Places To See in Sultanahmet Square
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Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis and it takes a lot of time to navigate around because many tourist spots are scattered around the two continents (Europe and Asia) that it straddles. However, you can visit many of them within walking distance from each other if you stay in Sultanahmet Square which is the old historical quarter of the city packed with so many wonderful sights.
The place abounds with numerous hotels and so many restaurants/cafes besides being well-served by the metro line that meanders throughout the city thus making your stay in the area so convenient.
Roman Emperor Constantine built this stadium in 203AD to hold chariot races with a seating capacity for 60,000 fans. The central part was lined with monumental columns and beautiful statues which, unfortunately, no longer exist today. It is now a large park that still follows the U-shape path and at the entrance stands the enclosed circular German Fountain with a lovely gold mosaic under its roof which was a gift by Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited in 1901.
Walk to the far end where you will see an ancient Egyptian obelisk built by Pharaoh Tutmoses III in 1450 BC. It was brought to Constantinople from Karnak in southern Egypt in 390 AD. A bit further from the obelisk are the remains of the Serpentine Column from Delphi, Greece. They look like twisted pipes and are said to be melted down from fallen Persian soldiers whom the Greeks defeated in battle.
This massive mosque was built in 1616 on the former grounds of Emperor Constantine’s Grand Palace. Six towering minarets surround the structure topped by a huge dome flanked by smaller cascading ones. Inside the amazing interiors, the 47-meter tall dome seems to float on air since there are no interior walls save for 5-meter wide columns in the corners of the main hall.
About 20,000 blue tiles cover the interior walls giving the mosque its name. The word “turquoise” was coined by the French from here for it meant “color of the Turks”. The tiles have geometric and abstract patterns since Muslims don’t depict living things like people and animals in their art.
You have to visit between prayer times when the mosque is open to the public. Also, proper etiquette must be observed with women having to wear veils and shoes have to be removed at the entrance where racks are provided outside the door.
SULTAN AHMET PARK
Between two of Istanbul’s venerable monuments is this large sprawling park with bathhouses built by the Romans in early 200AD. They fell into disrepair after 500 years but were resurrected by Sultan Suleyman in 1556 and are called the Baths of Roxelana, named after his scheming wife who managed to rise from being a concubine to become his chief wife.
In the center is a large fountain and the place becomes magical at night when the lights are turned on and you see the imposing Blue Mosque on one side and the ancient Aya Sofia on the other side.
It seems to be going back in time once you enter the enormous Aya Sofya (The Church of Divine Wisdom also called Haghia Sophia in Greek) which was built by the Byzantines in 537 AD when Istanbul was the center of Christianity and the richest city in the world. When the 60-meter high round dome was completed, it was the largest one ever built and stayed like that for 900 years before the enormous dome of the Florence Cathedral was built.
The history of the church closely mirrors that of the city as various powers occupied it and changed hands several times. In the 12th century, when the Christian Crusaders took control of the edifice, they took many of the riches inside to Venice. Then when the Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453, they turned it into a mosque, plastering the splendid gold mosaics to hide the Christian symbols (ironically preserving them for posterity) and adding 4 minaret spires outside. As the Ottoman Empire fell in the 1900s, the secular government of Turkey closed the mosque as a worship place and turned it into a museum which remains to this day.
The interiors are jaw-dropping, what with the sheer size of the scale and space. The beautiful, well-preserved ceiling mosaics depicting Jesus and Mother Mary stand side by side with the impressive 8-meter wide Arabic medallions in the apse. There is just so much to see that you could easily spend hours checking out every nook and cranny of the place with each one having a story behind it.
As you cross the main thoroughfare to the Cistern, look for the remnants of the Million Marker near the entrance. It used to be part of a central arch marking the mile marker zero where all distances in the Byzantine Empire were measured.
The Basilica Cistern is an ancient underground water reservoir that could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water built in 532 AD by Emperor Justinian. The enormous cavern measuring 168 x 65 meters is supported by 336 columns and a network of stone arches. A 20-kilometer long aqueduct (now long gone) used to supply water coming from the surrounding hills of the city.
The cistern was in use for about a thousand years until it was abandoned by the Ottomans who conquered Constantinople and built their own system with freshwater supply. It wasn’t until 1544 that it was rediscovered and only in 1985 when water was drained and mud was removed did authorities find out that the column supports were as tall as 10 meters! Surprisingly, they had a mixed design of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian capitals since they came from various far-flung structures across the empire.
The big draw here are the large Medusa heads whose eyes stare at you over the millennia. Visitors tread on wooden walkways winding around the place with the accompaniment of classical music and dripping water which eerily punctuate the stillness of the place. Two movies were shot here – one was James Bond’s “From Russia With Love” and the other was the recent Dan Brown thriller “Inferno”.
For 400 years the Ottomans ruled their empire from this vast palace which is a series of pavilions and enormous courtyards housing the residential and administrative headquarters of the sultans. It was transformed into a sprawling museum (150 acres in total) by the Turkish government after the fall of the Ottoman rulers with hundreds of rooms and chambers turned into opulent pavilions showcasing the wealth accumulated over hundreds of years.
You have to go through different courtyards to see the enormous displays in each section such as the armory, the treasury, and the palace kitchens to name a few. The gardens themselves are worth the visit and the views of the Bosphorus from the ramparts of the palace walls are sublime. Oh, and don’t forget the Harem which was the imperial family quarters but popularly known as the residence of the sultan’s concubines who numbered in the thousands, gathered from the furthest corners of the Ottoman Empire. This labyrinth of corridors and chambers is quite a sight to behold with splendid rooms where various activities such as make-up, embroidery, and dancing were taught. It will take you another ticket though to visit it with a tour guide aside from the entrance to the palace itself.
So there you go, six sights to visit and all within a stone’s throw from each other. You can do it all in one day or, better yet, spend two days to savor the rich history and ambiance of each place.
Once you get tired of walking, you can easily go to a nearby restaurant or cafe lined up on the main street to rest your legs while you sample the local scrumptious gastronomic fare. Now that sure would be a great Turkish delight!