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.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Rumeli Hisari

By 1451, Constantinople was surrounded by Ottoman forces. The city, however, obdurately refused to fall and Sultan Mehmed II was getting impatient. The result was Rumeli Hisari, a fortress built on the European side of the Bosphorus, at its narrowest point.

The Ottomans could now control the sea and particularly traffic arriving from the Black Sea, from where aid and supplies could be delivered to the besieged city. The fortress was completed in 1452 (within four months) and the end came in the following year.

Rumeli Hisari

Rumeli Hisari

In truth, Constantinople was all but finished after the sack by the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204. Although it was to struggle on for almost another 250 years, it was economically impoverished and close to being politically irrelevant. A city that had boasted a population of around half a million people had about 50,000 inhabitants by the time of the fall. With grim irony, it was the destructive greed of a Christian army that effectively made Constantinople an easy target for the Muslim Ottomans.

Rumeli Hisari may not be an architectural masterpiece in the manner of Istanbul’s great churches and mosques – after all, it was built in quick time for very pragmatic reasons – but it is still impressive and for anyone with an interest in history, it is one of the most significant buildings in Europe. This was where the life was strangled out of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire, which by then effectively meant the city of Constantinople.

View across the Bosphorus

View across the Bosphorus

The fortress offers modern day visitors wonderful views over the Bosphorus, which of course was one of the primary reasons for its existence, though its defenders were not there to admire the scenery. It was subsequently used as a customs house and prison. These days, the place functions as a museum and outdoor concert hall.

The site is open daily with the exception of Wednesdays. For anyone with a sense of history, it is a genuinely evocative place.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Süleymaniye Mosque

The vast Süleymaniye Mosque was built in the 1550s and like the later Sultan Ahmed Mosque, lifts its hat in acknowledgement to Hagia Sophia. The three buildings have a similar appearance, all being dominated by a large dome. It was, as its name suggests, ordered by Sultan Süleyman (‘the Magnificent’) and completed some eight years before his death.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye is, perhaps, the most impressive of Istanbul’s mosques. The courtyard is particularly splendid, with its elegant colonnaded arches. Inside, the space feels huge, the area (almost) a square with light flooding in. The interior does not have the abundance of ceramic tiles of the Sultan Ahmed, with rather more subtle decorations being the order of the day.

Courtyard

Courtyard

The lovely gardens house two mausoleums, one containing the tomb of Sultan Süleyman. Also here is the tomb of Mimar Sinan, the architect charged with designing the mosque. Fittingly, Sinan designed his own tomb, a triangular affair that is modest in appearance, suggesting that his deserved reputation as the greatest of Ottoman architects did not go to his head.

Sinan tomb

Sinan tomb

The architect of the Blue Mosque, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, was a pupil of Sinan and the influence is clearly visible. It’s a pretty safe bet that any sizeable mosque with a domed roof that you encounter in Istanbul was either designed by Sinan or one of his protégés.

As with most large mosques, the Süleymaniye is a complex of buildings and includes a hamam (bath-house). It is open to the public for use, though there is something faintly disturbing in that free life insurance is offered during a bath.

Something to recommend the Süleymaniye is that you don’t get the hordes of tourists that frequent Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. A visit feels much more leisurely here, and there is a row of pleasant little cafés and restaurants next to the mosque, where you can sit with a cup of coffee and admire the architecture and watch the activity.

Interior

Interior

If you find that your visit coincides with a time for prayer, the mosque is next door to the University’s Botanic Gardens, which is a pleasant place to stroll around for a while until the worshippers have gone.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Built in the early 17th century, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. The reason is not apparent from outside, but on entering the building, the blue ceramic tiles of the interior give the game away.

The mosque sits alongside Hagia Sophia and one can immediately see the similarities, particularly in the style of the domed roof. Like the great basilica, the structure is about awe-inspiring size. With its vast dome, a further eight smaller domes and six minarets, it’s not a building to be overlooked. The six minarets also make a statement – no mosque had ever had so many.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Local legend says that the sultan had asked for a minaret in altin (gold), but the architect misheard and thought he’d asked for alti (six) minarets. No harm was done, as the sultan was delighted that the mosque now had more minarets than any previous structure.

If the exterior is impressive, the inside is stunning. With more than 20,000 handmade tiles, the Nicaean ceramic industry was kept in business for a few years. The theme is mainly flowers and only a trained botanist would realise that there were so many different varieties of tulip.

Like Hagia Sophia, the building is afforded plenty of natural light by a plethora of windows, in this case 260 of them. Disappointingly, the original coloured windows have largely been replaced by something more prosaic. At least they do the job of allowing light into the mosque and there are also low-level chandeliers, though these look a little tacky.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque looks pretty stunning at any time, but it makes for an especially impressive view at night, when it is lit up. The domes and minarets, floodlit against the night sky, make for an unforgettable sight.

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.