I arrived in Istanbul on December 26, 2018, at about 6:30 p.m. from a flight from Bucharest, Romania. I had flown from Rome to Bucharest and then to Istanbul. (My first time “in” Romania! Yay!) I got off the plane and waited with a mob of other people to go through passport control. I had my Turkish visa printed and ready…
I stayed in the Fatih area of Istanbul, which is on the European side. I picked the hotel and the area because it’s the neighborhood with famous historical sites such as the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.
I set up a 2-day guided tour with a company I found suggested on TripAdvisor. I thought it was a small-group tour, but when the guide came to meet me at my hotel in the morning at 9 a.m., I found out the tour was just me and my guide. I almost would have preferred a few other people, but it ended up working out fine.
I love taking guided tours when I first get to the city. I will have already done a lot of reading and research on the history and culture of the place, but I like how I get a broad overview of the city and its important places on a tour. It allows me to familiarize myself with the surroundings and figure out what I want to go back to or see later. I’ve found this is my favorite way to enter a new place, and I’ve done it in many countries around the world. Because I’m such a history buff, it gives me an orientation about the historical and cultural aspects of a place as well, which is one of my favorite parts of traveling.
Our first stop was Topkapi Palace. This is where the sultans lived with about 4,000 of their closest family, friends, children, servants, concubines, eunuchs, and courtiers between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire.
Although the palace compound extends around much further, the “museum” opens with the Middle Gate, also known as the Bâbüsselâm or the Gate of Salutation (below). It leads into the palace proper, and with the two towers flanking the gate, it was supposed to serve as a symbol of the pomp and majesty of the Ottoman empire. It has subsequently become an icon for the whole palace.
Middle Gate, also known as the Bâbüsselâm or the Gate of Salutation
On the upper part of the gate, there is a calligraphic inscription of the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God; Mohammed is the prophet of God.” (below)
Only the sultan was allowed to pass through this gate on horseback. Other state officials such as the grand vizier had to dismount their horses before entering.
Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God; Mohammed is the prophet of God.”
Inside the gate lies the Second Courtyard which includes the Imperial Council Chamber (below), where the Dîvân (Council) made laws, citizens presented petitions, and foreign dignitaries were presented to the court. The sultans were said to have eavesdropped on proceedings through the window with the golden grille.
Imperial Council Chamber
One of my favorite things about mosques and Islam art is the decoration. In Islam, depictions of the prophet Mohammed and of God are forbidden, so much of their architecture and decoration is mosaic tiles of geometric or floral patterns and fanciful or elaborate script. Here are some examples from Topkapi Palace:
I explored the rest of the palace grounds, which included palace kitchens, the Imperial Treasury, the harem where the wives and children of the sultan lived, the Marble Terrace, and much more. I could go on with various pictures of buildings, but suffice it to say it was definitely a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the sultans and the Ottoman empire’s ruling class.
My next stop, the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), is what originally drew me to Istanbul from having studied it in school. I was attracted to it for its historical, religious, and cultural significances. It was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 536, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 (and renamed Aya Sofya), and declared a museum by Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey) in 1935.
It’s famous for its mosaics, which the Muslims covered up with plaster when it became a mosque. It was only after being declared a museum that they began to recover some of the mosaics that were hidden after the conversion of the structure. Below are some of my pictures.
Ottoman medallions (below, and seen in the pictures above) are inscribed with the gilt Arabic letters with the names of God (Allah), Mohammed, and the early caliphs Ali and Abu Bakr.
More to come!