Byzantine, Constantinople, Istanbul. One city, two continents, three names, and 15 million people. And what feels like an additional 15 million tourists! After arriving in the late afternoon and heading straight out onto the Galata bridge which crosses the Golden Horn, our first impressions of Istanbul were overwhelming. There was just so much of everything; noise, traffic, people, boats. Having spent most of the past 3 months climbing at deserted crags, I seriously wondered how I would survive 3 days of this mayhem.
After 1.5 hours trying to walk through the mass of humanity and getting no further than 500m from our starting point, we retreated back to the hotel to plan our survival strategy. There was only one thing for it: split shifts. We decided to get up at dawn the next morning, walk through the old historic quarter (the Sultanahmet) while there were no people about, to get to the area around the Blue Mosque. We would then visit a couple of “sights” before it got busy, have lunch, retreat to the hotel for an afternoon nap, and then go back out to the major sights at about 5pm when the crowds had reduced.
So at 6am I dragged myself out of bed, and after a quick cup of tea we headed out into the cold morning air. The sun was rising as we stood on the Galata bridge, beside the fishermen, watching the outline of Asia appear on the opposite shore of the Bosphorus. The morning light cast a beautiful glow over the domes and minarets in the Sultanahmet, justifying the trauma of the early awakening.
After breakfast in a cafe in the Hippodrome (the old chariot racing arena from Roman times) we went inside the Blue Mosque. From the outside it is a beautiful and impressive building. Unfortunately, the inside is undergoing renovation, the main dome and central section were blocked off so the grandeur and scale were not apparent. The walls we could see were decorated with panels of 400 year old, handmade, blue and white tiles. I have to admit that the overall impression I got was one of clutter, there was no sense of tranquility or peace. I felt like I was in a tile showroom! This was in stark contrast to the Fatih Mosque which we visited on day 3. This was one of the first mosques built after the conquest by the Ottomans and is over 600 years old. It is decorated in a paler, symmetrical manner, which personally I found more appealing, and more peaceful.
In the morning of day 1 we also visited the Basilica Cistern, an underground water cistern built by the Romans in the 6th century, but using the remnants of earlier Greek structures. The 336 columns that support the vaulted ceiling are a mixture of styles and include two columns supported by enormous carved heads of Medusa.
After a worthwhile look around the Museum of Islamic Arts, we were sorely in need of a break. We had a quick bite to eat overlooking the Bosphorus and retreated to our hotel. I think it took less than 5 minutes for us both to be asleep on the bed!
A couple of hours later, with renewed vigour, we headed back across the river to explore the Topkapi Palace, home to many of the Sultans from the Ottoman dynasty. Earlier in the morning the queue for entry had been about 50m long, at 4:30pm (2.5hrs before closing), there was no queue and a steady stream of people exiting. Result! Again, we only saw about 50% of the palace due to renovation work, but it still took us 2 hours to walk around it! The palace is another example of the extensive use of Iznik tiles for wall decoration, this time in all colours and sizes and styles, often in the same room!
Day 2 saw us repeating the format and exploring the Archaeological Museum in the morning, sleeping in the afternoon, and visiting the amazing Hagia Sophia in the late afternoon. For Jon, the Archaeological Museum was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul, despite half of it being closed for renovation (there is an awful lot of renovation going on at the moment!). They have a very impressive section on Mesopotamia including several large relief tile panels of dragons, lions and bulls that are over 2,500 years old.
The Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya) is one of the top “sights” to see in Istanbul, and rightly so. It was first built as a church in the year 532 by the Roman Emperor Justinian and was the world’s largest cathedral for over 1000 years. When Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople in 1453 he immediately turned it into a mosque and added the minarets. It remained a mosque until 1935 when Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic, ordered it to become a museum. The interior has been conserved to show both the early Christian mosaics and the later Islamic decoration, preserving the history and the evolution of the building. But what I found striking was the sheer scale of the structure. The dome is enormous. The whole building was completed in only 5 years and this was done 1,500 years ago! A staggering achievement, but I expect it also came with a very high human cost.
By day 3 we had almost run out of steam! But we roused ourselves sufficiently to take the ferry up the Golden Horn to the site of the land walls of the old Roman Empire and walked along those to the Chora Museum. This is a small early Roman church with some incredibly impressive Byzantine mosaics. Located a couple of miles from the main tourist zone it was relatively quiet in the church and we had time to wander around and really appreciate the incredible artistic quality on display. After a relaxing drink in the sunshine, we walked through the “normal life” areas of Istanbul back to our hotel and another afternoon of snoozing!
Istanbul is a very evocative city. As the meeting point of two continents it has a rich and diverse history which is laid out for the visitor to see and explore. For me, the city itself has been the highlight of the visit, the sounds, the smells, the sights. It has been exhausting! It has also felt completely different to every other aspect of our 3 month trip. Three days in Istanbul is a holiday on its own. It feels like we have come to the end of a short, intense, city break, rather than the end of a 103 day journey across three countries. Right now, it feels like a long time since I was last climbing on rock!