Istanbul sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. As a matter of fact, the city straddles the boundary between the two continents, with its western end part of Europe and its eastern side in Asia. Formerly known as Constantinople and Byzantium, this city was also the capital of the Roman Empire from 306 AD until the fall of the Empire.
Istanbul occupies a strategic location at the mouth of the Bosporus strait, where it joins the Sea of Marmara, an entry into the Aegean Sea and further into the Mediterranean. To the north the Bosporus empties into the Black Sea.
It is a huge city, with a population of around 13,000,000. Because of its location, it is also a cultural crossroads and the population is extremely diverse. The major tourist attractions are located on the European side of the Bosporus.
They include the Hagia Sophia, built by the Roman Emperor, Justinian, in 532-537 AD. Hagia (or Aya) Sophia, is located west of the Bosporus, the strait which divides Asia from Europe. It began as a church, became a mosque after the fall of the Roman Empire, and is now a museum. It was one of the most important and largest churches in the world. It sported the largest dome in the world until St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was completed. The inside is positively huge, covering an area of about 4 acres, and contains fabulous mosaics, dating from the 10th century. The current building dates from the time of Justinian and was completed in 537 AD. The minarets were much more recent additions, recalling the Turkish conquest of what was then Constantinople. There is still debate today about whether the Aya Sophia is a church or a mosque.
The Blue Mosque, reputed by many to be the most beautiful mosque in the world, is located next to the Hippodrome, part of the old Roman section of Istanbul. It is called the Blue Mosque because its interior is covered in blue tiles and mosaics. It is truly spectacular. The visitor must remove his/her shoes and females must cover their heads during their visit. Also, shorts are not allowed. The floors are carpeted and lights hang from the high ceilings by wires. The Mihrab, the most sacred part of the mosque, the area which points the worshipper in the direction of Mecca, is gold and intricately decorated. The interior is huge and is sometimes host to 25,000 devotees for prayer service. The Blue Mosque is one of only two mosques in the world with six minarets (the other is in Mecca).
Topkapi Palace, another of the major sights of Istanbul, was the residence of the Ottoman sultans from the 1400’s to the 19th century. During their heyday, they ruled an empire which stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean, from North Africa to the Crimean Peninsula. The palace complex is basically a city within a city, with interconnected courtyards and kiosks along with other buildings. Within its walls were typically between 4000 and 7000 people who resided here and/or served the household. The complex stands at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and the Golden Horn and offers spectacular views over the water.
Entry is through the Imperial Gate which accesses the First Court, now a public park lined with flowers and trees. At the end of this court are the ticket booths and the Executioner’s Fountain, where important enemies were beheaded.
Entry into the Second Court is through the Gate of Salutations. Its two towers were used as dungeons to imprison those awaiting execution. The Palace Kitchens, to the right, upon entering this court, are a series of rooms which now house a collection of Chinese, Japanese, and European porcelain. The kitchens once prepared food for upwards of 10,000 people. On the opposite side of this court are the Armoury, which displays weapons from Islamic empires, and the Council Chamber, where policy meetings were held (the sultan’s cubicle is directly above and he could listen in on the meetings to keep tabs on his officials). Also in this court is the Harem, where the palace women were sequestered. Harem tours require separate tickets and should be booked immediately upon arrival to insure a place.
The Gate of Felicity marks the entrance into the Third Court. The most impressive attraction in this court is the Treasury, which contains unbelievable wealth in gold and jewels, including an 86-carat diamond (the “Spoonmaker”), the “throne of Ahmet III” which is inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother of pearl, set with rubies and emeralds, and the Topkapi Dagger which is set with huge emeralds (this item recalls the film, “Topkapi” which starred Melina Mercouri). Also in the Third Court is the Pavilion of the Sacred Relics, one room of which contains the Door of Repentance, taken from the holy Kaaba of Mecca. The second room houses objects associated with Mohammed, such as his footprint, hair, mantle and sword.
The Fourth Court contains the kiosks, or summer houses, in its gardens and leads to balconies overlooking the waterways mentioned earlier.
The Grand (Covered) Bazaar is the ultimate shopping experience, the largest mall in the world with over 3,000 shops selling just about everything imaginable. There are “streets” of jewelry shops, rug shops, ceramics, etc. Haggling is expected and required in order to get a bargain. Just strolling through the tunnel-like lanes is an eye-popping experience.
Other sights worthy of attention are the Spice Market, where an incredible variety of spices can be purchased in any quantity, and the Hippodrome, a relic of the city’s Roman chariot-racing days, which today contains several Egyptian obelisks (one dating to 1500 BC) as well as a relic from the Delphic Oracle/Temple of Apollo.
1. Stroll down Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian-only street in the Beyoglu section of the city for shopping and dining opportunities. It runs roughly north to south from Taksim Square, a huge gathering place where frequent demonstrations and other events occur, almost to the Golden Horn, the waterway which separates the ancient city from the more modern areas.
2. Take a cruise of the Bosporus (boats leave frequently from a dock at the entrance to the Golden Horn, across from the Spice Market) for a look at the Asian side of the city and a peek at the Black Sea.