Istanbul Travel Guide



Atmeydani (Hippodrome)
Back in Byzantium days, elections weren't decided by a namby-pamby voting system; more often than not, an emperor's fate hung on the outcome of a Ben Hur-style chariot race. The races were held at the Hippodrome, or Atmeydani, where the 'Greens' and 'Blues' (political parties) did battle. It wasn't unusual for an emperor to lose his throne at a post-match riot.

Ottoman sultans also kept an eye on activities in the Hippodrome. If things were going badly in the empire, a surly crowd gathering here could signal the start of a disturbance, then a riot, then a revolution. In 1909, there were riots here that caused the downfall of Abdül Hamit II and the repromulgation of the Ottoman constitution.

Though the Hippodrome might be the scene of their downfall, Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans outdid one another in beautifying it. Unfortunately, many priceless statues carved by ancient masters have disappeared from their original homes here. Chief among the villains responsible for such thefts were the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, who sacked Constantinople, a Christian ally city, in 1204.

Near the northern end of the Hippodrome, the little gazebo in beautiful stonework is actually Kaiser Wilhelm's Fountain. The German emperor paid a state visit to Abdül Hamit II in 1901 and presented this fountain to the sultan and his people as a token of friendship.

The impressive granite Obelisk of Theodosius was carved in Egypt around 1450 BC. The Byzantine emperor, Theodosius, had it brought from Egypt to Constantinople in AD 390 and had it erected on a marble pedestal engraved with scenes of himself in the midst of various imperial pastimes. Though these marble billboards have weathered badly, the magnificent obelisk, spaced above the pedestal by four bronze blocks, remains crisply cut and shiny.

Aya Sofya
Aya Sofya (known as Hagia Sofia in Greek and also called the Church of the Divine Wisdom) was regarded as the greatest church in Christendom up until the fall of Constantinople, when it was put back into service as a mosque. The edifice is crammed with fine mosaics and topped by a magnificent dome.

Aya Sofya was not named after a saint; its name means holy wisdom. It is called Sancta Sophia in Latin. Emperor Justinian (r. 527-65) had the church built as yet another effort to restore the greatness of the Roman Empire. It was completed in 537.

Examining the interior of the church is more a metaphysical than a physical experience. Visitors entering through the main entrance, via the low original steps, experience both a gradual sense of being drawn upwards and a sense of gloomy darkness being dispelled by the inner light of 30 million gold tesserae (mosaic tiles).

The dome is supported by 40 massive ribs constructed of special hollow bricks made in Rhodes from a unique light, porous clay, resting on huge pillars concealed in the interior walls. It was through the Imperial Door that Mehmet the Conqueror came in 1453 to take possession for Islam of the greatest religious edifice in the world. Before he entered, historians tell us, he sprinkled earth on his head in a gesture of humility. Aya Sofya remained a mosque until 1935, when Atatürk proclaimed it a museum. It must be seen to be believed.

Blue Mosque (Mosque of Sultan Ahmet)
'Blue' because of its stunning interior decorated with Iznik tiles, this mosque is one of the city's largest and busiest. Sultan Ahmet set out to build a mosque that would rival and even surpass the achievment of Justinian. He came close to his goal.

The Blue Mosque is a triumph of harmony, proportion and elegance. Its architect, Mehmet Aÿa, achieves the sort of visual experience on the exterior that Aya Sofya has on the interior.

In order to experience the Blue Mosque properly and appreciate its architectural mastery, approach the mosque from its front. The layout of the Blue Mosque is classic Ottoman design. Walk towards the mosque through the gate in the peripheral wall. Note the small dome atop the gate: this is the motif Mehmet Aga uses to lift your eyes to heaven.

As you walk through the gate, your eyes follow a flight of stairs up to another gate topped by another dome; through this gate is yet another dome, that of the ablutions fountain in the centre of the mosque courtyard. As you ascend the stairs, semidomes come into view: first the one over the mosque's main door, then the one above it, and another, and another.

Finally the main dome crowns the whole, and your attention is drawn to the sides, where forests of smaller domes reinforce the effect, completed by the minarets, which lift your eyes heavenward.

Kapali Çarsi (Grand Bazaar)
Kapali Çarsi (Grand Bazaar) has been a shopper's Mecca since just after the mid-15th century, when the smallish warehouse was turned into a teeming bazaar by a constant stream of traders, selling everything from carpets to cummin. These days it's the most fantastic, monstrous, labyrinthine and totally manic shopping bazaar you could hope to experience.

Tourist shops selling glittery geegaws line the main streets, but delve into the back streets and you'll still find Istanbullus buying a few metres of cloth, a gold bangle for a daughter's birthday, a beautifully crafted gold-plated 'eye' to ward off evil or an antique carpet.

The confusing labyrinth of streets was originally named after the goods sold there (Mirror-makers St, Pearl Merchants St, Fez Makers St and so on), and although that's not necessarily the case today, it is still possible to buy precious gems, old coins and intricately crafted jewellery in Jewellers St.

The Grand Bazaar is also renowned for offering basement-bargain deals on fur and leather goods, kilim products and a range of handcrafted goodies. Just remember to keep your wits about you.

Topkapi Palace
It's so huge, Topkapi Palace will take more than half a day to explore. If you start early you can avoid the worst of the crowds. The must-see parts are the Imperial Council Chamber, the Imperial Treasury, the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, Baghdad Kiosk, the Tower of Justice and the Harem. It'll keep you busy.

Mehmet the Conqueror built the first Topkapi Palace shortly after the Conquest in 1453, and lived here until his death in 1481. Sultan after sultan played out the drama of the Ottoman sovereign here until the 19th century. Mahmut II was the last emperor to occupy the palace. After him, the sultans preferred to live in grand and ostentatious European-style palaces such as Dolmabahçe, Çiragan and Yildiz, which they built on the shores of the Bosphorus.

Topkapi grew and changed with the centuries, but its basic four-courtyard plan remained the same. Hit the Topkapi early and get in to tour the Harem first, before it becomes impossible.

Buy your tickets to the Palace and the Treasury at the main ticket office just outside the gate to the second court. Tickets to the Harem are available at the ticket box outside the Harem itself. Guides to the palace congregate next to the main ticket office.

Off the Beaten Track

Mevlevi Monastery
The Mevlevi Monastery was once home base for a tarikat (order) of whirling dervishes. It now contains the Divan Edebiyati Müzesi (Museum of Court Literature), originally a Mevlevihanesi (whirling dervish hall) and a meeting place for Mevlevi dervishes.

The Mevlevi order was founded in Konya during the 13th century, taking its name from the great Sufi mystic and poet, Celaleddin Rumi (1207-73), called Mevlana (Our Leader) by his disciples. Sufis seek mystical communion with God through various means. For Mevlana, it was through a sema (ceremony) involving chants, prayers, music and a whirling dance.

The order flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire, but dervish orders were banned in the early days of the republic because of their ultraconservative religious politics. Although the ban has been lifted, only a handful of functioning tekkesi (dervish lodges) remain in Istanbul, including this one.

These days, this former monastery is a slightly rundown compound with overgrown gardens and shady nooks. As you approach the tekke, notice the graveyard on the left and its stones with graceful Ottoman inscriptions. The tomb of Galip Dede, the 17th-century Sufi poet who has given his name to the street, is here.

Inside the modest tekke (lodge), which was restored between 1967 and 1972 (the first building here was erected by a high officer in the court of Sultan Beyazit II in 1491), the central area was for the whirling sema, while the galleries above were for visitors. Separate areas were set aside for the orchestra and for female visitors (behind the lattices). These days, the upstairs is only for the musicians who play during the ceremony. In the display cases surrounding the central area there are exhibits of Mevlevi calligraphy, writing and musical instruments.

Yedikule (Fortress of the Seven Towers)
Yedikule began life as a triumphal arch in the late 4th century, but was then incorporated into the more ambitious plans of Theodosius, who built great land walls around the city and added four towers to the structure. The other three walls were built inside the wall by his successor, Mehmet the Conqueror.

The towers were multifunctional; not only did they help protect the city from attack but were also used as a treasury, a prison and a place of execution. Quite often they were used to accommodate hapless ambassadors from other non-favoured countries. The best view of the city walls and fortress is from the Tower of Sultan Ahmet III, and in some places it's even possible to walk along the land walls.

Yedikule is quite a few miles away from the other city sights and involves a special trip via train from Sirkeci. It's best to go with a group of other travellers as the district often attracts a less-than-salubrious crowd.

Yerebatan Sarniçi (Sunken Cistern)
Yerebatan Sarniçi, with its 336 columns and a high, vaulted ceiling, is an incredible Byzantine relic that was primarily used to store the city's water. Children in particular are fascinated by its eerie darkness and the ghostly echo of drops falling from the vaulted ceilings.

Built in AD 532, it is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. It was constructed by Justinian, who was incapable of thinking in small terms. Columns, capitals and plinths from ruined buildings were used in its construction. Two columns in the northwestern corner are supported by two blocks carved into Medusa heads.

Çemberlitas Hamami
The strange building with a row of streetfront shops is Çemberlitas Hamami, one of the city's oldest hamams, located just off Divan Yolu near the Kapali Çarsi. This is perhaps the best place for your first Turkish bath experience, and thoroughly reputable.

It's a double hamam (twin baths for men and women) designed by Sinan for Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Sultan Selim II, in 1584. You can choose between the 'attendant scrub and massage' or the 'no thanks, I'll do it myself' options. It's well worth it after a day of haggling and bargain hunting.

Other Turkey Attractions

Turkey's capital is a sprawling urban mass in the midst of the Central Anatolian steppe. It's very different from the Ottoman town of Angora which preceded it on this site, a quiet place where long-haired goats were raised and their fleece knitted into fluffy jumpers. Since 1920 when Atatürk set up his provisional government here, Ankara's main business has been government but several significant attractions make it worth a short visit.

Most visitors head straight for Hisar, the Byzantine citadel atop the hill east of the old city, and the nearby Museum of Anatolian Civilsations. A couple of km to the south is Atatürk's mausoleum, a monumental building, spare but beautiful, that echoes the architecture of several great Anatolian empires. The Presidential Mansion is preserved as Atatürk used it, with decor and furnishings of the 1930s including billiard table and cigar-and-brandy nook. There's a lot of ancient history around too. Roman Ankara was a city of some importance, and Roman ruins are dotted in amongst the mosques and monuments of Muslim Anatolia. Most of the cheaper hotels and restaurants are in old Ankara, a km or so northeast of the train station.

Antalya is the chief city on Turkey's central Mediterranean coast. As well as several km of pebble beaches and a historic Roman-Ottoman core, Antalya is a good base from which to explore the quieter beach towns and more spectacular ancient cities of the region. Side, 75km (47mi) east of Antalya, is the increasingly popular beach town once chosen by Mark Antony and Cleopatra for a romantic tryst. Alanya, 115km (71mi) east of Antalya, is another sea-sun-n-sand joint with a mini-Miami feel. Patara is a party town a few hundred km south-west of Antalya. The beach here is a simply splendid 20km (12mi) long and there are Roman ruins in amongst the dunes. You'll have to do your sunset-watching elsewhere, however, as the beach closes at dusk to give sea turtles access to their nests. The towns along the Mediterranean coast are all linked by bus and dolmus services (especially frequent in summer).

Bodrum is the South Aegean's prettiest resort, with a yacht harbour and a port for ferries to the Greek island of Kos. Palm-lined streets ring the bays, and white sugar-cube houses, now joined by ranks of villas, crowd the hillside. Boating, swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving are prime Bodrum activities. At night Bodrum's famous discos throb, boom and blare, keeping much of the town awake until dawn. Both Turkish and foreign visitors complain about the ear-splitting cacophany, but the local attitude seems to be, 'If you wanted peace and quiet, why did you come to Bodrum?'. If this sounds like your kind of town, you can grab a bus to Bodrum from just about anywhere - it's 4 hours to Izmir by road. There are frequent ferries to Kos in summer, and a hydrofoil to Rhodes between May and September.

Of Turkey's hundreds of ancient cities and classical ruins, Ephesus is the grandest and best preserved. Indeed, it's the spunkiest classical city on the Mediterranean. Ephesus was Ionia, a flourishing cultural centre during the Greek Empire, and a busy provincial capital during Roman times.

Ionia's Temple of Diana was counted among the Seven Wonders of the World, and the city was generally renowned for its wealth and beauty.

Sts Paul and John took up the quill in Ionia and the Virgin Mary is said to have spent her twilight years here. A walking tour of the ruins will take at least half a day, and if you're here in summer, start early, because it gets stinking hot by high noon. Places you'll come across include the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers, in which seven persecuted youths slumbered for two centuries, then woke up and ambled down to town for a meal; the colossal Harbour Gymnasium; the grand marble-paved Arcadian Way; the impressive Temple of Hadrian and a scattering of Roman fountains, pools, brothels, libraries and public toilets.

Devrent Valley
Many Cappadocian valleys boast collections of strange volcanic cones, but the ones near Aktepe in northern Cappadocia, known as the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys, are the best-formed and most thickly clustered. While geologists might congregate to appreciate the effects of differential erosion, everyone else just likes their other-worldly appeal.

Most of the rosy rock cones are topped by flattish, darker stones of harder rock that sheltered the cones from the rain that eroded all the surrounding rock. This process is known to geologists as differential erosion but you can just call it kooky.

Gallipoli Peninsula
Today the Gallipoli battlefields are peaceful places covered in scrubby brush, pine forests and farmers' fields, but this strategic peninsula has held the key to Istanbul for a millenium. Momentous battles have been fought here, including the 9 months of ferocious combat between Atatürk's troops and the Allies in WWI. Gallipoli is a fairly large area to tour, especially without your own transport (it's over 35 km (22mi) from the northernmost battlefield to the southern tip of the peninsula). The two best bases for a visit are Çanakkale on the eastern shore, and Eceabat on the western, from which several companies run tours. Talk to other travellers before choosing a tour, as some guides tend to rush their charges around. The great battles of Gallipoli are commemorated each year during March (usually from the 12th to 19th) and it can be a bit tricky getting a hotel during this time. Ferries run from Eceabat, 45km (28mi) south-west of Gelibolu, across the Dardanelles to Çanakkale.

Harran, in Kurdish southeastern Anatolia, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited spots on earth. The hills around the town are surrounded by crumbling walls and topped with ruined buildings and it all looks so deeply ancient that it's not hard to believe Abraham was one of Harran's early inhabitants. There's a fortress on the eastern side of the town, and some good mosaics in the 8th century Ulu Cami (a mosque).

Today's residents, some of whom still live in quaint beehive-shaped mud houses, get by on a mix of farming, smuggling and the sniff of wealth as water starts to filter through from the vast Southeast Anatolia Project (a dam). There's not much in the way of accommodation in Harran; most visitors base themselves in Urfa, 37km (23mi) west, which has good bus connections to the rest of Turkey.

Compared to Ephesus, Troy is quite dull. Some say that it loses something without Brad Pitt running around, others see this as an improvement on the representation. Either way Troy is no stunner - the drawcard is its sheer history. Excavations have revealed nine ancient cities on the site, with Troy VI or VII believed to be the setting for The Iliad.

When amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy in 1871, the pants of classical studies boffins around the world became decidedly damp. Up to this time, Homer's Iliad was assumed to be based on legend, but post-digs, Troy became the Homeric city of Ilium, site of an epic battle between the Achaeans (Greeks) and the Trojans in the 13th century BC. Excavations by Schliemann and others have revealed nine ancient cities, one on top of another, dating back to 3000 BC. Troy VI (1800-1275 BC) is the city of Priam and the one that engaged in the Trojan War.

For afficionados this is all amazing, but unless you've read The Iliad, or have a keen appreciation of archaeology, you may find little of interest in Troy. Apart from a hokey replica of the Trojan horse, there's little to catch the amateur eye. That said, this is the site of one of the world's grandest tales, so soaking up the atmosphere should be just about enough.

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