A walk through history
When one thinks about Istanbul, there are a few words that pop up in our minds: History, Empires, Sultans and Power are some of them. And even before landing in Istanbul you can see why everyone makes these associations. Incredible mosques, churches, palaces and bridges merge together on a city that was once the center of the world.
Nowadays, millions of people roam through the streets of Sultanahmet, the heart of the old city. Here you can find most of Istanbul’s landmarks such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hippodrome and the Sunken Palace.
So with so many things to see, where should you start, right? Well I would say by the Hippodrome: a huge square, where horse races took place 1000 years ago. At that time, if something was happening, it would have been there. Today, there are 4 monuments left in the area:
- The Kaiser Wilhelm’s fountain, a gift from the German Emperor in 1905, who wanted an Alliance between the two countries;
- The pink Obelisk of Theodosius, carved in Egypt from 1549 to 1503 B.C (!!!!) around 3500 years ago! And it’s still in a perfect state (they must have had really good stones by then). It was brought to Istanbul in 390 A.D by Theodosius the Great and it stands on a marble billboard which has him and his family watching the horse races carved on it.
- The Serpent Column which originally had 3 serpents’ heads on top was an offering to Apollo and it is 2500 years old. One of the heads missing can still be observed in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul.
- The last obelisk (Walled Obelisk) was built to indicate where the Hippodrome ended. It was originally covered with gilded bronze plaques, but they were sacked by Latin troops (who thought it was gold) in the Fourth Crusade.
After this (small) introduction to the several empires that ruled in Istanbul, it’s time to see the Blue Mosque. Now that you got your blue scarf (if you are a woman) and took of your shoes, you are ready to enter in one of the most spectacular buildings humanity (or Sedefkar Mehmed Agha) has created. Inside, you will find thousands of bluish hand painted tiles and huge domes and semi domes that scream “magnificence”. Above the praying area, a huge circle of lights, that makes the atmosphere kind of magical.
Just after you leave the Mosque, you will see Hagia Sophia, standing proudly in front of you. I strongly suggest that you say no for now to the majestic museum and take another direction, just for the simple fact that you will immediately forget what you saw and will never be surprised by any other attraction again. That’s the power of Hagia Sophia!
A “lighter” option is the Basilica Cistern, just around the corner: a thrilling and mysterious underground palace – as the Turks call it. It’s perfect to relax and see something very unusual. Be sure you don’t miss the creepy Medusa’s heads.
Sultanahmet is more than all the big attractions. It is narrow streets with nice restaurants and local shops. Take a walk and explore it, don’t stick just to the main roads. You never know the hidden gems you might find.
And because this post is already way too long, let’s end it with the single greatest attraction of Istanbul: Hagia Sophia. This incredible church-mosque-museum was built in 6 AD and for almost 1000 years was the biggest church in the world. It was also completed in 5 years.
I think there’s no picture that represents its greatness and beauty, and it’s impossible for your chin not to drop when you get in for the first time. Take your time to appreciate it before starting taking pictures like a maniac (yes, it happens to all of us…).
By the time you get out Hagia Sophia you have conquered Sultanahmet! Congradulations! And now you ask: What about the Topkapi Palace? Well, that’s enough material for a whole new post.