Where the East Meets the West: Istanbul, not Constantinople

About a year ago, my long-time friend Meagan suggested we meet in the one country that has a foot in both Europe and in Asia, reminiscent of our current standing of her teaching English in Europe and me likewise in Asia. While it had been a bit hard to plan on my end, what with Chinese schedules being unpredictable and constantly changing, we were able to go to Turkey this February!

The only downside to coming to Istanbul in the winter was that it was pretty cold and dreary for the most part. We did have one nice day of sunshine! However, that didn’t matter over our combined excitement and happiness of actually being there!

Turkey’s always been a country I’d wanted to visit. A big reason for this is that during my later childhood years, I was particularly fascinated by the conquering of Constantinople. My father had bought the animated movie, Fatih, for me that showed the events from the Ottoman’s perspective (I actually found youtube has the full version for free). Admittedly, it’s a heavily biased children’s cartoon looking back now, but as a kid it made a huge impact on me. It was mind-blowing to watch the soldiers’ ingenuity in digging under moats and secretly bringing ships overland. My mom also had a close Turkish friend onbase when I was younger, who taught us about some of her culture. Later on, during undergrad, I had the privilege of taking some classes on early Islamic history and Middle East 101 where I was able to further learn about the different Caliphates that affected Turkey down through Atatürk’s revolutionary work. I’d daydreamed about coming to Istanbul in my more secular adulthood, walking the steps of history and learning about all that’s happened there; so when Meagan offered her suggestion, I jumped at the idea!

Meagan and I stayed in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, the old city center on a peninsula that was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985. This was THE prime location to be, as we were in walking distance of most of the city’s famous attractions.

This is a small breakdown of some the sites we visited in Istanbul during our stay here:

Hagia Sophia

When Justinian saw completed it for the first time he is said to have uttered the phrase “Solomon, I have surpassed you” (Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών). 

Commissioned as a church in 532 A.D. by Emperor Justinian, this beautiful structure was designed by mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and physicist Isidore of Miletus as an Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Capital of Constantinople. The Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: Ἁγία ΣοφίαIt) was built by more than ten thousand laborers and survived two huge earthquakes.  After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, this “church of divine wisdom” was converted into an imperial mosque by the Ottoman Empire with the addition of four minarets and later türbes (Islamic mausoleums).  President Atatürk signed the building into the museum it is now in 1935.

Awe-inspiring high vaulted ceilings rose above us as we entered through the building’s big gates. Surprisingly still-vibrant frescoes and mosaics lined the walls and covered every archway.  We circled around the main room before heading upstairs to appreciate even more artwork.

I was surprised at how much Byzantine-era art was left, honestly, I assumed after the conquest the Ottoman rulers would have scrubbed the place of all former imagery of the Hagia’s use as a church, or maybe it was kept as reverence or to show off what they’ve won?

Walking around the inside of the Hagia felt incredible. It was a dream come true just to walk around and take in all of the history and the splendor of what remains, and there was so much to see! I would love to come back just to have another look at all the amazing artwork.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque sits directly opposite to the Hagia Sophia.

When we initially went to visit the Blue Mosque, we forgot that it was closed all morning until 2:30pm for Friday prayers. Visiting is free, one only needs to wear modest clothing and cover their hair (if you’re a girl). They do provide blue blanket-like shawls for those who come unprepared. Meagan and I waited and had lunch before coming back to see if it was open.

Shame! Shame!

We weren’t the only ones as it was packed when we came. We followed the crowd into the gorgeous inner courtyard to a separate entrance for visitors. After waiting in line, we were given plastic bags to put our shoes in. Some tourists got in trouble for trying to simply tie the bags around their shoes while wearing them or for laying their shoes on the rugs.

Inside the mosque was beautiful. There were wall-sized explanations as to which prayers were written into the painted circles and half circles under the domes of the ceiling. I was sad at how small the section for women who wanted to pray there was, but it’s still one of the most beautiful masjids I’ve seen.

Topkapi Palace

This enormous palace was the Imperial residence of Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years! We had a great time walking around the grounds, enjoying the grandeur of the gardens and the architecture.

Much of the exhibits prohibited photography, including those with armor, artwork, relics, etc. I must admit, I do get a certain pleasure telling off in Chinese the throngs of Chinese tourists who tried to sneak photos and then claim they didn’t see the multitude of signs plastered everywhere.

We spent a good few hours here. There were some displays that supposedly showed relics of past prophets, like Moses’ staff and David’s sword from the David vs. Goliath battle.

My favorite exhibits were the imperial library and walking through the many gigantic kitchens used to feed all the palace’s inhabitants.

Basilica Cistern

Who doesn’t like creepy dark underground walkways?

The Basilia Cistern, the “Underground Palace” aka the largest ancient cistern under Istanbul, has an area of about 9,800 sq meters (105,000 sq feet).  Like the Hagia Sophia, it was also built during the Justinian era in 532 A.D. to supply water to nearby buildings via aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea. It was rediscovered in 1545 by scholar Petrus Gyllius when he was told that local residents were able to obtain water (and sometimes fish) from below their basement floors. However, over the centuries following it was used as more of a trash dump (even for corpses!) until it was cleaned and opened to the public in the 80s.

The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 metres (30 ft) high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 5 metres (16 ft) apart.  I enjoyed the story of “the crying column” that leaks water in memory of the slaves who died building this place.

 The cistern was intriguing, albeit smelly. Eerie mystical music and gently glowing lights illuminating the marble columns added to the atmosphere as you followed along  a dark boardwalk. It’s a bit chilling to realize how seedy it must have been down here back in the day with bodies and whatnot just being thrown in. While we were not allowed to explore the whole area, what we did see was interesting. The highlight of the museum were the two stone medusa heads at the base of two pillars toward the end of the route!

Rumeli Fortress

Rumeli Fortress

Meagan and I traveled to Rumeli Hisari on one of the many Bosphorus cruises hanging out at the docks near Galata Bridge. Meaning “Fortress in the Land of the Romans,” Sultan Mehmet II’s fortress was also called the “Throat Cutter” for its intended purpose of cutting off any maritime aid to the Byzantines during the siege.

A battalion of 400 Janissaries was once stationed here.

After the Ottomans won, the fortress was used mostly as a prison for foreign POWs and then as a customs check point. Nowadays it hosts seasonal music festivals and other special events.

Next post I’ll touch on the Archaeology Museum, Mosaic Museum, Grand Bazaar, Hippodrome, Pillar of Constantine, Column of Delphi/Serpent Column, Thutmose III’s Column, Islamic Arts Museum, Galata Tower and Taksim Square .

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