Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is the biggest city in Turkey and one of the world's major cities, with around 6.7 million people in the city itself (1990 figures) and another four million in the area around it. Istanbul has a long and eventful past as capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire and later as capital of the Ottoman Empire. At various points in its history it has been considered 'the greatest city in Christendom', 'the most beautiful city in the world' and 'the greatest city in the Muslim world'. There's still a lot of this former glory left to see. While no longer the capital of Turkey, Istanbul is still the cultural centre of the country and is a fascinating mixture of the Eastern and Western worlds.
My first impression of Istanbul after arriving in the airport was of the sheer size of the city. It's enormous: a sprawl of housing that seems to stretch into infinity. New and old seem to sit together everywhere. There are giant, sparkling new skyscrapers and office blocks standing beside much older, more squalid houses and shops. And banks! There were banks everywhere, on every street, with different names. The streets were crowded and noisy. We took a trip on the coast road past the huge ancient walls of Constantinople, still standing but in an advanced state of dilapidation in many places. The restaurants are similarly noisy but the food is delicious, particularly the yoghurts which seem to be an Istanbul speciality. Another thing I remember is the procession of large tankers and cargo ships making their way up and down the Bosphorus, heading to and from the Black Sea.
- An h2g2 Researcher
At 41 degrees North, Istanbul is far enough south to get nice warm summers, but in the winter, a cold wind blows from the north over the steppes of Ukraine and Russia and across the Black Sea, bringing with it freezing weather. Snow is not unknown in the city.
Layout of the City
Istanbul is in an interesting position geographically, being the only city in the world which is on two continents - it is at the junction of Europe and Asia1. The layout of Istanbul can be a trifle confusing so it is spelled out here in detail.
There is a strip of land about 35km wide between the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south. Istanbul is on the south side of this land, on the Sea of Marmara. Joining the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara is a narrow strait called the Bosphorus or Bosporus (Istanbul Bogazi in Turkish). It runs roughly southwest to northeast and forms the border between Europe and Asia. It is only 700m wide at its narrowest point. On the west side of the Bosphorus is an inlet about seven kilometres long called the Golden Horn (Haliç in Turkish). The name is supposedly derived from the fact it is in the shape of an ox's horn and the water turns gold at sunset. The Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn are known as the 'Three Seas'.
To the south of the Golden Horn, on the peninsula between it and the Sea of Marmara, stands the Old City, the original site of the city. This section is separated from the mainland by a series of massive ramparts and a moat. As the city grew, it spilled over onto the north side of the Golden Horn to form the New City and then across the Bosphorus to the Asian side. So now there are three distinct regions:
The Old City is south of the Golden Horn. It contains all the ancient monuments.
The New City, known as Beyoglu, is north of the Golden Horn.
The districts of Üsküdar and Kadiköy are to the east of the Bosphorus. These are mainly residential and of no great interest to the tourist, although there are a number of fine historic mosques.
There are now massive bridges joining these sections together, but in former times they would have been connected only by ferries2.
Istanbul started out as Byzantion, a Greek city, in the 8th Century BC. Legend has it that a Greek called Byzas from the city of Megara, west of Athens, sailed off in search of a site for a new city (this was common practice in Greece at the time). He sought advice from the oracle at Delphi, where he was told that he would found a city in the country of the blind. Eventually he came to an uninhabited peninsula surrounded by three seas. He said that the locals who lived across the Bosphorus must be blind not to see the potential of such a great site, so the oracle's prediction was fulfilled. The city was named Byzantion after the founder, Byzas. All sea trade between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean went past Byzantion, as did all land trade between Asia and Europe. By imposing taxes on this trade, Byzantion became a very successful city.
Byzantion came under Roman control in the 1st Century BC. They Latinised the name to Byzantium. In 330 AD, the Emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium because Rome was falling under threat from barbarian invasions. He initially came up with the name of New Rome for the city, but later decided to rename it Constantinople (city of Constantine). The city was still informally known as Byzantium and in later years, after Rome did in fact fall to the barbarians, the Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines considered themselves to be Romans, but spoke Greek. They built massive fortifications around the city, including a defensive wall across the neck of the peninsula, and a sea wall all the way around. The city was virtually impregnable; these defences were only breached twice in the history of the city.
Constantinople also became the capital of the Eastern Christian Church, now known as the Orthodox Church. Initially, the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) was still considered the supreme ruler of the Church, but in about 1000 AD, the Eastern Church split from the Western one over a number of issues, and from then on it went its own way, with the Patriarch of Constantinople as head honcho.
Over the next thousand years or so, Constantinople was besieged many times, by Persians, Arabs, Bulgars, and Russians. The city was sacked by the Western European Christians in 1204; the Fourth Crusade had run out of operating cash - the Crusaders were promised money and supplies if they helped an exiled Byzantine prince onto the throne. They did this, but he failed to come up with the cash, so they sacked the city, carrying off many treasures to Western lands. The Venetians benefited greatly from this, bringing back to Venice many treasures which they had looted from Constantinople. This wasn't the end of the Byzantine Empire, however. It recovered and limped along until 29 May, 1453, when the Turks, under Mehmet II, invaded the city. This date can be considered to be the final fall of the Roman Empire.
The Turks called the city Istanbul3, although its official name continued to be Constantinople until 1930. They made Istanbul the capital of their Ottoman Empire. This was probably the most successful Muslim Empire on the planet. The Ottomans were a strange mixture of culture and ruthlessness: they loved art and when they converted the huge church Hagia Sophia into a mosque, they carefully plastered over the Christian mosaics in such a way that they would be preserved, with periodic inspections to make sure the mosaics had not deteriorated. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror is depicted smelling a rose. On the other hand, the Sultans kept their brothers in a cage in the palace to prevent any arguments about who was the rightful ruler, and one Sultan killed all his male children except one, so that there would be no argument about his successor.
The Ottoman Empire lasted until 1922. It was on the losing side after the First World War and lost a lot of land in the post-war carve-up of Europe. This led to great unrest among the people. They rebelled against their rulers and declared a Turkish republic. The capital of the new republic was moved away from Istanbul to Ankara.
Istanbul is packed full of things to see. Most of these are in the Old City, south of the Golden Horn.
This enormous structure was built in the period 532 - 537 during the reign of Emperor Justinian, as a church. It looks like a mosque, but remember, it was built before the founding of Islam. The name Hagia Sophia, sometimes given as Ayia Sophia or even Sancta Sophia, means 'Holy Wisdom' and the building was the principal church of the Christian world. In 1453, the Ottomans adopted Hagia Sophia as their principal place of worship and it was converted into a mosque. Four minarets were added on the outside, and the insides were changed around slightly, with the addition of a pulpit (minbar) and prayer niche (mihrab). In 1935, the mosque was converted to a museum. It is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Istanbul.
Inside, Hagia Sophia has an enormous central space surmounted by a dome that measures 33m across. The top of the dome is 56m above the ground, but thanks to a very clever use of windows, there is plenty of light, giving an amazing feeling of airiness. It is not dark like many medieval European cathedrals. The walls and ceilings were originally decorated with mosaics and some of these have survived. There are also four large circular wall hangings featuring quotations in Arabic from the Qur'an, from the time when the building was a mosque.
Outside Hagia Sophia are mausoleums in which some of the Sultans were buried.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is officially the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I. It was built at the beginning of the 17th Century and was designed by Sedefkar Mehmet Aga. It is built on the site of the Byzantine Great Palace - that is, the palace of the Byzantine Emperors. The most distinctive feature of the mosque is its six minarets - a very unusual number. Legend has it that these came about as a result of a mix-up. The sultan wanted a gold minaret and the architect mistook the word for gold 'altin' with the word for six 'alti'. A good but unlikely story.
The Blue Mosque isn't blue on the outside, it is grey. It gets its name from the ceiling inside, which is inlaid with distinctive blue tiles from Iznik. Like many other mosques, the building is roughly two squares side by side. The first square is an open courtyard surrounded by a colonnade, and the second is the mosque building itself, covered in domes.
Note that because this is a working mosque, it is closed to tourists during the five daily prayer times and for longer periods on Fridays. There's a sign displayed outside which will tell you when you can go in as a tourist. As with all mosques, tourist must remove their shoes upon entering the mosque.
The Topkapi4 Palace was not only the residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years, but also the centre of administration. Here you will find one of the greatest examples of opulence in the world. It is very busy, so be sure to get there early. Start your tour with a visit to the Harem, since this is only available through a guided tour.
The palace is not designed to be imposing from the outside. Instead, it consists of a large number of low buildings spread around four main courtyards in an asymmetrical and apparently random arrangement. The most important of these from a tourist point of view is the Harem; this is where the Sultan kept his wives, daughters and concubines. All the women in the Harem except the immediate family of the Sultan were slaves. The women were guarded by black male eunuchs and no other men except the Sultan and his sons were allowed into the building.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is Turkey's largest covered market. It has thousands of shops: the figure quoted in all the guide books is 'more than 4,000', but estimates range from about 3,500 to 5,000. You should be able to find anything you want here. Watch out for persistent carpet-sellers - they seem to think that every tourist would like to buy a huge Turkish carpet and bring it home with them as hand luggage.
The Yerebatan Cistern
Also known as the Underground Palace, this strange building is an ancient storage tank for water built in Roman times. The Romans were great fans of fresh water and built a whole series of aqueducts and storage cisterns. This one was built in 542, during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The cistern is a vast pillared hall with semicircular arches holding up the roof - there are more than 300 pillars. Even here in a functional area, the tops of the pillars (capitals) were decorated with elaborate carvings. It has a capacity of more than two million litres.
The cistern was restored in the 1980s and is open to the public.
The Süleymaniye Mosque
This mosque is Istanbul's largest and possibly grandest. It is older than the Blue Mosque, but very similar in style to both the Blue Mosque and to Hagia Sophia. This is because its design was copied from Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque was later copied off both of them. The building is in much better condition inside than Hagia Sophia (it is less than one third its age) and is breathtakingly beautiful. It was designed by Mimar Sinan for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Note that the same restrictions about prayer times and Fridays apply as in the Blue Mosque or indeed any other mosque.
The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Kariye Camii)
This Byzantine church has the most amazing series of Byzantine mosaics anywhere. The church is a little out from the centre of Istanbul, near the walls of the city. Experts are undecided what the name 'in Chora', literally 'in the land', actually means. Some say that it indicates that the original church on the site was in the countryside. Others think that the 'Saviour in the land' means 'Christ on Earth' as opposed to 'Christ in Heaven'.
Although some of the mosaics have been damaged, most of them are in perfect condition. Here you will see scenes from the life of Christ, from the life of Mary, his mother, and pictures of angels, saints and other holy personages. There are frescoes as well.
The Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum is situated next to the Topkapi palace and features all sorts of pre-Islamic antiquities from Turkey and other countries.
The City Walls and the Yedikule Castle
For a thousand years, the city was protected by the massive city walls, which cut the peninsula of the Old City off from the mainland, running all the way from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. Built in the reign of Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th Century, they have stood the test of time, successfully protecting Constantinople from invasion. The walls were only breached twice in history; once by the Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204, and once by the invading Ottomans, who took the city in 1453 and made it their own.
One part of the walls that is particularly worth seeing is around the Belgrade Gate (Belgratkapi) in the south west of the city. Also nearby is the Yedikule Castle which is linked into the walls of the city.
The Dolmabahçe Palace
This palace is situated along the Bosphorus just north of Beyoglu. Built in 1853, it is a masterpiece of 19th-Century opulence. At that time, the Topkapi palace was falling into disrepair, so the Sultan of the day, Abdulmecit, had a new palace built and moved away from the Topkapi. It's everything you'd expect of the palace of a Sultan, but in a more European style. There are more than 280 rooms and a guided tour will take you two to three hours. The palace was also used in the mid-20th Century as a residence for President Kemal Atatürk, when he visited Istanbul.
The Hippodrome was a racetrack for horses in Roman times. It could hold around 100,000 spectators. It became the centre of the cultural and sporting life of the city - sport was culture, as far as the Roman in the street was concerned. Chariot-racing was to the Romans what football is to modern man. By the 6th Century, Constantinople polarised into two great racing teams, the Blues and the Greens. There were constant and violent fights between the supporters of the two teams, leading to many deaths. Emperor Justinian tried to clamp down on this hooliganism, resulting in the supporters of both sides joining together to attack the authority of the state and run rampage through the city for five days, shouting 'Nika!' which means 'Victory (to us)'. They elected their own puppet emperor, and Justinian seriously considered fleeing from the city. Eventually Justinian's general Belisarius trapped the rebels in the Hippodrome and slaughtered 30,000 of them.
The buildings of the hippodrome are all gone now. It is just a pleasant park and is officially known as Sultan Ahmet Square. There are still three interesting pillars at the west end. These were originally on the central spine of the race track, so that they were visible to everyone in the city:
The Obelisk of Thutmose III dates from about 1490BC, and comes from Luxor in Egypt. It is also known as the Obelisk of Theodosius, as this Emperor had it brought to Constantinople. It is made from pink granite, and is actually only the top part of the original obelisk.
The Serpentine Column is a twisted bronze pillar, but originally had three snakes' heads on the top and was known as the Tripod of Plataea. This came from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece and dates from about 500BC. The snake heads were knocked off by drunken soldiers in about 1700. One of the snake-heads is on display in the archaeological museum.
The Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus5 was erected in the 10th Century by the emperor of that name. It is also known as the Brazen Column or the Brick Obelisk. It was covered in gilded bronze plates but these were plundered during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. All that remains now is a rather plain pillar, one hundred feet high.
The Aqueduct of Valens
The Romans built a number of aqueducts to provide water for the city, and this one is still standing although it is no longer used.
Constantine's Palace (Tekfur Sarayi)
This building, dating from the late 1200s or early 1300s is supposedly the palace of the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the same guy who built the column in the Hippodrome. The shell of the building still stands. This may have originally connected to the Blachernae Palace, which was the palace of the emperors from around 1000 onwards, but is no longer standing.
The Spice Bazaar
Another covered bazaar, and the second biggest one in Istanbul, this is known locally as the 'Egyptian Bazaar'. It specialises in spices but lots of other things are for sale too.
The Galata Tower
Galata was the old name for the area now known as Beyoglu. It was given over to the Genoese (Italians from the city of Genoa) as reward for their help in driving the Crusaders out of the city in the 13th Century and reinstating the Byzantine emperors. The Galata Tower was built by the Genoese for defence in the 14th Century, on the site of an older tower. There's a great view from the top of this out over the whole city.
Istanbul - and Turkey in general - is a good destination for tasty, inexpensive food. Turkey's place on the spice route and the heart of a former great empire means that its food culture encompasses a wide range of eclectic influences. In times past there was a tradition of intricate court cooking to match anything in France - although these days the visitor will be more likely to encounter earthier fare. In general the food is fully flavoured, with good use of spices and garlic - although usually not too fiery. While some dishes put meat to the fore, vegetarians should have little problem in obtaining a varied diet by grazing on the many cheese and vegetable dishes on offer. Turkey also shares the mezzes tradition found elsewhere in the rest of the Middle East, of meals made up of multiple small dishes. Many 'starter-sized' traditional dishes are available. Some things to look out for include:
Breads and Cakes. A wide variety of delicious baked goods are on offer. One of these is pide, a large flat bread, cooked to order and available with various toppings. Yumurtali pide (eggs) and paynirli pide (cheese) are both popular breakfast dishes. A popular Turkish snack is simit, a pretzel-like loaf and tahinipitta - like a Chelsea Bun, only with sesame paste - is a particularly delicious sweet treat. Many gooey, nut-filled variations on baklava are found, as are all manner of custardy confections.
Kebabs and Grilled Meat. These are not limited to the doner that we all know and love. It is a generic term for all manner of grilled meat, sometimes whole, sometimes minced. Not all are served with bread. For the carnivorous, no visit would be complete without thorough investigation of the Kebabci (kebab restaurant). Look out also for Izgara which is mixed, grilled meat.
Börek (small pies) are often served as mezzes or snack food. They come in all shapes and sizes, deep-fried or baked and with fillings of cheese, vegetables, meat or fish.
Vegetable dishes abound. Many tasty cooked dishes and salads can be found. The Turks have a thousand uses for aubergines (patlican); the most famous is Imam Bayildi a grilled aubergine stuffed with rice, tomatoes and various other vegetables and seasonings, served cold. Its name means 'the Imam fainted' - it was so delicious that he swooned with pleasure. The generic term for stuffed vegetables (eg peppers tomatoes, cabbage, vine leaves) is dolma (simply 'stuffed')6.
Soups and Stews - Many delicious soups and stews are available. Their generic name is çorba. Common varieties incorporate lentils, rice, burghul wheat or noodles and yoghurt. A popular tradition is Piyale İşkembe Çorbası - a hearty tripe stew, traditionally eaten at going home time in the early hours following a night on the tiles.
Fish - Istanbulites are fond of good quality, fresh fish. The many high-quality, inexpensive restaurants along the Bosphorus are a city institution. Here freshly-caught mackerel, sardines, bonito and many more can be purchased by weight and eaten grilled over charcoal. Stuffed mussels also feature as mezze.
Alcohol - Although most Turks are Muslim, alcohol is widely consumed. Two good brands of beer are made, Efes Pilsen and Tüborg (brewed under licence from Denmark), and Turkish wine is surprisingly decent. The liquorice-flavoured spirit raki is not for the fainthearted. It is drunk with water which turns it a cloudy white, hence its nickname aslan sutlusu - lion's milk. Many Turks are teetotal, however. It is a salutary experience to find oneself watching football in a Turkish cafe and realise that everyone else is drinking orange juice.
Non-alcoholic drinks - if you are not in the mood for alcohol, there are plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives. Thick, strong Turkish coffee (kahve) served in small cups is famous. It is traditionally served in coffee-houses which remain a male preserve - although in modern, cosmopolitan Istanbul there are many cafes where the sexes mingle freely. Tea (çai) is also consumed at every opportunity, served without milk in small glasses. Apple tea and other fruit flavours are also very popular - but note that these are sweet, artificially-flavoured concoctions. Herb teas, on the other hand, such as sage (ada çai) are delicious. Turks are extremely sociable and will automatically offer visitors tea - a delightful custom. If you are offered tea or coffee in a cafe, it is polite to ask for tea as coffee is more expensive (not that the sociable Turks will think any less of you). Another interesting drink to try is salep - a hot drink made from the dried, ground roots of a type of orchid. For a refreshing and delicious alternative, try ayran - a savoury yoghurt drink.
The Turkish Language
Turkish is a relatively easy language to learn. The alphabet is familiar to English speakers, if the pronunciation is not; and the speech is lilted and melodic, a pleasure to hear.
The best thing about learning Turkish is the lack of gender in the language - so the nightmare of learning the der, die, das of German is avoided. There are, however, eight vowels: a, e, i, i without the dot (pronounced 'uh'), o, ö (pronounced 'errr'), u and ü (pronounced like the French 'u')7. There are some variations to the consonants also: in addition to the familiar 's', the Turks have an 's' with a cedilla, pronounced 'sh'. The plain 'c' is pronounced like a 'j' while the ç (with a cedilla) is pronounced like the 'ch' in the English word 'church'.
A taster of useful Turkish words:
- guzel (guzelle) - nice, lovely, sweet/tasty. (often accompanied by a dish of something tasty waved under your nose or a drool, making you feel rather under-dressed).
- merhaba (mare hubba) - hello
- nasilsiniz (narsill sin is) - how do you do
- iyiyi, tesekkur ederim, ya siz? (Eeeeh, teshekkurr eh derim, ya sez?) - very well thank you, and you?
- evet (evet) - yes
- hayir (higher) - no
- otur (otoor) - sit
- bilmiyorum (bill me *your* room) - I don't know
- gel, or gelmek (with a hard g) - come
- simdi (shimdy) - now
- haydi! (high - dee) - come along!
- dikkat! (dikk cat) - watch out!
- imdat! (im dat) - help!
- yavas (yavash) - slow down, or slowly, take it easy
- insallah (inshallah) - God willing, please God, I hope.
- lütfen (lutfen) - please
- tesekkur ederim (teshekkurr ederim) - thank you
- pardon (parrdonn) - sorry
- elinize saglik (eller knees eh sarg look) - Bless your hands (to the person who has prepared your food)
- tuvalet (too va let) - toilet
- Anlamiyorum (ann la mee your room) - I don't understand
- Allaha ismarladik (Alla smar laduk) - goodbye (said by the person departing)
- güle güle (guleh guleh) - goodbye (response by the person staying)
and the most useful phrase may well be:
- Ingilizce konusur musunuz? (engeliz che cone oosoor moose oonooz?) do you speak English?
Other Things Turkish
At one of these traditional establishments, known as a hamam, you will find bathing, sweat rooms, abrasive scrubbing and massages at a reasonable price. The most famous hamams are probably Çemberlitas Hamami and Cagaloglu Hamami. Many luxury hotels also have a hamam. Many of the best hamams are hundreds of years old. Visitors are expected to strip completely, and then cover themselves with the provided cloth wrap known as a pestamal. This is a great way of passing an hour and ridding yourself of the grime of a hard day's bazaar shopping! But be warned that some of the masseurs can be a trifle vigorous, so be sure to ask them to go easy.
This gooey sweetmeat is not to everyone's taste, being intensely sweet, but the stuff you get in Turkey is far better than imitations in other countries. Known locally as lokum, it comes in all sorts of different flavours, the most common being rosewater. Some lokum have pieces of nut such as pistachio added. You'll find Turkish Delight on sale everywhere, but Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir's shop in Eminonu has been selling it for more than 230 years.
Turkish carpets have been famous for centuries, and you can still buy them in Istanbul. Carpets seem to have originated in Central Asia in the Altai region. As the Turks migrated westward, they brought carpet-making with them, and the craft first came to Europe and the western world through Turkey. The highest quality Hereke carpets can have up to 60 knots per centimetre if made from wool, or up to 100 per centimetre if made from silk.
On a more sobering note, Turkish prisons have a bad reputation. Anyone who has seen the 1978 film Midnight Express will know about the inhuman treatment prisoners receive. Admittedly the man in question was a heroin trafficker, and his treatment might be considered a Hollywood fiction. On the other hand, it is true that Turkey's application to join the European Union was turned down, and one of the reasons was its poor track record on human rights. So be careful on your visit to Turkey. Don't take photographs of military installations, and don't make fun of the Turkish government or Kemal Atatürk, the man who ousted the sultans and set up the republic.
Prisons aside, there's plenty to see and do in this historic city, with its unique blend of east and west. Whether it's Roman ruins, Turkish palaces or just plain coffee and sweet cakes you're interested in, there are very few places that can rival Istanbul.