BEST OF ISTANBUL
EAST MEETS WEST IN ISTANBUL, ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT CITIES. HERE ARE SEVEN MUST-SEE SIGHTS
T he haunting, age-old invocation to worship from a hundred minarets mixes with clanging tram bells, western rap music and the commercial bellow of hawkers.
In this city of 13 million people, situated where Europe meets Asia, the sounds and sights overwhelm the senses and I am left bewildered but excited.
I have arrived with high expectations and already these have been blown away.
This is one of the world’s great cities. It’s exotic, cosmopolitan, surprisingly friendly and culturally stunning. While the city is strongly Muslim, I see Western-dressed kids in flashy cocktail bars, and women in head-to-toe chadors walking in and out of Starbucks and McDonald’s.
I look around. Within sight are mosques, churches, palaces, Roman ruins, markets and amazing views over the Bosporus. This was the centre of the world and capital of both Christian and Islamic empires for 1600 years and it shows. Constantinople has left many reminders which can be enjoyed today. These are some of the highlights.
1. AYA SOFYA
The 1500-year-old Aya Sofya was once the greatest church in the world, then after the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks it became a mosque and Islamic additions were made inside and outside which can still be seen today. In 1935, it became a museum and remains so today. For 1000 years, this building had the largest dome and was the largest enclosed space on the planet. It is stunning. My wife and I wander around amazed by what we see, then spend ages looking at the best of the glittering mosaics lurking in the galleries upstairs.
2. BLUE MOSQUE (SULTAN AHMET MOSQUE)
The Hippodrome is the site of a 2000-yearold Roman stadium. Little remains but it now forms a park and a fitting entrance to the attractive Blue Mosque. It is so named because of the beautiful blue Iznik tiles decorating the interior. It was built by Sultan Ahmet from 1609 to 1616. Size is what impresses here and the interior, except for its 20,000 blue tiles, is rather gloomy and sterile. It is open all day except during prayer times and should be on every visitor’s list.
3. TOPKAPI PALACE
Next is the Topkapi Palace, the centre of power for the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. The many buildings are arranged around a series of courtyards on a spectacular site. Sultan Mehmet began to build Topkapi Palace in 1459 and it became home to generations of sultans and their wives, who were closeted in the famous harem. The palace is divided into four courtyards. The first has three buildings that you must see: Aya Eirine, the mint/outer treasury of the Ottoman Empire, and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The second courtyard served as the working section of the palace. The third courtyard has the audience hall for visitors to the Sultan and there are also rooms displaying ceremonial dresses, holy relics, portraits of the sultans, a library and the treasury. The fourth court is more of a garden than a courtyard.
4. SPICE BAZAAR
Nowhere are the city’s Eastern roots seen better than at the Spice Bazaar, which is filled with the fragrance of the exotic East. Spices, dried fruits, cheeses, sausages, teas, jams, nuts, Turkish Delight and other edibles fill most of the shops. It is busy, colourful, fragrant and crowded. But even here things are changing. You can buy T-shirts with “I love New York” on them and see bright signs in Japanese, Chinese and Spanish. The main entrance to the Spice Bazaar is via an archway off the pigeon-infested plaza next to the New Mosque near Galata Bridge. It is open from 8.30am to 6.30pm every day.
5. CHORA CHURCH
Although it is somewhat difficult to get here except by taxi, the restored Chora Church near the old city walls offers a stunning glimpse of late Byzantine splendour. Its walls and ceilings are adorned with glittering mosaics and breathtaking frescoes and there is a sense of history everywhere you look. Like Aya Sofya, it has made the journey from Byzantine church to Ottoman mosque and then to modern museum. It stands in a neighbourhood of restored Ottoman wooden houses, prettily painted in pastel colours which will appeal to all photographers and lovers of architecture.
6. GRAND BAZAAR
The Grand Bazaar, a bewildering home to 4000 shops, is colourful, confusing and utterly fascinating. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It slowly evolved but by the beginning of the 17th century the Grand Bazaar had achieved its final shape. Today, it must fight the competition of the giant malls built everywhere in Istanbul, but its beauty and history give it a formidable advantage particularly with visitors. When you visit, get ready to swap friendly banter with the hundreds of shopkeepers who will try to lure you into their establishments. We look at carpets, clothing, jewellery and ceramics without buying. We are greeted with cups of tea and graciousness completely unexpected. Though there’s no doubt it’s a tourist trap for visitors, it’s also a place where business deals are done between locals, and where import/ export businesses flourish. The Grand Bazaar is open each day except Sundays and bank holidays from 9am until 7pm.
7. UNDERGROUND CISTERN
The city’s most unexpectedly romantic attraction, the Basilica Cistern, offers an insight into the complicated system that once brought drinking water into the city. This is a great underground chamber which was used as the Byzantine city’s main water storage. After the conquest of the city by the Ottoman Turks, it was forgotten about and few knew that it existed until it was rediscovered in 1545. Today, it is an atmospheric underground cavern with beautiful arches and Roman support columns with opportunities for great photographs. James Bond fans will remember it from one of the early movies. Don’t miss the upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one column.
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