Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Fatih Mosque

The Fatih Mosque was built soon after the capture of Constantinople and named after the conquering sultan, Mehmed II (faith meaning ‘conqueror’ in Turkish). Building was completed in 1470, 17 years after the fall of the Byzantine capital.

It was built on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople’s second largest and second most significant church after Hagia Sophia. A church had been built on the site by Constantine the Great and a second – and naturally, larger – version built on the same site by Justinian.

Fatih Mosque

Fatih Mosque

Mehmed allowed the Greek Orthodox Church to retain the church as its administrative centre, but the agreement was unlikely to last and the church, now in an advanced state of disrepair, was demolished in 1461-2 to make way for the new mosque.

The architect was Atik Sinan, who is not to be confused with Mimar Sinan, a later and even greater architect who was responsible for many of Istanbul’s mosques, including the Süleymaniye.

The present building differs somewhat from the original. Like many buildings in Istanbul, the Fatih Mosque suffered damage from a number of earthquakes and the current building owes its style to a 1771 rebuilding.

Like so many of Istanbul’s mosques, the design of the Fatih Mosque is redolent of Hagia Sophia, with a large central dome with outlying smaller domes. The building also displays that decidedly Istanbul Ottoman-Baroque style.

Courtyard

Courtyard

While the exterior may be different to the original, the interior closely resembles the initial décor designed by Atik Sinan.

All of Istanbul’s imperial mosques were built as complexes, designed not simply as places of worship. The Fatih is no exception and the Hospice has a particularly fine courtyard with an array of columns that are believed to have been part of the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The site also contains the tomb (türbe in Turkish) of Sultan Mehmet II. This is a particularly baroque affair with intricately ornate decoration. It is, perhaps fittingly, the most lavish tomb of all the Ottoman sultans.

The Buildings of the Emperor Justinian

During any trip around the south-eastern corner of Europe, there is a reasonable chance that you will encounter something that was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Among Roman emperors – and Byzantium essentially was Rome moved to the east – perhaps only Hadrian matched the zeal of Justinian for building things.

Hagia Sophia is, of course, the most famous of all Justinian’s projects, but travel around the Balkans in particular and somewhere there will be a church, a castle, an aqueduct, a bridge or a fragment of something that owes its existence to the Emperor.

The great basilica in Constantinople was, in fact, the third such built on the site. The first two were burned down and within weeks of the second catastrophe, Justinian had ordered a replacement, but on a scale never seen before. Almost unbelievably, the construction of the enormous church had been completed within six years (just think how long it took to build Wembley Stadium nearly 1500 years later). True, there was still artwork and mosaics to be added internally, but the achievement was truly phenomenal.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The model for the great building was the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, better known as Little Hagia Sophia and completed in the year before the super-sized version. Eventually, the smaller church was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, but lives on in the form of Küçük Ayasofya.

Little Hagia Sophia

Little Hagia Sophia

Some of the constructions are no longer with us. Another reconstructed church in Constantinople, the Church of the Holy Apostles is now the site of the magnificent Fatih Mosque. The triumphal Column of Justinian was demolished by the Ottomans in the 16th century. Justinian also rebuilt the Great Palace, little of which building survives, although happily many of its beautiful mosaics are preserved at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul.

Justinian wasn’t just about vanity projects, though. Something that lives on in modern Istanbul is the extraordinary Basilica Cistern, built during his reign to provide water to the Great Palace and other nearby buildings. Even today, the Topkapi Palace is served by the cistern. The cistern is almost a cathedral in itself, containing huge Greek and Roman style columns, two of which portray carved Medusa heads. Justinian also restored the Cistern of Philoxenos (or Binbirdirek in Turkish), which features 224 marble columns.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

Another basilica built under Justinian’s auspices is the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Among this church’s glorious collection of mosaics is the famous depiction of Justinian that seems to appear on just about any book devoted to the Byzantine Empire. Another mosaic features Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora.

Justinian mosaic at San Vitale

Justinian mosaic at San Vitale

Remnants of Justinian’s era are dotted around the Balkans. Tirana is a curious place, with its mixture of Chinese and Soviet style architecture interspersed with the odd Ottoman building, but near the centre of the city, you catch a tantalising glimpse of Kalaja Fortress, yet another of the Emperor’s projects. There is little left to see, but a few walls remain and possibly some archaeological remains, though it is impossible to be sure as the area is not open to the public.

Justinian was born near the present Macedonian capital Skopje, so it’s no great surprise to know that the imposing Kale Fortress that overlooks the city was built during the reign of that emperor. Like so many fortresses, castles and citadels, this particular edifice has been rebuilt and reconstructed many times, so the current building is rather different to the original, but its existence is once again due to Justinian.

Kale Fortress

Kale Fortress

With a touch of irony, while ancient statues and monuments to Justinian have gone, modern-day Skopje remembers the great emperor among the myriad statues that have sprung up in Macedonia Square in the past few years. In an even more ironical twist, the Justinian monument is of identical style to the nearby one of Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria, who spent much of his life engaged in almost constant warfare against a later Byzantine leader, Emperor Basil II.

It's that man again

It’s that man again

This leads us tidily to Sofia, where the St Sofia Church is the city’s second oldest. The church was built, at Justinian’s behest, at a similar time to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and ultimately – though not until the 14th century – was to give its name to the present Bulgarian capital.

St Sofia

St Sofia

Any Byzantine Emperor with aspirations of greatness (and Justinian was not a man riddled by self-doubt) desired to leave their mark in the Holy Land and Justinian’s contribution was the Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos, perched on top of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. As a statement, this was pretty unequivocal, although a church so precariously situated was unlikely to have a huge life span and it duly crumbled under an earthquake some 200 years after its construction.

Across in Syria, however, there are remains of yet another Justinian construction. Qasr ibn Wardan was a defensive complex built in the Syrian desert and substantial parts of the palace and church are still beautifully preserved. The style of the building stands out almost incongruously against the desert, a building completely out of keeping with its surroundings.

Qasr ibn Wardan

Qasr ibn Wardan

Continuing into Egypt, one of the most famous buildings in the Middle East, St Catherine’s Monastery, is a further example. The basilica attached to the monastery bears an inscription dedicated to the memory of the Empress Theodora, who died shortly before the construction of the complex.

St Catherine's

St Catherine’s

Back in Istanbul, you may be told by guides (human or written) that the Galata Tower was one of Justinian’s buildings. This is quite simply wrong. The tower was built by the Genoese is 1348. There had been an old Byzantine tower at a different site, but the present Galata Tower has nothing to do with it or Justinian.

All emperors liked to leave their mark, whether their intentions were megalomaniac, dynastic or altruistic (or a combination thereof) and some did so more spectacularly than others. Justinian certainly did and his legacy can be seen all over the south east of Europe and sometimes beyond.

Istanbul – Three Cities in One

Superficially, Istanbul is a tale of three cities; the original ancient Greek version, the great Imperial capital built by the Emperor Constantine and the modern capital city. Byzantion, Constantinople and Istanbul. That is to tell too simple a tale. Few places anywhere in the world have undergone the upheaval and changes of this extraordinary city.

Really, the best way to approach Istanbul is from the sea. That way, you can imagine the awe it must have inspired in medieval travellers as the great walls and buildings hoved into view. How those travellers must have stared in sheer wonder at the vast magnificence of Hagia Sophia as their ship sailed up the Bosphorus.

Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

Historians will tell you, quite reasonably, that to understand the present, you must understand the past. Nowhere is this more pertinent than Istanbul. On this basis, a trip to the Archaeological Museum at an early stage of a visit is not a bad plan. There is a vast collection of Hittite, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Byzantine, Ottoman and just about any other kind of artefacts you could imagine, or possibly not imagine. The prize piece is the huge Alexander Sarcophagus, with its ornate carvings depicting Alexander about to hurl a spear at Persian cavalry on one side and hunting lions on the other.

The museum gives a glimpse of the city’s complex history and there are plenty of other places that attest to the varied nature of Istanbul’s past. The railway station combines the European and Oriental in its architecture and is worth seeing for that alone. The station started life as the terminus of the Orient Express and naturally, there is still a reminder of the legendary train in the name of the station’s restaurant. There is also a small museum at the station with diverse bits of Orient Express and other railway memorabilia.

One of the many must-see attractions is the Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman Sultans and their evidently large entourages and staff. The palace was developed and added to over several centuries, with the result being a large number of buildings of varying styles. Of all the diverse collections, one of the most extraordinary is housed in the Imperial Treasury. This is jewellery at an in-your-face level, with plenty of gold to go with it. This is the sort of place that one can imagine being checked out by a suave international jewel thief (probably played by David Niven), devising some cunning plan (no doubt involving ropes and wires) to empty the collection.

Pavilion at Topkapi

Pavilion at Topkapi

The Obelisk of Theodosius is something that it’s impossible to miss, in any sense. The title is something of a misnomer, as it was originally made for the Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis III and was part of the great temple of Karnak before the Roman emperor Constantius II had it moved to Alexandria in 357 CE. A later emperor, Theodosius I, moved it to the hippodrome in Constantinople in 390 CE. Only a section of the original survives, but at over 20 metres, it is still a stand-out object, not least because it looks so out of place. It has, though, been out of place for the best part of two millennia.

Theodosius Obelisk

Theodosius Obelisk

Across the Golden Horn lies the district of Galata, a Genoese colony in medieval times. It was the Genoese who built Galata Tower, visible from much of the city. The tower is essentially a tourist attraction these days, offering a splendid view across Istanbul, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. There is a café at the top, naturally rather expensive, but a nice place to enjoy the view for a while.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

Galata is part of the Beyoğlu area, still on the European side, but separated from the Constantinople part by the Golden Horn. It’s a very cosmopolitan district with a much more western feel to it. The main street, İstiklal, is permanently packed with shoppers, visitors, theatre-goers and seemingly just about everybody in Istanbul at times. There are stylish buildings covering a multitude of styles and old-fashioned little red trams clank up and down.

Beyoğlu and tram

Beyoğlu and tram

Beyoğlu is the home of Galatasaray, one of three hugely-supported football clubs in Istanbul. Another, Beşiktaş, is located just to the north. Across the Bosphorus, Fenerbahçe complete the triumvirate. Rivalries are, to put it mildly, intense, and those of a nervous disposition or easily scared by loud noise should avoid Turkish football in general and Istanbul derbies in particular.

Virtually across the road from the Beşiktaş Stadium is the Dolmabahçe Palace, which succeeded the Topkapi Palace as the main administrative centre of Ottoman rule in the 1850s. It’s an interesting mix of Baroque, Neo-Classical and Rococo, all incorporated into an Ottoman style. You can’t saunter around as you can at the Topkapi; you must take a guided tour. Be prepared for a dazzling overload of gold and crystal. At the front of the palace is a particularly impressive clock tower in a style that Istanbul seems to specialise in, a kind of Baroque meets Ottoman.

Dolmabahçe clock

Dolmabahçe clock

Istanbul always has the capacity to surprise and for a first-time visitor, the shock can come from the air. A loud screech and a tell-tale flash of bright green mean one thing: ring-necked parakeets. These noisy and colourful birds are a common sight in Istanbul. Originally common to tropical parts of Africa and Asia, the adaptable parrots have colonised a number of European cities including London, Barcelona and Brussels. Gülhane Park, where many of the parakeets hang out, is also the location for a vast treetop heronry.

Eating and drinking can be expensive, though it doesn’t have to be. As usual, keeping away from the obvious tourist areas keeps the price down. There are some good little restaurants tucked away under the bridges that span the Golden Horn. Even in the more central areas, you can still get a decent deal. For ten quid, you can get a soup, main course and a couple of beers, which is pretty respectable. Even so the American couple who asked us for advice were probably being a bit optimistic. Where, they asked, could they get something to eat and drink for ten lira? Well, you could try Albania.

It’s best not to expect too much from Turkish beer. Efes is ubiquitous and at least the draught version is a deal more palatable than the bottled or (shudder) canned. Efes Dark is an interesting concoction, though it is probably best approached as a drink to have at the end of an evening. A rather vigorous 6.1% ABV, it’s a dark brown beer with a slightly nutty taste and not too much sweetness, slightly reminiscent of a strong brown ale.

Istanbul is the sort of place you could spend a long time in without seeing everything, but even if you’re only there for two or three nights, you can cram a lot in. Quite a lot of the ‘must see’ places are within a quick walk of each other; for example, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Theodosius Column and Topkapi Palace are all pretty much adjacent. There’s a good array of public transport, too, from little trams to big ferry boats, to get you around.

There are myriad reasons to go to Istanbul. You don’t have to be an aficionado of Byzantine history, though a little understanding is never a bad thing.