“If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”Napoleon Bonaparte
Walking around Istanbul, it feels easy to get lost in the splendor of a bygone era. Whether it be entering a historic structure, watching artisans create traditional arts and crafts, scenting the blends of spices wafting along the breeze, or even listening to the musical cadence of the Turkish language, around every corner is some delightful and intriguing remnant of the past three empires waiting to be explored.
I was dead set on coming here my first day in Istanbul and was pretty sad that about 2/3rds of the museum was closed for renovations (including Alexander the Great’s Tomb exhibits). They did have a bunch of old roman sarcophagi on display and statues from pre-Islamic history.
The Mosaic Museum is rather small – it covers only three rooms. It houses mosaics from the Byzantine era that were unearthed at the excavation site of the 5th century Great Palace of Constantinople.
I found the explanations on the walls helpful, too, in detailing all the work that was done in the building of the museum. It makes one appreciative of the many trials done for finding not only the proper way to move the mosaics, but also to restore and protect their luster.
The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
Located near the Hippodrome next to the Blue Mosque, this museum (also known as the Pasha Palace) was once the palace to the 16th century Grand Vizier of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Ibrahim Pasha.
The museum is well laid out with rooms housing fascinating examples of Islamic calligraphy, paintings, pottery and artifacts of royal life from different periods in Turkish history.
I’m particularly interested in how the Seljuks, Mongols and Ottomans shaped Turkey’s history, so I found this museum exciting. Each room contained a large map and explanations in both English and Turkish. The largest exhibit displayed a collection of handwoven Anatolian carpets. Another exhibit that was partitioned off from the rest contained religious relics, supposedly including cuttings of the Prophet’s beard (pbuh) and an imprint of his footprint.
Back in its heyday, the Hippodrome (Atmeydani or “Horse Sqare” in Turkish) was the main athletic and social scene of Constantinople. Coming from the Greek word hippos (ἵππος), meaning horse, and dromos (δρόμος), path or way, hippodromes offered entertainment in the form of chariot and horseraces. These arenans were staples of Greek cities during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.
On the grounds of Istanbul’s old hippodrome are many monuments, including the Blue Mosque:
Wilhelm fountain/German Fountain
This was a lovely little structure at the north end of the Hippodrome. It’s worth a look at the beautiful artwork under the dome. The fountain was a gift from the German government to commemorate Kaizer Wilhelm’s 1898 visit with his wife Empress Augusta to gain favor with the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II. The reason for this was that the Kaizer aimed to build the Baghdad Railway, which would offer a beneficial shortcut from Europe to Asia for German economic and military interests (along with wanting to export German-made rifles to the Ottoman military). True to the Sultan’s suspicions, however, the Kaizer was also clandestinely staking out his country’s oilfields.
At the southern end of the Hippodrome lies a once magnificent gilded bronze obelisk, now stripped bear with its stones vulnerable to the elements. Although its construction date is unknown, the pillar was repaired by Constantine the VII in the 10th century.
The 32 m (105 ft) high structure once held a sphere at its top and had its sides decorated with bronze plaques that portrayed the conquests of his grandfather, Emperor Basil I. Crusaders in 1204 are said to have stolen and melted down the bronze plaques during the fourth crusade. Further wear and tear occurred to its stone surface after it became a popular place for young Janissaries, elite infantry soldiers of the Ottomans, to show off their skill by climbing to the top.
Obelisk of Thutmose III
In the middle of the Hippodrome’s racetrack is a very hard to miss beautiful Egyptian Obelisk. In 390AD. Emperor Theodosius the Great brought this pink granite obelisk back from Egypt in three pieces to be placed on a marble pedestal. It originally belonged to the temple of Karnak in Luxor, from the reign of Thutmose III in 1490BC.
The inscriptions on each of the four sides of the main obelisk celebrate Thutmose III’s win over the Mitanni on the banks of the Euphrates sometime around 1450BC. The lower part of the obelisk was damaged at some point, making it only about 18.54m high, not including the base. The marble pedestal contains bas-reliefs showing Constantinople’s Emperor Theodosius I offering the victory crown at the horse races along with scenes of merry making and celebration.
The Serpent Column
The last monument in the middle of the Hippodrome is one that I initially dismissed the first few times I walked by it. Yet, the more I researched it, the more fascinated I became with what at first looked like a less-impressive broken column next to the Thutmoses Obelisk.
This was another of the works brought in by Emperor Constantine and his successors from abroad to spice up the décor of their capital. Known by a plethora of names including The Serpent Column, the Pillar of Delphi, the Delphi Tripod, or the Tripod of Plataea, this bronze column was initially cast and placed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi after the last battle of the Greco-Persian Wars to commemorate the lives lost in Greeks’ win over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479BC. According to Herodotus, the column was forged from the bronze from melted-down Persian weapons., making this column about 2,500 years old!
Locals believed that the column was a talisman against snakes. Hünername wrote in the 1580s that Patriarch Gennadios once told Sultan Mehmed that the city would be infested with snakes should he damage the Serpent Column. It’s written that the Sultan might have shattered the jaw of one of the heads as a statement when he first conquered the city.
The top of the column once held a golden bowl supported by three intertwined snakes. The heads were said to have been on until about the 17th century. One of the heads can be found in the archaeology museum. The bowl and the other two are missing. One story from the late 17th century is that a drunken Polish nobleman is said to have broken one of them off.
The Grand Bazaar
Labeled as one of the world’s first shopping malls, the Grand Bazaar located in Istanbul’s Old City is the largest covered market in Turkey. It began as a warehouse, bedesten, during the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople in 1461.Since then, its expanded into a labyrinthine market encompassing 61 covered streets with over four thousand shops to choose from.
Meagan and I had a fun time here, enjoying both the atmosphere and the wide variety of colorful goods. We tried our hand at bargaining, but for the most part had a lot of fun just browsing around. The shops were grouped into similar product lines such as pottery, calligraphy and artwork, or leather goods. There was even a fake luxury item market outside that gave me flashbacks to China!
Column of Constantine
Another sad monument seemingly forgotten by time is the Column of Constantine. Located not far from the Grand Bazaar on the Janissaries road, the Column of Constantine stands amid the bustle of crowd and flocks of pigeons eating breadcrumbs at its base.
Dedicated on May 11, 330AD, this monument served as the center of the Forum of Constantine and served as the base for a statue of Emperor Constantine in the figure of Apollo holding an orb said to be a fragment of the “true cross.” At its base housed a sanctuary supposedly containing holy relics including the cross of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, baskets from Christ’s fish and loaf miracles, Mary Magdelene’s ointment jar used to anoint Christ’s head and feet, and a wooden statue of Pallas Athena from Troy.
The statue was destroyed by weather in 1106AD, and the column further desecrated by members of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. That year, Emperor Alexios V Doukas (a mosaic of him is seen in the Hagia Sophia) was forced to jump from this column as punishment for war crimes by the Crusaders. A cross the column’s top was removed by the Ottomans after their victory. Lastly, in 779 an earthquake and subsequent fire scorched the column, giving it the nickname “The Burnt Column.”
Meagan and I walked the forty-minute walk from Sultanahmet Square up the Galata Bridge to the Asian side of Istanbul to see the Galata Tower, also known as Galata Kulesi. The walk wasn’t too bad, and the wait in line was relatively short. Inside, there’s an elevator to take us up to the outlook terrace along with a “4D virtual helicopter tour” of Istanbul for an extra few lira.
The nine-story tower is 66.90 m (219.5 ft) tall and was the tallest tower of its time when it was built in 1348AD by the Genoese colony in residence who traded with the nearby Byzantines. Back then, it was referred to as “Christea Turris” or the Tower of Christ.
Around 1630, a man named Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi jumped off the tower in hopes of gliding with his homemade artificial wings from the tower over the Bosporus waters and to the slopes of Üsküdar. His brother, Lagari Hasan Celebi also performed the first flight with a rocket in a conical cage filled with gunpowder in 1633 here.
During the Ottoman empire, this tower was used as a watch tower for fires, but ironically during the reign of Sultan Selim III in 1794, and again later in 1831, the tower fell victim to a fire. Christian prisoners of war were also kept here before being sent off to the dockyards to work as slaves.
Going up the tower for the view was absolutely worth it! It wasn’t until I saw Istanbul sprawling below me from all sides that I actually realized how big the city really is: over 15 million people live in the city alone!
After the Tower, we decided to make the trek to Taksim Square. On the map, the square doesn’t seem very far from the tower at maybe a twenty-minute walk through the Beyoğlu residential area. However, it was brutal! The hike over took us up and down some very steep long roads. For such an exhausting workout to get here, the square felt pretty anticlimactic once we arrived.
The square is named Taksim, meaning “distribution” in Turkish, after the stone reservoir and water lines that were built here during the later Ottoman period by Sultan Mahmud I to bring water to other parts of the city. At the center of the square is Turkey’s Independence Monument, Istiklal Aniti. Built in 1928 by Italain sculptor Pietro Canonica for the 5th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 after its war of independence. The main figures honored on the monument are Mustafa Kamil Atatürk, Ismet Inönü and Fevzi Çakmak. Over the years, the monument has been the center of numerous official ceremonies. However, in more recent years, it’s been a site for political demonstrations and protests.
Whirling Dervish and Folk Dance Show
On our last night in Istanbul, Meagan and I attended a beautiful demonstration of the Islamic Sufi faith at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center. We watched in awe as five men were able to fall into a spinning spiritual trance to prayers sung by elderly musicians.
Directly following this, we saw a folk music and dance performance featuring traditional dances and songs from Turkey’s blend of different cultures and people. It was a lot of fun!
There’s still so much more of Istanbul that we didn’t get to see. It’s such a big city! Next time I come, I definitely plan to bring my husband Mark and hopefully branch out further into other parts of town. There’s so many museums, too, that I bet he would enjoy!