5 Must-See Sights in Istanbul

Jocelyn Murray May 10, 2014 No Comments

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Imagine a place where the air is redolent of spices, and narrow streets lead to open terraces, courtyards with arched porticos, and stunning architecture with domed rooftops, colorful tiles and graceful columns. A place whose history is steeped in violence, passion, and a beauty that has transcended the ages.

This is Istanbul.

It is the blending of East and West, uniting the cultures of Europe and the Orient. Previously known as Constantinople, Istanbul was once the seat of power in the great Byzantine Empire. It is known for its stunning Byzantine and Ottoman art and architecture, its bustling bazaars, and a history that has shaped the modern world. Below are 5 places one must see when visiting this ancient city.

 

Hagia Sophia

Interior of the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia (also called Sancta Sophia and Aya Sofya) is Greek for the Church of the Holy Wisdom. It was the world’s largest cathedral for over 1,000 years, and remains an iconic monument of Istanbul, dating back to AD 532 when it was first built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great as a Christian patriarchal basilica. Its design was the inspiration for Ottoman architecture which was heavily modeled after this splendid masterpiece. The interior of the Hagia Sophia is richly atmospheric with a nave flanked by arched and columned galleries, where gleaming marble and gilded mosaics adorn the walls. But what is most impressive is the crowning dome—the focal point of this holy monument—that almost appears to float above brilliant rays of light streaming through the windows beneath it. At one time, the dome and walls were covered entirely in gilded mosaics, some of which are still preserved today. The entire structure’s interior is made of colorful marble and granite which imbue the former basilica with a timeless splendor. Following the Fall of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque, to which its four minarets were added, and is now a museum. Yet even after so many centuries, one can almost imagine how it must have appeared during the pinnacle of the Byzantine Empire: resplendent with the golden light of a thousand oil lamps and candles, incense wafting in delicate tendrils, as the voices of worshipers filled the airy space with their singing.

 

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern
cc by-sa 3.0 / Dpnuevo

Also known as the Sunken Palace, the Basilica Cistern was constructed in the sixth century AD by commission of Emperor Justinian the Great, and is a short walk from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Accessed by a flight of stairs, it lies hidden beneath the ground like a secret kingdom, and can easily be missed if one is not looking for it. The Basilica Cistern was used to collect water for the Great Palace (now in ruins) which was the main royal residence of Byzantine emperors for hundreds of years until the later part of the eleventh century. Like something out of a fairytale, this Sunken Palace is an amazing structure with its 336 marble columns soaring over eight meters high to support a cross-vaulted ceiling. It makes for a magnificent sight with its atmospheric lighting, classical music and dripping water echoing enchantingly throughout the cavernous space that is as large as a cathedral. Fish have been swimming in its water since the sixth century AD. The light’s reflection seems to make the floor beneath the water disappear into eternity. It is the kind of place that makes you catch your breath as you stare in wonder.

 

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque as seen from the courtyard at dusk
cc by-sa 3.0 / Benh Lieu Song

Commonly known as the Blue Mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built in the seventeenth century over where part of the foundations of the former Grand Palace of the Byzantine emperors once stood. It lies across the street from the Hagia Sophia, and was specifically designed to rival and surpass the Byzantine basilica. The walls of its massive interior are decorated with countless tiles in exquisite geometrical and floral motifs, most of which are blue, and for which the mosque is named. Verses from the Quran in elegant calligraphy also decorate the walls. It is a splendid structure with a grand courtyard, domes, archways, carpeted floors, bejeweled lamps, chandeliers and numerous stained-glass windows through which natural light streams inside. Its six minarets reach like spires toward the sky. Like the Hagia Sophia, its domed silhouette graces Istanbul’s skyline beautifully, imbuing it with a grand yet dignified character.

 

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace – Interior of the Imperial Hall

Now a museum, the Topkapi Palace was the former residence of Ottoman sultans and their wives from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Its construction was commissioned on orders of Sultan Mehmet II after he conquered Byzantine Constantinople.  The palace is a sprawling tiled, columned, arched and domed compound situated on a promontory that commands stunning views of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn. It has four courtyards with lush gardens, elegant kiosks, colonnaded arcades, and many buildings including the ornately decorated imperial harem and Turkish baths. An extensive collection of Japanese and Chinese porcelain, an armory collection, a miniature and portrait gallery, and the Imperial treasury are housed here. Sparkling fountains, plush carpets, and furniture inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl add to the opulence of this stunning sight.

 

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar
cc by-sa 3.0 / Dmgultekin

One of the largest covered marketplaces in the world, where countless shops are clustered along stone-paved streets beneath a colorful vaulted ceiling, the Grand Bazaar lures tourists with its vast collection of goods for sale including handmade carpets, rich textiles, glittering jewelry and mosaics, glass and enamel works, leather goods, incense, clothing, and all sorts of intriguing souvenirs. Enticing aromas from small cafes brewing Turkish coffee and tea fill the air, while heaps of colorful fragrant herbs and spices are displayed on tables for sale, adding to the exotic appeal of this marketplace. One can almost imagine Ali Baba or Aladdin from the Arabian Nights being chased through the bazaar and ducking into one of the numerous shops to escape dangerous men armed with scimitars. Even if you do not buy anything, it is fun to let your imagination roam freely as you wander around and observe people. Trade has been carried out here since Byzantine times, though it was the Ottomans who designed bazaars, constructing this one in the fifteenth century.

 

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Jocelyn Murray is a travel writer and historical fiction novelist. She holds two university master's degrees in both English and Education, along with a bachelor's degree in Economics and European Studies. She also has a teaching credential and taught at the elementary school level.

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