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Istanbul: Walking through the greatest empires

Updated May 23, 2016 03:16pm

Recently, on a whim, my wife and I booked our tickets, packed our bags and headed to Turkey.

Home to ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and, later, the Ottoman Empire, the diverse heritage of Turkey has always fascinated me. The country spans over 300,000 square miles and has a tremendous amount of history and culture to her credit.

We planned our trip in a way that enabled us to visit the major historical sites, while staying away from the Eastern parts of the country that are impacted by the war in Syria.

As is common for everyone visiting Turkey, we started our trip from Istanbul that connects two continents — Europe and Asia.

An aerial view of Istanbul from Galata Tower.
An aerial view of Istanbul from Galata Tower.

Istanbul is a magical blend of old and new ages. We were in awe when the plane landed at Ataturk International Airport, affording us a glimpse of the city.

Following the advice of numerous travel blogs, we chose to stay in the historical Sultanahmet district, and used it as our base to venture out in the city.

Exploring Istanbul in four days was a marathon. Despite being jetlagged, we immediately strapped on our backpacks and left for Sultanahmet Square to visit the splendid Blue Mosque (locally known as Sultanahmet Mosque).

It was built in 1616 by Ottoman Sultanahmet I on the foundations of the Great Palace of Constantinople. Situated in the heart of the old town, the rising minarets glorify Istanbul's majestic skyline.

The Blue Mosque in the evening.
The Blue Mosque in the evening.

Set across from the Blue Mosque and rivaling its grandeur is Hagia Sofia (locally known as Aya Sofia) — the largest church built by the East Roman Empire in 537. Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it was converted into a mosque and then declared a museum in 1934.

The Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia.

Inside Hagia Sophia.
Inside Hagia Sophia.

The main hall of Hagia Sophia.
The main hall of Hagia Sophia.

The minibar in Hagia Sophia when it was a functional mosque.
The minibar in Hagia Sophia when it was a functional mosque.

From the high dome ceiling which had paintings depicting Christ to Islamic ornaments, the main hall in Aya Sofia took us across centuries, absorbing us into tales of the rise and fall of the greatest empires on earth. The interior of the museum has an intriguing golden glow.

The Basilica Cistern.
The Basilica Cistern.

In the immediate vicinity is Basilica Cistern built by Emperor Justinian I in 6th century AD, which is is the largest cistern in Istanbul; and was built to supply water to the Great Palace. Although the entrance is modest, it was not until we went underground that we witnessed the marvel of the Byzantine construction.

Legend has it that 7,000 slaves were enlisted for its construction. One of the columns has ancient text with tears sketched on it, as if paying tribute to the hundreds of slaves who had died during the construction.

A dervish whirling on Sufi tunes.
A dervish whirling on Sufi tunes.

After sunset, we went to a restaurant next to the Blue Mosque in the quest for some authentic Turkish kebabs. Amidst hot kebabs and smoky hookahs, we watched a dervish whirling on Sufi rhythms. The whirling, as they say, helps a dervish achieve perfection in his connection to the spiritual world.

Next morning, we visited CaferAga Medresesi, a cozy artisan refuge, outside Hagia Sofia. From there, a narrow back alley took us to the gates of Topkapi Palace.

The entrance of CaferAga Medresesi.
The entrance of CaferAga Medresesi.

Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace.

The palace was built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1478 after the conquest of Constantinople. Strategically overlooking Golden Horn to the north, the Bosphorus River to the east and the Sea of Marmara to the south, the palace served as the centre of government for the Ottoman Empire for four centuries.

A view of the Bosphorus as seen from the Harem.
A view of the Bosphorus as seen from the Harem.

The courtyard near Harem (quarters of Sultans' wives) offers eye-catching views of the Bosphorus.

The palace was converted into a museum in 1924. The exhibition halls contain a diverse collection of Ottoman imperial artifacts, royal costumes and Islam's Holy relics. It is prohibited to take photographs in the exhibition halls.

The Sultan's quarters inside the Topkapi Palace.
The Sultan's quarters inside the Topkapi Palace.

Roof decor inside the rooms.
Roof decor inside the rooms.

The sitting room of Ottoman royals in Topkapi Palace.
The sitting room of Ottoman royals in Topkapi Palace.

After spending half a day exploring Topkapi Palace, we set out for Galata Tower, a 63-metre-high medieval stone structure from the 14th century, situated about four kilometres from the palace across the Golden Horn.

The best way to get to the tower is through Istanbul's efficient tram system. Defying logic, we instead followed our hearts and walked there.

Hiking downhill through the winding streets of the old district, we reached Galata Bridge that connects the northern and southern parts of European side. The ancient architecture staring at the modern town across the turquoise Bosphorus gives you a taste of the timeless existence of this bustling city.

Galata Tower rising above the city as seen from the Golden Horn.
Galata Tower rising above the city as seen from the Golden Horn.

Galata Bridge has an addictive vibe: fishermen with their rods, people going about their business, ferries cruising between the shores of Asia and Europe and stunning Ottoman architecture complimenting Roman structures.

Steep alleys through Galala district on the way to the tower.
Steep alleys through Galala district on the way to the tower.

The steep climb up the bridge to reach Galata Tower thoroughly tested our legs. The relatively modern Galata district is peppered with Turkish Hamams and streetside cafes.

Cutting through small neighbourhood streets, we were greeted by dozens of tourists waiting in line at the tower entrance.

The narrow balcony at the top is not for the faint-hearted but offers stunning panoramic views of the city. Watching the sunset from a 63-metre high balcony over Istanbul's surreal skyline was a sight to behold.

A panoramic view of the Old Town at sunset.
A panoramic view of the Old Town at sunset.

After devouring delicious beef-burgers at the tower top café, we hopped on the tram back to Sultanahmet, marking the end of our day.

Traditional Turkish lamps.
Traditional Turkish lamps.

A souvenir shop in the Grand Bazaar.
A souvenir shop in the Grand Bazaar.

On our third day, we went to the Grand Bazaar (locally called Kapali Carsi), which is a perfect place to spend some extra bucks on souvenirs and gifts.

Throughout the day. we wandered around its 3,000 shops, sprawling over 61 streets. The bazaar has an endless variety of spices, Turkish oils (perfumes), traditional clothing and souvenirs among other items.

Contrary to the claims made by sellers, there are no fixed prices. You need to be a good negotiator to secure the best deal!

Left with just one day, we decided to take a Bosphorus Cruise — a quick and easy way to see most of Istanbul’s historic sites across both continents.

At the scheduled time, we reported at the dock behind Topkapi Palace to board a double-decker cruise ship, which took us from the shores of the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn on the European side; then to Bosphorus after cruising through the northern European shore. Finally it turned towards East through the Asian shores and then back to the dock.

The Suleymaniye mosque as seen from Galata Bridge.
The Suleymaniye mosque as seen from Galata Bridge.

At the entrance of the Golden Horn, the mesmerising Suleymaniye Mosque stands tall. Arguably the most stunning of the mosques in the entire city, it was commissioned in 1557 at the peak of the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Suleyman, The Magnificent. The mosque is a phenomenal work of art designed by architectural genius, Mimar Sinan.

Dolmabahce Palace.
Dolmabahce Palace.

Towards the north, on the shores of European side of Istanbul, is the regal Dolmabahçe Palace. It was built in 1856 and served as the new home of Ottoman Sultans till the end of their empire in 1922.

Ortakoy mosque.
Ortakoy mosque.

Continuing north, we passed through the Istanbul downtown, commonly known as Istanbul Modern. The cruise turned towards the Asian side after passing through the Ortakoy Mosque — that was built in 1856 by Sultan Abdulmecid.

The Asian side of Istanbul is equally rich in history and architecture. We passed through Beylerbeyi Palace which is a delightful imperial residence. The palace served as a summer residence and a guest house for foreign dignitaries during the Ottomans’ reign.

A village on the Asian city of the city.
A village on the Asian city of the city.

Beylerbeyi Palace taken from the Bosphorus.
Beylerbeyi Palace taken from the Bosphorus.

Perhaps the most anticipated structure for everyone on the cruise was the Maiden’s Tower — a small tower built on an island in the middle of Bosphorus.

According to a legend, the tower was built by an emperor to protect his daughter. He was told that the princess would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday. Upon hearing this, the emperor built a tower in the middle of the sea and had the princess live there away from the land. On her 18th birthday, in his joy of preventing the prophecy, the emperor sent her a fruit basket as a gift. She was bitten by a snake hidden in the basket and died on her 18th birthday, as prophesised. Hence the name of the tower.

Maiden's Tower.
Maiden's Tower.

Our journey ended with some soothing tunes played by a guitarist. We stood by him, at the shore, bewitched by a colourful sunset.

It was then that I understood these words by legendary Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk:

"Life can't be all that bad, whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus."

—All photos by author


Awais Bin Saeed is an electrical engineer by profession.

He loves hiking and photography.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.