Ultimate guide to historical Istanbul

Uggla finalIstanbul 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.

Istanbul 1a

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.

Hagia Sophia
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.

Istanbul 3a

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.

Topkapi palace
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.

Istanbul 6a

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.

Blue Mosque
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.

Istanbul 4a

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.

Istanbul 5a

Grand Bazaar
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.

City walls
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 districts
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.

Istanbul 7a

Medieval ghost town – the story of Ani

Uggla finalAni, the grand medieval capital of an Armenian royal dynasty, had almost impregnable double city walls, a magnificent citadel, a cathedral, several Mosques and “a thousand and one Churches”, all built from stunning, reddish lava stone. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1236, never to recover. Located on the cold-war border between Turkey and the Soviet union it has remained a ghost town and an eerie but remarkable contested historical site.

You approach Ani on a narrow dirt road from Kars in Turkey over vast, flat grasslands when suddenly the black silhouette of its ruined city walls break the horizon. Arriving and entering through the Lion gate, you are about to discover a vast medieval ghost town about a square kilometre large where you can walk street after street with buildings collapsed on their foundations and see its wonderful remaining key features such as the 11th century cathedral by famous master architect Trdat.

Ani A

Ani B

I was there just some years after the end of the Cold War. You could still see the rusty Soviet watchtowers on the other side of the border river right by the city and the guides told stories of tourists having been shot by tower guards for taking photos in the wrong direction.

Ani was built as the capital of the Bagratid royal dynasty and of medieval Armenia of the 11th and 12th centuries. This was a larger realm than the present state which included large parts of present eastern Turkey. It quickly grew to a prosperous city with between 50 and 100 thousand inhabitants, hundreds of churches, strong defence works and a row of architectural masterpieces such as the cathedral.

Ani C

In the late 11th century the city was conquered by the Seljuk Turks, its population slaughtered, and then followed a period of turmoil before it was thoroughly sacked by the Mongols in 1236 and victim to a devastating earthquake some decades later. It lingered on, a shadow of its former glory, before being completely abandoned in the 18th century.

Rediscovered and investigated by travellers and archaeologists in the 1800s, Ani changed hands between Ottoman and Russian empires, later being fought over by the Ottomans and the new Republic of Armenia. After being Armenian for a brief period, it now belongs to Turkey since 1921.

A truly magnificent but much neglected site right on a heavily militarized border zone for decades and a continued source of quarrels between Turkey and Armenia, the latter considering it their national heritage, Ani became UNESCO world heritage in 2016, restoration works are underway and it’s an amazing historical place to visit on a day-trip from the gloomy town of Kars.

Ani D

Turkish railway

Uggla finalI recently bought a pocket watch made by the Swiss Zenith company in 1968 for the Turkish state railways. It works perfectly. It has its mysteries. 

On the front it says “T.C. Devlet Demir Yollari” meaning Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Devlet Demiryollari or State Railways of the Republic of Turkey. On the back is a steam locomotive and the crescent-and-star symbol of Turkey.

Curiously, it has the letters S. O. H. engraved inside, along with a date, 15/12 1969. Needless to say, I have no idea who S was, or is. All I know from the Zenith factory number is that the watch was made in 1968 in the high air of the strange watch town Le Locle in the Swiss Jura mountains and I can only presume it was presented to a Turkish railway official a year later.



I like to think that the watch was used for railway time keeping all over Turkey in the 1970s and 80s while I was growing up in Sweden and that it travelled with S from the old Orient express station Sircesi in Istanbul to the Iranian border, across the Taurus mountains, to Samsun by the Black Sea, all over Anatolia in winter, to the Mediterranean coast at Izmir in summer and to the gloomy town of Kars on the Armenian border when snow was melting in spring.

Turkey kept steam locomotives like the one on the watch running through the 1980s and S would have worked on steam trains, experiencing these powerful, smoky beasts, so close to living beings.

I travelled with trains in Turkey once, in the hot summer of 1993. First from the Greek border to Istanbul and I can still remember the dry, grassy smell of rural Thrace shifting to sharp city odours as we passed the old Byzantine city walls and ended at the grand Sircesi station just below Topkapi palace and I then lost myself in Istanbul for the first time. Maybe S was on the same train.


A little later I made the scenic journey from Erzincan in central Anatolia to Kars in the north-east on a heavily guarded Eastern Express train. This was a time of high tensions between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority and army servicemen patrolled the carriages with nervous attitude and the conductor (was this S?) told me the PKK had a habit of sometimes attacking the train.

So, S and I may have met, unaware of the watch linking us together. But how did the timepiece end up in Skellefteå in the far north of Sweden in the store from where I got it? No one knows, the clock keeps ticking, trains keep going in Turkey and fate has its odd ways.

Till Kars 4