Even more magical and a lot cleaner than I remembered from my last visit 12 years ago, Istanbul is enchanting. The Old City remains much as it was. Must-sees are the World Heritage sites – Saint Sophıa, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and the Grand Bazaar.
Built in only 5 years (532-537 AD) by Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles for the emperor Justinian I, Saint Sophia is the finest and most famous example of BYZANTINE architecture in the world. Four minarets were been added to St.Sophia (Hagia Sophia), after Ottomans captured Constantinople at 1453. Today it is neither a Church nor a Mosque, but rather a museum. It is located just in heart of the old city, next to the Blue Mosque in the Sultan Ahmet Square.
Sultan Ahmet I ordered Architect Mehmed Aga to begin construction of the Blue Mosque in 1609. The whole complex was completed in 1616. The location of the mosque is just opposite of the splendid Church of Saint Sophia and competes with it. Architect Mehmed wanted to build a bigger dome then Hagia Sophia’s but he failed. Instead, he made the mosque splendid by the perfect proportion of domes and semi-domes as well as the splendid minarets.
An interesting anecdote about the mosque says that the Sultan wanted a minaret made of gold (altin in Turkish). The architect misunderstood him as alti which means “six” in English. Fortunately for the architect, who was worried he might be beheaded for the error, the Sultan took a liking to the minarets. Prior to that time, no sultan had a mosque with 6 minarets.
Apart from brief intervals, Topkapi Palace was home to all the Ottoman sultans until the reign of Abdulmecid I (1839-1860), a period of nearly four centuries. Over the years the palace complex underwent constant evolution. Some buildings disappeared, destroyed by fire, earthquakes or demolished to make way for new buildings. The palace was therefore not a single massive building in the western tradition, constructed at one go, but an organic structure which was never static, and reflected the styles and tastes of many periods in many independent units with individual functions.
The last new building to be added to Topkapi was commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid who abandoned Topkapi for a new palace on the Bosphorus. Neglected thereafter, Topkapi Palace fell into disrepair. After the establishment of the Republic in 1923 it was extensively renovated and transformed into a museum, and ever since has been one of Istanbul’s most popular sights.
Also of interest is the Yerebatan Cistern – a vast underground water storage tank originally built by Constantine the Great – and later enlarged by Justinian in the 6th century. This underground cistern is the largest of sixty cisterns built in Istanbul during Byzantine times.
The cisterns, with their majestic 336 marble columns, served as water storage to allow the city to survive long sieges. Yerebatan is 18 meters high and about 10,000 square meters in area and capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water.
The cistern was largely neglected after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Used in the filming of the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love, Yerebatan Cistern had become a muddy and smelly subterranean ruin until it was cleaned up and opened up in 1987.
The area between Topkapi and the Cisterns houses old Ottoman-style wood houses in a myriad of colors. It is truly charming. Most of these neighborhoods were destroyed in the mid-twentieth century in the name of progress – fortunately, a few survived and give one an idea of how charming the city must have been.
For hotels in the old city, the top is the Four Seasons Sultanahmet. What was in the mid-20th century a neoclassic Turkish prison, the hôtel is just steps away from the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. With just 65 guest rooms and suites around an open courtyard, it offers city charm with the comforts of home.