Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and one of the world’s most populous metropolises, has served as the capital city for two grand empires – the Byzantine Empire, flourishing between the 4th and 15th century AD and the Ottoman Empire, which took over from the Byzantines and ruled until the 15th century.
Once it became evident that the glory days of ancient Rome was coming to an end, Emperor Constantine relocated the capital to the relative peace of the east in 324 AD, or thereabouts. That was the birth of Constantinople – his namesake city.
Constantinople benefited heavily from the fall of Rome and the Western Empire to the invading Barbarians, becoming the leading city of the western civilization by default.
However, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and it held true for the Byzantines, as they succumbed to the increasingly powerful Ottoman Turks in the mid-1400s and, just like that, the Christian capital became Muslim Constantinople.
The good things ended for the Ottomans too, following ally Germany’s defeat in World War One.
Thus, from the ashes of the once mighty Ottoman Empire, rose modern-day Turkey, founded, in 1923, by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the country that Turkey is today.
Even though the modern Republic’s seat of power is Ankara now, Istanbul continues to be the financial, cultural, and historic center of this great country spread over two continents.
Straddling the strategic Bosporus Strait, with part of the city in Europe and part in Asia, Istanbul has stood at the crossroads of civilization for thousands of years – the point where east meets west.
The Golden Horn inlet on the European side separates the city’s modern and upscale New Town from the Old Town, where the major historic landmarks are located. Few places on the planet have been at the center of more history than this sprawling, exotic metropolis on the Bosporus.
Today, Istanbul attracts millions of tourists from across the world to relive its rich history, marvel at the domes, the minarets, the architecture, cruise the Golden Horn and enjoy a different view of the magnificent city, wonder at the Harem in Topaki Palace, and shop away at the massive grand bazaar, among a lot of other things to do and spots to visit.
The Blue Mosque
Despite an overwhelming majority of its Muslim population, Turkey is the most secular Islamic nation in the world. Historic mosques are open to visitors regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or belief, giving them an insight into a religion that still holds a massive drawing power. Misgivings about this great religion can be cleared once and for all.
The 17th century Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet I, is one of the best reminders that Ottomans thrived in this neck of the woods, once upon a time.
This Ottoman Empire landmark is nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the countless blue tiles, with floral and geometric motif, that fill the hallowed interior.
Elaborate medallions with the names of Allah, Muhammad and, Muhammad’s progeny grace the interior, just like a church would have Jesus as the focal center.
Excerpts from the Holy Quran in artful Arabic calligraphy and quotes from the Holy Prophet himself are to be seen all around.
The niche, or Mehrab, where the Imam leads the prayers from, points toward Mecca as required by the Muslim faith and is flanked by two large ceremonial candles.
The main hall is reserved for men, while the women’s section is on the back. While this segregation may appear disrespectful to women by some, Muslims see it as a practical matter. To be fair, the men are as much segregated from the women as they are from the men. So, where’s the discrimination?
A popular square in Istanbul today, this site was once the Hippodrome of the Byzantine Empire, a racetrack on the lines of Rome’s Circus Maximus.
Built in the 4th century, the Hippodrome could accommodate 60,000 frenzied spectators at a time, who came to watch chariot races, among other sporting events of the time.
The 3,500-year-old ancient obelisk, which stands as the centerpiece at this ancient site, was brought here from Egypt to adorn the Hippodrome in the 4th century. It is just one-third of the massive stone tower that was originally carved in honor of a Pharaoh.
The massive structure of Hagia Sophia, a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century on an unprecedented scale. This venerated house of worship is considered among the greatest of its kind in both the Muslim and Christian worlds.
When the Ottomans took over from the Byzantines in the 15th-century, everything Christian became a symbol of the Muslims, including the Hagia Sophia which became a Muslim place of worship – a mosque.
Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum and a standing proof of the 6th -century glory days of the Byzantines – a prime example of the rich Byzantine architecture.
The masterful dome-atop-dome construction held the proud record of being the world’s biggest dome for centuries until the distinction was taken over by the cathedral of Florence during the Renaissance 900 years later.
Soft light filters through forty magnificent arched windows to light up the beautiful interior and its original marble in brilliant mosaics.
However, after the Ottoman takeover, Christian mosaics were plastered over and new religious symbols replaced the old.
The Church became the Mosque, which is, today, a museum.
The Galata Bridge
A stroll across the bustling Galata Bridge, spanning the Golden Horn inlet, offers excellent panoramic views of Istanbul’s Old Town and its monuments. The bridge boasts three vehicular lanes, tramlines, and a pedestrian walkway.
The cafes below offer plenty of drinking and eating options with a view.
Hop onto one of the tour boats operating from near the Galata Bridge for a sail up and down the Bosporus. Enjoy the city sights from the water while passing massive cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers to the city for a hectic day of shopping, frolicking, and sightseeing.
Along the Bosporus, you will pass some of the priciest waterfront real estates in the whole of Turkey. Massive Ukrainian and Russian freighters make for a heavy commercial traffic along the waterway since this is the only shipping link connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
The moment you enter the venerable Spice Market in Istanbul, you will be pleasantly stunned by the exotic range of products on display – the air thick with the all-pervading aroma of spices.
You’ll find everything befitting a Sultan – from saffron and cinnamon to dried vegetables and fruits; from pistachios and hazelnuts to a glut of sweets including the popular Turkish Delight in several delicious flavors.
Sultans, harems, eunuchs, power, and a lot of history is what the 15th-century Topkapi Palace is all about. It was from here that the Ottoman Sultans managed the affairs of their Empire for 400 years.
The palace buildings include a series of courtyards. While the outer ones were used for public affairs like functions and meetings, the inner courtyards were private – none more private than the harem where the Sultan lived with his wives, children, and female slaves
Nothing would be further from the truth than to think, as many do, that the harem was a place for the Sultan’s nefarious activities. It was not! The whole purpose of the harem was to provide future heirs to the Ottoman throne. It had its own set of strictly regulated rules, and even the Sultan was not above them. Well, that’s what they say!
The Palace Museum holds much religious significance among the Muslims as it contains relics of Prophet Mohammed and other prophets as well, some of whom are revered by Christians and Muslims alike.
One of the displays is the Sultan’s exquisite Topkapi Dagger, its hilt studded with dazzling diamonds and golf ball sized emeralds.
For Muslims, the most precious relics are those of Muhammad, his bow and sword, exquisite cases containing his tooth, some hair, and his holy seal.
The Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s centuries-old Grand Bazaar is home to a maze of over 4000 colorful shops and fragrant eateries abuzz with a constant throng of shoppers haggling with resolute shopkeepers during peak business hours.
Centuries ago, this labyrinthine bazaar was a major trade center for the Ottoman Empire. So, important was it to the Ottomans that a hundred soldiers guarded this economic center every night after lockdown.
Away from the main tourist drag of this massive bazaar complex are some trading nooks and corners where currency brokers, dealing in Euros and the Dollars of the world, outshout each other over deals on behalf of clients. It’s the poor man’s Wall Street of sorts.
Not to forget the dazzling jewelry shops that abound here, a proof of the Turks’ love for gold more as a good investment than an ornamental need.
Enough of the Old Town and history! It’s time now to balance the appreciation of Istanbul by exploring its modern, cosmopolitan districts. The city’s single line tramway is the quickest and cheapest transport option between sightseeing areas.
A tram ride from the Old Town, across the lovely Galata Bridge, will take you into the New Town from where a subterranean funicular will take you further up to the heart of modern-day Istanbul, the Taksim Square.
The Republic Monument is a traffic island of statues dedicated to the Father of Modern Turkey – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man behind today’s western-looking Turkey.
The monument shows two sides of Ataturk – the war hero and the civilian Ataturk surrounded by his comrades representing the proclamation of the Republic.
The Istiklal Caddesi is the main shopping boulevard lined on both sides with tempting shops and enticing street food including honey-dripping sweets and the delicious Doner kebabs.
Cafeteria-style restaurants present fresh and traditional Turkish food prepared in home-cooked style.
The best way to experience this urban district is to jump straight into the sea of humanity by walking the entire length of this pedestrian boulevard, soaking up the sights and sounds and stopping from time to time for a quick bite or to buy something that strikes your fancy.
While their flavor and legacy remain preserved in the monuments and landmarks of the time, Turkey, today, is far from the Byzantine and Ottoman days, what with its cosmopolitan mix of some twenty different ethnic groups, including Turks, Kurds, Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, and Gypsies living in near perfect harmony.
Do visit this great European-Asian capital, for the Turks strongly believe that “every guest is a gift from God.”