Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Walking Istanbul

"Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than Western cities; its disorder resists classification."
      - Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul 


Post Contents:
  • Map of greater Istanbul
  • History
  • Simplified map of Old City
  • What will you see? Photo Preview: Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome (Atmeydani), Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi), Spice Market (Misir Carsisi), Suleymaniye Mosque, Aqueduct of Valens, Kariye Museum, Mosaic Museum, Archeology Museum, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Seafood Bazaar, Galata Tower, Beyoglu, Istiklal Cadessi, Nisantasi, Dolmabahce Palace, Bosphorus Cruise, Buyuk Ada, dondurma, simit. 

Map and a bit of Geography:
3 Parts?!? Europe and Asia? You can begin to understand from this map how Istanbul has an Asian side and a European side separated by the Bosphorus.
And that the European side is separated again into old and new sections by the Golden Horn, or Halic. The city owes its growth in part to this 4-mile long natural harbor.

The Bosphorus, (Istanbul Bogazi)) which separates the European side from the Asian side of Istanbul, is a heavily trafficked seaway that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Mamara.


Istanbul is every  bit as vibrant and exciting and ever-changing as other world cities like Paris, London and Tokyo.  The meeting place of East and West--Asia and Europe--the city has been inhabited for some five millennia.  It's been the capital of two of history's most powerful and influential empires, the Byzantine (which lasted 1,000 years) and the Ottoman (which lasted nearly 500 years).

 As a result, every corner, every street, every block of this magnificent metropolis is steeped in history, and truly inquisitive souls will find themselves returning again and again to discover some gem they missed on past visits. Indeed, one of us has been to Istanbul four times, and the other twice.

Until 1924, Istanbul was known as Constantinople, after the fourth-century Roman Emperor who declared it the Second Rome. Under his tutelage, and that of some of his Byzantine successors, it reached the heights of wealth, power and prestige. Its geography was partly responsible: Lying on the Bosphorus Strait, with a natural harbor in the Golden Horn, the city straddles the continents of Europe and Asia. It became a center of trade and was long seen by the West as the center of Oriental exoticism and mystery.

Our Walking Tour: 10 Days
We recently set out to explore this marvelous place, spending ten days (seven as part of an organized walking tour, and three days on our own.)  Istanbul was built on 7 hills, so you really build those muscles when you do the walks! It helps to fuel up at breakfast on the potent Turkish coffee. We took ours filtered, so we could gulp down the big cupsful.

One of the many steep cobblestone streets.

Everywhere you turn in Istanbul you find history, art, architecture, and the remains of layers of civilizations: Graeco-Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, and finally modern development. Nearly every historic site of interest is located in the old part of Istanbul, which includes Sultanahmet. It took us a full week to finally understand the layout of the area, and we wanted to make it easy at a glance for you...

We created this simplified map of the Old City showing only Divan Yolu, the main street which is serviced by the tram. A few other streets are drawn as location references. (You'll need a good, detailed street map to do the actual walking.) Divan Yolu, which changes names as it heads westward, is straddled by many major sites. We were told that in ancient times, it was the road to Rome. It ran from the Byzantine Imperial Palace, now the Blue Mosque, all the way to the city of Rome!

A very modern system of transportation, including buses, subways, trams and trains, snake throughout the old and new parts of the city. Clean, fast and crowded, the tram line will take you to many of the sites in Istanbul if you're too tuckered out to walk now and then.

"Solomon, I have surpassed thee."  So said the Byzantine emperor, Justinian on December the 26th, 537, when he rededicated the church of Aya Sofya.
Among the most important sites is the church of Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), meaning Holy Wisdom. Built in 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it is one of the world's architectural wonders. It  features an awe-inspiring dome that rises 180 feet above the ground and measures 101 feet in diameter. The church was converted to a mosque when the city was taken by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1493.  Since 1934, it has been a museum.

Over the years, after the Ottomans turned the church  into a mosque, they plastered over many of the mosaics and frescoes in accordance with Muslim belief that the human figure should never be depicted; only Allah could create a human being,

Today, these precious mosaics are being gradually restored to their natural conditions. This Deeisis (a scene in which Christ is shown between St. John, on the left, and the Virgin Mary, on the right) represents the two as praying to Christ for the salvation of humankind.. .

The Weeping Column: (in the nave, northwest corner of the aisle near the huge alabaster urn on the first floor.)  If you put your finger in the hole in this metal-clad marble column and rotate your hand, according to different legends, either your wish will be granted, or your ailment will be healed, but only if your finger comes out moist, according to some versions. It must be true because there are always long lines of folks waiting for their turn ;).

One of Sultanahmet's more colorful characters is this vendor of Dondurma, an ice cream containing gum. As part of the old tradition, the vendors go through a funny fake-out routine as they repeatedly  pretend to extend the cone to your hand, but swivel it away just before you close on it. One Tramp couldn't get enough of the stuff; the other remained lukewarm.   The Turks love their sweets, and number 1 favorite is lokum, or Turkish Delight. In fact, when the Turks offer a sweet, they say, Tatli yiyelim, tatli konusalim, which means roughly, Eat sweet and talk sweetly to each other.

The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet Cami, is the only mosque in Istanbul with 6 minarets!
It was completed in 1616 by the Ottoman Sultan Ahmet 1. It is one of the world's most renowned mosques, taking its name from the interior's  blue tiles, which came from the Turkish city of Iznik.  All told, 20,143 tiles of 70 different styles adorn the interior of this beautiful house of worship.  It was built on the site of the  Byzantine Imperial Palace, just opposite Haghia Sophia. This photo happens to be a cell phone shot from a restaurant roof on Divan Yolu.

The Blue Mosque's main dome measures 77 feet in diameter and stands 140 feet in height. The goal of Sultan Ahmet was to surpass Haghia Sophia, not in size but in sheer beauty.  By any standard, many think he certainly succeeded.

The Blue Mosque's main and secondary domes are supported by only four massive columns,  measuring 16 feet in diameter.  Appropriately enough,they are known as "Elephant Columns." The mosque was originally illuminated by mosque lamps containing candles.  Today, of course, the lamps contain hundreds of electric bulbs.

Just a few yards from the Blue Mosque is all that remains of The Hippodrome (At meydani), which originally was the scene of Byzantine chariot races and other crowd-pleasing contests. This one-time racecourse was 1,500 feet long and could hold 100,000 people. Today, it contains three major monuments: The Egyptian Obelisk (from 1,500 BC) taken by the Emperor Constantine from the Egyptian city of Luxor and erected here by Theodoseus;

The Serpentine Column, from Greece and cast in 479 BC  (it featured three intertwined serpents with gold heads; and ...

Constantine's Column: ...the Column of a Byzantine Emperor with the forgettable name of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. He probably restored the column and clad it in bronze. It was perhaps originally erected by Constantine l who had a statue of himself as Apollo mounted at the top so that it would be higher than the Egyptian obelisk.

Closeup of Egyptian Obelisk, or The Obelisk of Theodosius, giving a better look at its hieroglyphics. Several other Obelisks from Egypt found homes in New York's Central Park, Paris, London and Rome.

Topkapi Palace. long the seat of Ottoman power, was built by Sultan Mehmet II from 1459 to 1465. It is truly an amazing place and is worth an entire day's visit. This sprawling place, just a short walk from the other attractions of Sultanahmet, housed 5,000 civil servants and members of the imperial household.  Be sure to visit the kitchens (if open), the throne room, the harem, the Treasury, and the library. You can see the dishes the Sultans ate from, their wardrobes and weapons, even the imperial jewel-encrusted sofa. 

The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Saray) is, as the Turkish name indicates, a "sunken palace." Begun by the fourth-century Byzantine Emperor Constantine, it was enlarged by the Emperor Justinian in 522 and is really nothing more than a huge underground water reservoir. It once held 19 million gallons of the stuff, which was directed through the Roman system to provide running water to each home. This system was abandoned by the conquering Ottomans who reverted to their practice of fetching water in buckets and throwing waste into the streets.

The vaulted ceiling would not be out of place in an 11th-century Romanesque cathedral.

The cistern's roof is supported by no fewer than 336 classical columns, many salvaged from old Greek buildings.

Be sure to check out the partially submerged, upside-down Medusa Heads, way in the rear of the cistern.

The Grand Bazaar  (Kapali Carsi) is surely one of the world's largest indoor shopping malls. Founded in 1461 by the industrious Sultan Mehmet II, it was the heart of the Ottoman Empire's trade and commerce.  Jewelry, carpets, clothing, shoes, food,banks lodging--whatever the tourist would want can be found in this colorful place, where everyday 30,000 traders work in 4,500 shops. Be prepared for some serious bargaining.  And always start by offering half the asking place. 

These attached wooden houses are typical of Istanbul.  Many of them burned down during the 1950s, and some were later restored to their Ottoman glory.

A typical scene in Istanbul is this glorious mixture of the new, the old, and the very old. These houses are in the network of streets just behind The Blue Mosque, beyond the Arasta Bazaar, and to the southeast of the of the park between Aya Sofya and The Blue Mosque. The stone wall peeking out between the two buildings is a section of the city's land wall, built by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II in the fifth century CE. They withstood attacks by Huns, Russians,Crusaders,  Bulgarians, and others before finally falling in 1453 to the Ottoman Emperor Mehmet II, the Conqueror.

Definitely worth a walkthrough is the fabulous Four Seasons Hotel, the converted old Sultanahmet prison, on Tevfikhane Cadessi, a street which passes between Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque.

Across the southern ring of Kennedy Caddesi  at the foot of Gedipasa Cadessi is  the Istanbul fish market with many restaurants right on the waterfront where we had a so-so dinner one night.

The Valens Aqueduct is another of Istanbul's ancient wonders.  Nearly intact, it was built in the fourth century CE by the Roman Emperor Valens. it carried water from the Belgrade Forest (a neighborhood of Istanbul) to the center of the city where the Byzantine's Great Palace stood.

One of the most stunning features of  Ottoman architecture is the dome structure of the Suleymaniye Mosque. Built in 1550 by the order of Sultan Suleyman, (Suleyman the Magnificent), Sinan Pasha, the great architect of the time, was attempting to outdo Justinian's Haghia Sophia, which in turn was an attempt to outdo Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.

Museum Day
Once our walking tour was over, we decided to visit 3 of the Sultanahmet area museums on our first independent day.

The supposed tomb of Alexander the Great in the Archeological Museum, located on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. Made of marble, it features this figure of Alexander defeating the Persians around 330 BCE.

The only recovered serpents head of the 3 that once topped the Serpent's Column at the Hippodrome.

The Mosaic Museum features a stunning mosaic floor that's all that's left of the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors. It's one of the largest complete stretches of mosaic floor still in existence in Turkey. Wild animals and hunting scenes predominate.

Mosaic floor detail.

The last stop of the day was The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, located just southwest of the Hippodrome. It is said to house one of the world's best collections of Islamic art.

The next day, we began with the (Chora Museum) Kariye Museum, or The Church of St. Savior in Chora, an eleventh  century Church containing one of the world's finest collections of Byzantine art. Its more than 100 glorious mosaics and frescoes depict scenes from the Bible. It's located in the western part of Istanbul in Fena, a district along the city's ancient land wall. We took our hotel clerk's advice and went there by taxi because public trans meant a combination of bus, tram and walking, which might delay our early start. The driver was very sweet and the 20-minute ride cost 12 TL (Turkish lira), or $8 for the two of us.

A highlight of the Chora, this scene portrays the Resurrection (Ansatasis, in Greek); it  shows Christ pulling Adam and Eve from their coffins.

We had intended to walk back toward the tram to Sultanahmet along the Land Wall, but there was no continuous, safe walkway. Instead, we abandoned our exploration of the land wall at Fevzi Pasa Cadessi and walked west. We saw many interesting things that Saturday, and not a tourist among them. We were quite the oddities as we made our way along this busy neighborhood street.

You can't go anywhere in Turkey without encountering a Doner shop. Doner kebap (meaning "rotating roast") consists of meat, usually lamb, cooked on a vertical spit, sliced to order and folded into pita bread..

We encountered many pastane, or pastry shops. Baklava is a favorite, with su boregi (a savory pastry with cheese filling) a close second.

Discount wedding attire was plentiful in this Western part of the city.

When we reached Akdeniz Caddesi, we turned right on it to walk south to the tram for our trip back to Sultanahmet.

Almost at the tram, we came across this procession, depicting who knows what? Many children approached us to practice the English phrases they learn in school. "Hello. What is your name? Where are you from?" Proud parents often looked on, smiling.

We stopped for lunch and had our favorite: a glass of chai (tea) and a peynirli tost (grilled cheese sandwich). The strange smoking glass on the table was given to us by our friendly waiter.  A moment before, we had seen one just like it at an adjoining table of young women celebrating a birthday. When we used a few words of halting Turkish to ask what the women were having, the waiter enthusiastically ran inside and reappeared to place  a glass of dry ice on our table. Then he poured some hot water and carmel-flavored syrup over the ice, creating a fragrant, all-enveloping  cloud. What language barrier?

We boarded the tram at Findikzade and held on for dear life, progressively pressed more and more like sardines in a can by denser and denser weekend crowds as we headed east.

Daytrip: Ferry to Buyukada.
When the Istanbulus have a day off, many like to hop a ferry and head for a favorite summertime retreat on one of the Princes' Islands. In the Byzantine era, banished emperors, empresses and princes (often after being blinded) were imprisoned in convents and monasteries on these islands.

Later, during Ottoman days, the islands were ghettos for Greeks, Armenians and Jews.
Among the 4 larger islands, Buyuk Ada (Big Island) was our day-trip destination. This island is now quite the desirable property and vacation spot. Buyuk Ada, it seems, is also a pilgrimage destination. Every April 23rd, thousands of people of all religions from Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Russia come to climb the highest hill to Aya Yorgi, a monastery, to take part in an ancient fertility ritual..?

No cars allowed, just quaint water-front villages, grand Ottoman mansions, beach clubs, horse-drawn carriages and bicycle rentals for the hearty. Many of the filigreed houses are undergoing renovation. One of the most decrepit was a villa that once belonged to Leon Trotsky.

Even water has to be delivered the old-fashioned way on Buyuk Island.

Finally, a Venture over to the New City:
After our pastoral day on the Princes Islands (we won't go into the considerable anxiety we caused ourselves by jumping off the ferry a few stops too soon and found ourselves in Asia depending on the kindness of strangers to be redirected), we were ready to face the hubbub of the new part of European Istanbul, still referred to as Pera, the old Italian name for Beyoglu. That meant a short walk up from our hotel to Eminonu, the Old City side of the Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn, or Halic. The Golden Horn separates the old and new parts of European Istanbul.

The very walkable double-level Galata Bridge links Eminonu to Pera, the modern part of the European city. The Galata Tower is in the distance. This 205-feet high stone tower was built in 1348 by the Genoese, the Byzantine's trading partner.  Make your way to the top, either by steps or elevator, and you'll be afforded a stunning view of the city.

The upper level of the bridge is lined with fishermen whose tiny catch we mistook for bait.

You'll find Simit wagons, like this one, all over Istanbul,  Simit, eaten throughout the Balkans and the Middle East, is a delectable, chewy sesame-seed covered round bread that goes well with mozzarella-like  keshar cheese. One of Istanbul's top five street foods, it's also found in chains like Simit Sarayi (Simit Palace) throughout the city. That's where we called it lunch!

The entrance to the Tunel, a nearly 2,000-feet long funicular that runs up a steep slope from Galata Bridge to the Beyoglu neighborhood of European Istanbul. The main street for shopping and browsing is Istiklal Cadessi, or Independence Avenue, or Grande Rue de Pera.

This ancient tram will take you from Tunel to Taksim Square. A few blocks of Istiklal C. is the Pera Museum.  It's a private collection of modern art that is well-worth seeing. The building was the Bristol Hotel before the conversion.

We came across these Boats of the Sultans during our Bosphorus Cruise. They're really raucous  floating kitchens, preparing food for dockside restaurants and wildly rock back and forth as they're buffeted by the waves thrown up by the passing ferries.

One of the sights you'll see during the Cruise is this fortress, known as the Fortress of Europe (Rumeli Hisari). It was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452, preparatory to his siege of Constantinople to prevent rescue of the city.  Across the Strait is it's twin, the Fortress of Asia (Andalou Hisari), built in the 1500s by the Ottoman Sultan Beyazit 1.

The Bosphorus Bridge connects Europe and Asia. Some 5,000 feet long, it was built in 1973.

The Istanbul skyline is one of the world's not-to-be missed sights.This quintessential Istanbul scene features the Suleymaniye Mosque, built in 1550-57  by Sulyman the Magnificent. It was designed by Sinan, the Ottoman Empire's greatest architect.

On our last day, we traveled back across the Golden Horn, but this time we took the tram to Karakoy, a short walk from Dolmabahce Palace.


Dolmabahce Palace was built in 1843 by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Mecit.  He wanted a palace as grand as those found in Europe and this was the result. It's really lavishly overdone and garish, and it's said that it's cost contributed to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.We were there on a Sunday and had a 2-hour wait to get in!!

From Dolmabahce, we decided to see how the wealthy Turks live and spend their lira. We made our way to Nisantasi, a neighborhood in the modern part of Istanbul where Nobel-Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk grew up, and which is full of the stores you'd expect to find in New York or Paris.  Alas, we could do little but window shop: it was Sunday, and the entire neighborhood was shuttered closed. We did manage to find an open optometrist, however, where we were able to purchase contact lens solution.
It wasn't until we returned to our hotel that we learned that the most upscale shops and cafes of Nisantasi are on Vali Konagi Cadessi, a street we had missed in our wanderings. Oh, well, we're sure they would have be shuttered, too. Right?
We found out also, after the fact, that the Harbiye Military Museum, located right on the train line we took back from Nisantasi to Beyoglu would have been an interesting stop.  Istanbul is so rich in interesting sites that the task of researching everything you might like to see is overwhelming!

So went our ten days in Istanbul.  Next, watch for our adventures in Southern Turkey, where we took a hiking tour along the Aegean Sea on an ancient road known as the Lycean Trail.