There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Istanbul (1): The Blue Mosque, Haghia Sofia and the Bosphorus

Istanbul is vast. The homes and businesses of its fifteen million inhabitants - twenty per cent of the entire Turkish population - cover both sides of the Bosphorus and sprawl down the European coast of the Sea of Marmara. The centre and most of the history is on the European side which is split by the Golden Horn, a magnificent name for a modest jellyfish-filled creek running off the side of the Bosphorus. To the north is the modern centre, to the south, on an easily defended peninsula bounded by the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, is the ancient capital of first the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empires.

Old Istanbul has narrow, cobbled streets, mosques by the hundred, bazaars by the dozen, and one modern - if usually packed - tramway running round its edge.

Sultanahmet is the tip of the peninsula and we walked there from our hotel, following the tramway and passing the Column of Constantine on the way. Erected in 330 AD in what was then the forum, it once supported Constantine dressed as Apollo. He fell off in 1107 and the 35m stump, though carefully preserved, looks rather forlorn, crammed between tramway and shops. Interred in the concrete base is the axe Noah used to make the Ark, Mary Magdalene’s oil phial and the leftovers from the feeding of the five thousand. If you believe that, you may also believe it contains one of Shergar's hooves and Lord Lucan's left arm.
Constantine's Column, Istanbul

Peeling away from the tramway, we descended the hill to the hippodrome. Built in 200 AD, little now remains of the 100,000 seat stadium but the space is preserved, as are some of the monuments marking the spina, including the obligatory looted Egyptian obelisk.

The obligatory looted Egyptian obelisk
Hippodrome, Istanbul
Turkish football fans are renowned for occasionally losing their sense of proportion, but they are nothing compared to the fans of chariot racing. Fighting between ‘the Blues’ and ‘the Greens’ in 532 developed into the Nika Revolt. The Emperor Justinian eventually restored order by massacring 30,000 Greens in the Hippodrome. Given the number of tourists it is hardly a peaceful place today, but it is free of murderous Romans.

Byzantium was founded in the 7th century BC and spent its first millennium as an increasingly prosperous trading centre. It was of no great political importance until being rebuilt in the early 4th century AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who modestly renamed it Constantinople. In 395 the Roman Empire split and the city became first the eastern capital and then, when the western empire disintegrated in 476, the sole capital. A Greek speaking empire no longer containing Rome could hardly be called ‘Roman’, so it became known as the Byzantine Empire although the capital had not been called Byzantium for two hundred years. The empire reached its zenith under Justinian, he of the Hippodrome massacre. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe’s largest and richest city, but the empire was undergoing a slow but inexorable decline. By 1453 nothing was left but the city, now surrounded by the emerging Ottoman Empire.

Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople for the Ottomans in 1453; the resulting westward flight of the city’s cultured elite helping to kick-start the Renaissance.

The great palace of the Byzantine Emperors stood next to the hippodrome, on the site now occupied by the Blue Mosque. Built between 1609 and 1616 for Sultan Ahmet I it was the last great mosque of the Ottoman classical period. It was criticised for its size and splendour at a time when the empire was struggling, and for its six minarets – a sacrilegious attempt to rival the architecture of Mecca.

A graceful cascade of domes and semi-domes
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
We entered the walled courtyard, which covers an area as the big as the mosque itself. From here the building, too big to photograph satisfactorily, is a graceful cascade of domes and semi-domes. It remains an active mosque so there is no entrance fee, but that does not mean there no queue. Leaving the courtyard we found the eastern entrance and a patient line of people waiting to funnel through a narrow arch. As in all mosques visitors are required to remove their shoes, but with the number of tourists and a one way system in operation the usual system of leaving your shoes in a rack is not practical. We filed past the plastic bag dispenser and took a bag each. Based on a non-randomised sample of two it would seem that 100% of the handles break as soon as you try to carry your shoes, so you end up clutching them to your chest. Signs request women to cover their heads; scarves were available, but those who reached for them were told, ‘no need, don’t bother’.

The dome of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The blue tiles that gave the Mosque its name dominate the vast interior, but there are pinks and greens, too and they along with over 250 windows give a feeling of space and light. The huge interior sits under a vast dome set upon another even bigger dome supported by ‘elephant leg’ pillars, too fat to be elegant. Despite this, and the crowd, it has an air of calmness and serenity.

At the exit you find yourself looking across 200 metres of gardens at another massive domed building.

The first Haghia Sophia burnt down in 404 and the second was destroyed in the Nika Revolt of 532. Justinian, being a devout Christian (the sort of devout Christian who murders 30 000 people in a hippodrome), immediately set about building a new church. Completed in 536 it is considered the greatest architectural achievement of the Byzantine Empire and it is obvious how much the Blue Mosque, built over a thousand years later, owes to its neighbour.

Haghia Sophia, Istanbul
With the arrival of the Ottomans, Haghia Sophia became a mosque. The four minarets, rockets on ugly concrete pedestals, added little architecturally, while internally Islamic decorations were added but the ancient Christian mosaics were left undamaged. In 1935 the building was secularised and is now a museum.

We sat in a café between the two buildings watching the empty tour buses roll past. They drop their cargo outside the Blue Mosque and pick them up again after Haghia Sophia. After drinking Turkish coffee in many different places, this was our first in Turkey. It was disappointing, but that is what you get for using a café in the heart of the tourist area.

Queue negotiated and money paid we entered Hagia Sophia. The space inside is even bigger than the Blue Mosque but just as crowded. Fewer windows and the lack of shiny tiles mean the interior is dark and sombre. The floor plan is clearly that of a basilica, but the fittings are Islamic. There is a mihrab to locate the direction of Mecca, a minbar – performing the same function as a pulpit, but very differently designed – and marble platforms for reading the Koran. A marble circle marks the spot where the Byzantine emperors were crowned. This is the omphalos, the centre of the world. The last time we visited the centre of the world it was in Beijing, on the spot where Chinese emperors were crowned. Travellers may notice inconsistencies in mondial centrality, but the ego of emperors varies little. Above, Christian mosaics sit easily alongside Arabic calligraphy.

Lynne at the Centre of the World?
Ompholos, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
A gallery affords a closer look at some mosaics and reveals others that cannot be seen from the ground. Over a thousand years old, they have been recently restored and are a remarkable sight. An exhibition of photographs of the restored mosaics stands in the north gallery. Photographer Ahmet Ertuğ’s work is impressive and connoisseurs of irony can enjoy watching people photographing photographs while standing with their backs to the originals.
Constantine, Virgin & Child, Justinian
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Like any tourist honey pot, Sultanahmet offers a wide range of overpriced restaurants serving mediocre food. We were pleased to find a rooftop terrace which provided a reasonably priced cheese salad and a beer. To quote our daughter Siân, ‘Turkish food is meat, bread and salad in varying combinations’. The meat tends towards dullness, but the bread is good and varied, white and brown, flat breads and leavened breads, and the salads are crisp and fresh, containing something apparently unobtainable in England – tomatoes that actually taste of tomato.

Rooftop terrace overlooking Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
As the sun was shining, though it was not warm, we decided on an afternoon trip on the Bosphorus, so we walked down to the Golden Horn. The waterbuses have their berths around the Galata bridge, and those doing trips for tourists soon make themselves known to any obvious stranger.

Surprisingly, most of our fellow cruisers were Turkish. The sun shone from a largely blue sky, but the wind was keen and we huddled together on the open deck. Pulling away, we looked back at the Süleymaniye mosque on its hill above the dock. Finer than the Blue Mosque, though less visited, its profile is the most instantly recognisable view of Istanbul. We passed under the Galata bridge, dodging the dangling lines from the fishermen above, and made our way across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar, better known in English as Scutari where the Selimiye barracks, the site of Florence Nightingale’s hospital, still stand.

The Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, Istanbul
The Bosphorus is 30 Km long and in some places as narrow as 600 m. We passed under the first Bosphorus bridge and cruised north along the Asian shore for an hour to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge built where the Persian emperor Darius assembled a pontoon bridge on his way to invade Greece. Nearby is an Ottoman castle constructed in 1452 just before the assault on the city. We returned along the European shore. Both shores are lined with the houses of the wealthy. On the Asian side there are a couple of nineteenth century palaces, while on both sides there are carefully landscaped neighbourhoods of large, comfortable modern dwellings.

Beylerbeyi Palace beside the Bosphorus
Our walk back across the centre of the peninsula took us through both the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, of which more later. That night we dined at a Lokanta, a cheap restaurant where much of the food is displayed in metal containers by the entrance. Neither of us ever eats Doner Kebab (or, in Turkish, Kebap) at home, but we made an exception because we were in Turkey. We felt no need to repeat the experiment.

Leavings the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge, Bosphorus


  1. Poor old Doner kebab! Think I had one once in this country, but it was late at night on Lancaster University campus, and my memory of that dish was hazy at best. I, however, enjoyed the Turkish ones, although not as much as I enjoyed the fishwiches.

  2. Fantastic city, shame about the greasy, lukewarm food that we encountered several times....Thanks for the memories revisited, would love to return.