CONSTANTINOPLE ON STEROIDS
9-12 September 2023
I visited Istanbul in 1981, the population was 2.7 million, about half of whom were carpet salesmen. Tanks and armed military, machine guns with bayonets fixed, occupied the streets. Being ignorant of their politics, I thought perhaps the military was there to keep the street urchins at bay. They were failing – the military not the urchins.
In 2010, I celebrated my birthday in Constantinople. A lot had changed. The military was absent. The street urchins became Gen Xers. I was a bit older and a more knowledgeable and experienced traveler. Istanbul, historically known as Constantinople was the world’s 5th largest city with 12.8 million people in 2010. It now ranks 7th with over 15 million. There still are thousands of carpet salesmen, but distributed among them is a vibrant collection of perhaps the nicest, most helpful people I have ever met. Also, here are the nicest bunch of cats in the world.
For my few days here, I am touring with my friend Martha, a neophyte to Istanbul. This is a good thing. We revisit several phenomenal sites seen with new eyes. Additionally, I discover some new ones.
Arriving at Istanbul International, opened in 2019 but “new” not to confuse with the old Atatürk Airport, means a long trip into the city. It was simplified by an airport taxi service but complicated by a very late driver. We arrived into the city long after sunset. From our terrace, we see lights on the seas of the Golden Horn which separates continental Europe where we sit and Asia to the southeast. Lights illuminate the domes and minarets of Ayasofya to our left and the Blue Mosque to our right. Streets are bustling as a multitude of tourists and locals enjoy an evening stroll.
Baths and Cisterns
Many baths and cisterns are under Istanbul and tall Byzantine walls surround the city. Sources of fresh water meant Constantinople could repell invading forces for over 1000 years. Sieges sometimes took months or even years. It is estimated 200 subterranean cisterns exist under the city.
One of the most visited Byzantine cisterns is the Yerebatan, built by Justinian I and nearest to Ayasofya. With over 336 columns supporting the structure, Yerebatan, Sunken Palace, is the largest at 460×230’ and 30’ high. It is capable of storing over 2,800,000 cu ft of H2O. That’s a lot of water storage! The modern sculptures seem weirdly out of place.
For a great sound and light show, we visited a smaller site, Serefiye Sarnici/Cistern of Theodosius. Completed 443 BCE, it is smaller, only 148×82’, and the 30’ roof is supported by 32 marble columns. Cisterns are definitely NOT just a water well. The Corinthian columns are beautifully carved. As the lights dim, the sound and light show adds drama perhaps Theodosius would never have imagined when he ordered the cistern built.
Museums and Topkapi Sarayi
A plethora of historic sites are in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of the Fatih District. This is the major reason I chose to stay at the And Hotel.
A few minutes’ walk takes us to the Istanbul Archeological Museums opened in 1869. This large complex is located between Topkapi Palace and Gülhane Park. It includes the Tiled Kiosk Museum built in 1472 and the Museum of Ancient Orient opened in 1880. Combined, these museums exhibit about a million historical artifacts not only from the Ottoman period but also from a variety of cultures.
At this time, there is a lot of restoration around this historic area of Istanbul. In fact, every shovel of dirt has the potential of finding a Byzantine, Roman or Ottoman artifact. Most of the museum complex is closed for renovation but the Archeological Museum has interesting displays and a good section about Troy on the second floor.
The gardens of Gülhane Park are pleasant to stroll as are those of the Topkapi Sarayi/Palace. The Topkapi acted as the residence of Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. Open for visitors are the Treasury, Sacred Relics, Chamber of the Mantle of the Prophet. The sultan was able to enjoy fantastic views from the gardens over the busy Bosphorus.
Istanbul has some of the most beautiful places of worship in the world. Represented are Christian, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish. Much time is needed just to scratch the surface. Unfortunately, one the best, the magnificent 11th century St Saviour/Chora is under renovation. Its stunning mosaics are unforgettable and still act as my screen saver.
However, one can visit the Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque (left). Opened in 1617, it is a stunning example of classical Ottoman architecture with a central dome and four surrounding half-domes. The interior decorated, with thousands of colorful Iznik tiles (ceramics from Iznik in western Anatolia) and painted floral motifs in predominantly blue colors, gives the mosque its nickname. Its capacity is 10,000 worshippers. The mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also connected to the complex is a madrasa/school and a mausoleum.
The mosque’s distinctive six minarets were not without controversy. Legend reports that the architect misheard when he built 6 minarets, unique only in Mecca. One never built something grander or higher than was in Mecca. Therefore, the Sultan, not wanting to disfigure his own mosque, paid for a seventh minaret to be built at the mosque in Mecca.
To the side of the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome. This 1,500’ long track was Constantinople’s Circus Maximus and hosted horse and chariot racing for the pleasure of its citizens. The first Hippodrome was built before 200 CE and later expanded by Emperor Constantine in 324 CE. It is estimated that its stands could hold over 100,000 spectators.
Constantine and his successors, especially Theodosius the Great, brought works of art from all over the empire to adorn their city. The monuments were erected in the middle of the Hippodrome. The Obelisk of Theodosius is a 1500 BCE obelisk shipped in from Luxor, Egypt. The fountain was gifted to the city by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898. (At left: Constantine’s Walked Obelisk at 105′)
The twisty column is the Serpent Column and was originally a sacrificial tripod of Plataea/Delphi. It was cast to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians in the 5th century BCE. Constantine ordered the Tripod moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and placed in the Hippodrome. Originally, serpent heads adorned the column but were lost for a time. Now, they are displayed in the Archaeology Museum.
Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the center of the city’s social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races. Initially four teams took part in these races, each team sponsored by a different political party: the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites.
A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team), powered by four horses each, competed on the race track. Betting and enthusiasm were intense.
The rivalry between the Blues and Greens often became mingled with political or religious rivalries. Sometimes riots between teams, which amounted to civil wars, broke out in the city. The most-deadly was the Nika riots in 532. An estimated 30,000 people were killed and many important buildings destroyed, including the nearby second Ayasofya. Following the Nika Riots, Justinian built the third, and current Ayasofya.
Horses of Saint Mark
The hippodrome was filled with statues of gods, emperors, animals, and heroes, among them some famous works. These included a 4th-century BCE Heracles, Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf, and the aforementioned Serpent Column. Atop the starting gates was four statues of horses in gilded copper. They became spoils of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. In the mid-thirteenth century, the horses were prominently installed on the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Symbols of Venice’s military triumph over Byzantium.
As an interesting sidenote, these horses are prized possessions. In 1797, Napoleon looted them from St Mark’s. He took them to Paris where they adorned the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel. In 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon, the horses returned to Venice.
Rooftop Terraces and Call to Prayer
We are lodging at the And Hotel in Sultanamet. Our balcony overlooks history. Ayasofya and Sultanamet Mosques grace our views. The last thing I see at night and at sunrise is the domes of Ayasofya. I awake to this grand mosque, close enough to touch, with gulls soaring above the domes. The Calls to Prayer echo from the surrounding minarets throughout the day.
We ascended to the rooftop terrace for views all the way to the Golden Horn. In the distance, ships and yachts dock in its harbors. The lights bless Ayasofya. Life in Istanbul is good.