Built almost 1,500 years ago, the Hagia Sophia was for centuries Christendom’s greatest church, a focal point of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a museum to all faiths in the heart of Istanbul.
“It is hard not to speak in superlatives when describing Istanbul …. “
By Peter Sommer
Images courtesy of Turkish Culture and Tourism Office
It is hard not to speak in superlatives when describing Istanbul, this cradle of civilisation which has hosted so many of history’s famous and infamous figures through the millenia. No other city in the world has been besieged so many times, so greatly was it coveted by peoples outside its walls. No other city on earth sits astride two continents. Not just age old, for centuries it was the most multi-cultural city in Europe, on whose streets more than a dozen languages were commonly spoken, from Italian to Persian, Greek to Arabic. Above all, it was a city made for trade, built for business. As a gentleman visiting Constantinople wrote in 1730:
“Jews, Turks and Christians several Tenets hold.
Yet, all one GOD acknowledge, that is, GOLD.”
Built in the 17th century, the Blue Mosque in the heart of Istanbul stands unmistakably majestic with six minarets and gracefully tumbling domes.
First established on a triangular spit of land (the area today dominated by the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia), the original town was surrounded by water on three sides. This was no shy little colony, but a confident commercial center controlling one of the most significant waterways in the world, The Bosphorus.
Taking local cruises or ferries on the Bosphorus today, visitors may look at the city as sailors would have seen it centuries ago, its seven hills bejewelled with the most splendid mosques. Daily boat trips stop at a number of points along its length, as far as Anadolu Kavagi almost at the entrance to the Black Sea. Here you may leave the ferry, eat at one of the fish restaurants by the shore, and wander up to the ruined castle for breathtaking views and a leap of imagination back to the time when Jason and his Argonauts of Greek mythology sailed past in search of the Golden Fleece. Today some of the world’s largest tankers pass at very close quarters.
Istanbul’s bustling ferries serve shoreline districts of one of the world’s most heavily-used waterways.
When the Byzantine Empire’s shattered city of Constantinople finally fell in 1453 to Mehmet the Conqueror and his Ottoman army, shockwaves reverberated through Western Europe and the whole Christian world. Yet Mehmet was a visionary. Just as Roman Emperor Constantine had done over a millennium earlier when he founded Constantinople as the empire’s new capital away from Rome, Mehmet was determined to restore the city’s fortunes and place it on an even higher pedestal than its Byzantine predecessor.
He issued a rallying call for people of all races and religions to come, live and work in the city. His open door policy, based on tolerance and freedom, attracted new skills, creativity, and energy. Within a few decades a host of foreign firms had stepped over the welcome mat and set up shop. Armenians flourished as jewellers, craftsmen, and traders. Jews became successful perfumers, blacksmiths, and bankers. Italians were busy importing silk, paper, and glass. Even the English were invited to the party when in 1579 the Sultan Murad III wrote to Queen Elizabeth I welcoming English merchants to operate in his free trade empire.
The Grand Bazaar, Kapali Çarsi, ranks as one of the greatest markets in the world, with thousands of shops and eager merchants.
Many of these businesses operated out of the magnificent covered bazaar built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the mid-1400s. It still stands as the very heart of the Grand Bazaar, Kapali Çarsi. With more than 58 streets, 4,000 shops, and up to 400,000 visitors daily, this is a mecca for jewelry, pottery, spice, and carpet shops.
You will sense something of the sights, smells, and sounds of old Constantinople if you take time to explore this labyrinthine city within a city. Down the slope to the Spice Bazaar, the lanes are crammed with tiny shops and workshops full of artisans that offer a small hint of the cornucopia of goods that once came to the imperial capital.
For centuries the Ottoman Empire was the middleman of the world, its famed merchants uniting three continents – Europe, Africa, and Asia, as far east as China. The bounty didn’t arrive only by sea. All roads led to Constantinople as well. Caravans of camels or mules up to 2,000 strong arrived every month converging from all points of the known world.
In the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, 15,000 small boats worked in the harbor, obscuring its very waters. Frenetic it may have been but disorganised it certainly was not. When it came to money, the city was a strict and disciplined governess. In the Golden Horn, the capital’s superb deep water harbor, boats moored directly by the shore to unload their cargoes for inspection by watchful customs officials who calculated their payable duty.
The narrow Bosphorus waterway divides Istanbul and separates two continents, Europe from Asia.
Constantinople had been a magnet for both goods and people long before the Turks arrived. Once the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, built the Hagia Sophia in the 6th century, the capital itself became a site of pilgrimage and a top tourist destination, not just a stopping place for Christian pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem.
The stunning Hagia Sophia wasn’t any old place of worship, it was the greatest church in Christendom for almost a thousand years. While converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror until the 20th century, today it stands as a breathtaking museum open to people of all faiths. All around the Hagia Sophia are solid reminders of the city’s longevity and its glorious past.
A few hundred meters to the north is Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman sultans lived and governed in opulent splendor. A few hundred meters to the south is the Blue Mosque, whose slender minarets define the city’s skyline. Beside that is the old Roman hippodrome, garnished with an Egyptian obelisk. Walking around Istanbul, you are virtually experiencing an open air museum.
Yet this is no dyed-in-the-wool city trading on old memories. Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, its renaming as Istanbul and its demotion from capital city, the old city is once again on the rise. Although Ankara is now the political capital of Turkey, situated at the country’s geographic heart, Istanbul dwarves it in population, and also in vibrancy.
The lavishly decorated throne room of Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman rulers until the early 20th century.
Adorned with some of the finest architectural and artistic wonders in the world, and with an extraordinary historic legacy visible on every street corner, Istanbul remains Turkey’s real social, artistic, and commercial hub, brimming with vitality and activity. Growing at an exponential rate, from 3 million in 1970 to a behemoth with some 14 million inhabitants today, the city continues to be the ultimate cultural crossroads. Its lure is stronger than ever – for a great many people, the streets still seem paved with gold.
Like Rome, the old city of Istanbul is set upon seven hills. A mosque crowns each hill top creating a breathtaking skyline.
Launched in 1996, Launched in 1996, Peter Sommer Travels, www.petersommer.com, is a UK-based tour operator, whose specialist knowledge of Turkey, Greece and Italy’s archaeology, history, geography and culture is second to none in the world. In recent years Croatia, Ireland and the U.K. have been added to the options. Individual tour leaders are all respected authorities in archaeology, classical art and ancient history who have a passion to share their knowledge with guests who love to learn.
Peter Sommer Travels offers many gulet cruises and escorted tours in Turkey, Greece and Italy from April through October. Brochures are available on the Peter Sommer Travels website. Most of these tours sell out well in advance each year. The acclaimed 19-day land tour of Turkey, In the Footsteps of Alexander, which begins in Istanbul, is a regular feature by popular demand. Apart from the family cruises, clients must be at least 18 years old for all other trips; 70% of clients are mature travelers, 25% repeat clients and an impressive 35% are referred by word of mouth.
Peter Sommer Travels offers an 8-day Exploring Istanbul tour, limited to 18 participants. Upon launching this tour itinerary in 2011, Peter Sommer commented, “So many of our guests ask us to recommend hotels to stay in, restaurants to eat in, sites to see, and local guides to bring the city to life, that we thought it was high time to use our extensive knowledge and contacts to create the definitive tour of this vibrant and exotic city.”
For more information on travel in Turkey, visit the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office website, https://www.goturkeytourism.com/.
For other richly-illustrated Turkey articles in our Travel Article Library, click on Touring Turkey, Turkish Carpets, Ballooning in Cappadocia, Olive Oil Museum, A Balloonist’s Photo Essay of Cappadocia and Gulet Cruising Turkey’s Lycian Shore.
In 1994, Peter Sommer walked 2,000 miles across Turkey, retracing the route of Alexander the Great, and in the process fell in love with the country, its ancient civilizations, and the Turkish people. A British archaeologist by training, a world-renowned filmmaker, and a highly experienced tour guide, he created Peter Sommer Travels in 1996, offering unique escorted land tours and coastal gulet cruises in Turkey, Greece and Italy.
DK Eyewitness Travel offers three insightful Istanbul publications that will make your exploration of this unique “Queen of Cities” fully rewarding. Widely available in online and community bookstores.
Eyewitness Travel Istanbul (280 pages | ISBN 9780756625016 | 2013) features beautifully commissioned photographs throughout the guidebook, and spectacular cutaways and floor plans of all major sites as well as 3-D aerial views of Istanbul’s most interesting districts. As the Chicago Tribune reviews this volume, it is “gorgeous, entertaining, and enlightening.”
A much slimmer Istanbul travel tool, Top 10 Istanbul, (128 pages | ISBN 9780756627874 | 2013) distils the best in every Istanbul category. Whether you are traveling first class or on a limited budget, this will save you both time and money. Its colorful, entertaining pages offer dozens of “Top 10” lists from carpet buying and restaurant selection to stores, hotels and attractions. There’s even a list of the Top 10 Things to Avoid!
Lastly, you will need a sturdy DK Eyewitness Travel Pocket Map & Guide of Istanbul (80 pages | ISBN 9780756626495 | 2013 ), the perfect mini-size companion for a day out to the three key visitor districts of Seraglio Point, the Sultanhmet, and the Bazaar Quarter.