The Best of Istanbul in One Day
[Istanbul, Turkey, May 24, 2019]
A gloomy, rainy morning sky greated us on our full first day in Istanbul. Luckily, it was not cold. We borrowed some umbrellas from our hotel and headed to Hagia Sophia, the most easily recognizable Istanbul landmark.
The current structure is the third church built at this site in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the previous two having been destroyed. It remained the largest cathedral for nearly 1000 years until the Seville cathedral was built in the early 16th century. Once the Ottomans arrived, it was converted to a mosque. When the Turkish republic was established, the Hagia Sophia became a museum.
The ground floor is the most striking. It is decorated with mosaics and marble pillars.
Giant chandeliers add to the light coming in from the 40 arched windows.
There are several signs of the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque. On the South corner of the nave, for example, you’ll find the bronze- grilled library of Sultan Mahmud I. With its Kütahya & Iznik tiles on the inner walls, the library had a capacity of 5000 books.
The other example is the minbar, the place used for Bayram and Friday prayers in mosques. It dates from the period of Sultan Murad III (1574-1595). One of the many cats we saw roaming Istanbul throughout the day had made its way inside and took center stage as we snapped photos of the minbar.
Also on the ground floor you’ll find the lustration urn, brought here from Pergamon in the 16th century by the same Murad III that built the minbar. The amazing thing about this urn is that it was carved from a single block of marble!
We took a few more pictures downstairs before we headed to the upper gallery.
The view from the Lodge of the Empress upstairs is absolutely breath-taking!
There are many mosaics in the upper gallery, most from the 10th and 12th centuries. Unfortunately, some were vandalized and others were covered with plaster when the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.
This one dates from the 13th century and features Virgin Mary (left) and John the Baptist (right) requesting Christ’s intercession for humanity. A panel in the lower right corner shows what the mosaic looked like in its entirety.
And these two mosaics show the Emperor Komnenos and his wife donating money to the church. In the first mosaic you see their son in the middle, and in the second you see Jesus with a bible in his hands.
The upper gallery also allowed us to enjoy those gorgeous columns made out of Thessalian stone.
On our way out through the south-western entrance, we almost missed this mosaic. Luckily, the mirror installed above the exit reflected the mosaic and made us look behind us!
The mosaic is from the 10th century. On the right is Constantine, founder of Constantinople and he is holding a model of the Istanbul. On the left, Emperor Justinian is holding a model of Hagia Sophia. They are gifting them to Virgin Mary in the middle.
Just outside this entrance was this beautiful fountain built in 1740 by Sultan Mahmut I. It has eight marble columns in the style of Classical Ottoman Art.
Our next stop was the Basilica Cistern – a less known but very much unique point of interest in Istanbul. Built in 532 AD, the cistern is the biggest of several hundreds beneath the city of Istanbul. We were amazed by the sheer size of this thing – with an area of 105,000 sq ft, it could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water and its ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns. The cistern provided water for Constantinople and subsequently, Topkapi palace after the Ottomans took it over and into modern times. Although most of the columns look the same, there are a couple that stand out – the Crying Column and the one with an upside-down Medusa as its base.
After that, it was time for lunch! We were looking for a bathroom near the Basilica Cistern when we stumbled upon yet another hotel with a rooftop restaurant. It seems that every hotel in the old city center has one of those! It was aptly named Panoramic Restaurant and it was on the top floor of the Adamar hotel. It was still before noon, so we were the first ones there – they hadn’t even opened for lunch yet! We picked a table on the balcony and enjoyed marvelous views of both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We ordered Turkish coffees, a tapas sampler that was delicious and a couple of beers at the end to top it all off!
After lunch, we went into the Blue Mosque, which sits across the square from Hagia Sophia. It was constructed between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I. It is not as massive as Hagia Sophia but it’s still big with its five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes.
Hand-painted blue tiles adorn the mosque’s interior walls and give the mosque its popular name. It’s technically called the Sultan Ahmet mosque after the ottoman ruler who commissioned it, but almost everyone refers to it as the Blue Mosque.
Tourists are allowed to visit the mosque outside of prayer times. We visited right after one of the five daily prayers had ended, so there were worshipers still inside. I felt a bit bad for invading their space, but on the other hand I hoped that non-Muslims visiting the mosque ultimately helps foster understanding and minimize judgement, especially in today’s polarizing times.
Even though we were getting tired by now (it was mid-afternoon), we decided to walk around a bit more and check out the two famous markets in Istanbul – the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. On the way, we saw a few more interesting sights – The Milion Stone, the German fountain, the Column of Constantine and the Nuruosmaniye Mosque.
The Milion was a monument erected in the 4th century AD. It was a Byzantine zero-mile marker, the starting-place for the measurement of distances for all the roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire. The domed building of the Milion rested on four large arches, and it was expanded and decorated with several statues and paintings. It survived the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 but had disappeared by the start of the 16th century. During excavations in the 1960s, some partial fragments of it were discovered under houses in the area. Today, the largest surviving fragment is preserved and the distances to various cities are carved into the wooden sidewalk surrounding it.
The German Fountain is a neo-Byzantine-styled gazebo fountain near the Blue Mosque. It was constructed to commemorate the second anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1898. It was built in Germany, then transported piece by piece and assembled in its current site in 1900. The fountain’s octagonal dome has eight marble columns, and dome’s interior is covered with golden mosaics.
We also got sucked into a Turkish delight shop by a very persuasive salesman. We got several different flavors, of which I was most excited about the Nutella one. No pictures survive of them!
The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar were not nearly as crowded as I expected. We were not intent on shopping, but these are the best places to do that if you’re so inclined – just be sure to bargain! I noticed metal detectors at the entrances – I don’t recall them being there on my previous visit. Lots of shopping can also be done in the little streets between the two markets.
After a long day of sight-seeing, we were ready to relax in our hotel. We loved having the tapas buffet in the lobby as we didn’t feel like going out to dinner. We enjoyed amazing sunset views on the roof-top terrace before turning in early after all the walking!