My love, passion and appreciation for ancient history has taken me too many amazing historical locations scattered throughout many countries around the globe.
It was during my early years in Crete, I leant about the UNESCO World Heritage site and ancient city of Ephesus.
So when the opportunity presented to visit Turkey and share the experience with a friend from Australia; I jumped at the chance.
Arriving in Istanbul, the ancient capital, that was formerly known as Constantinople was a memorable experience. We decided to stay for a couple of nights, before venturing further afield, to Ephesus and other locations; then return to experience more of the historic capital.
Knowing we’d be back in Istanbul just over a week later, we choose to experience some of the city’s historical highlights during our first stay.
Ancient history abounds in Istanbul, with the earliest human habitation dating from 6700 BC, during the Neolithic period. The city was founded and known as Byzantium during the 7th century BC when Greeks from the historic town of Megara, an important trade port located in the municipality of West Attica that today is part of the Athens metropolitan area, made the ancient capital their home.
During the Roman conquest the city changed name, firstly to New Rome and then to Constantinople, under the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 330. For close to 1600 years during the Roman Empire of 330 – 1204, the Latin Empire of 1204 – 1261, then returning to the late Byzantine Empire of 1261 – 1453 under the Palaiologos Dynasty, the city flourished. Growing in size and influence, and playing a key role in forging the advancement of Christianity together with becoming the end point for the prosperous Silk Road, thus became one of the most important cities in history. In 1453, the city fell to the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the Islamic religion transformation. However, it wasn’t until 1930 following the Turkish War of Independence that the city officially again changed name, and today is known as Istanbul.
It’s late afternoon when we arrived at the hotel and we’re greeted with a warm welcome and a cup of Turkish tea in small glasses shaped similar to an hour glass; known as a “thin waist” glass.
Taking a short stroll around the immediate neighbourhood, we found a restaurant, Be-so and enjoyed a tasty meal that was cooked in a very unique way, and then served on the dinner plate in front of me.
It’s now early evening and on returning to the hotel we passed by the Blue Mosque, also known as Sultanahmet Mosque. We’ll pop back tomorrow.
Tomorrow came and before taking in the sights close by Sultanahmet Square, formerly known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople we stopped by the Grande Café Teras to admire the creative displays of traditional Turkish sweets in the window and couldn’t resist the temptation to step inside to find more sweets and a selection of dried fruits.
Turning down Atmeydani Cassesi (Atmeydani Street) we find ourselves at the northern end of the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
The Hippodrome of Constantinople has a long history and was first constructed in 203 when the ancient city was known as Byzantium. In Greek the word “hippo” means horse and hippodrome means horse racing; an arena for chariot races and other forms of entertainment.
Little remains of the once grand 100,000 seating Hippodrome of Constantinople where commoners and the emperor gathered together to watch two chariots teams, powered by horses compete on the racing track of the Hippodrome.
Excavations during the mid 1950s unearthed a section of the curved northern end of the hippodrome, with the clearing of several houses built in the area, to make way for what is today an open public space in front of the nearby Blue Mosque.
Findings unearthed included seating and columns that are now housed in Istanbul’s museums. Archeologists believe that much of the Hippodrome still remains lying beneath the parkland of Sultanahmet Square.
Today, a beautiful octagonal domed fountain stands at the top of the northern end of the Hippodrome, adjacent to the Blue Mosque. The fountain, known as The Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain was constructed by the German government in commemoration of the emperor’s second anniversary in 1898. The fountain was built in Germany, then transported and assembled where it presently stands.
Looking up inside the gold gilded dome with intrinsic mosaic style interlay you’ll see four cross angle mosaic designs representing the letter W in acknowledgement of the emperor’s gift.
Whilst little remains of the once grand hippodrome, three historic monuments can be seen between the centre and the southern end of what was once the historic chariot racing venue.
The first ancient monument is the Obelisk of Theodosius. The original Obelisk was two thirds higher than the top one third section of the monument seen today. The original obelisk was built for the great temple of Karnak in Egypt. In 390 during the Roman Empire the original obelisk was cut into three pieces in preparation for transportation and shipped up the river Nile to Alexandria where it was then due to be shipped onward to the ancient city of Constantinople. However, only the top one third seen today arrived and has survived close to 3,500 years standing on a marble pedestal in the same location that Emperor Theodosius had it placed, in commemoration of his 20th anniversary on the throne of Constantinople.
The Egyptian Obelisk four sides show hieroglyphics describing Tutmoses III victory during a battle of the Euphraetes.
The first layer of foundation blocks show bas-relief of Emperor Theodosius at a traditional chariot race and the construction of the obelisk.
Whilst the lower base made of bronze blocks (not shown) provides written inscriptions in both Latin and ancient Greek.
The second ancient monument located in the hippodrome is the bronze Serpent Column. The monument was initially a sacrificial tripod that was created and dedicated to the Greek God Apollo following the defeat of the Greek victory at Plataea, in 479 BC against the Persians. The monument stood at the ancient site of Delphi, leading to the Temple of Apollo.
The bronze Serpent Column was once three intertwined snakes, each representing and engraved with the names of the cities that fought in the Battle of Plataea. The heads of the snakes once supported a golden cauldron that has long been lost.
During 324 the Serpent Column was taken from Delphi and relocated to Constantinople by order of Constantine the Great. The Serpent Column stood intact until the 16th century, in the same position seen today and was once a feature decoration to the spina (central line) of the hippodrome. Today, this antiquity monument stands as an unspoken observer of the symbolic value and importance it once had in the former prosperous capital of the Roman Empire.
The heads of the three snakes have been lost since the 16th century, however only the upper part of one snake head has survived and can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul.
The third surviving ancient monument is the Roman monument known as the Walled Obelisk, or Masonry Obelisk located at the southern end of the hippodrome. The originally construction is believed to date in late antiquity; though no evidence is available to confirm. However, evidence from the 10th century shows an inscription was added referring to the monument being known as Constantine’s Obelisk.
Standing at a towering 32 meters, the monument was originally covered in bronze as written upon the inscription. During 1204 a time of the Latin Empire occupation looters removed the bronze covering and what remained were the limestone ashlar blocks with numerous holes, indicating where the bronze covering was once affixed. Another inscription made during the reign of Constantine VII (948-959), notes; that the ravages of time made it necessary for it to be restored. With further ravages of time the monument was again restored during the period 1895-1896.
Looking back down the once great chariot racing hippodrome, with the three surviving monuments from antiquity; one only needs a good imagination to sense and picture in one’s mind the grandeur and richness of the ancient city of Constantinople.
The iconic Blue Mosque with six minarets, representative of the six articles of Islamic faith stands parallel to the hippodrome on the site that was once a palace of the Byzantine emperors, and positioned in front of the oldest building in Istanbul; the iconic Hagia Sophia.
The captivating story behind the Blue Mosque began during the reign of Sultan Ahmed I. Construction began in 1609 and completed in 1616 bringing an overwhelming size, majesty and splendor that was designed to overshadow the loss of war during Ahmed I reign. The architect, Mehmed Agha was given the task of expressing Ahmed I desire to exhibit the strength and power of the Ottoman Empire.
The Blue Mosque was designed and built as an imperial show of power and strength, of grandeur and more splendor than the Süleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, that was built during the mid 1550’s and complementing the fame of the iconic Hagia Sophia.
Stepping inside the enormity of this public building that also serves as a working mosque with many locals here for prayer; is truly a sight to behold. To be captivated by its architectural beauty and grandeur.
Its architectural beauty adorns the walls and domes throughout this splendid building.
Leaving the Blue Mosque you pass through the Sultanahmet Park, and a two minute walk to reach the famed Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia, (GR: Ἁγία Σοφία), translated as “Holy Wisdom” was originally built as a Greek Orthodox Church in 360 AD. This iconic building is considered, the essence of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of architecture.
During the course of history Hagia Sophia has been destroyed and rebuilt more than eight times, the first rebuild, also underwent a remodel between 404 and 415 due to riots and a fire. In 532 the earlier structure was burnt to the ground during the Nika riots. The building was also damaged during 553, 557, 558, 869, 989 and 1344 due to earthquakes. This is as a result of being built on a fault line leaving it open and exposed to natural disasters and particularly earthquakes.
Hagia Sophia was rebuilt during the Roman occupation, under the Emperor Justinian I is the building seen today and during the Roman occupation retained the name – Church of the Holy Wisdom and upon completion in late December 537 became the world’s largest interior space; a title it held for close on one thousand years. The new church was built to be grander in size and more lavish including columns and marble brought from Greece and France. The church was consecrated on 27 December, 537. During the Latin occupation Hagia Sophia served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral and suffered greatly during the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. With the Byzantine Empire recapturing Constantinople in 1261, Hagia Sophia was again consecrated as a Greek Orthodox Church and maintained this status until 1453, following the capture of the ancient city by the Ottoman Empire. During the early Ottoman era Mehmet II ordered that the church be made into a mosque. This change included the addition of four minarets and several Turkish mausoleums. Figural mosaics were covered with whitewash and plaster and remained hidden from view for several hundred years. Hagia Sophia remained as a mosque until 1616 following the completion of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque). During 1848 – 1849 renovations were being conducted and the whitewash and plaster was removed from many mosaics. The mosque (church) was deconsecrated in 1931, and four years later was open to the public as a museum, and then again becoming a mosque in 2020.
Stepping inside one bears witness to this iconic building that houses numerous Greek orthodox gold mosaics within the domes and walls, multicoloured marble, and also incorporates Turkish features.
A mosaic from the 10th century that shows the Emperors Justinian and Constantine, two of the most famous emperors of late antiquity, providing their gifts to Mother Mary and child, the holy family. Emperor Justinian I on the left gifting his masterpiece, the rebuilt Hagia Sophia and Emperor Constantine on the right gifted the ancient capital of Constantinople. This mosaic was created long after their reigns, yet their legacy continues to be remembered.
The Komnenos mosaic dated 1422 shows the Emperor John Komnenos II and his Hungarian wife Irene and symbolises the donations of a religious imperial family. Born with the name Piroska, Empress Consort Irene renamed following her conversion to the Eastern Orthodox faith and settlement in Constantinople. Irene died in August, 1134 and was later venerated as Saint Irene.
The mosaic of the Emperor Leo VI, also known as Leo the Wise shows the Emperor paying homage to Christ. The circled figures are Mary on the left and archangel Gabriel on the right.
Leo VI caused a major scandal during his reign with a number of marriages. Tragedy struck three times with the death of his first three wives soon after marriage and having not produced a legitimate heir to the throne. Following his first two marriages, it was technically illegal to marry a third time. However, shortly after his third marriage his third wife also died and still no male heir. Before his fourth marriage, that would have been seen to be an ever greater sin; he took a mistress and following the birth of a son married. The Emperor pursued his choice to marry a fourth time and was eventually recognised by the church, however came with a long penance and the assurance that he would outlaw all future fourth marriages.
As you walk within the walls of Hagia Sophia, it’s worth looking up. High above at the four corners of the gold leafed main dome, you’ll see the Seraphim Angels that are said to have protected the ancient capital. Legend has it, that the ancient capital of Constantinople that was besieged on many occasions during 1000 years of history never fell and this was attributed to the grace and protection of the Seraphim Angels. It should also be noted that the faces of the angels where covered in the same manner as the mosaics during the period that Hagia Sophia was a mosque, under Ottoman rule.
Mosaics were (are) the main decorative features of Hagia Sophia. However, a number of other decorative elements contribute to the grandeur and interior beauty.
The interior walls and much of the floor of Hagia Sophia is covered by large slabs of marble in various colours representing the many different rooms. A combined number of 104 marble columns were brought in from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, or imported from Egypt.
There are also a number crosses inserted within some of the walls. Each cross is the same height and measuring approx. 55 inches. Two crosses can be seen just before entering the nave of Hagia Sophia, and provides pilgrims and worshippers the moment to kiss the cross before entering the nave.
One very interesting section of floor that measures 5.65 meters square is known as the Omphalos and is located in the main open area directly centered below the dome. Omphalion – Ομφαλίων is a Greek word, translated as “navel (of the earth)”. 32 circular coloured pieces of marble are formed around a center large grey piece of marble where Byzantine Emperors where crowned.
Stepping outside you pass by the eight pillar Hagia Sophia Fountain. The fountain was built in 1740 by Sultan Mahmut I, over the foundations of the ablution fountain, known as Phiale; a name meaning bowl in ancient Greek and was set within a fountain to drink from.
Leaving Hagia Sophia it’s a very short walk on our way to the entrance of the Topkapi Palace before passing by a number of local chestnut and corncob vendors with their small carts.
Stopping to admire the architecture of the Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III, built in 1729 following the recommendation by Nevsehidi Damat Ibrahaim Pasha, who served as Grand Vizier to the Sultan. The beautiful and ornate fountain stands at the entrance of the Imperial Gate of Topkapi Palace and replaced a Byzantine fountain named Perayton.
Each of the four corners, with three barred windows at the time served the purpose of giving glasses of water or sherbet to all, at no charge. The fountains roof made of white marble and topped with five small domes together with various decorative patterns, with curls, vines and flowers.
There’s so much to see, experience and learn in the historic Faith district of Istanbul, that the day has now turned into late afternoon. We decide to leave our visit to the Topkapi Palace for when we return.
Returning to the hotel we pass Agia Irene located in the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. Also know as Saint Irene, the church is the oldest known church in Istanbul built in 330AD and is the only church that wasn’t converted into a Mosque. The original church suffered the same fates as Agia Sophia with damage and destruction due to earthquakes and a fire.
During the early years of Turkish rule, the church was used as a gun depot and place to store trophies of arms and military regalia taken by the Turkish. Given the collection of military artefacts the church was converted into the National Military Museum in 1726. Today, the church retains its status as a museum, however due to the marvellous acoustics and the impressive atmosphere Hagia Irene is mainly used as a concert hall where classical performances are preformed.
We continued walking the outer path along the high thick walls and turrets of the Topkapi Palace that once served to keep the Sultan, his advisors and harem safe from the world outside.
It has been a truly enriching and informative day walking the path of many before us, to learn the history of the ancient monuments and buildings that have graced the famous landscape of the Faith district throughout time.
It’s now early evening and we have an appointment at the Hagia Sophia Hurrem Sultan Bathhouse, or Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı.
The exquisite building housing historical Turkish baths is a short distance between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The classical Ottoman style public bath house was designed and built during the 16th century by the chief architect of the time, by order of Hurrem Sultan for his beloved wife.
Stepping inside to be graciously greeted and treated to a truly memorable and cleansing experience with wet cloth filled puffs of scented soap, then covered in deep cleansing mud to then bake in a hot room (sicaklik, caldarium), and finishing with a relaxing massage. A heavenly experience!
Stepping outside Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı and looking over to see the Blue Mosque by night.
We then walked back over to see Hagia Sophia by night.
It’s our last night in Istanbul for now. We had arranged a meeting with a travel agent before dinner, to confirm details for our onward journey to experience more of the historic sites and locations in Turkey, including Gallipoli, Anzac Cove; Ephesus; and the unique landscape of Cappadocia. It’s an early start the following morning.
This blog is the first in series of posts sharing my travels in Turkey and one of many that I have written in sharing the personal journeys that have enriched my life and broadened my knowledge and understanding of the richness and diversity of our shared world. Experiencing the gifts of a new outer landscape in a new country that evokes ones senses in many and varied ways, and provides offerings of reflection that is awakening the inner landscape.
Embracing the lessons and learning’s that a new outer landscape gives is one of life’s inspirational mysteries. Yet our personal horoscope offers valuable insights that guide each of us with acknowledging the lessons and integrating the learning’s through the practice of Astrocartography, Where Location Matters.
Below you’ll find a personal account of how and why Astrocartography is a valuable guide to support the awakening of our inner landscape. See how together with your personal horoscope and Astrocartography you can incorporate the outer and inner landscapes.
Thank you for taking the time to read and I hope that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world. Leave a comment and let me know, and visit A Soul Awakening to subscribe and receive new blog posts as they become available.
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I loved Istanbul and wished that I’d had more time there. Thanks for bringing back good memories.
Thirty years ago, It took me several hours to drive (mainly stuck in a traffic jam) from the western end of Istanbul to the bridge across the Bosporus. I was glad not to have to stay in the city itself, but overlooked it from the Camlica Hills on the other side. Mostly, it seemed to be lost in a haze of heat and fumes – exhaust, air conditioners, firepits etc. and noise. Your photos show a different city – a much more pleasant one. At least the chestnut vendors are still there.
I can only try to imagine what Istanbul was like thirty years ago. I can however, appreciate the haze that lies across the sky. Some days were difficult trying to take nice photos.
I am yet to visit Istanbul, but now I have read your post, it has gone to the top of my bucket list. To see the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia is a dream. I visited Ephesus many years ago but didn’t make it to Istanbul. I read with interest that part of an obelisk originates from Karnak in the city. I visited Karnak last year and was unaware that this piece was in Turkey.
I hope the opportunity presents to visit Istanbul soon Angie, its certainly a city rich in historical locations. How wonderful to have visited Karnak; somewhere I’m yet to visit. I’ve also experienced the wonders of Ephesus, twice and would return again in a heart beat.
It was funny but I never realized that Constantinople was Istanbul. I remember Constantinople from all my history lessons. Just one of the reasons to visit. I loved how you weaved the history into your post. The Blue Mosque has been on my travel wish list for some time. Not surprised to read that it was built as a show of power! Your post has made me move Istanbul higher on our travel list.
There is a really cool song – Istanbul “Not Constantinople”. There is so much ancient history everywhere you turn. I hope you have an opportunity to visit at some stage when the time is right.
Fascinating post. Been too many years since I was in Istanbul – can’t wait to return.
Such a rich cultural heritage in Istanbul. I’m dying to visit! Especially to see Hagia Sofia and Suleymaniye Mosque, which I teach to my art history students. I loved your photos of Suleymaniye mosque. What a trip!
I hope the opportunity to visit Istanbul presents soon. It certainly is an amazing and culturally rich city.
Istanbul is one of a kind, isn’t it? You should go to Dolmabahce if you haven’t already!
I loved visiting Istanbul, it is so beautiful, interesting and I loved the history of the place. Thanks for helping me remember what a great visit i had.
These are some sunning places. Istanbul is already way up in my list. Hope to visit soon. The domes are magnificent, I can’t stop thinking how cool will it look in reality.
Istanbul is still on my must-visit list. Would love to go from Asia to Europe and vice versa. And see all the sites.
I’m with you Cosette. Having lived and worked in Beijing and visited Istanbul; it would be an incredible experience to travel along along the Silk Road and visiting the many towns and cities along the way.
This post was a wonderful history lesson. I hope to get to Istanbul someday and enjoy a Turkish bath.