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Your Guide To Exploring Ancient Istanbul

Ben Hall

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.

Istanbul | Flow Through the City of Tales - Turkish Airlines 02:19

From the top of the Galata Tower, where Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the Bosphorus, to the Grand Bazaar that holds the secrets of Chinese silk... Are you ready to witness the tale of Istanbul through a magical and poetic story? About the Film: Istanbul is the main hub of Turkish Airlines, a unique city that we take pride promoting at every single opportunity. Together with Rob Whitworth, a world-famous figure known for his talent in filmmaking, we created a film that introduces the historical, cultural and social aspects of the city to a global audience. The film that was shot in 4K resolution is simply a spectacular visual feast for the eyes. About Turkish Airlines: Established in 1933 with a fleet of five aircraft, Star Alliance member Turkish Airlines is the airline that flies to more countries and international destinations than any other airline in the world. Turkish Airlines has a fleet of over 300 (passenger and cargo) aircraft flying to over 300 destinations worldwide. Since April 2019, Turkey’s national flag carrier is operating from its new hub, Istanbul Airport, which is set to be the world’s largest with an annual passenger capacity of 200 million once all phases are complete. Recognized for its excellent products and services around the globe, Turkish Airlines bridges cultures and continents from its hub in Istanbul, with Turkish hospitality at its heart. More information about Turkish Airlines can be found on its official website or its social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Türk Hava Yolları Hakkında: 1933 yılında 5 uçaktan oluşan mütevazı bir filo ile kurulan Star Alliance üyesi Türk Hava Yolları, bugün 300’den fazla (yolcu ve kargo) uçak yer alan filosu ile dünyada 300’den fazla noktaya uçan havayolu şirketidir. Türkiye’nin bayrak taşıyıcı havayolu Nisan 2019’dan bu yana, tüm aşamaları tamamlandıktan sonra yıllık 200 milyon yolcu kapasitesiyle dünyanın en büyük havalimanı olacak İstanbul Havalimanı’nda faaliyet gösteriyor. Dünya genelindeki mükemmel ürün ve hizmetleri ile tanınan Türk Hava Yolları, Türk misafirperverliği ile İstanbul'daki merkezinde kültürleri ve kıtaları birbirine bağlıyor. Türk Hava Yolları ile ilgili daha geniş bilgiye web adresinden veya Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn ve Instagram hesapları üzerinden ulaşılabilir.

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  1. Posted by on 24th Sep 2018 Verified Customer

    Safety! 2 Star Review

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

  2. Posted by on 24th Sep 2018 Verified Customer

    Loved Istanbul 4 Star Review

    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