This is the city from which we started and ended our Black Sea & Aegean Sea cruise. We arrived from Toronto a few days early so we would have plenty of time to explore this interesting city which straddles two continents. The city is divided by the Bosphorus Strait which puts Asia on the east side and Europe on the west. The strait flows from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and can lead through the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea and eventually to the Mediterranean Sea. Our hotel was in the Old City on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait. From here you can walk to such tourist venues as the Hagia Sophia Museum, the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Park, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian or Spice Market and many more attractions.
The drive from the Ataturk International Airport takes about an hour but probably doesn’t cover that much distance. Inside the old city, the streets are cobblestone, narrow and winding. Suddenly our driver pulled the van over, and without saying anything disappeared down an alleyway. He returned about 15 minutes later with a porter who then took our bags and led us through an even narrower street lined with restaurants and shops to our hotel.
Despite the city being old, the transit system is modern and efficient with its tracks embedded in the cobblestone and powered by the overhead electric wires. On one excursion we took the train to the area of the Dolmabahce Palace. Built between 1843 and 1856 this palace has the largest ballroom in the world and is still intact with all its inner decoration, furniture, silk carpets and curtains.
A short walk from the palace is where we took the funicular up cliffside to Taksim Square, a commercial area of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. The cobble stone continues from the square down a wide lane packed shoulder to shoulder with shoppers, vendors and tourists. You could easily be mistaken in thinking this was a pedestrian walkway, until the toot of a horn warns you of an oncoming vehicle, usually motorbikes or commercial trucks taking wares to the various shops. Just before you head downhill back to the Golden Horn (a flooded river valley), stands the Galata Tower which provides exceptional views of the waterfront and city below.
The heart of Old Istanbul is Sultanahmet which borders Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia is one of the most amazing religious monuments built in 537 AD during the Byzantine era that still survives. In his novel Inferno, Dan Brown describes the Hagia Sophia; “Not so much a building…as a mountain.” …”the colossal silhouette of Hagia Sophia appeared to be a city unto itself. It’s central dome – impossibly broad and ribbed in silver fray – seemed to rest upon a conglomeration of other domed buildings that had been piled up around it. Four towering minarets – each with a single balcony and a silver-gray spire – rose from the corners of the building, so far from the central dome that one could barely determine that they were part of a single structure.” He continues, “For nearly a thousand years, it had been the largest church in the world, and even now it was hard to imagine anything larger.” “The emperor Justinian, upon the completion of Hagia Sophia, had stepped back and proudly proclaimed, “Soloman, I have outdone thee!” “The walkways were lined with the ancient cannonballs used by the forces of Mehmet the Conquerer – a decorative reminder that the history of this building had been filled with violence as it was conquered and then re-tasked to serve the spirtual needs of assorted victoris powers.”
“The building is seven hundred years older than Notre-Dame.”
…”more than a hundred and fifty feet overhead, to the the sprawling golden dome that crowned the room. From it’s central point, forty ribs radiated outward like rays of the sun extending to a circular arcade of forty arched windows. During the daylight hours, the light that streamed through these windows reflected and re-reflected off glass shards embedded in the golden tile work, creating the “mystical light” for which Hagia Sophia was most famous.”
Across the square and facing Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616. Again in Inferno, Dan Brown talks of the building’s “six fluted, pencil-shaped minarets, which had multiple serefe balconies and the exotic, fairy-tale quality of the Blue Mosque’s balconied minarets had inspired the design for Cinderella’s iconic castle at Disney World. The Blue Mosque drew its name from the dazzling sea of blue tiles that adorned the interior walls.”
Also off of Sultaahmet Park is the Basilica Cistern which was begun by Constantine and then expanded by Justinian in 532 AD for storing the imperial water supply. Again in Dan Brown’s Inferno it is described. “The cistern is enormous.” …”a cathedral-size subterranean room – nearly two football fields in length with a ceiling spanning more than a hundred thousand square feet and supported by a forest of 336 marble columns.” “Rising out of the water, meticulously arranged in seemingly endless rows, were hundreds upon hundreds of thick Doric columns, each climbing thirty feet to support the cavern’s vaulted ceiling. The columns were lit from below by a series of individual red spotlights, creating a surreal forest of illuminated trunks that telescoped off into the darkness like some kind of mirrored illusion.”
Istanbul is a city of diversity in religion, architecture, history, people, and even geography with part of the city being European and part Asian. Two long bridges cross the Bosphorus Strait to connect the two continents.
Note: Text in quotation marks describing Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern, are from the novel, Inferno by Dan Brown. Doubleday Press, 2013.