Most short-stay visitors spend all their time in Sultanahmet, home to 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 Sarnıcı, 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 cafés, and the benefits of a relatively traffic-free main road combine to make this area pleasant for both sightseeing and staying – but beware of hustlers, particularly the carpet-selling variety.
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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. The mighty 30m-plus diameter dome was unprecedented, and no imitation was attempted until the sixteenth century. 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. The dome collapsed again in 989 and was rebuilt in its final form by an Armenian architect, Tridat.
In 1204, Aya Sofya 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 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.
Five large portals pierce the western wall of Aya Sofya. The central Orea Porta or “Beautiful Gate” was reserved for the imperial entourage. Beyond it, the outer narthex or vestibule is a long cross-vaulted corridor where display boards outline the history of the site.
Five further doors lead through into the inner narthex, with a vaulted ceiling covered in gold mosaic and walls embellished with beautiful marble panels. The central portal to the nave is the Imperial Gate, above which a superb mosaic depicts a seated Christ Pantocrator (the All Powerful) holding an open book showing a Greek inscription that reads “Peace be upon you, I am the light of the world”. Grovelling to Christ’s right, Emperor Leo IV begs forgiveness for having married more times than was permitted under Church law.
The nave awes by the sheer sense of space created by the heavenly dome, some 32m in diameter and 55m above floor level. Pierced by forty windows, its scale is cleverly exaggerated by the addition of half-domes to west and east. The tympanum walls to the south and north also emphasize the height of the building, especially as they are studded with rows of large, arched windows. 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 massive piers, which provide the main support for the dome.
In the northwest corner of the aisle is the weeping column. A legend dating from at least 1200 tells how St Gregory the Miracle-worker appeared here – the moisture subsequently seeping from the column has been believed to cure a wide range of conditions. Diagonally opposite, to the right of the apse, the circular marble-inlay panel in the floor is the omphalos, marking the spot where Byzantine emperors were crowned. The huge half-dome of the apse itself contains a ninth-century mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Christ seated on her lap. 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.
When the building became a mosque, several new features were added to suit its new purpose. Still visible today are the mihrab, slightly offset in the apse, a mimber (pulpit), a sultan’s loge, and the enormous wooden plaques that bear sacred Islamic names of God, the Prophet Mohammed, the first four caliphs and the Prophet’s grandchildren Hasan and Hussein.
The upper galleries
To reach the upper galleries of Aya Sofya, head up the sloping ramp at the northern end of the inner narthex. Proceed across the western gallery, past the circle of green Thessalian marble that marked the throne of the empress, then turn left and pass through the gap in a marble screen into the south gallery. All the figurative mosaics in Aya Sofya date from after the Iconoclastic era (726–843). Among the finest is a Deisis scene to the right of the marble screen, depicting Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist. Opposite this, scratched into the balustrade running around the inside of the gallery, is some Viking runic graffiti.
The east wall of the south gallery holds a mosaic of Christ flanked by an emperor and empress. The inscriptions over their heads read “Zoë, the most pious Augusta” and “Constantine in Christ, the Lord Autocrat, faithful Emperor of the Romans, Monomachus”. It is believed that the two figures are Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoë. The other mosaic in the south gallery, dating from 1118, depicts the Virgin and Child between Emperor John II Comnenus and Empress Irene, and their son Prince Alexius, added later.
- Topkapi Palace
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque
The monumental Blue Mosque, more properly known as the Sultanahmet Camii, dominates the southeastern side of the Hippodrome. 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 forms 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, there were objections that planning a mosque with six minarets would be an unholy attempt to rival the six minarets of the mosque at Mecca. More importantly, it would drain state resources, already in a parlous state following wars with Austria and Persia. But Sultanahmet I, after whom the mosque is named, was determined to outdo his predecessors, even if it meant bankrupting his empire – he even helped dig the foundations himself.
Visiting the mosque
The mosque is best approached from the attractive and graceful northwest, Hippodrome-facing side, from where an eleborate portal leads into the beautiful courtyard. Surrounded by a portico of thirty small domes, this has the same dimensions as the mosque itself. It’s also possible to enter the courtyard from the Aya Sofya side of the mosque, through the northeast portal.
Only practising Muslims are permitted to enter the prayer-hall itself via the main southwest-facing door. If you are not a Muslim, and wish to go inside, exit the courtyard of the mosque via the southwest portal, then bear left along the outside of the mosque to reach a side door, where there is often a sizeable queue. Here you must remove your shoes and put them in a plastic bag (provided).
Inside, four “elephant foot” pillars, so called because of their 5m diameter, impose their disproportionate dimensions on the interior – particularly the dome, which is smaller and shallower than that of Ottoman master architect Sinan’s İstanbul masterpiece, the nearby Süleymaniye Camii. The name “Blue Mosque” derives from the mass (over twenty thousand) of predominantly blue İznik tiles that adorn the interior, though much of the “blue” is, in fact, stencilled paintwork. Most of the glass in the numerous arched windows was originally coloured Venetian bottle glass, but this has now been replaced by poor-quality modern windows.
The richly decorated royal pavilion, approached by ramp at the northeast corner of the complex, gives access to the sultan’s loge inside the mosque. The ramp enabled the sultan to ride his horse right up to the door of his chambers.