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Most short-stay visitors spend all their time in Sultanahmet, home of İstanbul’s main sightseeing attractions: the church of Aya Sofya, the greatest legacy of the Byzantine Empire; the Topkapı Palace, heart of the Ottoman Empire and the massive Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque). Here also are the ancient Hippodrome, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (housed in the former Palace of İbrahim Paşa), the eerily-lit Yerebatan Sarnıçı, a fascinating Byzantine underground cistern and the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), the largest covered bazaar in the world. The monumental architecture, attractive parks and gardens, street-side cafes, and the benefits of a relatively traffic-free main road (courtesy of the tramline) combine to make this area pleasant for both sightseeing and staying – but beware of hustlers, particularly of the carpet-selling variety.Read More
For almost a thousand years Aya Sofya, or Haghia Sophia, was the largest enclosed space in the world, designed to impress the strength and wealth of the Byzantine emperors upon their own subjects and visiting foreign dignitaries alike. Superbly located between the Topkapı Palace and Sultanahmet Camii on the ancient acropolis, the first hill of İstanbul, the church dominated the city skyline for a millennium, until the domes and minarets of the city’s mosques began to challenge its eminence in the sixteenth century.
Aya Sofya, “the Church of the Divine Wisdom”, is the third church of this name to stand on the site. Commissioned in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian after its predecessor had been razed to the ground in 532, its architects were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. Prior to their pioneering design, most churches followed the pattern of the rectangular, pitch-roofed Roman basilica or meeting hall. Anthemius and Isidore were to create a building of a type and scale hitherto unknown to the Byzantine world, and no imitation was attempted until the sixteenth century. The mighty thirty-metre dome was unprecedented, and the sheer dimensions of the structure meant that the architects had no sure way of knowing that their plans would succeed. Constructed in five years, the building survived several earthquakes before, some twenty years later, the central dome collapsed. During reconstruction the height of the external buttresses and the dome was increased, and some of the windows blocked, resulting in an interior much gloomier than originally intended.
In 1204 it was ransacked by Catholic soldiers during the Fourth Crusade. Mules were brought in to help carry off silver and gilt carvings and a prostitute was seated on the throne of the patriarch. In 1452, far too late, the Byzantine Church reluctantly accepted union with the Catholics in the hope that Western powers would come to the aid of Constantinople against the Turks. On May 29, 1453, those who had said they would rather see the turban of a Turk than the hat of a cardinal in the streets of Constantinople got their way when the city was captured. Mehmet the Conqueror rode to the church of Aya Sofya and stopped the looting that was taking place. He had the building cleared of relics and he said his first prayer there on the following Friday; this former bastion of the Byzantine Christian Empire was now a mosque.
Extensive restorations were carried out on the mosaics in the mid-nineteenth century by the Swiss Fossati brothers, but due to Muslim sensitivities the mosaics were later covered over again. The building functioned as a mosque until 1932, and in 1934 it was opened as a museum.
Stepping inside Aya Sofya, eyes blinking to adjust to the subdued lighting, inspires a sense of awe in even the least spiritual of visitors. Though essentially a square, the nave, surmounted by its heavenly cupola (far more impressive when viewed from inside rather than outside) is rectangular, culminating at its eastern end in an impressive apse. At each corner of the nave are semicircular niches (exedrae). The galleries, which follow the line of these exedrae around the building, are supported by rows of columns and by four piers, which double as the main support of the dome. The columns supporting the galleries are green antique marble, while those in the upper gallery of the exedrae are Thessalian marble. Upstairs in the western gallery a large circle of green Thessalian marble marks the position of the throne of the empress.
The interior of the church was originally lit by legions of lamps, whose flickering light reflected in the pieces of glass or gold which had been carefully embedded at minutely disparate angles, giving an appearance of movement and life to the mosaics. What remains of the abstract mosaics, and of the large areas of plain gold that covered the underside of the dome and other large expanses of wall and ceiling, dates from the sixth century.
The figurative mosaics, dating from after the Iconoclastic era (726–843), are located in the narthex, the nave, the upper gallery and the vestibule. Some of the most impressive are in the south gallery where there’s a comparatively well-lit mosaic depicting Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist.
On the east wall of the south gallery is a fine mosaic of Christ flanked by an emperor and empress. It is believed that the two figures are those of Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoë, who ruled Byzantium in her own right with her sister Theodora before she married Constantine.
Also in the south gallery is a mosaic dating from 1118, depicting the Virgin and Child between Emperor John II Comnenus and Empress Irene, and their son Prince Alexius, added later. This is a livelier, less conventional work than that of Zoë and Constantine, with faces full of expression: Prince Alexius, who died soon after this portrait was executed, is depicted as a wan and sickly youth, his lined face presaging his premature death.
One of the most beautiful mosaics in the church is a Virgin and Child flanked by two emperors, located in the Vestibule of Warriors. To see it turn around and look upwards after passing through the magnificent Portal of the Emperor. Dated to the last quarter of the tenth century, the mosaic shows Emperor Justinian, to the right of the Virgin, offering a model of Aya Sofya, while Emperor Constantine offers a model of the city of Constantinople.
Also worth noting is the famous brass-clad weeping column, located in the northwest corner of the aisle and usually identifiable by the crowd it attracts. A legend dating from at least 1200 tells how St Gregory the Miracle-worker appeared here and subsequently the moisture seeping from the column has been believed to cure a wide range of conditions.
What is left of the structures from Aya Sofya’s time as a mosque are the mihrab, set in the south wall of the apse, the mimber (pulpit), the sultan’s loge (a raised kiosk allowing the sultan to worship hidden from prying eyes), and most strikingly, the enormous wooden plaques that bear sacred Islamic names of God, the Prophet Mohammed and the first four caliphs. These and the inscription on the dome by the calligrapher Azzet Efendi all date from the time of the restoration by the Fossati brothers.
Commandingly located on the very tip of the promontory on which the Old City of İstanbul is set is the Topkapı Palace. The symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, its sheer opulence defies its origins in the tented encampments of nomadic Turkic warriors. Originally known as Sarayı Cedid, or New Palace, Topkapı was built between 1459 and 1465 as the seat of government of the newly installed Ottoman regime. Similar to the Alhambra of Granada and just as unmissable, the palace consists of a collection of buildings arranged around a series of courtyards and attractive gardens.
The first courtyard and Aya Irene
The first courtyard, the palace’s service area, entered from the street through Mehmet the Conqueror’s Bab-ı Hümayün, the great defensive imperial gate opposite the fountain of Ahmet III, was always open to the general public. The palace bakeries are behind a wall to the right of the courtyard and the buildings of the imperial mint and outer treasury are behind the wall north of the church of Aya Irene. In front of Aya Irene were located the quarters of the straw-weavers and carriers of silver pitchers, around a central courtyard in which the palace firewood was stored.
Today, Aya Irene, “the Church of the Divine Peace”, is only opened for large groups by special request at the Directorate of Aya Sofya, located at the entrance of Aya Sofya, It is also open for concerts, especially in the summer İstanbul music festival. The original church was one of the oldest in the city, but it was rebuilt along with Aya Sofya after being burnt down in the Nika riots of 532.
Ortakapı, the second courtyard and the Divan
To reach the second courtyard you pass through the Bab-üs Selam, “the Gate of Salutations”, otherwise known as the Ortakapı, or middle gate (where the entry fee is collected). Entering through Ortakapı, with the gateway to the third courtyard straight ahead of you, the Privy Stables of Mehmet II (closed to the public) are on your immediate left, while beyond them are the buildings of the Divan and the Inner Treasury and the entrance to the Harem. Opposite the Divan, on the right side of the courtyard, is the kitchen area.
The gardens between the paths radiating from the Ortakapı are planted with ancient cypresses and plane trees, rose bushes and lawns. Originally they would also have been resplendent with peacocks, gazelles and fountains. Running water, considered to have almost mystical properties by Muslims, was supplied in great quantity to the palace from the Byzantine cistern of Yerebatan Sarnıçı. This second courtyard would have been the scene of pageantry during state ceremonies, when the sultan would occupy his throne beneath the Bab-üs Saadet, “the Gate of Felicity”.
Entering the buildings of the Divan, to the left of the courtyard, is a metal grille in the Council Chamber (the first room on the left), called “the Eye of the Sultan”. Through this he could observe the proceedings of the Divan, where the eminent imperial councillors sat in session and which took its name from the couch running around the three walls of the room. The building dates essentially from the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, and the Council Chamber was restored to its sixteenth-century appearance in 1945, with some of the original İznik tiles and arabesque painting. Next to the Divan is another building from Mehmet the Conqueror’s original palace, the Inner Treasury, a six-domed hall with displays of Ottoman and European armour.
Across the courtyard are the palace kitchens and cooks’ quarters, with their magnificent rows of chimneys. The ten kitchens, which had a staff of 1500, all served different purposes, including two just to make sweets and helva.
The third courtyard
As you pass through the Bab-üs Saadet, “the Gate of Felicity”, the Throne Room is immediately in front of you. This building, mainly dating from the reign of Selim I, was where the sultan awaited the outcome of sessions of the Divan in order to give his assent or otherwise to their proposals. The grey marble building at the centre of the third courtyard, the Ahmet III Library, is restrained and sombre compared to his highly decorative fountain outside the gates of the palace.
The room to the right of the gate and throne room and library, southwest of the courtyard, is the Hall of the Expeditionary Force, sometimes referred to as the Hall of the Campaign Pages (Seferli Koğuşu), which houses a collection of embroidery and a very small selection from the imperial costume collection.
The two-storey Imperial Treasury is housed in the rooms that once functioned as the Pavilion of Mehmet II, which takes up most of the southeast side of the third courtyard, to the right of the entrance. This two-storey building, with its colonnaded terrace, boasts the shell-shaped niches, stalactite capitals and pointed window arches so typical of the fifteenth century.
The first room contains a number of highly wrought and extremely beautiful objects, including a delicate silver model of a palace complete with tiny birds in the trees, a present to Abdül Hamid II from Japan. The big crowd-puller in room two is the Topkapı Dagger, which starred alongside Peter Ustinov in the Sunday-matinée classic Topkapi. A present from Mahmut I to Nadir Shah that was waylaid and brought back when news of the shah’s death reached Topkapı, the dagger is decorated with three enormous emeralds, one of which conceals a watch. In the third room is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the fifth largest diamond in the world.
The fourth room boasts a bejewelled throne, and the hand and part of the skull of John the Baptist, but otherwise it’s a relative haven of restraint and good taste. Ivory and sandalwood objects predominate, refreshingly simple materials whose comparative worth is determined by craftsmanship rather than quantity.
Across the courtyard from the Treasury, the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle houses the Rooms of the Relics of the Prophet, holy relics brought home by Selim the Grim after his conquest of Egypt in 1517. The relics were originally viewed only by the sultan, his family and his immediate entourage on days of special religious significance. They include a footprint, hair and a tooth of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as his mantle and standard, swords of the first four caliphs and a letter from the Prophet to the leader of the Coptic tribe.
The fourth courtyard
The fourth courtyard is entered through a passageway running between the Hall of the Treasury and the display of clocks and watches in the Silahdar Treasury. It consists of several gardens, each graced with pavilions, the most attractive of which are located around a wide marble terrace beyond the tulip gardens of Ahmet III.
The Baghdad Köşkü, the cruciform building to the north of the terrace, is the only pavilion presently open to the public. It was built by Murat IV to celebrate the conquest of Baghdad in 1638. The exterior and cool, dark interior are tiled in blue, turquoise and white, and the shutters and cupboard doors are inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. If you think this is redolent of unseemly excess, take a look at the attractive pool and marble fountain on the terrace, scene of debauched revels among İbrahim I and the women of his harem. Deli İbrahim, or İbrahim the Mad, emerged dangerously insane from 22 years in the Cage, his reign culminating in a fit of sexual jealousy when he ordered death by drowning in the Bosphorus for the 280 concubines of his harem – only one of them lived to tell the tale, picked up by a passing French ship and taken to Paris.
The Circumcision Köşkü, in the Portico of Columns above the terrace, also dates from the reign of İbrahim the Mad. The exterior is covered in prime-period İznik tiles of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the other end of the Portico of Columns is the Revan Köşkü, built to commemorate the capture of Erivan in the Caucasus by Mehmet IV.
The Mecidiye Köşkü – the last building to be erected at Topkapı – commands the best view of any of the Topkapı pavilions. It’s been opened as the expensive Konyali café and on a clear day from its garden terrace you can identify most of the buildings on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus.
It is well worth visiting the Harem as many visitors (put off by the steep extra entrance fee) give it a miss, often leaving it relatively uncrowded. The word “harem” means “forbidden” in Arabic; in Turkish it refers to a suite of apartments in a palace or private residence where the head of the household lived with his wives, odalisques (female slaves) and children. Situated on the north side of the Second Court, it consisted of over four hundred rooms, centred on the suites of the sultan and his mother, the Valide Sultan.
The Harem was connected to the outside world by means of the Carriage Gate, so called because the odalisques would have entered their carriages here when they went on outings. To the left of the Carriage Gate as you enter the Harem is the Barracks of the Halberdiers of the Long Tresses, who carried logs and other loads into the Harem. The Halberdiers, who also served as imperial guardsmen, were only employed at certain hours and even then they were blinkered. The Carriage Gate and the Aviary Gate were both guarded by black eunuchs, who were responsible for running the Harem.
The Court of the Black Eunuchs, dates mainly from a rebuilding programme begun after the great fire of 1665, which damaged most of the Harem as well as the Divan. The tiles in the eunuchs’ quarters date from the seventeenth century, suggesting that the originals were destroyed in the fire. The Altın Yol or Golden Road ran the entire length of the Harem, from the quarters of the Black Eunuchs to the fourth courtyard. Strategically located at the beginning of the Golden Road were the apartments of the Valide Sultan, also rebuilt after 1665. They include a particularly lovely domed dining room.
Beyond the Valide Sultan’s apartments are the apartments and reception rooms of the selâmlik, the sultan’s own rooms. The largest and grandest of them is the Hünkar Sofrası, the Imperial Hall, where the sultan entertained visitors. Another important room in this section is a masterwork of the architect Sinan: the bedchamber of Murat III, covered in sixteenth-century İznik tiles.
The northernmost rooms of the Harem are supported by immense piers and vaults, providing capacious basements that were used as dormitories and storerooms. Below the bedchamber is a large indoor swimming pool, with taps for hot and cold water, where Murat is supposed to have thrown gold to women who pleased him. Next to the bedchamber is the light and airy library of Ahmet I, with windows overlooking both the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn; beyond this is the dining room of Ahmet III, whose walls are covered in wood panelling painted with bowls of fruit and flowers, typical of the extravagant tulip-loving sultan.
It’s usual to depart from the Harem by way of the Aviary Gate, or Kuşhane Kapısı, into the Third Court.
Sultanahmet Camii: the Blue Mosque
Sultanahmet Camii: the Blue Mosque
On the southeastern side of the Hippodrome is the monumental Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque. With its six minarets, imposing bulk and commanding position on the skyline of old İstanbul, it is one of the most famous and visited monuments in the city. Viewed from the all-important approach from the Topkapı Palace, it is a striking mass of shallow domes, half-domes and domed turrets, but its most striking profile is from the Sea of Marmara where, elevated above the hillside, it totally dominates its surroundings.
Before construction began under architect Mehmet Ağa, in 1609, objections were raised to the plan of a mosque with six minarets on the grounds that it would be unholy to rival the six minarets of the mosque at Mecca. More importantly, it would be a drain on state resources already in a parlous state following a succession of (unsuccessful) wars with Austria and Persia. But Sultanahmet I, after whom the mosque is named, was determined to try and outdo his predecessors even if it meant bankrupting his empire – he even helped dig the foundations himself.
There are two entrances to the mosque’s prayer hall; at the side facing the Aya Sofya (always very busy) or (despite the notices asking you to do otherwise) through the large beautifully proportioned courtyard to the northwest – itself best entered through the graceful main (southwest) portal. Make sure you are suitably covered (limbs for men and women, heads for women) and take off your shoes and put them in the plastic bag provided.
Inside, four “elephant foot” pillars (so called because of their size) of five metres in diameter impose their disproportionate dimensions on the interior – particularly the dome which is smaller and shallower than that of Sinan’s İstanbul masterpiece, the nearby Süleymaniye Camii. The name “Blue Mosque” derives from the mass (over 20,000) of predominantly blue İznik tiles which adorn the interior, though much of the “blue” is, in fact, stencilled paintwork. The glass in the numerous arched windows was originally mainly coloured Venetian bottle glass, but this has now been replaced by poor-quality modern windows.
At the northeast corner of the Sultanahmet complex is the richly decorated and elegant royal pavilion, approached by ramp and giving access to the sultan’s loge inside the mosque – the ramp meant that the sultan could ride his horse right up to the door of his chambers. The royal pavilion now houses a Museum of Carpets, which traces the history of Turkish carpets through the ages and includes some ancient, priceless pieces.
Outside the precinct wall to the northwest of the mosque is the türbe or tomb of Sultan Ahmet, decorated, like the mosque, with seventeenth-century İznik tiles. Buried here along with the sultan are his wife and three of his sons, two of whom (Osman II and Murat IV) ruled in their turn.