Istanbul – Byzantine Marvels and Sultan’s Splendors

Istanbul is a vibrant and historically rich city located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The largest city in Turkey it’s the country’s economic, cultural, and historical heart. With a population of over 15 million people, Istanbul is one of the most populous cities in the world.

Formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, Istanbul’s history spans over 2,500 years. It was founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BCE and later became the capital of the Byzantine Empire. In 330 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. The city served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire for over a thousand years until it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.

Under Ottoman rule, Istanbul continued to flourish as the capital of the Ottoman Empire. It remained the center of power and culture for nearly 500 years until the empire’s dissolution in the early 20th century after World War I

Today, Istanbul is a dynamic metropolis seamlessly blending its rich history with modernity. Its skyline is dotted with minarets, palaces, and ancient structures, while its bustling streets are lined with vibrant markets, restaurants, and cultural attractions.

Some of the city’s most iconic landmarks include the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. The Bosphorus Strait, which flows through the city, divides it into the European and Asian sides, offering stunning views and a unique geographical distinction.

Our small group tours of Turkey include 2 full days in Istanbul covering the following highlights.

Hagia Sophia – one of my favorite buildings in the world – a majestic space with 4 huge square columns supporting the enormous dome. Known as Ayasofya in Turkish, it’s an historic and iconic building with a rich and complex history spanning 1500 years.

Hagia Sophia is renowned for its stunning Byzantine arcitecture. It was built as a cathedral by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in 537 AD after the previous church was destroyed in the ‘Nike’ riots. It’s a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, particularly known for its massive dome, which was an engineering marvel of its time.

Dome and minarets of Hagia Sophia ( Ayasofya , 6th century Byzantine cathedral then mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia served as the main cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years and was the center of Orthodox Christianity. After the conquest of by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 Sultan Mehmed II ordered the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. This involved adding Islamic architectural elements and removing Christian imagery. Fortunately, the outstanding Christian mosaics were only whitewashed or plastered over.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – SEP 5, 2019 – Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

The Ottomans also added minarets to the exterior, and covered the interior with Islamic calligraphy and decorations.

In 1935, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum as part of a broader effort to secularize Turkey. In 2020, the Turkish government decided to revert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. This decision sparked both national and international debate, as it held symbolic significance for various religious and cultural groups. The Christian art remains but is covered up during prayer. Unfortunately, visits to the gallery to view the mosaics up-close is no longer possible.

Christ enthroned, flanked by Empress Zoe and her 3rd husband Constantine IX Monomachus, Byzantine mosaic in the gallery of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
Virgin Mary and infant Christ child, Byzantine mosaic in the gallery of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing its cultural and historical importance. It remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul, drawing visitors from all over the world.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople, also known as At Meydanı (Horse Square) in Turkish, is a historical area located in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. It was originally a large chariot racing track and sports arena that was part of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople.

The Hippodrome was the center of Byzantine social and political life for over 1,000 years. It was used for various events, including chariot races, athletic competitions, and public gatherings. Over time, it underwent several renovations and changes and was the scene of several riots. The ‘Nike’ riots destroyed much of Constantinople including the destruction of the original Hagia Sophia

Today, while the original structure no longer exists, some of its features and monuments can still be seen. These include the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpent Column, and the Constantine Column. These monuments have historical and cultural significance and serve as reminders of the rich history of the area.

The Hippodrome area is a popular tourist destination and is surrounded by other notable landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque), and the Topkapi Palace. It is also close to the Grand Bazaar, making it a hub for both historical and shopping experiences in Istanbul.

 Sultan Ahmed Mosque is an historic mosque and an iconic landmark. The mosque is commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles that adorn its interior walls. Its official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named after Sultan Ahmed I, who ordered its construction.

The construction of the Blue Mosque began in 1609 during the rule of Sultan Ahmed I and was completed in 1616. It was designed by the Ottoman architect Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa

The mosque is a magnificent example of Ottoman architecture, featuring a large central dome, six minarets, and a series of smaller domes and semi-domes. The interior is adorned with over 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles, giving its a distinct and stunning appearance.

It is an active mosque and holds religious significance for Muslims. It is a place of worship where daily prayers, Friday congregational prayers, and special religious ceremonies take place.

In addition to being a place of worship, the Blue Mosque is also open to tourists. However, it is important to be respectful of its religious significance and follow any guidelines or restrictions that may be in place for visitors. The Blue Mosque is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Istanbul. Its stunning architecture, historical importance, and central location make it a must-see for visitors to the city.

Dress Code: Visitors are required to dress modestly when entering the mosque. Women should cover their heads with a scarf, and both men and women should wear clothing that covers their arms and legs.

Topkapi Palace, is an historic palace complex that served as the primary residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years, from the 15th to the 19th century.

 Historical Significance: Topkapi Palace was constructed in the mid-15th century, shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It played a central role in the administration of the Ottoman Empire, serving as the political and ceremonial heart of the empire for several centuries.

The palace is a prime example of Ottoman architecture. It features a blend of various architectural styles, including Islamic, Byzantine, and European elements. The complex is characterized by its distinctive domes, towers, courtyards, and ornate decorations.

Topkapi palace is spread over a large area and is divided into several courtyards, each serving different functions. Some of the key areas within the complex include the Imperial Council, the Harem, the Court of the Janissaries, and various pavilions.

One of the most famous parts of the palace is the Harem, which housed the Sultan’s family, concubines, and servants. It was a private, restricted area within the palace where only the most trusted individuals were allowed. The palace also housed an extensive treasury, which contained a vast collection of valuable items, including jewelry, gold, precious gemstones, and other priceless artifacts including the famous Topkapi Dagger with its huger emeralds.

In addition to its political and administrative functions, Topkapi Palace was a hub of cultural activity. It was home to numerous artists, scholars, and artisans who contributed to the rich cultural heritage of the Ottoman Empire. Today, Topkapi Palace is a museum showcasing a wide range of historical artifacts, including clothing, weapons, ceramics, manuscripts, and religious relics. Visitors can explore the various rooms and courtyards to get a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of the Ottoman rulers.

The palace is situated on a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmara. This strategic location provides breathtaking panoramic views of Istanbul and its surrounding waters. When visiting Topkapi Palace, it’s advisable to allocate a few hours to explore the complex thoroughly. The palace can get crowded, especially during peak tourist seasons, so it’s a good idea to arrive early in the day.

The Grand Bazaar, known as “Kapalıçarşı” in Turkish, is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, located in the heart of Istanbul. It is a bustling and vibrant commercial hub that has been a central part of Istanbul’s cultural and economic life for centuries.

The Grand Bazaar was constructed in the 15th century after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul). It has since undergone various expansions and renovations, becoming an iconic symbol of the city’s rich history.

 The bazaar is a sprawling complex with over 60 streets and alleys, lined with thousands of shops. It is characterized by its covered, vaulted walkways and domed buildings, which give it a distinctive architectural style. Over the last twenty years some of the mystery (and fun) of exploring the market has been lost as signs now show where you are and the streets have been new paved.

 The Grand Bazaar is renowned for its diverse range of goods. You can find an extensive array of items including jewelry, textiles, carpets, ceramics, spices, leather goods, clothing, antiques, and much more.

Bargaining is a common practice in the Grand Bazaar. Sellers often expect customers to negotiate prices, so it’s a good idea to be prepared for some friendly haggling.

The bazaar is not only a place for commerce, but also a cultural experience. As you explore its labyrinthine alleys, you’ll encounter a mix of locals and tourists, adding to the lively atmosphere.

In addition to the shops, the Grand Bazaar is home to a variety of eateries and cafes. You can take a break from shopping and enjoy some traditional Turkish cuisine or a cup of Turkish coffee.

The Grand Bazaar is a major tourist attraction in Istanbul. It draws millions of visitors each year, making it one of the most visited landmarks in the city. In 1980, the Grand Bazaar was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historical and cultural significance.

The Basilica Cistern, also known as the Yerebatan Cistern, is one of the most impressive historical sites in Istanbul, Turkey. It is an ancient underground water reservoir located in the Sultanahmet district, close to famous landmarks like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Our first visit created an indelible memory with Vivaldi echoing over the waters among the dimly lit columns.

 The cistern was built during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD. It was constructed to provide a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings in the area. The cistern is an engineering marvel of its time. It covers an area of approximately 9,800 square meters and can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water. It is supported by 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows. Many of these columns were repurposed from earlier structures and have various designs, showcasing the reuse of materials in Byzantine construction.

When you visit the Basilica Cistern, you’ll descend a flight of stairs into a dimly lit, subterranean world. The air is cool, and the sound of dripping water adds to the mysterious ambiance. The columns and their reflection in the water create a surreal atmosphere. Our first visit enchaned our experience with Vivaldi echoing over the waters among the dimly lit columns.

Among the columns, there are two Medusa heads used as column bases. One is upside down, and the other is on its side. These are believed to have been placed this way intentionally, although the exact reason remains uncertain.

 The cistern has undergone various periods of restoration and maintenance over the centuries. In the mid-20th century, it was cleaned and restored to its present state, allowing visitors to explore this ancient structure.

Istanbul has a rich history with many historical cisterns, also known as “sarnıç” or “sarnıçlar” in Turkish. Some of the other notable cisterns in Istanbul include:

Theodosius Cistern (Şerefiye Sarnıcı): Located in the Fatih district, it was constructed during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century. It is one of the oldest cisterns in Istanbul.

Binbirdirek Cistern (Binbirdirek Sarnıcı): Also known as “A thousand and one columns,” it is located in the Sultanahmet Square and dates back to the Byzantine period.

Süleymaniye Cistern (Süleymaniye Sarnıcı): Located in the Süleymaniye Mosque complex in the Fatih district, it was constructed during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.

Çinili Cistern (Çinili Sarnıç): Found in the Üsküdar district, this cistern dates back to the Ottoman period and is known for its decorative tilework.

Aya İrini Cistern (Aya İrini Sarnıcı): This cistern is located in the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. It was constructed during the Byzantine period and is associated with the nearby Hagia Irene (Aya İrini) Church.

Büyük Valide Han Cistern (Büyük Valide Han Sarnıcı): Situated in the Eminönü district, this cistern is part of the Büyük Valide Han complex and dates back to the Ottoman period.

Kasım Paşa Cistern (Kasım Paşa Sarnıcı): Located in the Beyoğlu district, this cistern was built during the Ottoman period and is part of the Kasım Paşa Mosque complex.

Çukurbostan Cistern (Çukurbostan Sarnıcı): Found in the Üsküdar district, this cistern dates back to the Byzantine period and is named after the nearby Çukurbostan Mosque.

Valens Aqueduct and Cistern (Bozdoğan Kemeri ve Sarnıcı): The Valens Aqueduct, also known as the Bozdoğan Kemeri, supplied water to the cisterns of Constantinople during the Byzantine period. The cisterns associated with this aqueduct are located in the Fatih district.

This is a bare introduction to Istanbul. See our other posts:

Exploring the ‘Other’ Mosques of Istanbul

The Rest of Istanbul – What You Missed on Your First Tour

By Cascoly

I've been exploring and leading trips for over 40 years. climbing & trekkng in the Alps, Andes, North American mountain ranges and the Himalaya. I'm retired from mountaineering now but world travels in Europe, Africa & Asia continue to expand my portfolio. Besides private travel, I now focus on escorting trips to India & Turkey. Other interests include wide reading in history and vegetable gardening / cooking. You can download digital images here, or find images at We have many thousands of images we haven't displayed yet; so, if you have a special need or request please contact us