Whatever you have read about the Church of Aghia Sophia, nothing can prepare you for the emotional impact of standing beneath that imposing dome (55m high!), which seems, thanks to the unsurpassable technical genius of the architects Anthemius and Isidorus, to be floating in the air above your head. This supreme example of Byzantine church building was constructed in the 6th century AD, in the reign of the Emperor Justinian. A superb feat of engineering and an architectural masterpiece, it has been for many centuries a symbol of the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 it was converted into a mosque, and since 1935 has been a museum.
An example of classical Ottoman architecture, the Sultanahmet, also known as the Blue Mosque, is the Islamic response to Aghia Sophia and stands directly opposite it. The magnificent mosque was built by the architect Mehmet Aga between 1609 and 1616; one of its most striking features is its exquisite decoration, with its 20,000 blue tiles from Isnik – which give it its name – and its six minarets.
This huge palace complex, built by Mehmed II above the remains of the acropolis of ancient Byzantium, was not only the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans, but also the administrative centre where soldiers and public servants were trained. The Sultan Abdul Metzit I abandoned the palace in 1853 and moved to the newer and more splendid Dolma Bahce. Visitors can enter the Treasury and admire the dazzling stones and jewels, and wander through the labyrinth of the harem with its 300 rooms, once home to the wives, courtesans and children of the Sultans.
Address: Topkapi Sarayi, Bab-i Humayun Caddesi, Sultanahmet
This is one of the most evocative locations of the city, no accident that it is known as the Yerebatan Sarai, or Underground Palace. This underground water storage facility, built by Justinian to meet the whole city’s need for water, was constructed with an opulence that would equally have suited a royal palace. The whole structure rests on a veritable forest of 336 marble columns, 8 metres high. To descend into this remarkable place is truly like an initiation into secret mysteries.
Address: Yerebatan Caddesi 13
Palace of the Porphyrogenitus:
One of the few surviving examples of a Byzantine palace, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus or Tekfur Saray is an impressive three-storey example of a late-Byzantine home. It is said that this was one of the places where the Byzantine empresses went to give birth to the children who would bear the title of Porphyrogenitus, i.e. the child born while his father occupied the imperial throne.
Address: Sisehane Caddesi
The most important surviving building of the Paleologue dynasty, and one of the most important achievements of Byzantine art, the Hora Monastery has such remarkable mosaic decoration that it has aptly been described as one of the world’s greatest picture galleries. The Christian monastery, renamed the Kariye Mosque in the 16th century, and functioning since 1958 as a museum, has a collection of amazing mosaics of the life of the Virgin and the childhood of Christ. It is a good idea to join one of the guided tours, so that the guide can explain the scenes the mosaics represent.
Address: Edirne Kapi, Kariye Cami Sokak
Walls of Theodosius:
These are the first great historical structures that greet the visitor to Istanbul, as he enters the Byzantine part of the city from the East. From the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Walls of Theodosius have protected the city since 448 AD, and constitute its most important defensive feature. You should definitely take a walk along or on top of the walls, and pause at the impressive Heptapyrgion, the bulwark of seven towers.
Although it lacks the magnificence one would expect from the seat of the Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is nevertheless a place that visitors to the city should not miss. Although the Patriarchate has been in its present location since the 17th century, it assumed its current form in the days of the Patriarch Gregory V in 1797. You should visit the Patriarchal Church of Saint George and admire the imposing altar screen and the beautiful patriarchal throne, 4m high, and the collection of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons.
The Dolma Bahce is without any doubt the closest thing Istanbul has to a western-style palace. It was the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922, and consists of 250 opulent rooms, with exquisite decoration, works of art, furnishings and fabrics. Time truly seems to have stopped here, at a moment of incredible luxury and magnificence. Particularly striking is the huge crystal chandelier in the throne room.
Address: Dolmabahce Besiktas Ιstanbul, www.dolmabahce.gov.tr
Museum of Modern Art:
Housed in former warehouses on the Bosporus, the museum opened its doors in 2004, as the first museum of modern art in Turkey. The remarkable permanent collection offers a full view of Turkish art from the 19th to the early 20th century. The museum also stages impressive temporary exhibitions, as well as workshops, festivals and a variety of other events.
Address: Meclis-i Mebusan Cad. Liman İşletmeleri Sahası Antrepo No: 4, Karakioi, Web: www.istanbulmodern.org
One of the most important museums of its kind, the Archaeological Museum is home to more than a million exhibits, from ancient Greek times through the Byzantine era to the Ottoman Empire. Among the most striking exhibits are the sarcophagi found in the Sidona area of modern Lebanon.
Address: Yulhane Park, in the grounds of the Top Kapi
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art:
Once the Palace of Ibrahim Pasha, the museum houses 40,000 examples of Turkish and Islamic art from the 7th to the 19th century, with fine specimens of Islamic calligraphy, tiles, rugs and household utensils from the daily lives of the various Turkish tribes.
Address: Atmeydani Sok, Sultanahmet
The Rumeli Castle:
An imposing fortification at the narrowest point of the Bosporus, the castle was constructed a year before the fall of the city by Mehmed the Conqueror, to prevent any reinforcements reaching Constantinople from the East. Set in a beautiful natural setting, the castle is a fine example of mediaeval engineering, with fine views and an open-air theatre, where performances are staged during the summer Theatre Festival.
A visit to the hamam or bathhouse in Istanbul is a memorable experience. The famous Çemberlitas, located close to the column of Justinian, was designed by the architect Mimar Sinan in 1584 and has been in continuous use as a bathhouse ever since. The baths are spotlessly clean and atmospheric, with a beautiful marble steam room and a range of agreeable treatments.
Address: Vezirhan Caddesi 8, www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr
Located at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, where traditional minarets tower above a great modern metropolis, Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey with a population of more than 12 million. It is built on the two banks of the Golden Horn and for centuries has looked out across the Bosporus, its densely crowded streets and buildings climbing the sides of seven hills. In Sultanahmet, the area where most of the historic buildings are located, visitors can admire masterpieces of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. On the opposite shore, the ‘European’ Pera, cosmopolitan entertainments show the smiling face of the city, while in Nisantasi and the Grand Bazaar fanatical shoppers will find their nirvana. However you decide to approach the city, Istanbul will take your breath away! Book now at e-tickeshop.com and discover a legendary city full of delightful contrasts.