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The Topkapi Palace is the biggest and one of the most popular sites to visit in Istanbul. It was built in between 1466 and 1478 by the sultan Mehmet II on top of a hill in a small peninsula, dominating the Golden Horn to the north, the Sea of Marmara to the south, and the Bosphorus strait to the north east, with great views of the Asian side as well. The palace was the political center of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, until they built Dolmabahce Palace by the waterside.
After the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II ordered to built his palace in its present location on top of the ancient Byzantine ruins, meanwhile he spent some time during its construction at a smaller palace where there is the University of Istanbul today, in Bayezit square. Once they moved to Topkapi palace, the old one was called as “Old Palace” and Topkapi as the “New Palace”. But local people called it as “Topkapi” which in Turkish means “Gate of Cannons” because of huge cannons displayed outside of its gates, those which were used during the Conquest.
There were originally around 700-800 residents of the Palace at the beginning, but during the centuries it dramatically raised to 5,000 during normal days and 10,000 during festivals, approximately. Amongst these, the Janissaries were the biggest part of the population who were based within the first courtyard of the palace. The palace became the largest palace in the world, a city within a city. The walls surrounding it were about 5 kilometers (around 3 miles) long. The palace having around 700,000 m2 of area during the foundation years, it currently has only 80,000 m2 of area because of building constructions in its grounds towards the end.
During the 400 hundred years of reign at Topkapi, each sultan added a different section or hall to the palace, depending on his taste or on the needs of the time. Therefore the palace is formed by a maze of buildings centered around a series of courtyards protected by different gates. Its architecture is predominantly Middle Eastern in character. The initial construction was Cinili Mansion, a tiled kiosk finished in 1472, and the main gate (Bab-i Humayun in Arabic or the Imperial Gate) facing Sultanahmet square and Hagia Sophia church, and the Palace ramparts at the second gate (Bab-us Selam or the Gate of Salutation) were completed in 1478. A third gate, Bab-us Saade or the Felicity Gate, separates the core and most important parts of the palace from other sections, such as the Treasury for example.
At first, the Harem was left in the Old Palace and was moved to its present location only one century later by sultan Murad III, again with the addition of several buildings during many years. The Harem, literally meaning “forbidden” in Arabic, was a complex of apartments in the palace belonging to the wives, concubines and children of the sultan, guarded by the black eunuchs. At some point, its population topped to a record high of 474 ladies. Inside the Harem there were rooms dedicated to the mother of the sultan, wives of the sultan, his concubines, Turkish baths, circumcision room, apartments of the chief black eunuch, and apartments of the sultan, in total over 400 rooms. Today, the Harem is a separate museum within the palace complex and there are escorted tours at certain hours of the day.
The palace was opened to the public as a museum in 1924 by the order of Ataturk. There are many sections in the Topkapi Palace which can be visited today, these are exhibition halls and doesn’t contain any furniture. Some of the exhibition halls are closed for restorations but still the visit of the palace would take a half day for an interested person. Please note that in some of the exhibition halls you’re not permitted to take any photographs, such as Treasury, Sultans’ costumes, and the Holly Relics.
Once you pass the first gate, Imperial Gate, you’ll be in the first courtyard called as the “Courtyard of the Regiments”. From this gate anybody could pass but only the sultan would be on the horse, while all others on foot. Here, a nice park, some ruins and columns from the Byzantine period, a 6th century Hagia Irene church which is occasionally used for some concerts and art exhibitions today, the Imperial Mint, and the Archaeological museum welcomes you. Before you get to the second gate, there are ticket boots, a change office, and a small gift shop on the right.
The second gate has two guard towers and is called “Gate of Salutation”, because everybody had to salute the sultan before going through. From this gate, only the sultan and people working in the palace could pass, it wasn’t for the public access. Today, passing through this gate there will be a security check and ticket control, and you access to the second courtyard of the palace (courtyard of the Divan). There are two small scale models of the palace on the right and a big map showing the foundation and expansion of the Ottoman Empire. To the right of the courtyard, there are palace kitchens where there were between 800-1,000 cooks preparing food for this 10,000 people living in the palace. Today there is a nice collection of Chinese and some Japanese porcelains collection and the silverware at separate sections of the kitchens. Across the courtyard, to the left, there is the Divan, or Council Chamber, where the viziers and grand vizier gathered to talk about daily issues or to receive foreign visitors. There was the treasury of the Divan next door, which is an exhibition of weapons of that time today, and the Tower of the Justice above it was used for the surveillance of the harbor. The Harem entry is also in this courtyard just behind the Divan chamber.
The third gate is called “Gate of Felicity” because the sultan and his court celebrated important events here, sitting on his throne; when the sultan was happy everybody was happy. This gate was protected by the white eunuchs and nobody could pass through without the permission of the sultan. When you enter the third courtyard (courtyard of the Enderun), the first building is the Audience Hall where the sultan received his viziers or foreign ambassadors. The room is nicely decorated with some furniture. Behind this room, there is a library as well. On the right of the courtyard there is a collection of sultans’ costumes and the Treasury, maybe one of the most popular section of the museum. Amongst the many interesting items we can name the 86 carat Spoon Maker’s (Kasikci in Turkish) Diamond, Topkapi Dagger, huge emeralds, several thrones, big candle sticks made of pure gold, and relics of St. John the Baptist.
On the left of the third courtyard, there is the Holly Relics section where religiously important items are displayed, such as the mantle, footprint, a tooth and hair of the Prophet Mohammed, swords of the first caliphs, container of the Black Stone from Ka’ba, and so on. Next to this hall, there are several other rooms with the paintings of the sultans, miniatures, old clocks etc.
After the third courtyard, there are several passages to the fourth and last courtyard of the palace, the private garden of the sultan (Sofa-i Humayun in Arabic) where he had roses and tulips and some kiosks from which he had a great view of the city while drinking his tea or coffee. Baghdad kiosk, Revan kiosk and Sofa kiosk on the left of the courtyard overlooking the Golden Horn, all of them built in the 17th century and decorated with fine tiles and mother of pearl inlaid on wood, circumcision room for the sons of the sultan, Mecidiye kiosk on the right of the courtyard overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, built in the mid-19th century, and the small mosque are some interesting elements of this last courtyard. Just below the Mecidiye kiosk, there is a self service cafeteria and a restaurant today.
The Ataturk Museum
House where Ataturk lived and worked before the War of Independence during his stay in Istanbul between 1918 and 1919, originally was built in 1908 and restored by the Municipality of Istanbul in 1943, opening to the public in 1981. Top floor of this building was reserved to His mother Zubeyde Hanim and His sister Makbule, meanwhile Ataturk used middle floor for himself and lower floor for His loyal officer.
On display are photographs of Ataturk from his birth until his death, as well as some of his clothes, personal belongings and paintings.
Sultanahmet Square (Hippodrome)
Scene of horse and chariot races and the center of Byzantine civic life. It was the place where the Nika Riot started in 532 AD. There is an Egyptian Obelisk, a stone obelisk and the Serpentine Column which were originally brought by the Byzantine emperors and used for the decoration of the Hippodrome. At the other end of the Hippodrome, the German Fountain still functions today. The imperial lodge was located to the west of the Hippodrome where Ibrahim Pasha Palace stands now. Today, Sultanahmet Square is a nice pedestrian area for picnics and meetings.
St. Savior in Chora (Kariye) Museum
Ancient Byzantine church which was first built in the 6th century AD as a monastery and restored several times in the 9th, 11th and 12th centuries, and finally renovated in the 14th by Theodore Metochites, minister of the Byzantine Empire, from which we have the best of mosaics. It was converted into a mosque in the 15th century after the Conquest of the city. Today it’s a museum of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. The typical Ottoman neighborhood with wooden houses is also very interesting to stroll around.
First inhabitants of Istanbul are dating back to second millennia BC, they were settled on the Asian side of the city. Its first name comes from Megara king Byzas who took his colonists here in the 7th century BC to establish a colony named Byzantium, the Greek name for a city on the Bosphorus. Byzas chose this spot after consulting an oracle of Delphi who told him to settle across from the “land of the blind”. Indeed, Byzas believed that earlier settlers must have been “blind” for overlooking this superb location at the entrance of the Bosphorus strait, only access to the Black Sea.
In the 6th century BC Persians ruled the city and than Alexander the Great took it over after 4th century BC, which was a peaceful period until the 2nd century BC.
In 193 AD Roman emperor Septimus Severus conquered the city and it remained under the Roman rule until 4th century AD, when emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium the capital of entire Roman Empire and gave it his name: Constantinople, and Eastern Roman Empire was called Byzantine Empire after 5th century. The city was built on seven hills, like Rome.
Early Byzantine emperors filled their city with the treasures of the ancient world, especially between 4th and 6th centuries with a population exceeded half a million. In 532 during the reign of Justinian I, riots destroyed the city. But it was rebuilt and outstanding structures such as Hagia Sophia stand as monuments to the golden age of Byzantines.
Istanbul’s latter history is full intrigues and sieges, it was besieged by the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries and by the Barbarians in the 9th and 10th, but ruled by the Fourth Crusade between 1204-1261 who destroyed and sacked all the wealth. After this, Constantinople did not regain its former richness nor strength.
Ottoman Turks lead by Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453. Renamed Islambol, the city became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Between 15th and 16th centuries, sultans built many mosques and public buildings, topping the population again around half million by the mid 1500’s, Istanbul was a major cultural, political, and commercial center. The name “Istanbul” was derived from a combination of “Islambol” (“city of Islam” in Turkish) and “eis tin Polin” (“to the City” in Greek) throughout the centuries.
Ottoman rule lasted until World War I when Istanbul was occupied by the allied troops. After years of struggle led by Ataturk against the occupying forces, the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 and the capital was moved to Ankara province. But Istanbul has continued to expand dramatically; today its population is over 13 million and still increases constantly. It continues to be the commercial and cultural center of Turkey.
Hope to see you soon in Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia means “Divine Wisdom” in Greek, this was an Orthodox church dedicated to holly wisdom, not to a Saint Sophia as some people wrongly call it today. Turkish people call it Aya Sofya, it’s a former Byzantine church and former Ottoman mosque, now located in Sultanahmet neighborhood being one of the most important museums of Istanbul considered as a World Heritage by UNESCO. It is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.
The first church of Hagia Sophia was built on the same site in the 4th century by Constantine the Great and renovated by his son Constantinus II in 360 AD. It was a small wooden church in Constantinople. Unfortunately nothing remained from it because it was destroyed during a fire in 404 AD
After the destruction, a second and larger Hagia Sophia was built at the same location in 415 AD by the emperor Theodosius II. This second church was also burned down during the Nika riots of 532 AD. Some of its columns, capitals, and the stairs can be seen today in the courtyard of the museum.
Finally, the third Hagia Sophia, the one that you can visit today, was built by emperor Justinian I between 532-537 AD over the remains of the previous basilica. The emperor spent almost all of his treasure, 10.000 people worked in its construction under the supervision of two architects; Anthemius of Tralles (modern day Aydin city) and Isidorus of Miletos. After completion, Justinian entered the church and he shouted “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”, referring to King Solomon. The church became the glorious symbol of the Byzantine Empire and the largest church of Christendom in the world. For almost 1000 years the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Church councils and imperial ceremonies were held here.
The gigantic central dome over a rectangular plan was built using special bricks; 12 of them weighted as one regular. But it was still too heavy therefore this early dome collapsed during several earthquakes so a smaller one was built. In the days when there was no steel used in construction, large domes had to be supported by massive pillars and walls, thus the dome of Hagia Sophia was supported by four huge piers in order to take off its pressure on the side walls and distribute it to the ground. Fourty small windows around the dome and other windows of the church let enough light into the interior.
The interior walls of the church were decorated with gold mosaics, the floors with white marble, and column capitals with the monograms of Justinian and Theodora. Marbles and columns taken from the remains of earlier civilizations from all parts of the Empire were used as building material, these pieces came from Baalbek, from Pergamon, and from the Temple of Artemis as well.
The upper galleries were used by important people or for church councils during the Byzantine period, and lower part was used by common people. When the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, the galleries were reserved for the women during prayers, and lower floor was used by the men.
In 1204 the church was sacked by the Fourth Crusade, many precious relics were removed from the church and taken away. This act definitively divided the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Some of these relics can be seen today in the treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who commanded Latin forces during the invasion of the city, is buried inside the church on the upper gallery.
On May 29th, 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and sultan Mehmet II ordered to convert the church into a mosque. Because he admired the art, the sultan didn’t want these great mosaics to be destroyed so he plastered them over and the Ottomans made their own floral designs or geometrical patterns, as well as Coranic calligraphy on top of the plaster. In order to use it as a mosque, Mihrab and Minbar were added inside, a fountain for the ablution was placed in the courtyard, and minarets were built in different periods in the outer corners of the building. A Koranic school, soup kitchen, library, madrasa, the clock-winding house, and sultan’s mausoleums (belonging to Selim II, Murat III, Mehmet III, Mustafa I and Ibrahim) are amongst the structures added by the Ottomans. Also, large buttresses were built by Turkish architect Sinan in the 16th century to support the walls holding up the dome and to save the building from the earthquakes. The sultan’s loge was added in the 19th century during the restoration of the mosque by the Swiss origin Fossati brothers.
Aya Sofya remained a mosque for almost 500 years until 1935 when Atatürk converted it into a museum so everybody could come to visit this architectural masterpiece and admire both Christian and Muslim art. Prayer rugs were removed from the marble floor and experts came from all around the world to remove some of the plaster in order to uncover spectacular Byzantine mosaics. It was, and still is, an important task during the restorations bringing to light all the major Byzantine mosaics but also preserving the Islamic art and calligraphy to maintain a balance between both Christian and Islamic cultures.
The Hagia Sophia has a classical basilica plan measuring 74.67 x 69.80 meters (245 x 229 feet). The dome is not perfectly round having a diameter of 31.87 – 30.87 meters (104.5 – 101.3 feet), it’s 55.60 meters (182.4 feet) high from the floor.
Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) Museum
The ancient Byzantine church, built by Justinian I between 532-537 AD after the Nika Riot, was later converted to a mosque with the addition of minarets in mid-15th century. The remarkable structure with its 56m high immense dome is a museum today in which you can see both Christian and Islamic art. There are good examples of the Byzantine mosaics as well. For about 1000 years this was the largest church in the world, and glory of the Byzantine Empire.
Galata Tower in Istanbul
The Galata Tower, Galata Kulesi in Turkish, is one of the highest and oldest towers of Istanbul. 63 meter (206 feet) high tower provides a panoramic view of the old town. It was built in the 14th century by the Genoese colony as part of the defense wall surrounding their district at Galata directly opposite ancient Constantinopolis. They called the tower as “Christea Turris”, or “Tower of Christ”. The Genoese were involved in trade with the Byzantines and the tower was used for the surveillance of the Harbor in the Golden Horn. After the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II, it served to detect fires in the city.
Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi was the first flying Turk during the Ottoman Empire of the 17th century. He copied bird wings and studied air flows, than jumping from the Galata Tower he overflew the Bosphorus and landed at Uskudar district on the Asian side, around 6 kilometers (4 miles) in distance.
After the Republic, Galata Tower was restored and opened to the public in 1967. The tower houses a cafeteria on top, there was also a night club which is closed down after the last restoration in 2013. A couple of elevators will take you up but there are still three more floors to climb by stairs to get on the panoramic terrace which is 52 meters above the ground. A small souvenir shop is located inside the tower just across the ticket office at the entrance level.