Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
(Verse 4 of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’…W.B.Yeats)
One of the minor puzzles for modern visitors to Istanbul is to get used to the idea that this great city has had three different names over its approximately 2700 years of human habitation. It was named Byzantium by its original Greek settlers in the Seventh Century BCE who clearly recognised the significance of the town site on a channel between the Mediterranean and the Black sea. Perhaps these early settlers had no concepts of huge land masses like ‘continents’ but today we are well aware that Byzantium’s descendant City Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. This crossroad between empires has been a great advantage for the life of this city built around the Bosphorus due to the trade that flows through its gates. Its plum location has also made it a source of envy for other nation states and empires that have chosen to invade it throughout the history of the settlement.
The three names of Istanbul over its long history unsurprisingly coincides with the three major religious movements that affected both Europe and Western Asia. Byzantium’s name changed in 330 CE with the conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine I when he chose to use the Byzantium site as the capital for the western half of his empire. He named it ‘New Rome’ but its name was changed to Constantinople on his death. It remained a major Christian City until it fell to the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 when it received its current name of Istanbul. This tripartite history makes for a complex culture in modern Istanbul and an understanding of this history and its impact on the layout of the city will make your visit much richer.
The story that sums up my love of Istanbul began after my wife and I visited the Grand Bazaar and we decided to lunch on a chicken kebab outside the huge building that housed that famous marketplace. The square we decided to sit down in to eat our kebabs was very unattractive, full of lunchtime crowds and their rubbish as well being peppered by large numbers of pigeons that seemed to claim it as their home base. Just when we thought the ambience couldn’t get any worse, it turned 12 noon and suddenly we were bombarded from both sides of the square with a cacophony of over-amplified noise that made us look to cover our ears and at the same time trying to eat our kebabs. There was not one but two mosques, each one on opposite sides of the square and it was the time for calling the faithful to prayer. Things didn’t seem to be able to get any more uncomfortable until I decided to have a close look at the column we were standing next to whose base had been covered by a large dump of what looked like unworked concrete which subsequent generations of pigeons had made their dumping ground. Looking up at an ancient, uncleaned column held together by metal hoops, I realised I had stumbled upon one of my goals for the morning; to find ‘Cemberlitas’ (“hooped stone”), a column whose ancestry stretched all the way back to Constantine.
This lonely, apparently neglected column stands bravely amidst the hubbub of busy Istanbul and if columns could have a consciousness, it would be dreaming of its birthday, May 11, 330CE when it was dedicated as the Column of Constantine. It was no ordinary column. It had once been bedecked by a statue of Constantine in the figure of Apollo. Its base was filled with the holiest relics of Christendom, a fragment of the true cross, the basket from the loaves and fishes story and an alabaster jar of Mary Magdalene which she had used for anointing Jesus. But almost 1800 years have past and it has lost three or more of its red porphyry cylindrical blocks to a gale in a 1106 and was rocked and scorched by earthquakes and fire in the 18th century…it became known as the ‘Burnt Column’. It did not escape the pillaging of the fourth crusade whose rampaging soldiers stole the gold bands that covered the joins between its blocks. To cap it all, its once glorious treasure chest of a base now lies three metres below ground level and who knows what is left of its Christian relics that Constantine’s saintly mother, St Helen, brought back form her own tour of Jerusalem. Despite all this, it is still standing in the 21st century and its damaged pride still tells the story of the end of Byzantium and the rise of Constantinople.
When we visited Turkey in 2013, we stayed at a converted Ottoman mansion called the Blue House in Sultanahmet, the old centre of the city. Looking out the window from out room, the view I encountered was a close-up of the Blue Mosque as seen in the image below. Heading out the front door of the hotel later in the afternoon, we discovered that we weren’t that far from the other major building of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia. Getting to understand the layout of Sultanamet and its congregation of beautiful and ancient buildings representing two thousand years of history became the major fascination of our three days in Istanbul.
The link between the central area of Istanbul today and the ancient city of Constantinople is quite the puzzle and you have to explore carefully to get a sense of what remains are left over from the city that Constantine built. For example, on looking out my hotel window on our arrival, the other thing I noticed apart from the imposing expanse of the Blue Mosque was a sign down below my window pointing down the street to a “Mosaic Exhibition”. I mentally stored that sign away saying to myself, “That is probably interesting, we should go and look at that.” We visited the Mosaic Exhibition on our third day there and couldn’t believe what a goldmine we had found.
Sultanahmet is dominated by four structures that reflect the history timeline of Istanbul.
- The Hippodrome…originally built in 203CE for the Romans who had taken over Byzantium. It was largely rebuilt by Constantine.
- Hagia Sophia built as a Christian Church in 537
- The Topkapi Palace…construction began in 1460.
- The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet and completed by 1616.
These are the major sites of a visit to Sultanahmet and understanding their background and significance in the march of history is what makes the visit to Istanbul so interesting.
The Hippodrome would be called a piazza if it was in Italy; the famous café-central in Rome, Piazza Navona, is similarly built on top of an old Roman hippodrome. Today the Hippodrome in Istanbul is large area for tourists and locals alike to stroll and enjoy the space. At the time of Constantine, it was the centre of the city, mainly because it was stretched along the front of Constantine’s gigantic palace that he had built alongside the site of the old Byzantium hippodrome. It was the centre of the cyclone for all major events of the day. The palace lasted a thousand years before its decay became too evident and it was taken over as the site for the construction of the Blue Mosque. Our hotel was built just on the edge of where the old palace stood! When we went to visit the Mosaic Exhibition mentioned earlier in this article, we discovered that we were able to see the only surviving visible evidence of the old palace, except for a single pillar that is preserved in the Museum of Istanbul. The ancient mosaic floor was amazing!
Visiting the modern hippodrome can be quite a painful experience if you want to be reminded of some of the great tragedies of European history. For example, at the beginning of the hippodrome there is a forlorn and badly damaged column sticking out of a three-metre round hole with little to suggest its past glory. It is apparently a remnant of a triumphal arch that once stood in the hippodrome on which were placed four bronze horses that today are to be found in St Mark’s in Venice. Nobody knows where they were taken from originally to be brought to Constantinople. We do know they were taken by the Crusaders who pillaged Constantinople in 1204 and taken to Venice. Not to be outdone by the perfidy of the Fourth Crusade, Napoleon confiscated them when he invaded Italy but the Austrians returned the horses to Venice after Napoleon was defeated in 1814…unsurprisingly, they weren’t returned to Istanbul.
Perhaps an even more poignant artefact to be found in the Hippodrome is the Serpentine Column, a broken remnant of its past glory standing even more forlornly than Cimberlitas or the column that once held the four bronze horses. This column, consisting of three spirals, originally was topped by three serpent heads and stood on the side of the mountain at Delphi in Greece. It was placed there after the Battle of Salamis against the invading Persians in 478BCE and was made from the melted armoury of the Persian soldiers. It stood there for nearly 800 years before Constantine removed it and ordered it placed on the Spina of his hippodrome. In Delphi today, its base still stands vacant, hoping that one day that its memorial of past great victories will return home to take its rightful place. Its undignified headless state speaks of the trivial events of history that can have major consequences. In 1702, the serpent heads were stolen, probably by a drunken diplomat, so it has stood headless for the last three hundred years, unable to dream of its home on a mountain overlooking the Corinthian Gulf. A minor stroke of luck caused half of one of the serpent heads to be discovered and this small token can now be viewed in the Museum in Istanbul.
The next major structure to visit in Istanbul is Hagia Sophia. Like so many other of the surviving monuments in Istanbul, it comes to the 21st Century trailing a colourful past that reflects the complex trauma of the city’s history. It wasn’t the first Christian Church to be built on the site. The first wooden Church built on the site burnt down in 404 CE. The second church built on the site lasted for a bit over a hundred years before it too was burnt down in rioting that consumed half of Constantinople. (The image to the right shows a remnant of this church that can be seen in an open trench near the front of the building today.) Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, was the third church built on the site starting in 527 and while it was never declared one of the seven marvels of the ancient world, it contains within it some of the pillars taken from the destroyed Temple of Artemis near Ephesus that was included as a wonder of the world in all the ancient lists. A visit to the site of the Temple of Artemis outside Ephesus today is a sad affair with only one column still standing of the lost wonder of the ancient world and it is only a collection strung together of pieces of pillars dredged from the site.
Hagia Sophia reflects the religious transformations of the region referred to in the first paragraph of this article. It was the largest church ever built in the world for over a thousand years but with the arrival of the Ottoman conquerors in the fifteenth century, it was transformed into an Islamic Mosque. The transformation in the architecture is mainly seen on the outside of the building by the construction of minarets at the four corners of the original church structure. On the inside, the change of religion can be seen by the remnants of plaster that were used to cover the Christian mosaics all over the wall. This major change to Hagia Sophia occurred in 1928 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ordered the building to be converted to a museum and subsequently many of the original Byzantine mosaics have been restored. (Such as the damaged image of the ‘Pantocrator’ seen above).
A tour of Hagia Sophia is a tour of an architectural masterpiece of a building that has shared the history of changes in this city for 1600 years. As a consequence, you need plenty of time and a good guide to make the most of your visit. Of the many aspects of such a tour that I could mention, my last suggestion is to have a close look at the so called ‘Nice Door’, another one of those artifacts that has been preserved in Istanbul for well over 2000 years. We are told that it came from a temple somewhere in Turkey, constructed in the second century BCE.
The third site that is on everyone’s list when visiting Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace. Like every other building in Sultanahmet, it stands on ground that that was once part of old Byyzanatium. It was here the Greek citizens of Byzantium built their Acropolis and its was here were built the temples to the gods Poseidon, Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite. Of course the Romans took them over and they were used for more worldly affairs and time had not been kind to these old citizens of ancient Byzantium when they were eventually replaced after the arrival of the Ottamans. This area overlooking the Bosphorus became the home of the Sultans until the middle of the nineteenth century. It shared a similar fate to Hagia Sophia when it was converted to a Museum in 1928 by the government of Attaturk. It became famous in the west in the 1960s when the Hollywood film, Topkapi, made the jewel encrusted Topkapi Dagger world famous; its potential theft being the centrepiece of the action of the film. A tour of the palace will take you to visit the famous jewel collection, the old harem and a display of sacred items associated with Muhammad. There is a jewelled skull and the arm of St John the Baptist that will remind you of the lost relics that were once placed under the Column of Constantine.
A visit to the Blue Mosque is also an essential part of any trip to Istanbul. Its size is overwhelming and the beauty of its interior with its extraordinary blue tiles is not to be missed. It is a functioning mosque so travellers need to be very aware of the etiquette involved in visiting during non-prayer times. My memory of walking to visit the Blue Mosque was of being greeted by a local man who inquired whether we were visiting the mosque. He gave us some good advice about the process but didn’t forget to give us his business card in case we needed to take back to Australia one of the best quality carpets to be found in Istanbul.
The last fascinating site to be included in everyone’s tour of Istanbul is a visit to the Yerebatan cistern. It was built as one of many underground water storage cisterns scattered around Istanbul by the Byzantines, but they fell out of use with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks who preferred fresh water. The Yerebatan Cistern fell out of favour and wasn’t rediscovered until well into the sixteenth century. It has been renovated a number of times and the last major one in 1985 excavated out of the site over 50000 tons of mud, revealing the full size of the marble pillars that held up the roof of the cistern. The beauty of this underground masterpiece is based purely on the miracle that the construction of the cistern, ordered by Emperor Justinianus, demanded that the columns needed to hold up the roof were to be gathered from ‘pagan’ temples all over the empire. Who knows whether some of the 336 columns were brought from the Temple of Artemis or from the Greek Temples that once stood on top of the headland overlooking the Bosphorus? There is no record of these details. When the cistern was emptied of water in 1985, two columns with massive upside-down Medusa heads as column bases were revealed. Archaeologists have guessed that these column bases were brought from Didyma, way down past Ephesus on the Aegean coast of Turkey. A visit to Didyma will show that this is a reasonably educated guess; the upside Medusa head on the left is from Yerebatan and the one on the right is from Didyma.
Tourism to Turkey has struggled over recent years with the rise of Islamisation in Turkish society and the unrest brought about by the coup attempt in July 2016. With the Isis threat in neighbouring Syria and Iraq making world headlines for the last few years, it is not surprising that the tourist dollar has fled elsewhere in the world. We visited Turkey in 2013 and had the most amazing trip, made even happier by the way we were made welcome by the Turkish people we met throughout the towns and cities we visited. Friends visited Turkey in 2017 and reported back the same experience that we received four years before. As politics and social disharmony hopefully decrease in Turkey over the next few years, I am sure the lure of visiting Istanbul will return to the bucket lists of world travellers.
If this account of our visit to Istanbul has wetted your appetite for the possibilities of visiting Turkey, the following links (Not yet activated!) will give you more information about some of the other places we visited whilst in this wonderful country.