So much has been written about Istanbul sights and monuments that it is a waste of time writing something original about it. So I will let internet do the teaching and my photos do the ogling. Naturally, there will be a few tidbits about my feelings. Quite a few of these photos will be in the form of a slideshow. Do watch please.
The two most famous sights in Istanbul – Blue Mosque and Ayasofya – are on either side of the Sultanahmet Square. The Hippodrome is also around the corner and the Basilica Cistern just a bit further away. The Topkapi Palace is probably 1-2 tram stops away but it is a walkable distance as well.
The Dolmbahce Palace (in the Beşiktaş district) is also not in the Sultanahmet area but a tram takes you close enough after which you have to walk a bit. The queues are really long and so, you may not be able to do justice to two of them in one day, unless your second place of interest is the Cistern. The Chora Church (in the Edirnekapı neighborhood) is in a totally different direction and a bit off route – so you may want to club it with the Bosphorus cruise.
If you are a museum addict and have a lot of time, you may want to buy a Museum Pass which will save you a lot of time and money. The 3 must-see museums are Hagia Sophia, Topkapi and the lesser-known but very beautiful Chora Church. You also have to plan your museum visits as they are not open all 7 days.
This one left me awestruck! Although there was restoration work going on, the magnificence of this structure left me spellbound. Without a doubt, it was the highlight of my tour. The confluence of cultures is also best reflected in this architectural wonder. For a detailed explanation of its architecture, watch this Khan Academy video.
The Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers and they decided to convert it into a mosque.
There are many important monuments in İstanbul, but this venerable structure – which was commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935 – surpasses the rest due to its innovative architectural form, rich history, religious importance and extraordinary beauty.
This is the most interesting part. The altered mihrab is not exactly between the 2 candle stands but a little more to the right. Coincidentally, the church had a positional advantage which helped the Islamic conversion easier!
There are 4 seraphim mosaics ( God’s protector angels with 6 wings) on the 4 pendentives that carry the dome. The 4 seraphims’ faces were covered with 6-7 layers of plaster for almost 160 years during the sovereignty of Ottomans. The last person who saw the faces of the Seraphims was the Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati while he was holding the restoration at Hagia Sophia in 1840s. With a 10 day hard work, experts managed to take off the 7 layers of plasters and reveal the face of one of the seraphims. The certain age of the mosaics is unclear however they are known to be older than 700 years.
And there are those mind boggling mosaic work.
Topkapı is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world’s museums put together. Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire. A visit to the palace’s opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury and sprawling Harem gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives.
As advised, we started from the harem. Quite a fascinating tour! Also discovered what a vital part eunuchs played in the lives of the sultans.
From the harem, we went to the Imperial Council room.
The Sultan also had a magnificent view of the Bosphorus from his private balcony.
The Baghdad Pavilion of his residence was quite fetching.
This one will send a shiver down most male spines: The Circumcision Room.
Finally we got out of the palace past the royal kitchen.
As we were coming out, we saw another group getting ready for their guided tour. Outside the gates, a vendor was selling some gooey candies. The Turks have an incorrigible sweet tooth that can rival even the Bengalis.
CHORA CHURCH/KARIYE MUZESI
I am so happy to discover this little gem from my research. My Turkish friends too had never heard of this place but being locals, helped me find this place which I may not have otherwise been able to. They happily accompanied me in a cab and were as astonished to find this treasure trove. They have audio guides to assist you there.
İstanbul has more than its fair share of Byzantine monuments, but few are as drop-dead gorgeous as this mosaic- and fresco-laden church. Nestled in the shadow of Theodosius II’s monumental land walls and now a museum overseen by the curators of Aya Sofya, it receives a fraction of the visitor numbers that its big sister the famous Aya Sofya attracts but offers equally fascinating insights into Byzantine art. Parts of the museum were closed for renovation as of 2016; check which are open before visiting.
The mosaic below shows the birth of Christ – the bound feet indicate that Mary is a virgin. Baptism is shown on the bottom left.
Shown below is very rare depiction of Christ as a foetus. The angels on the side symbolize divinity.
More of these stunning ancient mosaics.
The Nativity is just one of the beautiful scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin found in Chora. You could teach a whole Bible class just by walking around and pointing at the mosaics in this beautiful church: besides The Nativity, there are, The Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple, The Annunciation, The Flight into Egypt, The Miracle at Cana, Christ Healing the Leper, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Christ Healing the Blind Man, Christ Healing the Paralytic, The Temptation of Christ, The Resurrection, treasures all.
Read about more details here. Meanwhile, enjoy the slideshow.
Evidence of destruction during the Fourth Crusade is visible everywhere, although serious restoration work was in progress.
Now look at the other walls filled with some magnificent frescoes.
This cistern has a very interesting history but then what in Istanbul doesn’t? It was named so as it lay underneath Stoa Basilica, the grand Byzantine public square. It got closed when the Byzantine emperors shifted their royal residence. It was then forgotten for centuries until getting accidentally rediscovered in 1545 by Petrus Gyllius during his research on Byzantine antiquities. He noticed that people in that area collected water, curiously by dipping their buckets through holes in their basement. Sometimes, they even managed to catch fish! Even after this startling discovery, the Ottomans didn’t do much and it became a dumping ground for all sorts of junk, including corpses.
Do not forget to walk up to the far left-hand corner of the cistern, to see the two very interesting Medusa-head column bases. One is positioned upside down, while the other is placed sideways. Why they are placed this way continues to be a mystery. According to an unconfirmed fact, they were recycled from a building of the late Roman period.
A couple of things I missed out due to bad luck/timing.
SULTAN AHMED CAMII/BLUE MOSQUE
It was commissioned in the beginning of the 17th century by Sultan Ahmed I to reaffirm Ottoman power. He wanted this mosque to surpass the splendour of Hagia Sophia and so wanted six minarets to be built. Its popular name comes from the “blue color Iznik tiles inside the mosque with its emerald and turquoise hues. The high ceilings are lined up with over 20,000 handmade blue tiles made in the 17th century in Iznik, the ancient Nicaea, so famous for its fine ceramic designs featuring flowers, trees and abstracts patterns.”
However, I did not manage to get inside the mosque – it closed down for 2 hours for the noon prayers before my turn came (in the very very long queue), and I had to catch a flight in the afternoon. Enjoy the stunning visuals here that another lucky and better photographer got to capture.
Built in the 19th century, this was one of the most glamorous palaces in the world with its huge chandeliers and crystal staircase made by Baccarat. It is closed on Mondays and Thursdays – please plan carefully as we had to return very disappointed on a Thursday. So, all we got to see was this. You may explore this link to get an idea of its grand interiors.