No other city on earth extends across two continents: Europe and Asia. For centuries the city had been culturally the most diverse in Europe, on whose old streets and marketplaces more than a dozen languages were spoken, from Turkish to Italian, from Greek to Arabic and all the way to Persian.
No other city in the world has been besieged so many times throughout history. So greatly was the yearn to possess this ancient metropolis by different peoples outside its impregnable walls.
This is incredible Istanbul.
The original city was established on a triangular spit of land on the European continent, surrounded by sea. It is a historic peninsula now dominated by the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, whose slender minarets define the city’s skyline.
Istanbul was back then known as Constantinople, which served as the center of commerce designed to govern one of the most important straights of the ancient known world, the Bosphorus, which connects even today the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Such geographic position ensured political clout, resulting in a constant stream of innovative ideas from both continents.
Sailing on the Bosphorus today affords a perfect opportunity to look at this magnificient city as sailors would have seen it back then, its hills bejewelled with the most splendin mosques. Trading ships and galleys used to flock to Constantinople.
Here one can leave the ferry, drink Turkish tea or coffee at one of the traiditonal cafes by the shore or deep in the city’s hustle and bustle. Nowadays transport ships jostle with passenger ferries on the Bosphorus.
When Constantinople fell to Mehmet the Conqueror and his great Ottoman army in the spring of 1453, shockwaves reverberated throughout Western Europe. Yet Mehmet was a visionary. He was determined to restore the city’s fortunes and place it on an even higher pedestal. Mehmet embraced an open-door policy, which was based on tolerance and freedom designed to invite skills, creativity and new energy translated into innovation.
The view of Kız Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower) on a rainy day in magnificent Istanbul. According to a legend, a soothsayer told the emperor his daughter would die of a snakebite. To protect her, the emperor constructed a tower out at sea where she could live safely; however, a snake hiding in a fruit basket made it onto the islet and the princess died after the snake bit her.
In Constantinople one could find peoples from both Europe and Asia, with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, who flourished as craftsmen, jewellers, perfumers, bankers and merchants busy importing silk, paper and glass. Many of these businesses operated out of the Grand Bazaar built by Mehmet.
Once entering the bazaar, one could sense something of the sights, sounds and smells of what old Istanbul must have been like back then. Crammed with more than four thousand shops, the Grand Bazaar is the biggest and oldest vaulted marketplace in the world. Sellers hawk their wares at the top of the voice, everyone has their own technique to entice you in, the colors, lights and sounds create an exotic and unique atmosphere.
All roads led to Constantinople.
The Heart of Old Istanbul
The heart of this ancient metropolis is the Sultanahmet Square, the hub of its historical timeline and the former capital of the two great empires. All major monuments and landmarks sit majestically in this area that is often called the heart of old Istanbul. The area is named after Sultan Ahmet I who lived from 1590 to 1617 and ruled as an Ottoman Sultan from 1603 to 1617.
The Blue Mosque, also called the Sultanahmet Cami, this grandiose mosque with six minarets dates from the 17th century. Facing the Blue Mosque is the Aya Sofya. It was built well before the Blue Mosque and is one of the most important structures in the world.
In the early medieval times, Constantinople had been a magnet not only for trading goods but also for people. Once the Byzantine emperor Justinian built the Aya Sofya in the 6th century, the metropolis became a site of pilgrimage, second after Jerusalem. This marvelous structure was the greatest church in Christendom for almost a thousand years. Converted to a mosque by Mehmet, today Aya Sofya stands as a breathtaking structure.
Opposite the Aya Sofya, there is a small building next to the tram line, with steps leading down into the city’s largest underground cistern, Yerebatan Sarnıcı, or the Basilica Cistern as it is often referred to. The Basilica Cistern is one of the historical marvels of Istanbul.
As we walked down this early Byzantine structure, we were amazed at its size of a great hall with numerous columns. The only sounds were whispers from tourists and the odd drip of water. The cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople, and later during the Ottoman period to water the gardens of the Topkapı Palace.
We walked all the way to the back of the Basilica Cistern and found two columns held up by heads of Medusa. One lays upside down and the other lays on its side. No one is sure of reason for this but one suggestion is no one who came down to the cistern and looked at the Medusa heads would turn to stone.