Istanbul - crossroads of the world. Known as Byzantium to the Greeks and Constantinople to the Romans, it was the western terminus of the old Silk Road and later the southern terminus of the
Orient Express. It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and before that the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and before that it was the second capital of the Roman
Empire, after the emperor tired of Rome. Located in both Europe and Asia, it is perhaps best known as the subject of the They Might Be Giants song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople),"
which we heard playing all over the city.
(Okay, we only heard it in our heads.)
I've wanted to go there ever since learning about a building named Hagia Sophia in art class, and in April Andrea and I flew to the former capital to have a look around. While we were
there we had some great Turkish coffee, saw more representations of a guy named Atatürk than you can shake a stick at, and even spent a few hours on another continent.
But first things first ...
Food and Drink
This is one of the essential things I associate with Turkey. Enlarge it to have a look. Turkish coffee is thick, with a cap of coffee foam and an underbelly of fine coffee sludge. It is
made with much finer grounds than, say, espresso. What is basically a rich coffee powder is placed in a small pot called an ibrik along with some (optional) sugar and heated over
a stove or in hot sand. For the record, you are not expected to drink the coffee sludge lurking in the bottom of the cup. In Greece Turkish coffee is called Greek coffee, and in Armenia
it is called (wait for it) Armenian coffee, but only the Turks serve it with a small piece of Turkish delight.
On the tea side of things, everything is served in cute little glass beakers. This is a glass of apple tea, which was extremely good.
Here's the ultimate spread of Turkish food: On the far left are
some of the best stuffed grape leaves you'll find anywhere, then comes the humus, and then an eggplant dish I could eat every day for the rest of my life called İmam Bayildi
, which is
made by mixing the chopped eggplant with onions and exactly the right blend of oils and spices. These are collectively called mezes
, a word that means "wonderful nibbly foods that
you will actually have difficulty finding during the first couple days in Turkey." The far right dish is our main, a vegetable crepe. The beer is Efes
a Turkish pilsner served virtually everywhere.
Near Our Hotel
This is the view from our hotel room, right over what the Turks call Sultanahmet Square after an Ottoman Sultan. The square predates the Sultan: in fact, it wasn't
built as a square at all, but is actually the ancient Hippodrome, Istanbul's answer to the Circus Maximus. Romans once raced their chariots around it.
When Constantine moved the Roman capital to this "New Rome" (which came to be called Constantinople after him) a number of major public works were executed, including improvements to
the Hippodrome, which had been built when the city was run by the Greeks. The Romans liked racing around monuments, which they arranged down the spina, or central axis of the track.
So in Constantinople they erected some impressive monuments along the spina, including this custom-built one called the Walled Obelisk. It later became a rock-climbing challenge for a local
cult, which is why it looks a bit worse for wear. All three monuments rise out of the ground from pits, as they stand closer to the original ground level in Roman times.
Slightly north of the Walled Obelisk is the Serpentine Column. This has a rather interesting history. In the fifth century BC the Greeks fought the Persians in various wars. When the Greeks won the
Battle of Plataea at the end of the last war, they celebrated by melting the bronze Persian weapons and using them to make a sculpture of three intertwined snakes, whose heads held a golden bowl. The
monument was placed prominently at Delphi, but centuries later Constantine ordered it moved to his New Rome and placed along the Hippodrome spina. The golden bowl was lost in the Crusades, and
the heads of the three snakes broke off. All that remains is the bodies of the three snakes, which form a nearly 2,500-year-old column.
Even older is the obelisk of Thutmosis III. It was cut into three pieces, and this is just the top, so the original must have been a great deal taller. It was taken from Karnak in Egypt and is
nearly 3,500 years old.
Considering its immense age, it looks great. The hieroglyphs might easily have been carved yesterday.
This squinty-eyed person is standing next to the Million Stone, from which the Romans measured all mileage from Constantinople. The word "million" here does not refer to the modern number,
but is a derivative of the Roman word for a thousand (the word mile comes from mille passus, or a thousand paces).
Near Sultanahment Square is the Blue Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in the world. More on this further down the page.
The main thing I came to see in Istanbul was Hagia Sophia. It was once a cahedral, built to replace an older church that burned down after a riot in AD 532. This building was completed under
the directionin of the Emperor Justinian I by the year 537. It was the largest cathedral in the world, and remained the largest for 1,000 years.
The Ottomans arrived in 1453 and converted it into a mosque - hence the four minarets that surround the original building.
An ancient grave stone just outside the building.
This is the outer narthax (or "hallway" to you and me).
In the inner narthax is the Imperial Gate, a massive wooden door in a bronze frame (we're talking about the far door in this photo, not the near one). Above it you can see one of the remaining mosaics.
When the invading Turks made it a mosque in 1453, they gradually added a lot of Islamic details, covering up or destroying the original mosaics, but in some cases the Christian art still remains. In
some areas of the building the Islamic art would have to be destroyed to reveal the older Christian art, so a balance is struck throughout the building.
More of the inner narthax ...
Inside the nave. The dome at Hagia Sophia is famous. So what's the big deal? Well, by definition domes are round, but this room is reasonably square, and before Hagia Sophia was built in the
Sixth century no one had ever put a round dome on a square building. Hagia Sophia has triangular masonry in the corners of the rooms called pendentives, which hold up the edges of the dome and merge the
square with the round. Again, this is the first building that ever had this feature, and every other dome over a square room is a copy of it. This includes most large mosques, which are largely
based upon this building.
The dome is rather high. It seems to float because of the windows about its base, which was another first.
If you're lucky the sun will throw a few shafts of light across the nave for you. This was the best I could do.
One of the occupational hazards of visiting ancient buildings is that many of them are in a state of perpetual restoration. While Hagia Sophia is famous for its dome,
at the time of our visit it was somewhat obscured by one of the largest expanses of scaffolding I had ever seen. Oh well - it's not the original dome anyway, but rather a "new"
one installed during restoration after an earthquake in the year 986. So it's "only" about a thousand years old.
The Byzantine columns were spectacularly carved.
To prove I was there ...
The building has ancient ramps arranged in a spiral pattern like flights of stairs. They are not suitable for people wearing high heels.
It's amazing that a building built in the 500s still has a second floor you can visit.
The view from above.
While the nave has four large roundels of Islamic calligraphy, it is actually no longer a mosque, but rather a museum.
A view of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia.
Another very beautiful mosaic.
This bronze door is one of the bits of the building taken from older buildings, in this case from a Second century BC temple in Tarsus. There are also columns in Hagia Sophia
that were taken from Heliopolis a Roman colony in what is now Lebanon.
A closer look at the ancient door.
The building from outside ...
The highly decorative Fountain of Ahmet III near Hagia Sophia.
Underneath the north corner of the old Hippodrome the Eastern Romans built a massive cistern, or water tank, to hold water brought to Constantinople from Belgrade Forest. It's really an impressive
space, and I'd imagine that visiting it would be welcome relief on a hot summer day. It was built in 532.
The cistern has 336 columns. The Ottomans were unaware of it for a century after they invaded, but apparently people in houses above it discovered that they could catch fish through holes in their basements.
A couple of the columns have Medusa's head at the base.
And one of them is carved with peacock feathers.
This was our view at breakfast. It was atmospheric being near the Blue Mosque, but unfortunately it meant that we were subjected to the evening and very early morning prayer calls. Which are LOUD.
We walked over to the Grand Bazaar, a massive market, and on the way walked by a column called Constantine's Column, which once held a statue of Constantine. It was installed in what was once
the Forum, in celebration of the moving of the Roman capital to Constantinople. Still there, but the statue fell years ago.
The massive and labrynthine Grand Bazaar. About ten percent of the people in this photo want my attention and would like me to buy something from them. Very nice, good quality, only twenty lire. Okay, eighteen lire. Hey, where are you going?
We stopped at an ironmonger and bought a couple ibriks for making Turkish coffee.
Up the hill to the west is the most important mosque in Istanbul, the Süleymaniye Mosque. It is where the sultan Süleyman is entombed.
If the dome looks familiar, it is because its style is derived directly from Hagia Sophia.
The Islamic artistry is fabulous.
Camera on timer.
The courtyard has great views of the port. The distant water is where a flooded estuary called the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus Strait. The land on the other side is Anatolia, technically in Asia.
The Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn.
On the way down the hill we walked through the Spice Bazaar. Here is a tea merchant.
And here is the main part of the bazaar, which looks like an extension of the Grand Bazaar. Again, about ten percent of the people in this photo want my attention and would like
me to buy something from them. Hola. Bonjour. Hello. You need figs? Kahve? Hey, where are you going?
I'm a sucker for dried fruit. Near the far right before the dates are dried kumquats, which were my favorite. Note also the dried kiwi above them.
The bazaar is named for the spices sold here for centuries. Istanbul was the western terminus of the Silk Road, so spices have long been a major import.
The Galata Bridge is a two-level bridge crossing the Golden Horn. The lower level is filled with restaurants, and the upper (street) level is crowded with fisherman. Here the Süleymaniye Mosque rises
above the city beyond the endless fishing poles.
Beyond the bridge is an area called Beyoğlu. The İstiklâl Caddesi in this neighborhood is one of the most crowded streets I've seen, filled with shops and restaurants, and a tram.
Omnipresent in the city is the visage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, shown here at the center of a monument in Taksim Square, but also present in framed photographs in restaurants everywhere.
Atatürk was a military man who fought for the Ottoman Empire in the first world war. When the Empire was disassembled after his side lost, he led a Turkish national movement into the
1920s, setting up a secular state rather than an Islamic one and thoroughly Westernizing Turkey. While we were in town there were a particularly large number of Turkish flags and Atatürk-related
material around, as people were staging overwhelming demonstrations against theocratic government.
The Galata Tower in Beyoğlu is one of the most visible buildings in the city, overlooking virtually everything at 60 meters in height. It dates to the sixth century but most of it is Medieval.
You can see most everything from the top. At the left is the Bosphorus Strait, which meets the Golden Horn near the big Turkish Flag on Seraglio Point before running out to the Sea of Marmara.
To the right of Seraglio Point's flag is the former home of the sultans, Topkapı Palace, which is recognizable by its small tower. The two mosques close to each other are Hagia Sophia and the
Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet, and finally the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn.
I couldn't resist this. I am a man taking photo of man taking photo of a man taking a photo.
We stopped at a restaurant on the way back over Galata Bridge.
They were pretty popular places to eat. I should mention that about five percent of the people in this photo want my attention and would like me to dine in their very fine restaurant,
even if I explain that we just ate at the restaurant next door. You want some lamb? Or fish, very good? Hey, where are you going?
This mosque is called the New Mosque. As distinctive as the Turkish flags in this photo are the numerous fishing poles hanging over the edge of the bridge.
A lot of places decorated with a plethora of lamps, but the hotel where we finished off the evening with tea and coffee was particularly well-decorated.
The next morning we hopped on the Istanbul-9, our Ferry from Eminönü Port in Istanbul to the north end of the Bosphorus Strait, where the strait meets the Black Sea.
The impressive Bosphorus Bridge was the longest suspension bridge outside the United States when it was first built. The small ferries passing in front of it is a tiny taste of
the vast amount of boat traffic around the city.
The next bridge along is the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, and just south of it here you can see a castle called the Fortress of Europe. It was built in 1452 by Mehmet II as part of his preparation
to invade Constantinople.
On the Asian side immediately across from the Fortress of Euope is the Fortress of Asia, built by his predecessor, Beyazıt I, fifty years earlier.
Another view of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.
On the way up we stopped at an Anatolian port called Kanlıca, which is known for its yogurt. A vendor came around with some shortly after we left the port. Since it's plain
yogurt with a slightly tart taste they serve it with a generous helping of powdered sugar, which the wind then blows all over your clothes.
Behind me is just one of the many massive container ships we saw moving up and down the Bosphorus.
And this is our first view into the Black Sea.
On the Anatolian (Asian) side is a Byzantine castle called Genoese Castle, which was built in the fourteenth century and has great views in Anadolu Kavağı.
A monument to Atatürk in the town of Anadolu Kavağı. He is here, as he is everywhere else. I took a photo facing this direction because in the other direction were about forty people who wanted my
attention and would have liked for me to buy food from them. Or water? Coke? Ice cream? Is very nice, only four lire. Hey, where are you going?
Here's Atatürk again on the way up to the castle.
The Byzantine castle.
See how this guy's climbing up and pulling himself through a little hole to get into the upper floor of the castle? Yeah, I went.
The view from the upper level.
And looking down toward the Bosphorus. Andrea is in the middle, reading our guide.
Here she is with the Black Sea.
The Turkish military controls the area north of the castle. I couldn't resist taking a photo of a sign with the words "Forbidden Zone" on it.
Returning on the Bosphorus we spotted the Mecidiye Mosque, a pretty ninteenth century mosque north of Istanbul.
Flowers in Gülhane Park. This is alongside Topkapı Palace, not ridiculously far from our hotel, and used to be part of the palace grounds.
I have no idea what the red ones were but I liked them.
Yes, those are black flowers.
At the north end of the park near Seraglio Point, where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus, there is a third century column erected to commemorate victory over the Goths. It's in great shape.
The old column rising from the woods at sunset reminded me of something Turner would have painted.
The Bosphorus Bridge from the shore.
We occasionally saw a large yellow hot air baloon rise over the Bosphorus from the Asian side. Not sure what it was.
With the moon in the top left and the baloon in the lower right, I am reminded of a playing card.
We walked along the Sea of Marmara. It is lined with the walls of the old Byzantine palace. This is a much later addition, Ahýrkapi lighthouse.
Radar towers like the one near these fisherman are all over the area. They are used to track the movements of ships and provide assistance to them as they move up and down the Bosphorus.
We walked into Sultanahmet, not far from the Hippodrome and our hotel, and found a nice restaurant with a roof terrace. This is Hagia Sophia at night.
And the Blue Mosque. For some reason the local seagulls ignore Hagia Sophia, but love flying around the Blue Mosque. Since this photo is a long exposure, the seagulls appear
as stringlike shapes over the mosque.
The next morning at the Blue Mosque. These are foot washing stations, which many mosques seem to have. All of this is built over the ruins of part of the Hippodrome and the old
Roman imperial palace, and some remnants of the older buildings have occasionally been unearthed.
I couldn't get over the thickness of the columns supporting the dome.
Again, this is a dome inspired by the ancient Hagia Sophia across the road.
The tiles are from the city of İznik, which was once known as Nicaea.
Our last stop was Topkapı Palace, former home of the sultans.
This is the tower you can see from other areas of the city, including Galata Tower across the Golden Horn.
A last view of the Bosphorus Strait from the palace.