One of the largest cities in Europe, Istanbul is also one of the oldest as it was founded over 2500 years ago (around 660 BCE) with the name of Byzantium. It was later called Constantinopolis (Constantinople) when it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, but it has changed name several times during its long history.
Due to its strategic position, on the Bosphorus peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, the history of Istanbul is long and marked by many major political, religious, artistic and historical events. Such a rich history has left a number of masterpieces and a very peculiar skyline that reflects the numerous changes occurred over many centuries.
Four areas of the city of Istanbul are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List as “Historic Areas of Istanbul”. These areas are: the Archaeological Park, at the tip of the Historic Peninsula, i.e. the promontory between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara; the area surrounding Suleymaniye Mosque, including bazaars and vernacular timber houses; the area around Zeyrek Mosque, and the area along the Theodosian land walls with the remains of the Palace of Blachernae.
Writing and describing a city like Istanbul isn’t easy and the history is already well covered in hundreds of different website. This post, however, will be split in two parts. In this first part I want to focus only on the remarkable Archaeological Park, part of the World Heritage.
The Archaeological Park is where many of the most recognizable landmarks of the city are located: the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, the ancient Hippodrome of Constantine and more.
The Hippodrome of Constantine used to be where the modern Sultanahmet Square is located. It’s a good point to start the exploration of the area as it is next to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. Unfortunately when I visited Istanbul the square was under renovation and I couldn’t walk around it or go near the obelisks. It still was, to me, a remarkable memory of the ancient history of the city.
Another memory of the ancient times, the 6th century Basilica Cistern, is hidden underground, not far from Sultanahmet Square. The Basilica Cistern is the largest of many ancient cisterns that still lie underground in Istanbul. Hundreds of columns hold the vaults and the arches that form the roof of the cistern and water still fills up the place. It’s incredible and very well preserved. It doesn’t take long to visit it, therefore it’s a good idea to go underground for a while and enjoy this cool place, especially on a hot day.
Next to Sultanahmet Square is the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque for the hand-painted blue tiles that decorate the interior walls of the mosque.
The Blue Mosque is an extraordinary work of Islamic architecture. From outside it’s magnificent, with its series of domes and six minarets, and it can be recognized from almost anywhere in the city. The inside is also impressive as it is completely covered in tiles, and there are tens of stained glass windows that project their colours around the halls. The ceiling is a masterpiece, I couldn’t stop looking up when I was in the prayer area. Hundreds of lamps hang from several huge chandeliers and the cables holding them create an intricate pattern that goes all the way up to the domes.
After the Blue Mosque, my improvised itinerary brought me to the spectacular Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia was built in 537 AD as a Christian church, on a site where two previous Christian churches once stood. For a short period in the 13th century it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral, before turning back to being a Greek Orthodox church. In 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque, the biggest one of the city until the construction of the Blue Mosque. Finally, in 1935, the first Turkish President, Atatürk, transformed this incredible building into a museum.
Because of its troubled history, Hagia Sophia is an incredible example of very interesting architecture. From outside it shows its magnificent Byzantine architecture with the addition of four minarets from the Ottoman period. The interior is an unbelievable mix of Christianity and Islam. There are mosaics, marbles, pillars, a huge dome, and everywhere is a mix of Christian and Islamic features and remains.
I was really amazed to see the Christian mosaic of the Virgin and Child, on the ceiling of the apse, right above the Islamic mihrab. There are many other Christian mosaics around the building and lots of Islamic elements. It is really astonishing.
The tomb of Sultan Selim II is located in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia. It is a small beautiful domed building which contains the sarcophaguses of the Sultan and 41 other members of his family.
Leaving Hagia Sophia from its eastern gate, I could enter the Topkapi Palace through the Imperial Gate, the main access to the first courtyard of the palace.
The Palace of Topkapi, located on the northern end of the Sarayburnu promontory, was initially one of the residences of the Ottoman sultans and it is now a museum. The palace complex covers a very extensive area and it is divided into four main courtyards and hundreds of rooms of which only some can be visited today.
Behind the Imperial gate is the First Courtyard, essentially a garden that leads to the Gate of Salutation, the access to the inner core of the Palace. In the First Courtyard it is located the old Greek Orthodox church of Hagia Irene, today a museum, also included in the World Heritage List.
A visit to the palace is extremely interesting. The history of this place spans several centuries and the Ottoman architecture is breathtaking. I did visit all the rooms that were accessible and spent some time outside enjoying a rest once in a while in the courtyards. I particularly loved the tiles that cover many surfaces, with colourful decorations and patterns, that gives the place that characteristic feeling of Islamic (or, in this particular case, Ottoman) architecture.
One section of the palace is occupied by the Imperial Harem that used to be the residence of the Sultan’s mother, the wives and concubines of the Sultan and also the rest of his family, including their servants as well. The harem itself was made of more than 400 rooms of which some are remarkable. For the harem I had to pay a different entrance ticket, as it wasn’t included in the ticket of the palace, but it was absolutely worth the price. I’m so glad I didn’t cheap out on that.
Being located on a hill, the palace offers good views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. I particularly liked the view from the upper terrace that is reached from the Fourth Courtyard, despite of the inclement weather of that day.
The visit to the Topkapi Palace concluded my visit of the Archaeological Park of Istanbul. In the Archaeological park it is also included Little Hagia Sophia, to the south of the Blue Mosque, a former Byzantine church converted into a mosque, which I haven’t visited.
Time needed to visit the Archaeological Park
I am a fast (often too fast) walker and I don’t usually rest very much during my explorations. Even so, it took the most part of a very long day to visit the Archaeological Park of Istanbul and I’ve also left out a few minor sights. It could be a good idea to split the visit in two consecutive days, especially if interested in learning more about the history of each place in details. In any case, although the area is big and there are thousands of tourists, it can be covered on foot and it feels like a walk through history, from the ancient times to the Ottoman Empire, to modern days.
My first impression of Istanbul was that this city can be overwhelming in all the treasures and masterpieces. It’s a place so rich in history, monuments, feelings, that needs its proper time for any exploration and deserves more than one visit. The Archaeological Park, in particular, is grand and won’t fail to leave anyone in awe.