One of the most striking things about Istanbul at the time of our visit was the abundance of cranes and scaffolding. Almost every ‘sight’ in the city was in the process of being renovated, obscuring some part of the exterior or interior with scaffolding. While it took something away from the overall beauty and symmetry of the structure, the renovators always worked on just one part of the building at a time, leaving plenty of internal space untouched for the appreciation of visitors. Many construction projects were also underway – new public spaces, car parks, wharf extensions and waterfront improvements – all of which made the city feel progressive and vibrant.
Next to the transport hub of Emininou is Sultanahmet, a region containing most of Istanbul’s most well-known sights and easily accessible from Emininou on foot or by tram. After walking up to the region’s high point we first visited the Hagia Sophia museum followed by what is commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque. Both are superb examples of Byzantine and Islamic architecture. The buildings complement each other both in scale and design and their distinct presence clearly defines the skyline of Sultanahmet when approaching Istanbul from the Sea of Marmara.
The Hagia Sophia was undergoing renovations at the time of our visit making half of the interior inaccessible. Regardless, it was still possible to appreciate the scale of the structure, its complex history and its grandeur. The Haghia Sophia was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, first becoming a Christian church in the year 537. In 1453 Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror, converted it to a mosque and in 1935 the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Ataturk, declared it a museum.
Several hundred metres from the Hagia Sophia is another grand structure, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque). While the Hagia Sophia no longer functions as a place of worship, the Blue Mosque opens to Muslims during the daily calls to prayer. During other times it is accessible to the general public so when the afternoon prayers were finished we removed our shoes and went inside. The entire interior is supported by four massive stone columns and the floor is covered with a deep red carpet. Large chandeliers, suspended above the floor from cables attached to the roof, provide lighting to complement the natural light of more than 200 stained glass windows. The interior walls are generously decorated with Iznik ceramic tiles describing intricate geometric patterns and the upper levels are dominated by blue paint.
The Basilica Cistern is next to the Haghia Sophia and is a massive underground room supported by a forest of 336 marble columns. It was used to store up to 80,000 cubic metres of water, delivered to the city via aqueducts from a source near the Black Sea, almost 20 kilometres away. Today it is possible to walk through the dark softly lit space on wooden platforms raised above the floor. While it’s mostly devoid of water, it still has a ‘wet’ feel, as water drips down the sides of the columns. There is a pool towards the back of the space fed by a pipe in the wall. It is a dark and eerie place in which carp can be seen swimming silently though its murky waters. Next to it the base of one of the support columns is a massive upside down head carved to resemble Medusa, the monster of Ancient Greek mythology.
Back above ground, not far from the Hagia Sophia, is the vast Topaki Palace. Now a museum, the Palace used to be the court of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries. It consists of a multitude of palatial buildings, surrounded by gardens and tree-lined lawns. Most buildings are generously tiled with the intricate geometric patterns common in Islamic art as well as plush carpets and cushioned recesses. Several rooms contained particularly significant religious exhibits and were presided over by a ‘live’ recital of the Quran. At first I thought it was a recording, but then I noticed the muezzin seated behind a desk in one of the rooms, reciting verses into a microphone in front of him.
One room in particular contained artefacts allegedly belonging to the Prophet Muhammad including a cast of one of his footprints, some hair from his beard, a cup from which he drank, and similar oddities. Devout muslims peered through the display cases in wonder, clearly delighted that they had laid eyes on such rare and precious objects.
Further artefacts belonging to Muhammad as well as a large collection of other historical treasures were also on display at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, located near the Blue Mosque. It was another opportunity to immerse ourselves in the history of Islamic culture and the intricate geometric designs so beautifully inscribed into various objects made from stone, wood, metal, ceramic and fabric.