GG: Istanbul, Turkey

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Gnomon's Guide

Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey and one of the world's major cities, with about 14 million people as of the end of 2014. It has a long and eventful past as capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire and later as capital of the Ottoman Empire. At various points in its history it has been considered 'the greatest city in Christendom', 'the most beautiful city in the world' and 'the greatest city in the Muslim world'. There's still a lot of this former glory left to see. While no longer the capital of Turkey, Istanbul is still the cultural centre of the country and is a fascinating mixture of the Eastern and Western worlds.


At 41 degrees North, Istanbul is far enough south to get nice warm summers, but in the winter, a cold wind can come down from the north over the steppes of Ukraine and Russia and across the Black Sea, bring with it freezing weather. Snow is not unknown in the city. Being right beside the sea, fog can be common in the mornings at certain times of year.

Layout of the City

Istanbul is in an interesting position geographically, being the only city in the world which is on two continents - it is at the junction of the continents of Europe and Asia1. The layout of Istanbul can be a trifle confusing so it is spelled out here in detail.

There is a strip of land about 35km wide between the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south. Istanbul is on the south side of this land, on the Sea of Marmara. Joining the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara is a narrow strait called the Bosphorus or Bosporus (Istanbul Bogazi in Turkish). It runs roughly southwest to northeast and forms the border between Europe and Asia. It is only 700m wide at its narrowest point. On the west
side of the Bosphorus is an inlet about seven kilometres long called the Golden Horn (Haliç in Turkish). The name is supposedly because it is in the shape of an ox's horn and the water turns gold at sunset. The Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn are known as the 'Three Seas'.

To the south of the Golden Horn, on the peninsula between it and the Sea of Marmara, stands the Old City, the original site of the city. This section is separated from the mainland by a series of massive ramparts and a moat. As the city grew, it spilled over onto the north side of the Golden Horn to form the New City and then across the Bosphorus to the Asian side. So now there are three distinct regions:

  • The Old City is south of the Golden Horn. It contains all the ancient monuments.

  • The New City, known as Beyoglu, is north of the Golden Horn.

  • The districts of Üsküdar and Kadiköy are to the east of the Bosphorus. These are mainly residential and of no great interest to the tourist, although there are a number of fine historic mosques.

There are now massive bridges joining these sections together, but in former times they would have been connected only by ferries2.


Greek City

Istanbul started out as Byzantion, a Greek city, in the 8th Century BC. Legend has it that a Greek called Byzas from the city of Megara, west of Athens, sailed off in search of a site for a new city (this was common practice in Greece at the time). He sought advice from the oracle at Delphi, where he was told that he would found a city in the country of the blind. Eventually he came to an uninhabited peninsula surrounded by three seas. He said that the locals who lived across the Bosphorus must be blind not to see the potential of such a great site, so the oracle's prediction was fulfilled. The city was named Byzantion after the founder, Byzas. All sea trade between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean went past Byzantion, as did all land trade between Asia and Europe. By imposing taxes on this trade, Byzantion became a very successful city.

Roman City

Byzantion came under Roman control in the 1st Century BC. They Latinised the name to Byzantium. In 330 AD, the Emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium because Rome was falling under threat from barbarian invasions. He initially came up with the name of New Rome for the city, but later decided to rename it Constantinople (city of Constantine). The city was still informally known as Byzantium. The Romans built massive fortifications around the city, including a defensive wall across the neck of the peninsula, and a sea wall all the way around the coast. The city was virtually impregnable; these defences were only breached twice in the history of the city.

In later years, Rome did in fact fall to the barbarians, but the Roman Empire continued, ruled from Constantinople/Byzantium. This empire is known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire (as well as the Eastern Roman Empire), but this is a recent term - the people of the time continued to call it the Roman Empire, and called themselves Romans, even though they no longer lived in Rome and no longer spoke Latin, having switched to Greek somewhere along the way.

Constantinople also became the capital of the Eastern Christian Church, now known as the Orthodox Church. Initially, the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) was still considered the supreme ruler of the Church, but in about 1000 AD, the Eastern Church split from the Western one over a number of issues, and from then on it went its own way, with the Patriarch of Constantinople as head honcho.

Over the next thousand years or so, Constantinople was besieged many times, by Persians, Arabs, Bulgars, Seljuk Turks and Russians. The city was sacked by the Western European Christians in 1204; the Fourth Crusade had run out of operating cash - the Crusaders were promised money and supplies if they helped an exiled Byzantine prince onto the throne. They did this, but he failed to come up with the cash, so they sacked the city, carrying off many treasures to Western lands. The Venetians benefited greatly from this, bringing back to Venice many treasures which they had looted from Constantinople. This wasn't the end of the Byzantine Empire, however. It recovered and limped along until 29 May, 1453, when the Ottoman Turks, under Mehmet II, invaded the city. This date can be considered to be the final fall of the Roman Empire.

Turkish City

The Turks called the city Istanbul3, although its official name continued to be Constantinople until 1930. They made Istanbul the capital of their Ottoman Empire. This was probably the most successful Muslim Empire on the planet. The Ottomans were a strange mixture of culture and ruthlessness: they loved art and when they converted the huge church Hagia Sophia into a mosque, they carefully plastered over the Christian mosaics in such a way that they would be preserved, with periodic inspections to make sure the mosaics had not deteriorated. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror is depicted by the Italian artist Bellini smelling a rose. But in a discussion with the same artist on how to paint a dismembered head, Mehmet casually beheaded one of his slaves to illustrate On the other hand, the early Sultans had a practice of slaughtering all their brothers as soon as they got the throne, to prevent arguments about succession. In later centuries they just the brothers imprisoned in the palace.

The Ottoman Empire lasted until 1922. It was on the losing side after the First World War and lost a lot of land in the post-war carve-up of Europe. This led to great unrest among the people. They rebelled against their rulers and declared a Turkish Republic. The capital of the new republic was moved away from Istanbul, to Ankara.

The Sights

Istanbul is packed full of things to see. Most of these are in the Old City, south of the Golden Horn. The best of these are describe in detail in the Top 14 Sights of Istanbul. I'll give a very brief summary of each here. Most of the headings here are links to more detailed entries.

Hagia Sophia

This enormous structure was built in the period 532-537 during the reign of Emperor Justinian, as a church. It looks like a mosque, but remember, it was built before the founding of Islam. The name Hagia Sophia, sometimes given as Ayia Sophia or even Sancta Sophia, means 'Holy Wisdom' and the building was the principal church of the Christian world. In 1453, the Ottomans adopted Hagia Sophia as their principal place of worship and it was converted into a mosque. Four minarets were added on the outside, and the insides were changed around slightly, with the addition of a prayer niche (mihrab) and the replacement of the giant ambo pulpit with a more appropriate Muslim ceremonial staircase (minbar). In 1935, the mosque was converted to a museum. It is now one of the biggest tourist attractions
in Istanbul.

Inside, Hagia Sophia has an enormous central space surmounted by a dome 33m across. The top of the dome is 56m above the ground. But
by a very clever use of windows, there is plenty of light, giving an amazing feeling of airiness. The lower walls are all covered in different coloured marbles. The upper walls and ceilings were originally decorated with mosaics and many of these have survived. There are also eight large circular wall hangings featuring quotations in Arabic from the Qur'an, from the time when the building was a mosque.

Outside Hagia Sophia are mausoleums in which some of the Sultans were buried.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is officially the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I. It was built at the beginning of the 17th century and was designed by Sedefkar Mehmet Aga. It is built on the site of the Byzantine Great Palace, that is, the palace of the Byzantine Emperors. The most distinctive feature of the mosque is its six minarets - a very unusual number. Legend has it that these came about as a result of a mix-up. The sultan wanted a gold minaret and the architect mistook the word for gold 'altin' with the word for six 'alti'. A good but unlikely story.

The Blue Mosque isn't blue on the outside, it is grey. It gets its name from the ceiling inside, which is inlaid with distinctive blue tiles from Iznik. Like many other mosques, the building is roughly two squares side by side. The first square is an open courtyard surrounded by a colonnade, and the second is the mosque building itself, covered in domes.

The Blue Mosque is the Muslim building most visited by tourists in the world. There is a constant stream of people in and out. Note that because this is a working mosque, it is closed to tourists during the five daily prayer times and for longer periods on Fridays. There's a sign displayed outside which will tell you when you can go in as a tourist. As with all mosques, tourist must remove their shoes upon entering the mosque. Put them in the provided plastic bag and carry them with you, as you will be exiting by a different door. Women are required to cover their heads: you can take a shawl if you haven't anything suitable and leave it at the exit.

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi4 Palace was not only the residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years, but also the centre of administration. Here you will find one of the greatest examples of opulence in the world. It is very busy, so make sure to get there early. Start your tour with a visit to the Harem, since this is only available through a guided tour.

The palace is not designed to be imposing from the outside. Instead, it consists of a large number of low buildings spread around four main courtyards in an asymmetrical and apparently random arrangement. The most important of these from a tourist point of view is the Harem; this is where the Sultan kept his wives, daughters and concubines. All the women in the Harem except the immediate family of the Sultan were slaves. The women were guarded by black male eunuchs
and no other men except the Sultan and his sons were allowed into the building.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is Turkey's largest covered market. It has thousands of shops: the figure quoted in all the guide books is 'more than 4,000', but estimates range from about 3,500 to 5,000. You should be able to find anything you want here.

The Grand Bazaar is overwhelming in the sheer amount of stuff on display. It's also very easy to get lost in. Although most of the streets and alleys are straight, it all looks so similar that it is difficult to keep a sense of direction. Make a note of the number of the entrance when you go in and if necessary ask someone for directions back to it.

The Yerebatan Cistern

Also known as the Underground Palace, this strange building is an ancient storage tank for water built in Roman times. The Romans were big into fresh water and built a whole series of aqueducts and storage cisterns. This one was built in 542 AD, during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The cistern is a vast pillared hall with semicircular arches holding up the roof - there are more than 300 pillars. Even here in a functional area, the tops of the pillars (capitals) were decorated with elaborate carvings. It has a capacity of more than two million litres of water.

The cistern was restored in the 1980s and is open to the public.

The Süleymaniye Mosque

This mosque is Istanbul's largest and possibly grandest. It is older than the Blue Mosque, but very similar in style to both the Blue Mosque and to Hagia Sophia. This is because its design was copied from Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque was later copied off both of them. The building is in much better condition inside than Hagia Sophia (it is less than one third its age) and is breathtakingly beautiful. It was designed by Mimar Sinan for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Note that the same restrictions about prayer times and Fridays apply as in the Blue Mosque or indeed any other mosque.

The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Kariye Camii)

This Byzantine church has the most amazing series of Byzantine mosaics anywhere. The church is a little out from the centre of Istanbul, near the walls of the city. Experts are undecided what the name 'in Chora', literally 'in the land', actually means. Some say that it indicates that the original church on the site was in the countryside. Others think that the 'Saviour in the land' means 'Christ on Earth' as opposed to 'Christ in Heaven'.

Although some of the mosaics have been damaged, most of them are in perfect condition. Here you will see scenes from the life of Christ, from the life of Mary, his mother, and pictures of angels, saints and other holy personages. There are frescoes as well.

The Archaeological Museum

The Archaeological Museum is situated next to the Topkapi palace and features all sorts of pre-Islamic antiquities from Turkey and other countries.

In 2015, most of the museum was closed for restoration, after being damaged by an earthquake. Until it is opened again, it's probably not worth a visit.

The City Walls and the Yedikule Castle

For a thousand years, the city was protected by the massive city walls, which cut the peninsula of the Old City off from the mainland, running all the way from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. Built in the reign of Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th Century, they have stood the test of time, successfully protecting Constantinople from invasion. The walls were only breached twice in history; once by the Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204, and once by the invading Ottomans, who took the city in 1453 and made it their own.

One part of the walls that is particularly worth seeing is around the Belgrade Gate (Belgratkapi) in the south west of the city. Also nearby is the Yedikule Castle which is linked into the walls of the city.

The Dolmabahçe Palace

This is situated along the Bosphorus just north of Beyoglu. Built in 1853, it is a masterpiece of 19th Century opulence. At that time, the Topkapi palace was falling into disrepair, so the Sultan of the day, Abdulmecit, had a new palace built and moved away from the Topkapi. It's everything you'd expect of the palace of a Sultan, but in a more European style. There are more than 280 rooms and a guided tour will take you two to three hours. The palace was also used in the mid-20th Century as a residence for President Kemil Atatürk, when he visited Istanbul.

The Hippodrome

The Hippodrome was a race track for horses in Roman times. It could hold about 100,000 spectators. It became the centre of the cultural and sporting life of the city - sport was culture, as far as the Roman in the street was concerned. Chariot racing was to the Romans what football is to modern man. By the 6th Century, Constantinople polarised into two great racing teams, the Blues and the Greens. There were constant and violent fights between the supporters of the two teams, leading to many deaths. Emperor Justinian tried to clamp down on this hooliganism, resulting in the supporters of both sides joining together to attack the authority of the state and run rampage through the city for five days, shouting 'Nika!' which means 'Victory (to us)'. They elected their own puppet emperor, and Justinian seriously considered fleeing from the city. Eventually Justinian's general Belisarius trapped the rebels in the Hippodrome and slaughtered 30,000 of them.

The buildings of the hippodrome are all gone now. It is just a pleasant park and is officially known as Sultan Ahmet Square. There are still three interesting pillars at the southwest end. These were originally on the central spine of the race track, so that they were visible to everyone in the city:

  • The Obelisk of Thutmose III dates from about 1490 BC, and comes from Luxor in Egypt. It is also known as the Obelisk of Theodosius, as this Emperor had it brought to Constantinople. It is made from pink granite, and is actually only the top part of the original obelisk. It is mounted on a base made by the Romans which has carvings of the chariot races, showing the Emperor presenting prizes, and an interesting picture showing how the obelisk was erected using wet leather robes which dried out in the sun and contracted, using solar power to lift the heavy stone.

  • The Serpentine Column is a twisted bronze pillar, but originally had three snakes' heads on the top and was known as the Tripod of Plataea. This came from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece and dates from about 500 BC. The snake heads were knocked off by drunken soldiers in about 1700. One of the snake heads is on display in the archaeological museum.

  • The Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus5 is a rather plain pillar one hundred feet high. It's not known when it was erected, but there's a plaque on it saying that the emperor of that name restored it in the 10th Century. It is also known as the Brazen Column or the Brick Obelisk. It was covered in gilded bronze plates but these were plundered during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.

Other Sights

The Aqueduct of Valens

The Romans built a number of aqueducts to provide water for the city, and this one is still standing although it is no longer used.

The Spice Bazaar

Another covered bazaar, and the second biggest one in Istanbul, this is known locally as the 'Egyptian Bazaar'. It specialises in spices but lots of other things are for sale too.

The Galata Tower

Galata was the old name for the area now known as Beyoglu. It was given over to the Genoese (Italians from the city of Genoa) as reward for their help in driving the Crusaders out of the city in the 13th Century and reinstating the Byzantine emperors. The Galata Tower was built by the Genoese for defence in the 14th Century, on the site of an older tower. There's a great view from the top of this out over the whole city.

The Turkish Language

Turkish is one of a related group of languages known as Turkic and spoken by the nomadic people of Central Asia, including the Kazakhs, Tatars and Uzbeks. The languages of this group don't appear to be related to any other languages. For example, the numbers one to ten are bir, iki, üç, dört, bes, alti, yedi, sekiz, dokuz, and on. You probably won't recognise any of those.

Turkish is a melodious sounding language, very pleasant to listen to. During the Ottoman Empire, it was written down using the Arabic script, which was not entirely suitable because Arabic doesn't record the vowels and Turkish relies heavily on vowels.

When the Republic of Turkey was created in the early 20th Century, it was decided to adopt the Roman alphabet (the one we use) with a few extra characters to represent some of the special Turkish sounds. This means that the spelling exactly matches the pronunciation. Every letter except one has a sound and it always the same sound. The one exception is the g with a little u over it which marks a long vowel. As a result, it is very easy to learn how to pronounce Turkish, even if you have no idea what it means. This is a useful skill for reading the place names around the city, although you'll have no problem as a tourist if you speak only English.

The details on how to pronounce Turkish are given in a separate entry along with a few simple phrases.

Other Things Turkish

Turkish Baths


Turkish Delight

Turkish delight is a gooey, sticky sweet made mainly from sugar, know locally as 'lokum'. Outside of Turkey it is usually flavoured with rosewater, making it something that people either love or hate. Real Turkish delight from Turkey, on the other hand, comes in a whole array of flavours, and often has nuts such as pistachios in it. It's quite a different experience. You can buy Turkish delight everywhere in Istanbul. In the Grand Market or Spice Market, for example, there are stalls with huge ranges of different types and you can get them to make up a selection box with lots of different flavours for a very reasonable price. They'll even shrink wrap it in transparent plastic for safety on the journey home.

Turkish Carpets

Turkish carpets have been famous for centuries, and you can still buy them in Istanbul. Carpets seem to have originated in Central Asia in the Altai region. As the Turks migrated westward, they brought carpet-making with them, and the craft first came to Europe and the Western World through Turkey. If you're on the lookout for a large carpet or just a small rug, Istanbul is the best place for it.

As you wander around the tourists sites of the city, it is inevitable that you will be approached by someone trying to sell you a carpet. They'll invite you back to a nearby shop for a glass of tea and a chance to look at their wares. If you are interested, go along, and don't feel obliged to buy anything even if you have drunk their tea. Make sure early on in the proceedings to check that they can ship the carpet back to your home country for you, as it is unlikely you will have room in your suitcase. The salesman will not give you a price until he's sure you want what he has. At this point, his initial suggestion may be up to five times what he is willing to accept. So be sure to haggle.

Turkish Prisons

On a more sobering note, Turkish prisons have a bad reputation. Anyone who has seen the 1978 film 'Midnight Express' will know
about the inhuman treatment prisoners receive. Admittedly the guy was a heroin trafficker, and his treatment might be considered a Hollywood fiction. On the other hand, it is true that Turkey's
application to join the European Union was turned down, and one of the reasons was its poor track record on human rights. So be careful on your visit to Turkey. Don't take photographs of military installations, and don't make fun of the Turkish government or Kemil Atatürk, the man who ousted the Sultans and set up the Republic.


Prisons aside, there's plenty to see and do in this historic city, with its unique blend of East and West. Whether it's Roman ruins, Turkish palaces or just plain coffee and sweet cakes, there are very few places that can rival Istanbul.

1It has to be said, however, that the distinction between Europe and Asia is a pretty arbitrary one devised by the Ancient Greeks without any reference to the modern idea of a continent.2There was in fact a bridge across the Golden Horn at Blachernae as early as 1204, but it wasn't there when the Turks invaded in 1453, and the Golden Horn wasn't bridged again until the 19th Century.3This is thought to be a corruption of the Greek phrase eis ten polin meaning 'in the city'. They heard Greeks using this phrase and thought it was the name of the city. Such popular etymologies are notoriously unreliable, however. It seems as likely that it is a corruption of Constantinopolis, given that both have a 'stan' and a 'pol'/'bul'.4Turkish treats the letter i with a dot as a different letter from an i without a dot. Topkapi should technically not have a dot on the i, but this would prevent this entry from displaying correctly in some browsers.5Literally 'born in the purple'. The laws of succession of Byzantine emperors were complicated, but normally heirs were born in the Purple Room in the palace and wore purple clothes.

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