ISTANBUL — Sultanahmet

This is the centre of the historic district of Istanbul and was named after Sultan Ahmet 1 who built the Blue Mosque. It is a good base for sightseeing as a lot of Istanbul’s famous attractions are found here. Here you will find a number of reasonably priced hotels as well as many restaurants in the jumble of alleyways and narrow streets which slope down to the Marmara Sea.

The sights found here are:
Haghia Sophia
Basilica Cistern
Istanbul Crafts Centre
Baths of Roxelana
Arasta Bazaar
Mosaics Museum
Blue Mosque
Vakiflar Carpet Museum
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Hippodrome
Cistern of 1000 Columns
Tomb of Sultan Mahmut 11
Constatine’s Column
Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque
Küçük Ayasofya
Bucoleon Palace

Haghia Sophia

Haghia Sophia
This beautiful Byzantium church is over 1,400 years old and is seen to be one of the world’s greatest buildings. It was built as a church in the 6th century and in the 15th century it became a mosque. The minarets, tombs and fountains you see here today date from the time it was a mosque. Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1935 and was made a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985. Over time parts of the church have had to be rebuilt due to destruction by earthquakes and war and some of its original treasures were plundered by the Crusaders early in the 13th century and taken to the treasury of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and can still be seen there today. Hagia Sophia has a classical basilica plan covered by a central dome that is only slightly smaller than that of the Pantheon in Rome. The interior walls are covered in marble, porphyry and gold mosaics which contrast with the simple stuccoed exterior. The interior has a mixture of Christian and Muslim decorations and most of the interesting parts of the church are found at the southeast end of the church. Here you will find the beautiful marble midrib in the apse. This is a niche that is found in all mosques and indicates the direction of Mecca. The large freestanding stairway to the right of the mihrab is the minbar, or pulpit from which sermons were given. To the left of the mihrab is the grand sultan’s loge. If you look up from here you will see a beautiful mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child. On the right is a partly damaged Archangel Gabriel mosaic. To see some of the most famous mosaics you will need to visit the upper floor for a small fee. The South Gallery is where the great mosaics are and this was used for church councils and as a place where women sat during worship services when it was a mosque. From these galleries you will get a wonderful view of the nave from all sides and a closeup view of some magnificent Byzantine mosaics. The best known of these mosaics is the Deësis Mosaic which is found when you first enter the South Gallery through the marble door. It depicts Christ with the Virgin Mary on one side and John the Baptist on the other. At the end of the South Gallery are two golden Byzantium mosaics. Outside the Hagia Sophia are three mausoleums of sultans, the oldest of which is the Mausoleum of Selim 11 with its beautiful interior of İzinc tiles.
For information about Hagia Sophia visit the following website at: http://www.hagiasophia.com

Traveller's Tip

Make sure you see the 18th century Ablutions Fountain which is a wonderful example of Turkish Rococo style and is found near the exit.
Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Saray) is rather an extraordinary place and one of the more unusual tourist attractions in Istanbul. It was once a huge underground water cistern with a massive amount of huge pillars and brick vaulted ceilings dating from 532 that was built mainly to supply water to the Byzantine Palace. It is 132 metres long and 65 metres wide and there are 336 columns in the Corinthian or Doric style. Make sure you go to the back of the building where you will find an upside down Medusa head supporting one of the columns and close to this is another Medusa head which is sitting sideways. It is found close to Sultanahmet Square near the tram line and is open every day from 9.00am to 6.30pm and it costs around 10 TL.

Traveller's Tip

The James Bond movie From Russia With Love had a scene where Bond was rowing in a small boat underground through lots of columns. This scene was filmed in the Basilica Cistern.

Istanbul Crafts Centre
This centre provides a place for skilled artisans to practice their craft and you can watch them while they work. Each room provides a different craft and everything produced here is for sale. Some of the products to be found here are beautiful dolls; pipes and jewellery. The centre is found at Caferiye Sok, Soğukkuyu Çikmazi 1 and is open from Monday to Saturday from 9am until 7pm.

Baths of Roxelana

Baths of Roxelana
These baths were built for Süleyman the Magnificent and are named after Roxelana, his wife. They were built for the congregation of Haghia Sophia when it was a mosque. The building is quite magnificent with its symmetrical shape and massive domed hall and well worth a visit. The baths are no longer used as such but are now a government-run carpet shop. You can still see the bath’s original features and if you want to know what the inside of a hammam looks like but don’t want to use the facilities then this is a good place to visit. The carpet shop is found at Ayasofya Meydani and is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 9am until 5.30pm.

Arasta Bazaar

Arasta Bazaar
This complex which was built at the same time as the Blue Mosque which is found behind the bazaar. It was used as a market place and the rents for the shops helped with the upkeep of the Mosque. The bazaar consists of little shops lining both sides of a pedestrian only street. Similar items found in the Grand Bazaar can be found here but on a much smaller scale. You don’t get hassled quite as much here but you can still bargain. There is a restaurant at the far end which is a pleasant place to sit and refresh yourself.
For information about the bazaar visit the website at: http://www.arastabazaar.com

Mosaics Museum

Mosaics Museum
This museum is found near the Arasta Bazaar and behind the Blue Mosque on Torun Sokak. The mosaics in the museum were once found on the floors of the former Great Palace which was once the main royal residence of Eastern Roman or Byzantium Emperors from 330 to 1081. The palace was located behind the Hippodrome and the Haghia Sophia but only a few fragments of its foundations have survived. The mosaics in the museum were discovered when archaeologists were looking for remains of the Great Palace and they are believed to date back to the era of Justinian the Great from 537 to 565. Though this museum is small the mosaics are well preserved and colourful. The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am until 5pm and costs around 7 TL.
For information about the museum visit the website at: http://www.muze.gov.tr/mosaic

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque
The Sultanahmet Mosque which is commonly known as the Blue Mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet 1 when he was still a boy but unfortunately he died before his vision was realised and he and his family are buried outside the mosque. It was built near the Haghia Sophia on the site of the ancient hippodrome and the Great Palace and construction began in 1609 and it took 7 years. The original mosque contained a madrasah (educational institute) and a hospital as well as the tomb of Sultan Ahmet 1. Outside the mosque is a huge courtyard surrounded by a vaulted arcade with washing facilities on both sides. There is a small fountain in the centre of the courtyard and you enter the courtyard through a gateway. One of the most notable features of the Blue Mosque are the 6 minarets that dominate the skyline of Istanbul. This is a unique feature as most mosques have from 1 to 4 minarets. At the time of building the 6 minarets were controversial because the holiest mosque in Mecca also had 6 minarets so a seventh minaret was added to the mosque in Mecca to solve the problem. The other feature of the Blue Mosque is the cascading domes. Muslims can enter from the western gate but non Muslims will need to enter from the northern gate.

Inside the mosque the high ceiling is decorated with more than 20,000 blue tiles that give the mosque its common name. Some of the older tiles in the mosque date back to the 16th century and are decorated with flowers and trees as well as abstract patterns. There are 260 stained glass windows but the ones you see today are only replicas.
For information about the Blue Mosque visit the following website at: http://www.bluemosque.co

Vakiflar Carpet Museum
This museum is found in the Imperial Pavilion which is next to the Blue Mosque up a ramp to the left of the main doorway. The building housing the museum was built by Ahmet 1 and was used by him and his successors when they attended prayers. The collection features Usçak, Begama, Konya carpets and kilims dating from the 16th to the 19th century. The carpets are found behind stained glass windows to protect them from strong sunlight. All the carpets found here were once found in mosques. The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 9am until 12pm and then from 1pm until 4pm and it is free.

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
This museum is found across the Hippodrome from the Blue Mosque. It is housed in the former Ibrahim Paşa and was the residence of a close friend as well as being the Grand Vizier of Sülayman the Magnificent who built the palace. This museum is worth visiting for both the building itself which is beautiful as well as the magnificent collection it contains. There are over 40,000 items on display ranging from the earliest period of Islam in the mid 7th to mid 8th centuries up to modern times. The highlight of the museum is its collection of rugs some of which date back to the 13th century. The rooms are arranged chronologically and the explanations are in both Turkish and English which makes the museum very user-friendly. The museum is open every day except Monday from 9.30am until 5.30pm and it will cost you 10TL.

Traveller's Tip

Make sure you visit the terrace for a wonderful view of the Blue Mosque and the surrounding area.
Hippodrome

Hippodrome
The Hippodrome is the square that is found in front of the Blue Mosque. It was once the sporting and social centre of Istanbul where horse and chariot races were held as well as games and riots over its long history. One of the most notorious events was a chariot race held in 532 where a fight broke out between rival teams which ended with much of the city destroyed and around 30,000 people trapped in this area. On this square you will now find the Basilica Cistern found underground at its northern end with a stone tower above it that once part of Istanbul’s aqueduct system. Beside this tower is the Milion which is the remains of a triumphal gate that was used as the zero-mile marker on the Roman road which is now called Divan Yolu and ran between Istanbul and Rome. Also at this end of the Hippodrome is an elaborate fountain that resembles a temple which was a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm 11 of Germany. At the other end is the 3500-year-old Obelisk of Theodosius which was bought here by Emperor Theodosius in 390 AD. There is also the spiral bronze base of a three-headed serpent sculpture from Delphi, Greece. You can see the heads of the serpents in the nearby Archeological Museum. At the southwestern end is the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenetus which dates from the 10th century. This was originally covered with gilded bronze plaques.

Cistern of 1000 Columns

Cistern of 1000 Columns
The Cistern of 1000 Columns or the Binbirdirek Cistern is found just west of the Hippodrome between Sultanahmet and Beyazit, just across from the Adalet Sarayi (Justice Palace). It was built in the 4th century and is the second largest underground cistern after the Basilica Cistern and is the oldest known cistern in Istanbul. It covers an area which is 3610 square metres and contains around 212 of the original 224 columns. Each column is made of two columns joined together by a ring clamp. The walls are almost 3 metres thick and it has vaulted brick ceilings. It was originally used as a workplace for Istanbul’s silk weavers because the dampness experienced here was ideal for this industry. The cistern no longer contains water and the floor has been cemented over and it is now used as a museum during the day and is a popular evening venue for live concerts, events, cultural performances and weddings. It is open from 9am until 7pm in summer and to 6pm in winter and costs 10TL.

Tomb of Sultan Mahmut 11

Tomb of Sultan Mahmut 11
This large octagonal mausoleum was built in 1838 as a tomb for Sultan Mahmut 11, a year before he died. The mausoleum also houses the remains of many of his family. Here you will find a cemetery, a fountain and a cafe. The mausoleum which is found at 82 Divan Yolu, Sultanahmet is open daily from 9.30am until 7pm and admission is free.

Constatine’s Column

Constatine’s Column
This column was built in 330AD to celebrate Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire and was originally the centrepiece of the Forum of Constantine. On top of the 35 metre tall, column there used to be a statue of the Emperor Constantine dressed as Apollo but this was destroyed early in the 12th century after a storm and was replaced with a cross. This cross was removed during the Ottoman rule. The column has been damaged through the years and has been known by several names such as Çemberlitas or Hooped Column because of the metal rings that have been used over time to reinforce the 10 stone drums that make up the column. It is also referred to as the Burnt Column due to damage by several fires which is evidenced today by scorch marks that you can still see. You will find the column as you walk down Divn Yolu from Sultanahmet and walk towards the Beyazit Square.

Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque

Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque
This small mosque was built in 1571 under the direction of Süleyman the Magnificent for his Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmet Paşa who was the husband of one of Süleyman’s granddaughters. It is considered to be the most beautiful of the mosques built by the master architect Sinan. The mosque was built on two levels because of the slope of the site. The bottom storey contained shops but it is now in ruins. The upper storey has an open courtyard with columns with the spaces between them walled off on three sides to form a room with a small window, fireplace and an area to store bedding. The mosque itself is designed as a hexagon inside a rectangle and topped by a dome with four small semi-domes in the corners. The interior is beautiful with its delicately carved pulpit, and the lovely, well-preserved Iznik tiles and the floral-motif stained-glass windows.

Traveller's Tip

In the mosque there are four fragments from the sacred Black Stone in the Kaaba at Mecca. One is framed in gold above the entrance, two are in the minbar (or pulpit) and one is in the midrib which is the niche in the wall that shows the direction of Mecca.
Köçök Ayasofya

Küçük Ayasofya
This beautiful church was built in 527 and is one of the most important early Byzantium buildings in Istanbul. It is commonly known as ‘Little Haghia Sophia’ and was formerly called the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The church was renovated in 2007 so it has a new appearance with only a few of the 6th century decorative elements remaining. The floor plan is an irregular octagonal with red and green marble columns supporting a central dome with 16 vaults. To reach this mosque you walk downhill for 10 minutes on Köçök Ayasofya Camii Sokak which is behind the Blue Mosque on its east side. This mosque is still used and so it has free admission.

Bucoleon Palace

Bucoleon Palace
This was one of the Byzantium palaces in Istanbul and is thought to have been built by Theodoius 11 in the 5th century. The palace is now in ruins but these can be found by taking the path under the railway from the Küçük Ayasofya. Turn left and walk beside Kennedy Caddesi which is the main road that runs along the shore of the Marmara Sea for around a half a kilometre. You will come to part of the ancient sea walls which were used as a protection against invaders from the sea. Inside these walls you will find three huge windows which is all that is left of the Bucoleon Palace. The palace was part of the Great Palace of the emperor of the time and was his seaside residence. The ruins of a tower found to the east was once a lighthouse.

Traveller's Tip

Just be wary when you visit this area because it is inhabited by homeless people and you should not come here by yourself.