it, you could see how impressive the space is. The ceiling looks like it’s miles away, and since there aren’t big, bulky columns or anything crowding the dome, it seems even bigger. I spent my first 20 minutes staring at the ceiling and trying not to walk into anyone.
The place is so big that even though it was crowded, it didn’t feel like it was. It was probably loud too, but sound had a way of just getting lost. Sometimes I like to sing worship songs when I’m visiting churches (what can I say? They get me in the mood), but I don’t want anyone to hear me… so spaces like that are perfect. I sang to myself, and as soon as the sound left me, it was lost to the open space and the murmurs of the people around me.
From here, I’m going to use the photo captions to give you a mini-tour… I think that will work out the best.
One of the negatives and also sometimes positives of extended travelling is that you don’t necessarily have time to do a lot of research. I make sure that I hit the major sights (thank you, tripadvisor) and put a LOT of trust in the people working reception at my hostel to tell me what I should go see. Sometimes, that means that you know you should visit something, but you have no idea what it is… and then you go there and learn about it and are like, “DUDE! THIS IS SO COOL!”
For me, that happened with the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish (Sinking Cistern). The “basilica” part of the name comes from the fact that there was formerly a basilica on the site. I had no idea what it was, but I saw a bunch of tour groups going and the self-guided walking tour I was following mentioned it, so I figured I should check it out. I know, all of this makes me sound like a complete idiot, but sometimes the best way to learn about something is to just go and experience it (things I tell myself that may or may not be completely true… sometimes it’s probably good to have a clue, but that’s not the way I’ve been operating recently).
The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the Byzantine days, between 527-565AD by Emperor Justinianus I. It’s a ginormous underground water cistern, 140m x 70m and with 9m tall columns. The capacity is around 100,000 tons of water which translates to 26.5 million gallons. There are 336 columns total, placed in 12 rows of 28 columns. These are joined by arches and vaulted ceilings that carry the weight of the city above. The brick walls are over a meter thick, and they and the floors are plastered with a thick layer of special brick dust mortar for waterproofing.
The cistern was in active use until the Ottomans conquered the city. They preferred fresh water as opposed to sitting water, so the underground reservoirs went mostly unused with the exception of feeding the nearby Topkapi Palace gardens and a few homes. In the 1540s, a Dutch traveller visited Istanbul in search of Byzantine monuments. When he noticed residents pulling water out of their floors, they directed him to a staircase that led into the reservoir. He explored it using a small boat, took measurements, and published his findings in a book that piqued more Western interest in the cistern.
There were repeated renovations in the 1700s – early 1900s to reinforce various part of the structure, and it wasn’t until a major 1985 restoration that the complete scale of the cistern was discovered. After removing 50,000 tons of mud (and probably trash and bodies and who knows what else), the full height of the columns was visible.
The columns are all made of different materials and are of different architectural styles because, in classic ancient fashion, they were swiped from other structures. They always say that it was from ruined structures, but I like to imagine that there was a big column-pilfering problem in ancient times and sometimes people would wake up in the morning to discover that the columns on the local temple were gone… and then they would go steal some others and so on until someone finally sucked it up and just made some new ones. Estimates are that it took 7,000 slaves to construct the cistern, and that doesn’t even include the workforce required to build the 12-mile long aqueduct that fed it.
There are three columns of particular interest. One is carved with the images of eyes and tears, paying tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during construction. (It’s a good reminder that all of this amazing ancient stuff usually came at a high human cost.) The other two are normal columns, but the bases are two big Medusa heads that scholars think came from the Temple of Apollo near Ephesus (another city in Turkey), but no one knows for sure. One is sideways and one is upside down, a configuration explained by scholars as showing the change from pagan religion to Christianity. Other legends say that they were placed there for protection and are oriented that way to keep them from turning people to stone. I think that they were just so tired of moving them that they said, “This is close enough, we’ll leave them like this.”
Now, there are walkways for tourists to tour the cistern, unfortunately replacing the boats that were formerly used. That would have been awesome.
As I took the steps underground, my jaw literally dropped when I got my first look. It’s huge. I know, like duh it’s huge, but when you see it in person and realize that you’re underground, it’s unbelievable! And it was chilly down there which I suppose would have been nice if it wasn’t also chilly outside. My brain couldn’t even imagine the whole thing filled with water, and with no lights down there it would have been CREEEEEPY. Eek. Imagine going in there while it was full, with no clue what you were going to find in a little boat in the darkness with just a lantern. No, thank you. It probably smelled weird too.
Anyway, despite the fact that I didn’t get to ride on a boat, it was spectacular. The space seems to go on forever, and when you think about the logistics that went into actually constructing it, it’s mind-blowing. All of that. Underground. Over 300 huge columns. So. Many. Bricks. And the ceilings are super high which means they had some sort of scaffolding. And then the aqueducts to feed it! Geez!
After wandering around much longer than anyone else and in a constant state of marveling, I made my way to the exit. Then, if you aren’t already aware of the expanse of the thing by the time you leave, you pop up on the surface, blocks away from the entrance. And it’s bright outside and noisy and bustling and you’re like, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?” because you just emerged from this underground cave and now you’re in the middle of the city. The whole transition was very confusing, and I felt like a time traveler or something.
In conclusion, the Basilica Cistern is super cool, and if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a time traveler, it’s the place for you. Except now that I’ve warned you, maybe you’ll just go and not feel it and think that I’m insane. Maybe I am.
In case you were wondering (or worried), no, I didn’t fall off a cliff. I’m alive and well and just very, very far behind on writing. I’ve been keeping up my journal at least because if that’s a sloppy mess, no one besides me is going to read it… which is good because more than once, I’ve fallen asleep while typing and woken up to unintelligible nonsense on my computer screen.
I’m going to attempt to get back into the game because I’ve missed it! Writing about the things I’m seeing and doing forces me to learn so much more about them than I otherwise would, and that has added so much value to my travels. I know, I could just learn for the sake of learning, but when you’re learning to explain to someone else, you have to have a much fuller understanding of the subject. That makes me try way harder than I otherwise would to really get the complete picture.
So, excuse the side note, and let’s get back to Istanbul! My first few days were not the most sightseeing-efficient. Day 1 was a complete mess because I was so tired. It basically consisted of me eating, trying to keep my eyes open until my bed was ready, and taking a very long daytime “nap”… and then waking up from that nap, sitting in bed for a couple of hours, and going to sleep for the night. I kind of considered going for a walk during the “sitting in bed” time, but it was raining and ugh and instead I just sat.
I was determined to make day 2 better… and it was raining again. I told myself that the day would be counted as a success if I just managed to make myself leave the hostel (I know, this is not a realistic life I’m leading at the moment), and that was enough motivation to make me step outside. I attempted, and failed, to take a guided walking tour of the city (I couldn’t find the meeting point because I was still a mental mess), so I defiantly decided that I didn’t need a tour guide anyway and found a self-guided walking tour online.
My journey started in Old Town at the site of the old Hippodrome, center of the Roman Constantinople. The Romans always crack me up because they always have the same priorities when it comes to outfitting newly-conquered cities to the Roman standard. Essential parts of a city, according to the Romans: sporting facilities, aqueducts, baths. So fancy.
Of course, one of the first things to be constructed were baths because hygiene and what on earth are you supposed to do with your social life otherwise? And then, what is a city without a hippodrome for chariot races?? That was constructed near the beginning as well, and it was eventually expanded by Constantine to include stands for 100,000 people and epic columns and statues and gates to make it worthy of being the hippodrome of “New Rome”. This was the social and geographic center of the city from around the 200s-1450s AD when the Ottomans took control. It started to fall into disrepair and was eventually turned into a park, which is its current state today. Most of the Roman monuments are gone, but a few still live in the park: two obelisks and a broken column.
The first obelisk, the Obelisk of Theodosius, is covered with hieroglyphs and, like practically every single “Roman” obelisk, was stolen from Egypt. This one dates back to 1450BC! It was moved to the Hippodrome in 390AD, and only the top 1/3 of it remains which is completely insane because it’s still huge. The rest was damaged, they think, during transportation and re-erection… and my response to that is, DUH! What do you expect when you try to move a 60m tall piece of granite???
The broken Serpentine Column is situated next to the obelisk. This was built in the 400s BC by the Greeks after a battle victory, and supposedly it’s made from the melted-down shields of the Persian soldiers who they defeated. It was 8 meters high, and the twists in the column are the bodies of three serpents, formerly with heads that held a golden bowl. Unfortunately, it was plundered 300 years ago, and this little stump is what remains, though they did manage to find a piece of one of the serpent heads.
Finally, the Constantine Obelisk sits on the other side of the column. It’s a bit sad looking now, and I’ll give you one guess why… That’s right, it was plundered! It seems like everything in the Roman universe is somehow tainted by theft. It was built in the 10th century by Constantine, and that sad stone exterior used to be covered with gilded bronze plates that depicted the military triumphs of his grandfather, Emperor Basil I. During the Crusades, these were stolen and melted down.
There used to be many other monuments in the Hippodrome. Many of them were probably stolen before they were placed there, and later they were stolen again to be placed elsewhere. The whole concept of stealing a monument still just baffles me. How? And why? And how?? “Ah, this million-ton bronze sculpture would look fantastic in my garden, right next to the million-ton pointy rock that I acquired in Egypt. Men! Load it up!” That’s how I imagine those decisions took place. That was the ancient way I guess.
The Hippodrome also contains a not-stolen and not-Roman gift from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II after he visited in the late 1800s. Eh. He probably stole it from someone. Anyway, it’s a fountain with a beautiful gold mosaic ceiling. I don’t know about you, but no one’s ever given me a gift like that. Also, what to do with it? “Thank you, Kaiser, for this wonderful gift. We will put it… uhhh… in the Hippodrome! Right in the center of the city and mostly because we have a bunch of open space there so why not.”
Constantine’s Great Palace was right next to the Hippodrome, and almost nothing remains… except for some amazing mosaics that were discovered in the 1930s underneath shops in the nearby Bazaar. More mosaics were found in the 50s, and they were brought together to form the Mosaic Museum. I’m personally a huge fan of mosaics, so I was completely sold on going. The most substantial mosaics formed the floor of a courtyard in the palace and date back to 450AD.
They estimate that the floor used 75-80 million cubes with about 40,000 per square meter. They’re very small, about 5mm per side, and that allows for some spectacular detail. It also must have taken forever to make. The main part of the mosaic is composed of a series of scenes of varying subject matter: people hunting, animals fighting, mythological stories, pictures of rural life, etc. It’s pretty spectacular. I can’t even imagine seeing it in its original form with columns lining the sides. I bet you were even allowed to walk on it back then.
The surviving portion of the floor is about 250 square meters… and guess how big they think the entire thing was? SEVEN TO EIGHT times that size. That’s more than the area of 1.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools. How do you even start that project? How do you make images that actually look how they’re supposed to look?? I thought that painting was hard on a large scale, but this is next level.
The main portion of the Grand Palace once stood on the site of the famous Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, when I visited, it was closed for renovations and I don’t want to think about it or I’ll be sad. The mosque was completed in 1616AD after only 7 years of construction! That may seem like a long time, but when you think about the fact that so many of the world’s epic churches took centuries to complete, it was basically finished in the blink of an eye.
There are six minarets, and this is what the Imams (worship leaders) used to climb to sing the Call to Prayer. Five times a day, right before the five Muslim prayer times (dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, night), the Imams sing to invite people to come to the mosque to pray. Back in the pre-loudspeaker days, the Imams would climb to the top to sing, but now they just use a microphone that’s connected to the speakers in the minarets. Kind of a bummer in my opinion. The five daily prayers each take about 5-10 minutes and are meant to purify the soul, teach discipline and humility, and remind you to think about God throughout the day.
With the construction, only the courtyard leading into the mosque was open. At least that was something. I’m sure the inside isn’t that cool anyway (lies I tell to myself. I’m sure it’s amazing).
Between the Blue Mosque and another iconic structure that I’ll talk about in a later post, Hagia Sophia, is Sultan Ahmet Park. This is the site of the old Roman Baths of Zeuxippus (those Romans have to have their baths!), and there are Turkish bathhouses nearby that you can still visit today.
With my Old Town tour basically finished, I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather (sarcasm… it was still gross out) and go on a Bosphorus boat cruise. Why? Don’t ask me. These are things that you should do on a nice, pretty, clear day. But sometimes opportunities present themselves at less-than-ideal times. I got a good deal on the ticket, so I went despite the weather. Enjoy the pictures and pretend that it’s not cloudy or foggy or gross.
Istanbul is one of those cities where, if you don’t understand the history behind it, you’re left scratching your head. Architecturally, it’s a huge mash-up that tells the story of the city’s past. Back when I was in university, we had a project in architecture studio where we made architecture collages. The first person got a blank board and a name of a building, and they built a model of that building. They passed the board to the next person who got another random building, and they had to find a way to integrate that into what had already been built. The board was passed again, and the last person had to add in another architectural component. The final result was weird and interesting because each collage was a confusing mix of different architectural styles, and if you didn’t understand the project, you would have stood there wondering what crazy person put the models together. Similarly, if you don’t understand the story behind Istanbul’s growth and development, the architecture of the city doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Let’s start from the beginning… If you look at a map, it’s obvious why Istanbul is located where it is. To the north is the Black Sea, to the south the Sea of Marmara, and right through the middle is the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the Caucasus and southeastern Europe to northern Africa and the Middle East. It’s like a trader’s dream.
The first inhabitants of the area may have arrived as early as 3000BC, but a true city wasn’t established until the 600s BC when Greek colonists settled there because of its location. They were led by King Byzas, and in typical, modest-king fashion, he gave the city its first name, Byzantium, after himself.
Rome conquered Greece in 149BC and moved into Byzantium soon after. The Romans started to build it up into a Roman city, complete with city walls, a Roman layout, a hippodrome, and monuments to various Roman battle victories. The Roman Empire was divided in two with Rome as the western capital and the newly named “Augusta Antonina” (really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) as the eastern capital.
Constantine came to power in 324AD, officially moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city, and renamed it “Nova Roma”. He wanted to rebuild the city and fill it with epic monuments like those in Rome. After Constantine’s death in 337AD, the city was renamed Constantinople in honor of him. (The people in that city must have had a serious identity crisis from all of the name changes.)
In 395, the Empire was split into Eastern and Western halves, and after the Western Empire fell, Constantinople and the Eastern Empire were still going strong. Between the time of Constantine’s rule and the eventual conquest of the city by the Crusaders in 1204, there was a lot of action. The walls were expanded, aqueducts and churches were built, and the city resisted multiple attacks by Arab conquerors. There were various revolts in the city, buildings were destroyed and rebuilt, and the emperors continued to build ever more impressive and ridiculous buildings.
In 1204, Catholic Crusaders from Italy broke through the city’s sea walls and took control. During their brief period of control and in typical Crusader fashion, they stole all sorts of items from the palaces and churches and sent them back to Rome, where many of them remain to this day.
The Romans managed to push the Crusaders out in 1261 and reclaim control of Constantinople. They never reached the strength of their former occupation and were weakened further by the repeated attacks of the Ottomans. Finally, in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II was successful in conquering the city, and Constantinople became part of the Ottoman Empire.
Over the next almost 500 years, the Ottoman Empire expanded its control across the region. The sultan was determined to rejuvenate Constantinople. He created the Grand Bazaar (a huge covered market), built palaces, mosques, bathhouses, and other public buildings, brought people from various religious backgrounds into the city to have a diverse population, and started the movement of the city towards its later status as a major cultural, political, and commercial center.
Following its defeat in WWI, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, and in 1923, the Republic of Turkey was born in its place. Within the new republic, the capital was moved to Ankara, and Constantinople started to decline. The population decreased, and parts of the city fell into disrepair.
Eventually, things started to turn around. In 1930, the city of many names became Istanbul. In the 1940s and 50s, the city’s structure was updated with the construction of new public squares and boulevards. Finally, in the 1970s, people were drawn back to Istanbul because of the many new factory jobs available on the outskirts. This led to the rapid growth of the city, turning it into a sprawling metropolitan area.
Currently, it is the largest city in Turkey with a population of approximately 13.5 million people, and it enjoys the exclusive status of being the world’s only metropolitan area that exists on two continents (Europe and Asia).
Its complicated history makes it an even more interesting place to visit, and I had a lot of head-scratching moments as I explored and tried to figure out how everything fit together. I’ll do my best to spare you the same struggle!