I began writing about our visit to Istanbul in November here. In this post are a few more photos and details about the main sites in Sultanahmet: The former location of Constantinople and seat of the Ottoman Empire.
We planned to spend each morning focusing on one of the main tourist sites. On our first morning in Istanbul we visited Topkapı Palace. Topkapı was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400-years. When we walked through the imperial gate, it was a moment where past and present collided— the tiles and gilded details of the palace exterior were awash with color in the morning light.
We learned that the palace was nearly the size of a small city; Within the general perimeter lived a population of 4,000 inhabitants who were at service to the Imperial household. The rooms of the interior are a museum filled with items from the Ottoman Sultans: porcelain, clothing, jewels and weapons. One memorable exhibit was the kitchen– The palace had 800 cooks who prepared food for the entire population. A specialty of the Ottomans was syrupy Sherbet, made for special occasions.
Below is a view of the Blue Mosque from the Imperial Gate!
Topkapı is many buildings set within a large garden, and each had a purpose for Imperial affairs. The most alluring place might be the panoramic views from the upper terrace (above). It was easy to see why the vast-ruling Ottoman sultans chose this location at the intersection of the Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara.
Below, I am standing in the terrace of the chamber of petitions, Arz Odası. The tiled wall is in the İftar Pavilion. The second courtyard, Divan Meydanı, lined with park benches, was once filled with peacocks and gazelles. Inside was where the Ottoman council met with the Sultan to make all decisions pertinent to the empire.
Afterwards, we ate one of our favorite Turkish street foods, Simit (sesame twists). The preparation of a simit is similar to a bagel, it is boiled briefly before baking, but the lightness and texture is more like a soft pretzel. Pomegranates were abundant in November, and we stopped for a cup of fresh juice. Since we’ve been home, I haven’t stopped thinking about simits. Thankfully there is a good supply of Turkish food in Germany, and the trusty döner kebap.
On our second day we made our much-anticipated visit to Aya Sofya (537AD). It was formerly a cathedral in the city of Constantinople and later became the Imperial Mosque of the Ottoman Turks (1453). The interior and exterior were modified to serve the role of a Mosque: Minarets were added and the gold and stone Byzantine mosaics of Christian iconography were covered in plaster and painted in the ornamental Arabesque tradition. In 1935, Atatürk , the founder of the Republic of Turkey (and first President), converted the space from a mosque to a museum. It is one of the most notable surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.
Aya Sofya is an incredible space: 1500-year old granite and marble filled with natural light and beautiful imagery from the building’s evolution as a sacred architectural space. Below you can see where sections of the plaster have been removed to reveal what remains of the Byzantine Deësis mosaic of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist. For me, the juxtaposition of these layers illuminated the vibrancy of these two contrasting periods of early civilization. It was truly a memorable, beautiful place to visit.
Many museums are closed on Mondays, so we thought it would be an ideal time to visit The Blue Mosque, which is open everyday. The central entrance is for worshippers. Tourists are guided to the side entrance, where there is a place to borrow a scarf if you have forgotten, and to sit and remove your shoes before entering. We visited before the call to prayer for the noon service, and were able to take photos of the interior.
This was our first visit to a mosque, which to some may seem a bit naive considering that Islam is the second most common world religion. Blue Mosque is regarded as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, and it’s proximity to Topkapı Sarayı and Aya Sofya makes it one of the most visited. We weren’t sure what to expect, fortunately etiquette was posted on signs leading up to the entrance!
The Ottoman Sultans preserved their legacy by building mosques throughout Istanbul. (We didn’t visit Süleymaniye Mosque, but have read that it rivals the Blue Mosque) Sultan Ahmed I built the Blue Mosque in 1609, and it is technically larger than neighboring Aya Sofya. The video below will give you a sense of the amazing height of the interior.
We were staying near enough that we could hear the daily calls to prayer from the Blue Mosque. Our favorite moments were the calls shortly before sunrise and after sunset, marking the beginning and end of each day. Similar to church bells in the West, it was a reminder to pause and give thanks.
Ottomania: A Hit TV show reimagines Turkey’s imperial past The New Yorker
How to Make Simit Delicious Istanbul