Istanbul is the most exciting historical city of all because of the spectacular historical events that took place there, because of its sublime complexity and because it is such a great place to visit.
Though conceived and built as an imperial centre, Constantinople – later renamed Istanbul – was always a place on the edge, on the rim of continents, empires, peoples and religions – between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This position of being special, other, betwixt and between, is what made it rich in unique histories.
Fall of the Byzantine empire
The grand, historical watershed in this town came at dawn on 29 May 1453. After a long siege and several unsuccessful attempts to storm Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks had decided on a final all-out attack on the city walls.
In the early hours of the day, wave after wave of troops were unleashed but failed to breach the walls. After heavy fighting with defenders led by the emperor Constantine XI, the last wave of elite Janissaries finally entered the city, the defence collapsed and the emperor was lost in the turmoil that followed, along with his empire.
Constantinople was plundered and then sultan Mehmed II held his triumph riding through the streets all the way up to the bronze doors of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the greatest church of Christendom, where a massacre had just taken place. It was immediately converted into a Mosque.
Your historical visit to Istanbul must start at the incomparable Hagia Sophia, the church of “holy wisdom”. It is a marvellous architectural feat. It was the main byzantine imperial church for a millennium then turned into a Mosque, fitted with minarets and made symbol for another empire for half a millennium more – just like the city itself.
On the rail of its balcony you can look at runic inscriptions from members of the Viking guard of the emperor and its riches in sights and histories is too vast to be described here.
The Turkish republic turned it into a museum in the 1930s, hoping this would help disarm religion as a political force.
Next to Hagia Sophia is the walled Ottoman palace compound of Topkapi. It replaced the great palace of the Byzantines which was in a very bad state at the time of the conquest.
Topkapi is a large area of elaborate pavilions and museums with impressive artworks and historical treasures. It was the personal and representative residence of the sultans. The harem complex is a main sight, as is the section with some of the most revered relics of Islam. These are things like the remains of the beard (!) and war standard of prophet Muhammed, as well as the staff of Moses. Topkapi palace is a world class museum.
The so-called blue Mosque, just opposite the Hagia Sophia, is yet another architectural wonder of the city, famed for its beautiful, interior blue iznik ceramic tiles. Its actual name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and it’s an early 17th century edifice. The blue Mosque has a genuine, most elegant splendour about it and parts of it were built directly upon remains of the byzantine great palace.
Next to the blue Mosque you can make out the outstretched, oval shape of the old byzantine Hippodrome in the street plan. Most of it is a public square today. This was an immense racing track and games arena just like the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Take a walk around the outside of its south-western end and see its gigantic, still standing supportive walls in the slope.
The most interesting thing about the Hippodrome now are the Serpent column and the two obelisks, today standing in the middle of the square. These monuments were erected on the raised middle part of the racing track. The Serpent column comes from Delphi in Greece where it had served as an offering to Apollo commemorating a Greek victory over the Persians in BC 479 and it was described by several classical authors.
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is a vast, covered market with over 4 000 shops and it’s one of the topmost visited tourist attractions in the world. It lies in easy walking distance from the monuments described above.
The Bazaar dates back to the decades following the Ottoman conquest and it may have been the grandest marketplace in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is well worth a stroll.
The monumental city walls of Constantinople protected it for 900 years without being breached and was an outstanding accomplishment, model for many medieval cities. The walls are still easily discernible, some sections well preserved and reconstructed.
The walls lie some distance from the centre of the old town and are perfect for a half-day excursion. Take the tram to Marmaray station near the old Golden gate at the south-west end of the walls. This gate was part of a fortress here, today a dungeons museum. From here you can walk the entire about 6 km distance of the majestic Byzantine 5th century land walls and that’s an historical trek to remember.
Istanbul has a number of interesting museums apart from Topkapi and Hagia Sophia which currently count as such.
The subtle and ingenious Museum of Innocence, embodies the remarkable imagination of Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, a long-time resident of the city. Pamuk wrote a novel set in Istanbul and while writing collected all kinds of everyday objects from the late 20th century city. These were incorporated in the story and later in the museum. The museum is small, almost impossible to find and simply fantastic.
The Istanbul military museum is actually a national historical museum which tells the story of Turkey, though from a very militarized point of view.
Jewish history in this as it would seem most Islamic city is another curious story. There are several old Jewish districts, most notably Balat, where you can still see many synagogues. There was a Jewish community in the city from Byzantine times. This was much enlarged at the event of the persecution of Jews in Spain in around AD 1500, when the sultans invited Jews to settle in the Ottoman empire. Get the full story at the Jewish Museum of Turkey near the Galata tower
There is much more to find in Istanbul – the old Orient express railway station Sirkeci, the fairy-tale Dolmabahçe palace, the other great Mosques, the Galata tower, the archaeological museum – there’s no end and you can spend any amount of time here.