We spent three full days in Istanbul and thoroughly enjoyed it. For a city with a population of 15.6 million the old central historical area, whilst busy wasn’t too overwhelming for us in regards to people or bustle. Our accommodation was in ‘Sultanahmet’ the old area just 500 metres from both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and about the same distance in the other direction from the Grand Bazar. This old town area is admittedly just a small part of the bigger metropolis of Istanbul, however it was what we wanted to see, not the modern aspects that every city has.
We spent most of the first day at Topkapi Palace & Harem which in the 15th and 16th centuries served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans. Construction of the palace started in 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul). After the 17th century Topkapi gradually lost its importance with the Sultans preferring to spend more time in their new palaces along the waterfront of the Bosphorus Strait. It did however retain the function of being the imperial treasury, library and mint. After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 a government decree (dated 1924) transformed Topkapi into a museum.
The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers most of which are accessible to the public including the Ottoman Imperial Harem (where the Sultans female family members lived), and the treasury which displays the Spoonmaker’s diamond (the worlds 4th largest diamond = 86 carat). Collections also include Ottoman clothing, weapons, armour, religious relics and manuscripts. The palace became a World Heritage UNESCO site in 1985.
We circled the outside of the Hagia Sofia Grand Mosque during the day but the huge line up to visit inside put us off until later in the evening after dark when we wouldn’t have to queue to visit. Built in 537 it was the largest Christian church of the eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, during the Latin Empire from 1204-1261 it temporarily became a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1453 after the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) to the Ottoman Empire it was converted to a Mosque. In 1935 the Republic of Turkey established it as a museum. In 2020 it was reconverted back into a Mosque.
Across from the Hagia Sofia is the Blue Mosque. It was constructed from 1609-1616 during the rule of Sultan Ahmet. It contains the Sultans toomb. Ahmet I was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1603 until his death in 1617. Ahmed’s reign is noteworthy for marking the first breach in the Ottoman tradition of royal fratricide; henceforth Ottoman rulers would no longer systematically execute their brothers upon accession to the throne. It remains a functioning mosque although was under extensive renovations and repairs during our visit. Hand painted blue tiles adorn the mosques interior walls and at night the mosque is bathed in blue as lights frame the mosques five main domes. It also became UNSECO in 1985.
Suleymaniye Mosque – the largest mosque in Instanbul for 462 years until it was surpassed by the Camlica Mosque in 2019. The view of the city, the Golden Horn and the Bosporus Strait from Suleymaniye Mosque is magnificent.
We visited the Grand Bazar twice and are confident that we didn’t even see half of it. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. I really need to improve my shopping skills as from 4,000 shops I managed to buy just two items. We spent more time trying to find the one shop I wanted to go back to, than anything else. However it was most enjoyable spending time just taking it all in. I am pleased it wasn’t very busy (due to being winter and covid still impacting tourists). We have visited a few of the worlds biggest markets and this had a distinctively modern feel to it, it was very clean and almost felt like an indoor mall rather than a market/bazar. There was no rubbish, smell, stray animals etc. This is largely due to recent extensive renovations that began in 2012. Previous to these renovations there was no toilets in the whole of the bazar, and moreover previous lack of control allowed many traders to remove columns and walls in their shops to gain space, this together with the substation of concrete on the roofs rather than lead which was stolen from the structure over the years had created a huge hazard.
To our delight we accidentally passed through the Egyptian Spice Bazar, (dated 1597- 1664) this place has your eyes and senses on high alert. The spice bazaar served as a bridge between East and West and was is an important pillar of the Silk Road trade in Istanbul. The bazar which served as the pharmacy of the Ottoman Empire for many years, was given the privilege of selling coffee, tin and spices with the Sultans edict. These days the majority of shops in the Spice Bazar are herbalists and spices. In addition there is also Turkish delight, baklava, nuts and delicatessen products, souvenirs, jewellery shops, antiques and dowry shops in the bazar. It has survived two major fires in 1691 and 1940 and was restored further to its current state in 2013 – 2018 by the municipality.
Down by the river we were surprised by how many people were fishing right off the bridge and furthermore by how much they were catching. Of course the size of the fish are all small but you see them continually catching.
We took a river cruise on this famous stretch of water including the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus Strait that separates Europe and Asia. The bridges and the shore buildings were spectacular.
Across the other side of the bridge (north) we took the Tunel Train up to above the Galata Tower. The Tunel is the second oldest subway in the world, it opened for passengers in January 1875 and still runs today (although it has been updated to include new technologies such as electricity for propulsion and lighting rather than steam engines and gas lamps).
The Galata Tower – originally an observation watchtower and now a museum stands almost 63 meters high on the hillside embankment of Galata. When built in the year 1348 it was the tallest building in Constantinople (originally 67 meters tall). In 1717 it played an important role in the city as it was the watch tower for spotting city fires, only to be damaged itself from fire in the years 1794 and again in 1831.
The following day we flew back to Marmaris, a 1.5 hour flight to Dalaman airport and an hour transfer back to the boat. Travelling is lovely but there is nothing like coming home to your own house and sleeping in your own bed. We were to enjoy it for just 3 days before our next travelling expedition!