Street-side vendors in Istanbul sell shirts emblazoned with the words:
Clearly these vendors rate their city as one of the most important and influential in the world. Is that the case? Probably not today. But in the past? Yes.
Istanbul – which is transcontinental by the way; one foot in Europe, the other in Asia – has been a big, thriving city for millennia. There were 500,000 people living here as far back as the 8th Century CE, back when the city was known as Constantinople, named after – and by – Emperor Constantine. At the time it was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe.
Istanbul is equally impressive in modern times. Now home to a ridiculous fourteen million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world.
Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul
The Sultanahmet District of Istanbul is the Old City, Constantine’s city, capital of the Roman, and then Byzantine Empires. Sultanahmet Square is at the centre of it all, and the most obvious place to begin your exploration of Istanbul.
Sultanahmet Square might look like a benign public plaza, but it once was the site of the Hippodrome of Constantinople – a U-shaped track used for chariot racing. Unfortunately none of the fabric of the Hippodrome can be seen today. It lies buried, two metres below the current ground level.
Obelisk of Thutmose III (also known as the Obelisk of Theodisius)
To dress up the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and make his new capital look a little more dignified, Emperor Constantius (son of Constantine I) ordered a couple of old obelisks shipped over from Egypt.
The Obelisk of Thutmose III – which is inscribed with hieroglyphics applauding the military successes of Pharaoh Thutmose III, and dates to 1400 BCE – was meant to arrive in 357 CE, to celebrate Constantius’s 20th year in office, but it got held up in Alexandria, and didn’t make it to Constantinople until 390 CE, at which point Constantius was long dead and the city now under command of Emperor Theodisius.
Valens Aqueduct, Istanbul
No need to travel to France to see a majestic Roman aqueduct. Istanbul has its own, and the best place to observe it is as the junction of Adnan Menderes and Atatürk Bulvarı Boulevards.
Completed in 368 CE – by Emperor Valens – the aqueduct was part of a complex water supply system that fetched water to Constantinople from over 250 kilometres away. The aqueduct functioned, off and on, for more than a millennia.
The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
My favourite place in Istanbul. I liked it so much I went twice.
Completed in the 6th Century CE, the Basilica Cistern provided water to the Palace of Constantinople, back when the city was the capital of the Roman Empire, and delivered water to Topkapi Palace a millennium later when the Ottomans took control. The cistern was constructed directly beneath a basilica (a public plaza) hence the name, and consists of 336 marble columns, all of which were salvaged from abandoned Roman structures from across the Empire.
In the deepest reaches of the cistern, at floor level, are two enormous marble blocks carved with Medusa heads. One is placed sideways, the other upside down. Both support columns. While the existence of these Medusa heads has led to all sorts of legends and fables, the truth is that they were also recycled from old Roman ruins. They were put here, in their odd sideways and upside-down positions, as that’s what fit best.
TIP: Get to the Basilica Cistern first thing in the morning to avoid queuing in horrendously long lines. Entering the cistern while it is still empty is also a serene, otherworldly experience, which is subtly enhanced by the soft, haunting music that is played in the chamber. Arrive half and hour later, when the package tours and their guides have clogged up the walkways, and the hubbub of a thousand squabbling tourists is the only thing you’ll hear.
Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Completed in 537 CE, the Hagia Sofia, with its enormous, peerless, freestanding dome, was a revolution in architecture. It remained the largest cathedral in the world for the next thousand years, which gives you some idea of how far ahead of its time it was. Originally an Orthodox cathedral, and briefly a Roman Catholic cathedral, it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1453 CE.
Galata Tower, Istanbul
Galata Tower, erected in 1348 CE, was built to replace an older tower, known as the Old Tower of Galata. The Old Tower was a guard tower, and part of Constantinople’s fortifications.
Galata tower has become a symbol of Istanbul. Climb to its uppermost levels and you’ll be rewarded with views over the Golden Horn and Sultanahmet District.
The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar is a shopping labyrinth, with 61 covered streets, and over 4,000 shops. It’s visited by 250,000 to 400,000 people every day, and in 2014 received over 91 million tourists, making it one of the most heavily visited tourist attractions in the world.
The Grand Bazaar dates from the 1450s. It was created by the Ottomans, following their conquest of the Byzantine Empire and occupation of Constantinople in 1453.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace was the royal residence of the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years. It’s filled with sumptuously gardened courtyards, state buildings such as the Treasury, Tower of Justice, and Imperial Council, and includes the 300-room Imperial Harem. It also gets swamped with tourists on a daily basis.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Istanbul has three archaeological museums, all set in the outer gardens of Topkapi Palace. They house extraordinary artefacts such the (purported) sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, Sumerian tablets, the Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty (from 1258 BCE, the oldest peace treaty in the world), the Gezer Calendar (a Phoenician or paleo-Hebrew calendar from 900 BCE), tiles from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the Saba’a Stele (an Assyrian boundary stone from 800 BCE), and thousands of other incredible items.
The exhibits are incredible, but they aren’t particularly well compiled or displayed (at least they weren’t at the time of my visit – June 2015). Many galleries have little if anything in the way of supportive text. And many of the museum’s highlights are so difficult to track down that you’re likely to leave the museum before you’ve seen half the things you intended to.
Sultanahmet Mosque, Istanbul
Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, was completed in 1619, under the order of, you might have guessed it, Sultan Ahmet. This mosque is extremely popular with tourists. Everyone and anyone is permitted inside, as long as everyone and anyone is dressed appropriately.
The line for the mosque is long throughout the day, but it moves quickly, and it’s well worth the wait to get a peek at the interior.
Istanbul was once one of the most important cities in the world. Nowadays it’s one of the most popular tourist cities in the world. The crowds can be daunting, but don’t let them be a deterrent. It’s all worth it, and more, for the Basilica Cistern alone.
Read more on the Historic Areas of Istanbul in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.