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Sultanahmet is the place to be in Istanbul! This is the oldest part of the city and a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO.
Here the most important sights of Istanbul are concentrated just a few steps from one another. The best way to explore the old town is on foot, as sights are located in or around Sultanahmet Square.
One night I had a dream. I was wandering through Istanbul streets, looking for Hagia Sophia, but I couldn’t find it… After a long time walking, I finally saw Hagia Sophia’s minarets. I followed them and when I was about to get in Hagia Sophia, I suddenly woke up! My cellphone’s alarm woke me! I was so mad! I tried to get back to my dream, but I couldn’t!
I had to find Hagia Sophia! I had to travel to Istanbul! My dream came true on August 2015. =]
First stop: Stunning Hagia Sophia (of course!)
Hagia Sophia, also called Ayasofya, was built in 535 during the Byzantine Empire, to serve as an Orthodox basilica. Interestingly, in the fifteenth century, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, the basilica was converted into a mosque. Since then, minarets (towers which announce the five daily calls to prayer) and other Islamic symbols were added. In 1935 the site was transformed into a museum.
The size of Ayasofya is impressive! Today it’s one of the largest basilicas in the world. Even with restoration works going on, you can notice that the interior is very rich.
There are many curiosities about Ayasofya, for example, the images and mosaics of Catholic saints have been covered by plaster, since Islam is forbidden to worship images. Nowadays you can appreciate the remains of the ancient mosaics.
The ancient church altar was replaced by a mihrab, an architectural element that indicates the geographical direction of Mecca. The interesting thing is that the mihrab is not exactly in the center of the old church, but a little more to the right, clearly demonstrating that was added after the construction. To the right of the mihrab is the minbar – pulpit.
The great dome is decorated with Koranic inscriptions. In the past it was covered in golden mosaic and visitors were already used to the tinkling sound of pieces dropping.
Second stop: Topkapi Palace – Topkapı Sarayı
Sultan Abdül Mecid I was a fool, Topkapi is gorgeous! So many beautifully adorned chambers, delicate kiosks, enchanting gardens and incredible views of the Bosphorus.
The palace is huge and has several pavilions contained by four opulent courtyards. The rooms are open to the public and you must take a look to understand the richness of the sultans.
The Imperial Treasury is a vast collection of works of art, jewelry and curious objects. There were so many emeralds and rubies…. I even saw a diamond bigger than my fist, the Spoonmaker’s Diamond!
The Privy Chamber houses the Chamber of the Sacred Relics, which includes the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle.
To explore this chamber, women must cover shoulders, head and legs. It houses what are considered to be the most sacred relics of the Muslim world: the cloak of profet Muhammad, two swords, a bow, one tooth, a hair of his beard, his battle sabres, an autographed letter and other relics which are known as the Sacred Trusts. Several other sacred objects are on display as well.
The most famous area of the Palace is undoubtedly the Harem. There were developed the domestic activities of the palace and the organization was in charge of the Sultan’s mother, who was more powerful than any wife.
The concubines and wives of the sultan lived in the harem and had no access to other rooms of the Palace. Most of the women came there as prisoners of war or slaves marketed. There were so many women, the harem came to house a thousand! The last women eventually left in 1909. Eunuchs used to guard the harem.
It’s impossible not to imagine the intrigues and power struggles that took place there. After all, all women wanted to become the sultan’s favourite. The chosen one could ensure that one of her sons would become the great heir.
During high season (May-August), the visit to the palace is quite busy. There are queues to buy the entrance ticket (45 TL, about 15 USD per person to visit the main area and the Harem) and also to visit some of the rooms, such as the Imperial Treasure chambers.
The views from the fourth courtyard over Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn are spectacular. They really are worth the visit!
Third stop: The Blue Mosque – Sultanahmet Camii
Blue Mosque impresses from the outside and the inside too!
The Blue Mosque is positioned right in front of Hagia Sophia and the ‘competition’ between the two is quite old. Sultan Ahmed I wanted to build a bigger mosque, more imposing and more beautiful than Hagia Sophia. If he succeeded or not, I will leave the decision to you! All I have to say is that the square around the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the world!
Is it really blue? Well, not noticeably, although all the interior walls are decorated with tens of thousands of fine İznik tiles.
Before entering the mosque, Muslims go direct to the sinks located on the outside of mosque, to purify themselves. There they sit, wash their feet, face, arms and hands. Only after this ritual they are ready to start the prayers.
You don’t have to pay to visit the Blue Mosque. However, visitors aren’t allowed inside the mosque during prayer calls. There are also strict rules about clothing: nothing too short or to revealing. Women must wear a scarf to cover head and arms. Inside the mosque you must remove your shoes and remain quiet.
Inside the mosque there are no seats or religious images. The beauty of the Blue Mosque comes from the contrast between the giant red carpet all embroidered and the blue tiles and blue stained glass windows. It’s gorgeous!
I have two remarks:
First, the carpet smells like cheesy feet. Thousands of people taking off their shoes and rubbing their sweaty feet into the carpet leaves a horrific smell behind.
Second, the area reserved to prayer for Muslim women is ridiculously small! The men have the whole mosque to themselves and the women must share a small hidden corner.
Fourth Stop: The Hippodrome
The Hippodrome was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, an arena that hosted horse and chariot races.
There ain’t much left of the original arena, the hippodrome is now a square that houses two ancient obelisks, one of them brought from Egypt, dating from 1490 BC.
Fifth Stop: The Basilica Cistern – Yerebatan Sarnici
Who read Dan Brown’s last novel Inferno will understand my interest in this unusual attraction… This is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul.
For a century after the conquest, the Ottomans didn’t know of the cistern existence. It was rediscovered after people were found to be collecting water and even fish, by lowering buckets through holes in their basements.
The cistern roof is held up by many columns, but there are two very interesting columns in one of the corners. The two columns rest on Medusa head bases. The origin of the two heads is unknown.
One of the largest covered markets in the world! The first section of the bazaar, called Ic Bedesten, was likely built in the 15th century.
The bazaar is an El Dorado of random discovery for travellers. A maze of streets with several shops selling Turkish sweets, spices, rugs, jewelry, scarves, even Alladyn’s lamp and other typical products. It’s quite easy to get lost.
You will want to buy everything you see! But remember: you need to bargain like a pro!