01 of 06
Overview of Things to See with a Day in Istanbul
Istanbul is one of the highlights of a cruise of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Many cruise ships use Istanbul as an embarkation or disembarkation point for cruises of the Greek Isles and Turkey. I've visited Istanbul several times and love the exotic nature of the city and its fascinating sights that tantalize the senses like the Spice Market. Seeing the magnificent Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace and watching the bustling channel from the deck of the ship in the early morning are sights I will remember forever. It's certainly one of best sail away ports in the world.
Istanbul is spread over two continents, divided by the Bosphorus. Most of the more famous sites are on the European side of the channel. Cruise ships dock on the European side of Istanbul between the Dolmabahçe Palace and the Golden Horn, which serves as Istanbul's harbor. It is actually a flooded river valley that flows southwest into the Bosphorus. Turkish legend says that the Golden Horn got its name from all the valuables the Byzantines threw into it during the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Supposedly, the waters of the harbor took on a golden color. As discussed in this article, several of the "must see" sites in Istanbul lie on the south side of the Golden Horn, and are a short distance from the cruise ship port. Many passengers embark or disembark in Istanbul and take the time to spend an extra day or two in the city. Others take side trips to Cappadocia or Pamukkale or other historic places in Turkey.Continue to 2 of 6 below.
02 of 06
Hippodrome of Istanbul
Tours of Istanbul often begin at the Hippodrome, which is a great place to start learning about Istanbul.
The Hippodrome was built by the Romans in about 200 AD. It was originally used for chariot racing and other public events, and the stadium surrounding the track held over 100,000 people. The Hippodrome was the center of life in Byzantine Constantinople for over 1,000 years and of Ottoman life in Istanbul for over 400 years. It was also the center of numerous political and civil battles, some brutal. The bloodiest brawl occurred in 532 AD when two rival chariot racing teams ignited a riot that resulted in most of the city being burned. The revolt ended when an army of Justinian's mercenaries massacred about 30,000 people who were trapped in the Hippodrome.
Very little of the Hippodrome survives today, and the area is now a large park adjacent to the Blue Mosque. The floor of the Hippodrome lies buried under 16 feet of soil and the track is now a paved road. Emperor Constantine once lined the Hippodrome with large columns, but only three survive in the park. Some of the rest were taken by the Crusaders and can be found in European locations outside of Istanbul such as Venice. The oldest remaining column is called the Egyptian Obelisk, which was built in Egypt in 1500 BC, and once stood in Luxor before Constantine brought it to his city. Experts believe the beautifully carved column is only about 1/3 its original height, the rest being broken while it was being shipped to Constantinople. Next to the Egyptian Obelisk is the spiral Serpentine Column, dating back to 479 BC. It was brought to Istanbul from Delphi and originally consisted of three intertwined serpents supporting a large cauldron. The cauldron and snakes' heads were broken off the column in the 18th century. The third remaining column stands over 100 feet high and is called the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Not much is known about this unadorned column other than that it was once covered in bronze before being looted by the Crusaders.
Let's leave the Hippodrome and move into the Blue Mosque.Continue to 3 of 6 below.
03 of 06
Blue Mosque of Istanbul
Leaving the Hippodrome, visitors to Istanbul enter the courtyard of Sultan Ahmet Camii, or the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque of Istanbul with its six minarets towering over the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus is one of the first things a cruise ship passenger will see when sailing into Istanbul from the Mediterranean Sea. The Blue Mosque is perched on a hill overlooking the Marmara, and the magnificent exterior domes and minarets greeting incoming visitors to Istanbul will make you even more eager to explore the city. The exterior is not blue; the mosque's nickname comes from the spectacular interior wall-covering of over 20,000 blue tiles from Iznik. The Hippodrome, which was once the center of Byzantine Constantinople, is adjacent to the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I in the early 1600's, and it has a classic Ottoman design. He charged Mehmet Aga, the imperial architect, with building a mosque that would rival the nearby Aya Sofya (also called Hagia Sophia or the Church of the Divine Wisdom) built by Justinian a thousand years before. Most visitors to Istanbul today believe that Aga met his charge, but the mosque caused quite a sensation in the 17th century among the more pious Muslims. They thought the six minarets were somewhat sacrilegious because, until that time, only the Great Mosque in Mecca had that many. In addition to the six minarets surrounding the mosque, the exterior of the Blue Mosque is highlighted by a series of domes that are designed to bring the visitors' eyes towards the heavens. The whole view is really quite awesome.
The Blue Mosque is located in the European Sultanahmet District of Istanbul just a short ride across the bridge over the Golden Horn from the cruise ship pier. The Blue Mosque is probably Istanbul's most famous landmark and was built by some of the same stonemasons who helped construct the Taj Mahal in India. The architect used classical Ottoman design in the mosque, and the numerous domes and half-domes used throughout the mosque continually draw the eyes of the visitors skyward to heaven. Most of these domes and semi-domes are best seen from the courtyard. The six minarets set the Blue Mosque apart from other mosques in Istanbul.
The inside of the Blue Mosque is flooded with light due to the over 250 windows that were formerly filled with 17th century Venetian stained glass. The Venetian stained glass is gone, but the effect is still quite light and airy. One note of caution--you will need to remove your shoes at the entrance of the mosque, and women will need to cover their heads. Men should remove their hats. If the attendants think you are dressed inappropriately for local standards (i.e. bare shoulders or knees), they will lend you a robe to wear.
The 20,000 magnificent blue ceramic tiles covering much of the interior of the Blue Mosque and giving the mosque its nickname are the first things noticed when entering. These tiles are quite splendid and were produced in Iznik, which was once known as Nicaea in early Christian times. Workers in Isnik, about 55 miles from Istanbul, used local deposits of fine clay to create their pottery, which is similar to porcelain. Sultan Ahmet banned others from ordering tiles from Isnik while the Blue Mosque was under construction, which may have contributed to the industry's subsequent decline in the 17th century.
Looking around the inside of the mosque, there's a lot to absorb. Anyone who has never visited a mosque will first notice that there are no images of living things inside (either human or animal), as these are forbidden by Islam. The geometric and abstract artwork is quite impressive, however. Four large 16-foot diameter columns dominate the interior of the Blue Mosque, supporting the huge dome above. The doors and shutters on the windows were intricately carved with latticework, as was the imperial loge where the sultan and his entourage could pray safely behind screens away from would-be assassins. Flowering arabesque designs are painted on the inside of the domes and semi-domes. The mihrab, which is an ornate niche in the wall marking the direction of Mecca, has a piece of the sacred Black Stone from the Kaaba in Mecca. Muslims always kneel and face the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia when praying. Next to the mihrab is the minbar, the high pulpit where the imam delivers his Friday sermon. The mosque has separate prayer areas for women and men. Unfortunately, the prayer carpets covering the floor are no longer hand-woven because people kept stealing them for their value. Muslims are called to pray five times each day, and so all mosques have a clock. The one in the Blue Mosque is a grandfather clock. The exact time to pray is set by the sunrise and sunset each day, so it changes with the seasons. The muezzin used to call the faithful to prayer from the balcony of the minaret, but nowadays loudspeakers broadcast the call across the city.
Tourists exit the Blue Mosque through a side door. We next walked the short distance to the Basilica Cistern, which many consider the most unusual tourist attraction in Istanbul, and then on to the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya or Church of the Divine Wisdom).Continue to 4 of 6 below.
04 of 06
Basilica Cistern of Istanbul
The Basilica Cistern is within easy walking distance of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. It was built by Justinian in 532 AD, and it is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. This huge underground cistern, which measures 70 meters by 140 meters, once held over 80,000 cubic meters of water. The vaulted brick roof is supported by 336 columns, each over 30 feet tall, and water was pumped through over 40 miles of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.
Although the extra water was needed by the city during long sieges, Justinian originally built it to correct water shortages at his nearby Great Palace. Visitors to the Basilica Cistern today descend underground via stairway and use walkways over the remaining water to explore the mysterious cavern. The columns vary in design and intricacy with different capitals and bases. It is very interesting and well worth a short visit. It is also cool inside and is a welcome respite from the heat outside if you are visiting Istanbul in the summer.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06
Hagia Sophia of Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya or Church of the Divine Wisdom) is among the world's greatest architectural achievements. Built by Justinian, the church was completed in 537 AD. Its size and grandeur demonstrates the sophistication of the architects in the 6th-century Byzantine capital and influenced building for centuries after. Unlike many early Christian churches, this church was not named for a saint but was called Sancta Sophia in Latin, Hagia (or Haghia) Sophia in Greek, Aya Sofya in Turkish, and the Church of the Divine Wisdom in English. The Hagia Sophia was the world's greatest Christian church until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans converted the church into a mosque and added minarets and fountains. The Ottomans also plastered over some of the original Christian mosaics of the holy family since the Muslim religion forbids images in their mosques. Aya Sofya was used as a mosque until 1935 when it became a museum. Today many of the Christian mosaics have been uncovered and stand next to the Ottoman modifications added in the 15th century. Pictures of Jesus and Mary are intermingled with the muezzin mahfili and mihrab added by the Muslims. This gives the Hagia Sophia a very distinct look, much different from the Blue Mosque.
When you enter Hagia Sophia, the vastness of the 105-foot dome towering 184 feet overhead is astounding, especially given that the building was constructed 1500 years ago! Through the centuries, earthquakes have damaged the building, and it has been fortified numerous times. Since this was Christendom's largest early church, it was decorated with the finest materials and supposedly housed an array of Christian relics, including the True Cross, Jesus' swaddling clothes, and the table used in the Last Supper. These relics were collected in the Holy Land by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, and sent to Constantinople. The walls are covered with a variety of the finest marbles, but the mosaics are the most impressive part of the interior. Originally, all of the interior not faced with marble were covered in gold, green, blue, or red mosaics. These simple geometric designs covered over 200,000 square feet of the interior, and figurative mosaics were added later.
Unfortunately, much of the original church's Byzantine furnishings were either destroyed by the crusading Christians in June 1204 or by the Ottomans in May 1453. Some of the Ottoman decorative pieces were preserved, including two large alabaster urns and four large gold medallions with Arabic script.
After touring Hagia Sophia, you might want to enjoy a special lunch at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel before touring the Topkapi Palace.Continue to 6 of 6 below.
06 of 06
Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Sultan Mehmet the Ottoman Conqueror built the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul shortly after he conquered the city in the 15th century. The palace was expanded by successive sultans and remained the sultan's residence for the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. It has opulent rooms, fine art collections, and peaceful courtyards, and is one of the highlights of the city. When looking at a map of Topkapi, the palace complex looks immense. The palace has been a museum since 1924. Like many national museums, visitors can easily spend at least a day exploring all of the buildings and grounds. Visitors with less time will have to do what we did--choose a few exhibits to tour and hope to return someday for more.
The palace has four courtyards, each of which is more private than the first. The Imperial Gate leads to the first courtyard, and the twin towers of the Gate of Salutations serve as the entry to the second courtyard of Topkapi Palace. Each of the buildings inside harbors a different type of treasure. For example, the old kitchen houses a wonderful collection of priceless Chinese porcelain and some huge ancient kitchen utensils. The Treasury has exquisite jewels, many of which are embedded in daggers, chainmail, or other weapons of war. The Treasury also has golden thrones encrusted with precious stones and the 86-carat Spoonmaker's Diamond, the 5th largest in the world, which once adorned the turban of Mehmet IV.
Some of the relics in the Topkapi Palace are harder to authenticate. Among them is a cabinet containing bones from the skull and hands of John the Baptist. The Pavilion of the Holy Mantle has some of the holiest relics of Islam, most of which found their way to Istanbul during the reign of Selim the Grim who conquered both Egypt and Arabia. The most sacred treasure is the mantle once worn by the Prophet Mohammed. A holy man continually chants passages from the Koran night and day over a gold chest containing the mantle. In the same room are hairs from Mohammed, two of his swords, a letter written by him and an impression of his footprint.
The harem is very intriguing. Just the idea of over 1,000 wives and concubines living together in a lush area guarded by black slave eunuchs and frequented by sultans and their sons probably sounds more exotic and interesting than it actually was. The concubines were foreign slaves and all hoped to become a sultan's favorite or provide him a son. Since Islam forbids enslaving Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the girls were often brought from far away, many from Russia. The concubines were educated and schooled in the ways of Islam life and culture. Many were eventually granted their freedom to marry powerful men in the empire, thus securing loyalty to the sultan. If you visit Topkapi, be sure to sign up early for the guided tour of the harem. You can't enter otherwise, and the tours fill up early in the day.
It's easy to have a wonderful day in Istanbul. But, one day is just not long enough. Looking out over the Bosphorus and the city below, it's important to promise to return one day in the future.