A Video Tour of Sultanahmet and Istanbul’s Old Town

Istanbul at Sunset

Join me as I brave a light blizzard to take you through several of Istanbul’s key sights offering up small pieces of historical trivia along the way. This cozy video tour of the city takes you to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commonly known as the Blue Mosque), Hagia Sophia, The Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace (including the Harem), and the Grand Bazaar.

The Sultanahmet  district is an incredibly rich part of the city. While much more touristy than many other areas in the city, it is home to many of Istanbul’s great buildings and historical relics.  When I pause to reflect on it, it is shocking how much history is crammed into a relatively small space.  Despite covering an area you can walk across in some 20-30 minutes, you’ll need to dedicate several days to exploring the various mosques, palaces, and bazaars.

Hagia Sophia and The Sultan Ahmed “Blue” Mosque

Hagia Sofia at Night

Hagia Sophia

Every art and architecture student has studied the beauty and wonder of  Hagia Sophia. It is a premier example of Byzantine art and construction. This fortress-esque structure has stood as a testament to human ingenuity since 537 AD.  That’s not a typo.   This massive sprawling citadel to God is just under 1,500 years old and has played a pivotal roll in human architectural history.  Some reports suggest that it also held the title of largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  No small accomplishment.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

Amazingly the entire structure was built in less than 10 years, reportedly by a work crew of some 10,000 people, by the decree of Justinian I of Constantinople. It was the third basilica to be built in the location and the largest of the three. Unfortunately, the structure was severely damaged less than 20 years after it was completed by a series of earthquakes which collapsed the main dome. Resiliently, the dome was re-built, re-structured and raised some 20+ feet. These enhancements were completed quickly and done by the year 562.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

The church stood as a shining example of Christiandom until 1453 when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople. The church was immediately converted into a mosque, a process which resulted in the removal of most of the holy relics, altars, and bells. Interestingly, instead of removing the old Christian mosaics, the Ottomans decided to paint over them.  The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and the building’s four large minarets were added.  The majority of the building’s interior (as seen today) dates back to this period, with the exception of several large christian mosaics which were recently uncovered.

Hagia Sophia (Recovered)

The building served as one of the largest and most impressive mosques in the Muslim world for the next several hundred years. The mosque’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. It served as the key model for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is now commonly known and recognized as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.  In an interesting turn of history, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque in 1935 when the then newly elected President Ataturk decreed that it be converted into a museum.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

The interior of the structure is truly fascinating.  The sheer scale of the open space in the main area will leave you feeling tiny.  The mosaics are beautiful and reflect the periods in history during which they were created. The mixture of cultures, religions and periods in history is evident in all aspects of the structure creating an eclectic mixture that while somewhat cold, still manages to be very rich and engaging.   Stay tuned for video from inside Hagia Sophia in future posts.  Beyond that, you’ll just have to visit yourself!

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

Sultan Ahmed “the Blue” Mosque

The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and sits immediately opposite Hagia Sophia.  The mosque embodies the epitome of Byzantine-influenced Ottoman construction. It relies on heavy inspiration from Hagia Sophia, but the building’s lines and domes are enhanced while simultaneously integrating a series of six minarets into the original design.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

From the start, the goal while creating the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was to create one of the greatest mosques in the world.  The structure was built on a massive scale and can accommodate 10,000 people during prayer.  It was created to be a purely Muslim structure, in contrast with Hagia Sophia which had a mixed heritage.   It was also fairly controversial initially due to its 6 minarets, which was a violation of accepted policy at that point in time-typically all mosques outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca were limited to four minarets.

Blue Mosque

Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still in active use and faithful are welcomed to attend for daily prayer.  However, don’t fret – the mosque remains open most of the day for tourists, who are welcome into the mosque and given free roam of just under half the ground floor.  If, that is, you’re willing to leave your shoes at the door and have made sure to dress appropriately.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque’s nickname comes from the beautiful blue tile work that decorates its interior. This is accentuated by more than 200 blue stained-glass windows.   The tiles and beautifully painted calligraphy work has made the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul’s leading tourist attractions.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Every inch of the building’s interior is covered in rich, padded carpets, beautiful stained-glass windows, or intricately decorated Islamic decorations and calligraphic script. The amount of time and energy that went into these decorations is staggering and an amazing testament to the might, wealth, and glory of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

For people familiar with calligraphy, many of the tiles depict beautiful flowing script, which are verses from the Qur’an and were created by Seyyid Kasim Gubari – one of the greatest calligraphers in his era.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

The interior of the Blue Mosque is absolutely gorgeous.  However, it is also slightly overwhelming making the structure feel somewhat smaller and significantly more cozy than Hagia Sophia.  If planning a visit to Istanbul, I highly suggest visiting both structures and dedicating ample time to each. While it is easy to assume that the two will be very similar, the reality is that the experience varies significantly from one to the other.  The Blue Mosque will awe you with its beauty, with its polished architecture and wonderful lighting.  Hagia Sophia will captivate you with its size, scale, and odd mixture of religious and cultural history.

Mosque in Istanbul

Other Mosques Abound

As a first-timer to Istanbul I expected that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia would be the only two large religious structures in the city.  Especially after seeing the incredible size and scale of the structures it made it hard to imagine that the city could have ever supported a third, fourth, or fifth building of similar scale and scope.

Istanbul at Sunset

So, perhaps you can understand (and share) my surprise at discovering that Istanbul’s skyline is decorated by the impressive domes and needle-like forms of towering minarets from at least half a dozen large mosques.

Have you visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque?  What were your favorite parts?  What surprised you?

**Bonus – While visiting Hagia Sophia, there is a free (and separate) series of tombs which can be accessed from the external side of the building.  These serve as the eternal resting place for a number of the region’s influential rulers and religious figures, in addition to boasting their own wealth of beautiful tile and mural work.

Istanbul: The City That Took Me By Complete Surprise

Istanbul City Bench

When I chose Turkey as the destination for my holiday trip, one key factor was weather.  While I still didn’t expect it to be terribly warm, I was hopeful that the weather would be notably warmer than what I had grown accustomed to in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Little did I know what I was in for: the coldest weather Turkey has experienced in over 25 years.  After diving into my bags and layering on just about every piece of warm clothing I had, I quickly set out to explore the historic district of Sultanahmet which immediately surrounds the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. I have to confess that I was more than a little frustrated by the cold and snow flurries which made visibility difficult.  Still, I decided to take stock of my situation and make the absolute best of it – after all, when was the last time you saw photos of Istanbul covered in snow?  Eager to take care of this rare occurrence, I began to explore the neighborhood..

Blue Mosque in the Snow

The trip was my first to a Muslim country.  It was also my first to an arab-influenced country.  I say arab-influenced country because I know that many Turks don’t consider themselves to be arabs and are regularly frustrated by the mis-association.  As I crunched out into the snow the first time I honestly had no idea what to expect.  I had heard that Turkey was much more liberal, western and progressive than many of the more traditionalist/conservative Muslim countries, but I had no idea just where the boundaries between the two might fall.  Would I see lots of women covered from head to toe in traditional garb? Would beer and alcohol be available – or even legal?   What about pork?  Would people pause during prayer periods to pray in the streets?   Some of these unknowns no doubt seem silly to some of you, especially some of my Turkish friends who have known me for years.  For others, I imagine you likely share the uncertainty I did before my arrival in Turkey.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the Snow

What I found was a city full of surprises. While there were some women in full-body traditional conservative outfits, most wore a headscarf, or nothing particularly unusual – choosing instead to dress as one would find and expect anywhere else in the world.  In truth, there are probably more women dressed traditionally in the heavily-Arab district of Norrebro back in Copenhagen than there are in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.  In part, that’s due to the tourist-centric nature of that part of town.  Mostly, however, it is indicative of exactly what you would expect in any major metropolitan area.  Similarly, despite the loud sing-song of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city several times a day, I never saw anyone pause to pray in public. In truth, few Turks even paused as they went about their business. Should I be surprised? Probably not.  Was I?  Most definitely.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

As my time in Istanbul quickly raced by I came to realize just how far off most of my perceptions about Turkey had been.   During our visits to the Taksim area, which is a shopping sector and bar district within Istanbul, I quickly learned that Istanbul has a thriving bar and nightlife scene.  While drinks are relatively expensive, they’re easily on hand in most parts of the city (though perhaps slightly more difficult to find than some other major cities). Perhaps most surprising was that there even seemed to be unofficial open container laws, as long as you were careful and remained within Taksim.  The city was not at all what I expected or what many of the westernized portrayals of Turkey depicted.  Heck, to our total surprise (and dismay) several fellow hostelers and I actually stumbled into (and right out of) what we thought was a bar which ended up being a brothel – located right in the heart of Taksim.

Blue Mosque in the Snow

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Istanbul doesn’t have its conservative districts and idiosyncrasies.  It does, but it’s also nothing like the city I was expecting.  Another aspect that took me by complete surprise was the city’s size.  A review of online literature about Istanbul in preparation for my trip left me expecting a mid-sized capital city with a hearty population in the 10-12 million range.  What I found was a city that locals claim has at least 19 million residents and, given the population density and size of the city, I believe it.  This, and other experiences during the trip led me to realize that  Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities and it is not discussed as such as often as it should be.

Blue Mosque Area and Obelisk

More than that, it possesses a charm that few cities of its size and scale are able to nurture or retain.   Istanbul is a city of empire.  A city of history.  Of wonder. With its well-manicured boulevards and crumbling historic districts, Istanbul befits a city that straddles two continents – two worlds – that has served as the sentry of the Bosphorus for thousands of years.  Despite spending more than a week in Istanbul, I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface.  There are still so many historical buildings, museums, and remnants of the past to explore.  But, it goes far beyond that.  The foods, music, cafes, and cultures of Istanbul are also intoxicating, rich, and complex. I’ll find my way back to Istanbul as soon as the chance permits and as someone who isn’t generally a fan of mega-cities, that is a take away from the city that I found extremely surprising.   If you find yourself considering a visit to Istanbul – don’t be mislead by headlines, silly stereotypes and hear-say.  If you haven’t considered Istanbul and Turkey as a destination in the past – I hope my series on the country will help inspire you to add it to your list and to consider it seriously.   After all, Istanbul is the city of Byzantium and Constantinople – a city that demands every traveler’s attention!