Istanbul Historical and Ancient Places

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Istanbul Historical and Ancient Places

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace is the biggest and one of the most popular sites to visit in Istanbul. It was built in between 1466 and 1478 by the sultan Mehmet II on top of a hill in a small peninsula, dominating the Golden Horn to the north, the Sea of Marmara to the south, and the Bosphorus strait to the north east, with great views of the Asian side as well. The palace was the political center of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, until they built Dolmabahce Palace by the waterside.

After the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II ordered to built his palace in its present location on top of the ancient Byzantine ruins, meanwhile he spent some time during its construction at a smaller palace where there is the University of Istanbul today, in Bayezit square. Once they moved to Topkapi palace, the old one was called as "Old Palace" and Topkapi as the "New Palace". But local people called it as "Topkapi" which in Turkish means "Gate of Cannons" because of huge cannons displayed outside of its gates, those which were used during the Conquest.

There were originally around 700-800 residents of the Palace at the beginning, but during the centuries it dramatically raised to 5,000 during normal days and 10,000 during festivals, approximately. Amongst these, the Janissaries were the biggest part of the population who were based within the first courtyard of the palace. The palace became the largest palace in the world, a city within a city. The walls surrounding it were about 5 kilometers (around 3 miles) long. The palace having around 700,000 m2 of area during the foundation years, it currently has only 80,000 m2 of area because of building constructions in its grounds towards the end.

During the 400 hundred years of reign at Topkapi, each sultan added a different section or hall to the palace, depending on his taste or on the needs of the time. Therefore the palace is formed by a maze of buildings centered around a series of courtyards protected by different gates. Its architecture is predominantly Middle Eastern in character. The initial construction was Cinili Mansion, a tiled kiosk finished in 1472, and the main gate (Bab-i Humayun in Arabic or the Imperial Gate) facing Sultanahmet square and Hagia Sophia church, and the Palace ramparts at the second gate (Bab-us Selam or the Gate of Salutation) were completed in 1478. A third gate, Bab-us Saade or the Felicity Gate, separates the core and most important parts of the palace from other sections, such as the Treasury for example.

At first, the Harem was left in the Old Palace and was moved to its present location only one century later by sultan Murad III, again with the addition of several buildings during many years. The Harem, literally meaning "forbidden" in Arabic, was a complex of apartments in the palace belonging to the wives, concubines and children of the sultan, guarded by the black eunuchs. At some point, its population topped to a record high of 474 ladies. Inside the Harem there were rooms dedicated to the mother of the sultan, wives of the sultan, his concubines, Turkish baths, circumcision room, apartments of the chief black eunuch, and apartments of the sultan, in total over 400 rooms. Today, the Harem is a separate museum within the palace complex and there are escorted tours at certain hours of the day.


Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia means "Divine Wisdom" in Greek, this was an Orthodox church dedicated to holly wisdom, not to a Saint Sophia as some people wrongly call it today. Turkish people call it Aya Sofya, it's a former Byzantine church and former Ottoman mosque, now located in Sultanahmet neighborhood being one of the most important museums of Istanbul considered as a World Heritage by UNESCO. It is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.

The first church of Hagia Sophia was built on the same site in the 4th century by Constantine the Great and renovated by his son Constantinus II in 360 AD. It was a small wooden church in Constantinople. Unfortunately nothing remained from it because it was destroyed during a fire in 404 AD.

After the destruction, a second and larger Hagia Sophia was built at the same location in 415 AD by the emperor Theodosius II. This second church was also burned down during the Nika riots of 532 AD. Some of its columns, capitals, and the stairs can be seen today in the courtyard of the museum.

Finally, the third Hagia Sophia, the one that you can visit today, was built by emperor Justinian I between 532-537 AD over the remains of the previous basilica. The emperor spent almost all of his treasure, 10.000 people worked in its construction under the supervision of two architects; Anthemius of Tralles (modern day Aydin city) and Isidorus of Miletos. After completion, Justinian entered the church and he shouted "Solomon, I have outdone thee!", referring to King Solomon. The church became the glorious symbol of the Byzantine Empire and the largest church of Christendom in the world. For almost 1000 years the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Church councils and imperial ceremonies were held here.

The gigantic central dome over a rectangular plan was built using special bricks; 12 of them weighted as one regular. But it was still too heavy therefore this early dome collapsed during several earthquakes so a smaller one was built. In the days when there was no steel used in construction, large domes had to be supported by massive pillars and walls, thus the dome of Hagia Sophia was supported by four huge piers in order to take off its pressure on the side walls and distribute it to the ground. Fourty small windows around the dome and other windows of the church let enough light into the interior.

The interior walls of the church were decorated with gold mosaics, the floors with white marble, and column capitals with the monograms of Justinian and Theodora. Marbles and columns taken from the remains of earlier civilizations from all parts of the Empire were used as building material, these pieces came from Baalbek, from Pergamon, and from the Temple of Artemis as well.

The upper galleries were used by important people or for church councils during the Byzantine period, and lower part was used by common people. When the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, the galleries were reserved for the women during prayers, and lower floor was used by the men.


Chora Church and Museum

The Chora Church, or Kariye Museum in Turkish, has one of the best examples of Byzantine mosaic art. The museum today is located at Kariye neighborhood near Edirnekapi city walls over the Golden Horn. Originally a Christian church, it was converted into a mosque after the Conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, and after the Republic it became a museum.

The church was originally built in the early 5th century outside the first wall of Constantinople, as the name Chora means "countryside" in Greek. It's original name was St. Saviour in Chora and it was a small monastery just outside of the city. Later on, it was destroyed by earthquakes and abandoned for many centuries until the area was inhabited after the city walls were enlarged thus the neighborhood remained within Constantinople.

Chora church was rebuilt in the 11th century by Maria Ducaena, the mother-in-law of Alexius I Comnenus. It was restored in the 12th century by Isaac Comnenus after some earthquakes and finally rebuilt again by Theodore Metochites, responsible of the Byzantine treasury and the art at that time, in the 14th century. Most of the mosaics and frescos we can admire today are from this last restoration.

After the Conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans converted the church to a mosque and named as Kariye Camii (Kariye Mosque). The mosaics and frescoes were covered with a plaster because of the prohibition of images in Islam, a Mihrab was added, and a minaret was built outside. In the beginning of the 20th century the minaret collapsed on the dome because of an earthquake, thus the dome was rebuilt but mosaics were lost.

After the Republic, experts on the Byzantine art came to Istanbul to work on the restorations of the Chora in order to uncover fantastic mosaics and frescoes. It was opened to the public as a museum in 1958.

The Kariye Museum has the best Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul, similar to the ones in Ravenna - Italy. Many mosaics in the narthex and inner narthex describe the life of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary, with citations from the Old and New Testaments. In the Paraclesion, which is the side corridor, you can view great frescoes such as the Resurrection (Anastasis) or the last judgment (Deesis). In the nave, the Dormition of the Virgin (Koimesis) mosaic is impressive. During the visit of the church you're not allowed to use flash while taking photographs.


Galata Tower

The Galata Tower, Galata Kulesi in Turkish, is one of the highest and oldest towers of Istanbul. 63 meter (206 feet) high tower provides a panoramic view of the old town. It was built in the 14th century by the Genoese colony as part of the defense wall surrounding their district at Galata directly opposite ancient Constantinopolis. They called the tower as "Christea Turris", or "Tower of Christ". The Genoese were involved in trade with the Byzantines and the tower was used for the surveillance of the Harbor in the Golden Horn. After the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II, it served to detect fires in the city.

Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi was the first flying Turk during the Ottoman Empire of the 17th century. He copied bird wings and studied air flows, than jumping from the Galata Tower he overflew the Bosphorus and landed at Uskudar district on the Asian side, around 6 kilometers (4 miles) in distance.

After the Republic, Galata Tower was restored and opened to the public in 1967. The tower houses a cafeteria on top, there was also a night club which is closed down after the last restoration in 2013. A couple of elevators will take you up but there are still three more floors to climb by stairs to get on the panoramic terrace which is 52 meters above the ground. A small souvenir shop is located inside the tower just across the ticket office at the entrance level.


Basilica Cistern

One of the magnificent ancient buildings of İstanbul is the Basilica Cistern located in the southwest of Hagia Sofia. Constructed for Justinianus I, the Byzantium Emperor (527-565), this big underground water reservoir is called as “Yerebatan Cistern” among the public because of the underground marble columns. As there used to be a basilica in the place of the cistern, it is also called Basilica Cistern.

The cistern is 140 m long, and 70 m wide, and covers a rectangular area as a giant structure. Accessible with 52-step staircase, the Cistern shelters 336 columns, each of which is 9 m high. Erected at 4.80 m intervals from one another the columns are composed of 12 rows, each has 28 columns. The case-bay of the cistern is conveyed by the columns through arches. Majority of the columns, most of which is understood to have been compiled from the ancient structures and sculpted of various kinds of marbles, is composed of a single part and one of it is composed of two parts. The head of these columns bear different features in parts. 98 of them reflect the Corinthian style and part of them reflect the Dorian style. The cistern has 4.80 m high brick walls, and the floor is covered by bricks, and plastered by a thick layer of brick dust mortar for water tightness. Covering 9,800 sqm area in total, the cistern has an estimated water storage capacity of 100,000 tons.

Except couple of the edged and grooved columns of the cistern, majority of them are shaped as a cylinder. Two Medusa heads, which are used as supports under the two columns at the northwest edge of the cistern, are the great work of art from the Roman period. What attracts most attention from the visitors is that the structure from which the Medusa heads have been taken is unknown. The researchers often consider that it has been brought for being used as supports to the column at the time of construction of the cistern.  However, this has not prevented myths for the heads of Medusa.

As the legend has it, Medusa is one of the three Gorgonas that are female monsters in the underground world in Greek mythology.  The snake-head Medusa, one of the three sisters, has the power of gorgonising the ones that happen to look at her. Accordingly, Gorgone paintings and sculptures were being used for protecting big structures and special venues in that time. And putting the head of medusa in the cistern was for protecting purposes. According to another rumour, Medusa was a girl who boasted for her black eyes, long hair and beautiful body. She loved Perseus, the son of Zeus. Athena was also in love with Perseus and this made Medusa jealous. Therefore, Athena converted medusa's hairs into snakes. Now, everybody that happened to look at Medusa was gorgonised. Afterwards, Perseus headed off medusa and beat many enemies by using her power.


Egyptian Obelisk

The Obelisk of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmosis III in Istanbul's Sultanahmet Square was originally erected in year 33 in his reign (15th century BC) at the temple of Karnak, on the occasion of his second jubilee. It once stood with its pair to the south of the Seventh Pylon flanking the temple's doorway. In the old times obelisks were always erected in pairs.

It's a one-piece (monolith) pink granite obelisk carved in Aswan. Originally it was over 30 meters (95 feet) tall and weighting around 380 tons, today only 19 meters (65 feet) left of it. The obelisk was brought from Karnak to Constantinople by emperor Theodosius I in 390 AD, in order to decorate the Hippodrome. It's the oldest monument that you can see in Istanbul.

On each side of the obelisk there is a standing god holding the hand of the king and extending to him the sign of life. On the top of each side there is a scene of Thutmosis III making offerings to the god Amon-Ra, and below the scene there is a single column of hieroglyphs. Each writing begins with a list of the king's titles. The inscription basically celebrates Thutmosis III's victory crossing of the Euphrates River in Syria (Great Circle of Naharina) in 1450 BC. Thutmosis III is referred as "Lord of Jubilees" on the obelisk which mentions "Crossing the Great Circle of Naharina in valor and victory at the head of his army, making great slaughter... Lord of Victory who subdues all lands, establishing his frontier at the Beginning of the Earth [the extreme south] up to the Swampy Lands of Naharina [the farthest north]...."


Maiden's Tower

Kizkulesi is located off the coast of Salacak neighborhood in Üsküdar district, at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus. It literally means "Maiden's Tower" in Turkish. The name comes from a legend: the Byzantine emperor heard a prophecy telling him that his beloved daughter would die at the age of 18 by a snake. So he decided to put her in this tower built on a rock on the Bosphorus isolated from the land thus no snake could kill her. But she couldn't escape from her destiny after all, a snake hidden in a fruit basket brought from the city bit the princess and killed her.

Another legend wrongly mentions Hero and Leander in the tower, therefore some people wrongly call it "Leander's Tower", a sad love story told by Ovidius: Hero was one of the priestess of Aphrodite living in the tower. One day she left the tower to attend a ceremony in the temple where she met Leandros and they fall in love with each other. Leandros swam to the tower every night to visit his love, meanwhile she was holding a torch to guide him in the dark waters towards her in the tower. But on a stormy night Leandros couldn't see the light because it was put out by the winds, and he swam all night loosing his way until he was drowned. Hero, seeing that her lover died, she also jumped into the water and suicided. Some people narrate this love story as it was happened on the Bosphorus, but in fact it's a legend from the Dardanelles, when Leandros was swimming to Hero between Abydos (today's Eceabat) and Sestus (today's Canakkale city).

Kizkulesi is dating back to the 5th century BC when it was built by the Athenian general Alcibiades on a rock at the entrance of the Bosphorus for the surveillance of the waterway. A chain was pulled from the land to the tower to make it a checkpoint and customs area for the ships going through. After several restorations in wood and stone, Emperor Alexius Comnenos built a strong defense tower in the 12th century AD calling it Arcla, meaning "Small Tower". The tower was used as a lighthouse and control tower also during the Ottoman period after the Conquest of Constantinople. Final restoration was done in 1998 and opened as a restaurant after spending around 3million US dollars.

The tower was featured in one of the James Bond movies in 1999; "The world is not enough", where the terrorists placed a nuclear submarine underneath the tower to be exploded in the heart of the city and where "M" (Judi Dench) was imprisoned by an oil tycoon's daughter (Sophie Marceu) which Bond (Pierce Brosnan) had to kill her.

Today, Kizkulesi is a very popular and classy restaurant and cafeteria-bar. It offers 360 degree views of the Bosphorus and the old city, especially at night. There are several shuttle boats going to the tower at certain times from Kabatas neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul and from Salacak neighborhood on the Asian side. It's also a popular place for summer time weddings. The tower is closed on Mondays.


Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque by many tourists because of its bluish interior decoration, is the most important mosque of Istanbul standing next to the Byzantine Hippodrome in the old city center. It was built by the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I between 1609 - 1616 facing Hagia Sophia, in order to compete with it. Its architect was Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, a poet and inlayer as well, and a student of the greatest architect Sinan. When Ahmed I died in 1617, he was buried near the mosque and a mausoleum was built over his tomb.

Like all the big and important mosques of that time, also the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built as a complex including a theological school, an imperial lodge, a kitchen for the poor, bazaar shops to raise money for the maintenance works, and a small library. The mosque has an outer courtyard accessible by several gates, an elevated inner courtyard (named as "late comers courtyard") paved in marble and surrounded by a portico with small domes. In the center of this courtyard there is a fine fountain for ablutions which is dry today. This is the only mosque in Istanbul having 6 minarets; four of these have three balconies on each, and two have two balconies on each, that makes a total of 16 in all, reached by spiral stairs (closed to the public). Muslims are called to prayer from these balconies five times a day by the Muezzin. Top of the minarets and top of the domes are covered with lead.

There are 3 entrances to the mosque, and after entering inside one gets shocked by the floral and geometrical interior decoration and beauty of over 21 thousand Iznik (Nicea) tiles, about 260 windows with stained glass, and calligraphy art of Koranic verses. The 34-meter high central dome is surrounded by smaller domes and semi-domes to distribute the heavy weight of the main dome, and all of them are supported by 4 huge pillars (called "elephant legs"). The marble niche which shows the direction of Mecca, called Mihrab, is aligned with the axis of the mosque. On the right of Mihrab there is a marble Minbar, the pulpit where the Imam goes up and gives his sermon. On the other side of the mosque, to left corner, there is the sultan's lodge where he used to pray in private away from the crowd.

The mosque is covered with rugs as a general tradition in any mosque, thus people have to take their shoes off before entering. It's permitted to take photos inside and use flash without any problems. The mosque is generally open to the visitors during the day, but closed for a short time during the prayers. If possible, a small donation is accepted at the exit of the mosque, which is used for repair and maintenance works. During the summer nights, light and sound shows are organized in the park next to the mosque.


The Saint Antoine Church

The Saint Antoine Church (San Antonio di Padova) is located on Istiklal Street in Beyoglu, on the left side of the street if you are facing from Galatasaray towards Tünel. The church was built between 1906-1912 by architect Giulo Mongeri, who was born in Istanbul, gaving it an Italian Neo-Gothic style. Today it is Istanbul's largest church with the busiest congregation and is run by Italian Catholic priests. The Church was built in a courtyard, and the entrance of the church is on the main street between two apartments which were built to raise money for the church.


The Bulgarian Church

This church belongs to the Bulgarian minority and is the most interesting church in Istanbul. The Bulgarian minority of the Ottoman Empire used to pray at the churches of the Fener Orthodox Patriarchy. Due to the nationalistic movements, Bulgarians were allowed to build their own church in the 19th century. First, a small wooden church was built on the shore of the Golden Horn between Balat and Fener squares (near Eyup district) where the current church is located, but later this was developed into a larger building. An iron frame was preferred to concrete reinforcement due to the weak ground conditions. The construction plans were prepared by Hovsep Aznavur, an Armenian of Istanbul origin. An international competition was conducted to produce the prefabricated parts of the church, and an Austrian firm, R. Ph. Wagner, won the competition. The prefabricated parts were produced in Vienna and transported to Istanbul by ship through the Danube and the Black Sea. After one and a half years work, it was completed in 1898. The main skeleton of the church was made of steel and covered by metal boards. All the pieces were attached together with nuts, bolts, rivets or welding. The architectural styles come from the Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque periods.


The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate

The Patriarchate is the highest see and holiest center of the Orthodox Christian Church. It's located in the Fener neighborhood near Eyup district, between Sadrazam Ali Pasa Street and Incebel Street, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is located in the yard of this church. In 1602, the Patriarch moved to Aya Yorgi, when the site was used as monastery. Since that time, several renovations have occurred, the most recent of which ended in 1991, owing to damage sustained by fire in 1941. Although not so significant architecturally, Aya Yorgi possesses valuable historical artifacts. Among the most significant are: a patriarchs throne from circa 5th century; three samples of rare mosaic icons; a column which is believed to have been used for the binding and flogging of Jesus in Jerusalem; and cascades belonging to three women saints.


Surp Kirkor Lusarevic Armenian Orthodox Church

It is the oldest Armenian church of Istanbul located in Karakoy district. It was written in a manuscript that there was a church there in the name of Surp Sarkis in 1360. It was rebuilt in 1431. Since it was fell down in 1958, architect Bedros Zabyan built a new one. It is one of the churches which was built during Turkish Republic period. Its conical dome differs it from other Armenian churches. In the crypt there are some nice tiles deriving from the previous church on the site.


Virgin Mary Suryani Church

It is the only church which was built by Suryanis (Assyrian) in Istanbul. It was built in Beyoglu - Taksim district in 1960 with the stones brought from Mardin where the head church of Suryanis is located. The Assyrian generally use churches that they either rent or borrow from the other denominations. There are also other sections in the church such as a school and an administration office.