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Sokullu Mehmet Pasha & Rüstem Pasha Mosques

Sokullu Mehmet Pasha & Rüstem Pasha Mosques

Both designed by Sinan, the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire, these mosques where commissioned by grand viziers of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Both also have exquisite and very extensive Iznik tile decoration, but their internal arrangements are quit distinctive: the former is a hexagon within a square, the latter an octagon within a square, both, of course, capped with impressive domes. It is in these smaller, vizieral mosques, rather than the great imperial mosques such as the Süleymaniye that Sinan’s ingenuity and originality are best displayed.

Küçük Aya Sofya (Little Hagia Sophia)

Küçük Aya Sofya (Little Hagia Sophia)

The mosque now called Küçük Aya Sophia was formerly the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and was built in the early 6th century shortly before Hagia Sophia itself. It derives its name from the fact that its centralized plan seemed to the Turks to have anticipated the design of the Great Church (as Hagia Sophia was always known to the Byzantine Greeks). It has recently been beautifully restored.

The Great Palace / Mosaic Museum

The Great Palace / Mosaic Museum

The Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors was one of the wonders of the medieval world. It covered a vast area, stretching all the way from the Hippodrome to the Sea of Marmara, but by the time of the Turkish conquest it already lay in ruins. The ruins gradually disappeared under later construction until, in the 20th century, a series of superb floor mosaics were found beneath what is now the Arasta Bazaar. These include graphic depictions of violent animal combat, but also more gentle, pastoral scenes. We may soon have a much clearer idea of how the Great Palace would have looked during its heyday, since a very extensive area of it is now being excavated, and some exciting discoveries have been made, including entire vaulted halls painted with frescoes. At the time of writing these are not yet open to the public, since work is ongoing.

Hagia Irine

Hagia Irine

This great church lies within the first court of Topkapı Palace, just to the left as you enter. It was built in the early sixth century, shortly before Hagia Sophia and, for a time, served as the cathedral of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the church has a centrally placed some, but it is the eastern apse that makes it remarkable. Here, in the 8th century, the great iconoclast Emperor Constantine V installed a magnificent mosaic cross.

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern

Because it was so frequently besieged, cisterns were essential to Constantinople’s security. Of the many cisterns that survive, the Basilica Cistern is by far the most impressive, consisting, as it does, of an underground forest of over 300 columns supporting a vaulted ceiling. It still contains water and is home to a large school of blind carp. How they got there is anyone’s guess. Of equally mysterious origins are the two column bases that are reused blocks of stone featuring carved Medusa heads. They are believed to have been taken from a late Roman building, but how they made their way to the cistern is unknown.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, or the Church of the Divine Wisdom, known in Turkish as Aya Sofya, is universally recognized as one of the supreme masterpieces of world architecture. Its vast bulk still dominates the skyline of Old Istanbul. Constructed in the early 6th century by the Emperor Justinian, and designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isadore of Miletus, it was intended to astonish and did so. Justinian did not believe in half-measures, and for many centuries it remained the world’s largest church, capped by an immense dome, flanked to east and west by half-domes, and to north and south by elaborate aisles and galleries. Hagia Sophia is also famous for its mosaics, which are among the finest to have survived from the middle and later Byzantine periods, including an exquisite enthroned Virgin and Child in the eastern apse, and, in the south gallery, vivid imperial portraits.

The Blue Mosque / Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I

The Blue Mosque / Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I

The Blue Mosque was built in 1607 by Sultan Ahmet I, and designed by Davut Ağa, a pupil of the great Ottoman architect, Sinan, and its design of a central dome surrounded by four half domes imitates the master’s Şehzade Mosque. The mosque takes its name from the lavish tile decoration of its interior. Its majestic forecourt, or avlu, is one of the finest in the city, and it is the only mosque in Istanbul to have six minarets, the normal complement for an imperial mosque being four.

Greek Patriarchate

Greek Patriarchate

The Greek (more correctly, Ecumenical) Patriarchate stands at the heart of the gold Greek quarter of Fener. Given that it is the centre of the entire Orthodox world, the patriarchal church is a surprisingly modest structure without a dome. It makes up for this with the elaboration of its furnishings, which include an iconostasis encrusted with gold and silver and a patriarchal throne inlaid with mother of pearl. It also contains a great treasure, the finest mosaic icon of the Virgin to have survived from the middle Byzantine period, which is to be found in the northern aisle.

The Palace of the Cantemir Princes & Saint Mary of the Mongols

The Palace of the Cantemir Princes & Saint Mary of the Mongols

From Fener and the Patriarchate a long line of steps heads up to the Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols, passing on its way the handsomely restored Cantemir Palace. The Cantemir princes were of Greek origin and were employed by the Ottoman sultans as governors of Walachia and Moldova, where they acquired a high degree of autonomy and grew immensely wealthy as their palace attests. Saint Mary of the Mongols was married for a brief and unhappy period to a Mongol khan, and was determined not to repeat the experience. Her church has been extensively remodelled, so that its original plan is now hard to discern, but has the unique distinction of being the only pre-conquest Byzantine church that still functions as a church.

The Kariye Mosque & the Blachernae District

The Kariye Mosque & the Blachernae District

The Kariye Mosque is the former Church of Saint Saviour in Chora. It was converted into a mosque after the conquest and is now a museum. It is an attractive building with a cluster of domes typical of late Byzantine architecture, but it is the mosaics of the narthex and the frescoes of the side-chapel that are its chief glory. Dating from the 14th century, they are among the greatest masterpieces of medieval art. A short walk from the Kariye brings to you the charming late 13th century palace now known as Tekfur Saray. It is exceptionally well-preserved, and is notable for its elaborate ornamental brickwork. Tekfur Saray must have been related in some way to the vast Blachernae Palace, which was the preferred residence of all later emperors and lay only a short distance to the south, closer to the Golden Horn. Little of it remains today apart from a single pavilion and a number of enormous vaulted substructures, which are currently being restored.

The Princes’ Islands

The Princes’ Islands

This small archipelago lies within easy reach of Istanbul and is clearly visible from the centre of the city. The islands derive their collective name from the fact that the Byzantines used them as places of exile, not just for princes but also for emperors, empresses and disgraced aristocrats. Today, the islands are a place to relax and escape the noise and bustle of Istanbul. Cars and most vehicles of any kind are banned. There are four main islands: Kınalıada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Büyükada. With the exception of the first-named, all are forested and have streets lined with handsome, late Ottoman mansions in one of which no less a personage than Leon Trotsky resided for four years before moving on to Mexico and assassination.

Galata

Galata

Galata began life as the Genoese colony of Constantinople. As Byzantium declined precipitously during the 14th century, Galata thrived. A number of handsome mansions from this period survive in what is now the district known as Karaköy, as does a large gothic church with a pool containing sacred fish. But of course Galata’s principal surviving monument is its famous tower, which dominates the district and offers superb, panoramic views of the city. After the departure of the Genoese, Galata acquired a large Jewish community, and a number of interesting synagogues still exist, one of them serving as a museum.

The New Mosque (Yeni Cami) & The Spice Bazaar

The New Mosque (Yeni Cami) & The Spice Bazaar

Both the Yeni Cami and the Spice Bazaar originally formed part of a vast complex of structures that also included a hospital, a medrese (or Koran school), a mausoleum, a bathhouse and two fountains. The complex was founded in 1597 by the Valide Sultan Safiye, the mother of Mehmet III, but work was broken off and not completed until 1663 under the patronage of Valide Sultan Turhan, who is buried in the mausoleum. The Yeni Cami is a fine example of an Ottoman imperial mosque of the classic period (16th and 17th centuries) and has very extensive tile decoration. The Spice Bazaar is a vast, vaulted market where, as its name suggests, you can buy all the spices you might desire, but beware: what is advertised as saffron is usually tumeric.

The Pantokrator Monastery / Zeyrek Camii

The Pantokrator Monastery / Zeyrek Camii

This great complex of three, interlinked churches is one of the most impressive Byzantine monuments in Istanbul, and stands on the summit of a hill close to the Aqueduct of Valens. It represents a striking composition of clustered domes and apses, and was constructed in the first half of the 12th century during the reign of John II Comnenus (1118 – 1143). Only a few fragments of its once lavish mosaic decoration have survived, but a fine marble mosaic (opus sectile) floor is in much better condition. The chapel that links the two main churches was the burial place of some of the most distinguished of the later Byzantine emperors.

Fethiye Camii / The Church of the Virgin Pammakaristos

Fethiye Camii / The Church of the Virgin Pammakaristos

In the case of the Fethiye Camii, it is not the church itself, which was insensitively remodelled after its conversion to a mosque, but rather its side-chapel (or Paraclesion) that is the main attraction. This exquisite structure was built (like the Kariye Camii) in the early 14th century and decorated with magnificent mosaics, the most poignant depicting the baptism of Christ. Here, one can appreciate to the full the superb refinement of late Byzantine art and architecture.

Topkapı Palace

Topkapı Palace

Construction of Topkapı Palace, which stands on the site of the old acropolis of Byzantium, began shortly after the conquest of 1453. It grew rapidly and, in its present form, consists of a vast complex of structures arrayed around four great courtyards. It is symptomatic of Ottoman priorities that one of the most impressive of these structures should be the palace kitchens, which now house a superb collection of Chinese and Persian celadon-ware. But, of course, it is the Harem that is the chief draw for most visitors. This bewildering labyrinth of corridors, halls and intricate suites of apartments (many of them exquisitely decorated with tiles, paintings and gilding) extends from the second court to the third, where you will find the principal throne-room of the Ottoman sultans in the days of their glory.

The Süleymaniye

The Süleymaniye

Set on a hill, the Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520 – 1566) rivals Hagia Sophia in its domination of the famous skyline of old Istanbul. This was precisely what the Sultan and his chief architect, Sinan, intended, and the plan of the mosque, with its central dome over a square flanked by two half domes, clearly echoes the design of the Great Church. Sinan’s only regret was that he was not able to build a dome that was larger than Hagia Sophia’s. No one else is likely to consider this magnificent structure a failure on that account.

The Bosphorus

The Bosphorus

No tour of Istanbul’s sights would be complete without a cruise along the Bosphorus, the wooded strait that links Asia to Europe. Such a cruise would take you past the ornate and seemingly endless façade of Dolmabahçe Palace, the smaller but perhaps more elegant Beylerbeyi Palace (which so impressed the Empress Eugenie that on her return to France she copied some of its features), the great twin fortresses of Rumeli and Anadolu Hisar, numerous waterfront mansions and such picturesque Ottoman villages as Ortaköy, Arnavutköy and Emirgan.

The Pera Museum

The Pera Museum

Housed in a handsome 19th century building that formerly boasts three fascinating permanent exhibitions, namely collections of late Ottoman portraiture, delightful Kütahya ceramics and a display of antique weights and measures dating back to the Hellenistic period and before. The museum also has an imaginative programme of temporary exhibitions, which have recently included retrospectives of Jean Dubuffet, Cartier Bresson and Marc Chagall.

The Rahmi M. Koç Museum

The Rahmi M. Koç Museum

The first major museum in Turkey dedicated to the history of Transport, Industry and Communications, the Rahmi M. Koç Museum is housed in magnificent buildings - themselves prime examples of industrial archaeology - on the shore of the historic Golden Horn. The collection contains thousands of items from gramophone needles to full size ships and aircraft, and the location is unrivalled - romantic, historic, convenient to both the Old City and the new. And the appeal is universal: objects that affect people’s daily lives, created by gifted engineers and craftsmen, encapsulating man's ingenuity and hard work yet at the same time exhibiting great beauty.

The Sadberk Hanım Museum

The Sadberk Hanım Museum

This private museum was founded by the Koç family and houses the family's collection of Ottoman art and furnishings, Anatolian antiquities and Islamic art, including coins, and Ottoman-era costumes. The villa that serves as the Art History section of the museum was once the summer residence of Manuk Azaryan Efendi, an Ottoman Armenian who was speaker of the upper house of the Ottoman parliament. The Sevgi Gönül Building, a modern addition, houses the Archeological section, featuring artifacts from Anatolia's many civilizations, including Ionic, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine, dating from as early as the 6th century BC. There is also a collection of Chinese celadon ware from the 14th to 16th centuries and 18th-century Chinese porcelain made specifically for the Ottoman market.

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