Your Guide To Exploring Ancient Istanbul

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Walking through the main entrance into the Blue Mosque, and among the hordes of people filing through, even the local people are looking upwards and gawping in awe. Those that had the presence of mind to bring cameras snap away at one of the most beautiful religious sites in the world - more than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles decorate the interior and this is how the magnificent Sultan Ahmed mosque received its unofficial name. Further inside and the overwhelming scale becomes apparent with the 260 stained glass windows illuminating the central prayer space which seems to go on forever. The crowd inside is basically made up of two separate camps - Muslim worshippers who are here to pray and non-Muslim visitors who are welcome to wander inside (if dressed appropriately) and marvel at the architectural beauty of the Blue Mosque. It’s a scene that typifies the essence of Istanbul, a grand city and romantic getaway which straddles both sides of the Bosphorus River which means it literally sits in both Asia and Europe. 

Istanbul's Muslim Heritage

Around 98% of the city's population is Muslim, and this provides a paradox at street level. It’s a secular country, although most its inhabitants follow their religious beliefs - some of the men wear traditional headgear and grow their beards and women wrap traditional headscarves around them. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that Istanbul is a modern city - men and women walk the streets in European-style clothing and there’s an abundance of high fashion shops, pavement cafés and trendy bars. The biggest fast food chain is Burger King and around Ramadan if offers a seasonal “Sultan’s Menu” which consists of a burger, fries, soft drink, tea, baklava pastry and a fresh date, the fruit that Mohammed is said to have eaten to break his fast.

Many volumes have been written about Istanbul’s fascinating and historic past. Over 26 centuries, emperors, kings and sultans have all passed through Istanbul and left their mark on this vast, bustling metropolis, packed with remnants of past imperial might. The English writer Sacheverell Sitwell summed up the city’s imposing history and physical presence: “Our ship makes a sweep towards it and in that moment we see before and in front of us the opening of the Golden Horn, and one after another all the Imperial Mosques of Istanbul standing against and upon the skyline. It is the most sensational revelation: one after another of these great domes as in a panorama, they stand there like huge kettledrums with something menacing and martial in their air, and in that moment it is more of a capital than any other city, more than London, or than Rome, or Paris.” Others have used similar prose to capture Istanbul’s allure and the “kettledrums” to which Sitwell refers are probably the city’s “big three” - Topkapi Palace, the Basilica of Saint Sophia, and the Blue Mosque. They are three of the most historically significant sites in Istanbul, and conveniently located within walking distance of one another in the Sultanahmet district.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque stands out against the cityscape more than the others because it’s one of the biggest in Istanbul, and with its six minarets, it is truly a unique structure. Built between 1606 and 1616, most people don’t realise it’s actually 1,000 years newer than Saint Sophia which sits right across the road. Also known as Hagia Sofia, Sancta Sophia and the Church of the Divine Wisdom, the Byzantine church is one of the largest ancient buildings in the world. It was completed in 532 during the reign of the Christian Roman Emperor Justinian and is considered the most important piece of Byzantine art and Eastern Christian church architecture. The church covers a massive 7,500 square metres with a dome that’s 56 metres high and 32 metres wide. For nearly a thousand years it was a church, until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (as it was called then) and converted it into a mosque.

Topkapi Palace is now Turkey’s leading museum and was formerly the Imperial residence of the Great Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years after it was built in 1465. It’s a sprawling complex made up of four main courtyards and dozens of smaller buildings. At one stage it was home to nearly 5,000 people and there are hundreds of rooms and chambers but only the important ones are open to the public. The highlight is the Harem which can only be seen by guided tour (and it fills up quickly), but otherwise it’s possible to wander at your own leisure to view the classic Ottoman architecture, art, treasure, and weapons. It can take a full day, or even more, to get around the “big three”, and it’s an exercise that can be overwhelming and exhausting, and that still leaves other great historical remnants to be discovered including the Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops among a vast labyrinth of streets and the Byzantine Cisterns under the city.

Getting off the tourist trackl is an important way to actually experience the Istanbul that the locals enjoy, from sipping tea or a mind-awakening Turkish coffee in a suburban café to taking a trip on a ferryboat across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia, to fishing with the men off the Galata Bridge - Istanbul possesses an energy and life force that few places in the world can match.

Ben Hall


  • 2

    Posted by Kevin on 24th Sep 2018

    Isn't Turkey not a safe place to travel to right now or am I wrong?

  • 4
    Loved Istanbul

    Posted by Angela on 24th Sep 2018

    had a stopover there a couple of years ago and loved it....nice people, great sights and great have to watch the taxi drivers though LOL