Istanbul: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque & Basilica Cistern
Say “Istanbul” to a group of travelers, and they’ll often reminisce about vastly different experiences. One person might marvel at a city residing on two continents: Europe to the west and Asia to the east. One might wax poetic about the architecture, or geek out over its history. One might extol the local food. Another might not respond at all, transported back in a reverie. With so much to offer, Istanbul can certainly make you think of all these things.
Let’s explore the architecture and history aspect by visiting some time-tested landmarks in Sultanahmet, part of the old city, demarcated to the south of Istanbul’s European side by the Golden Horn. (We can party in modern Beyoğlu, north of the Horn, later tonight if you’re game.) Today’s highlights are the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern.
Are you excited? I am! First up, one of the more prominent structures in the city skyline: Sultan Ahmet Camii, the Blue Mosque.
Although the mosque is officially named after the Sultan who commissioned its construction, it’s popularly known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tile found in its spectacular interiors. *Note that even if you’re a non-Muslim female, you’ll still have to wear a headcover to enter. Don’t worry, a complimentary one will be provided for you as you walk through the entrance queue. Depending on what you’re wearing, you may be given a full head-to-toe garment for more modest coverage.
It’s so easy to look up and around in awe at the beautiful craftsmanship, but not so easy to capture in photographs the emotions evoked by such grandeur. Speaking of mosque and grandeur, let’s mosey on over to the Hagia Sophia on the other side of the square.
Whereas we had to take our shoes off to enter the Blue Mosque (it’s still an actual place of worship), we can keep them on in Hagia Sophia; after 900 years as a church and 500 years as a mosque, it’s now a secular museum. Although they do calls to prayer from here (you’ll hear alternate calls with the Blue Mosque), prayer is not actually allowed inside.
Hagia Sophia, known in Turkey as Ayasofya, is another of Istanbul’s most recognizable locales. Fact: the beloved edifice is actually in its third iteration. The original church was built in 360 AD and, because it was all timber, burnt down in 440 with a political uprising. It was considered one of the world’s finest monuments at the time, but unfortunately, no part of that first structure survived the fire.
The building’s second construction was half wood and half stone, and you can find some of its stone remnants in the courtyard. The present-day Ayasofya, its third and final construction, is now a museum. Fact: Christians destroyed Greek temples, and recycled temple materials, such as pillars and marble slabs, to speed construction of buildings such as this.
We’re under what was once the world’s largest dome, until St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City was built. (Larger domes have since been erected.) Interestingly enough, this is actually the fourth dome (the first three collapsed in earthquakes), and this present-day dome is “held up” by seraphim angels. If you look closely, you’ll notice that not all the angels have faces. With the varying religions this building was used for, its decorative art was modified to more accurately represent a religion’s beliefs. Christians painted faces on the angels, but Muslims painted over them; only recently have archaeologists unplastered the hidden faces.
With so much history encompassing religious and political change, it was only natural that such places of worship were also places of learning. To one side of the dome is a library; and if you were royal, you got VIP access to the elevated library on the opposite side of the dome, closer to the front of the church.
The ornate and elaborate decor wasn’t reserved for royalty only; it was also for the common public! Just look up in the main entrance hall: See the yellow layers on the ceiling? That’s real gold…seven (7!) tons of it was used in this church, along with rubies, emeralds, turquoise, and lapis (and, I’m sure, many other precious stones I can’t name). Oh, did I mention the marble? This marble vessel is over 2,000 years old. If you can’t gauge its size from the photograph, I’ll tell you that it can hold 1,000 liters of water – which is precisely what it was used for. After sunset, Muslims observing Ramadan could quench their thirst with sweet water from this vase.
Did you know that Hagia Sophia is seen in two James Bond films? From Russia With Love and The World is Not Enough feature two different actors, but the same iconic Ayasofya. If you’re ready for more, let’s cross the street toward the Basilica Cistern, also seen in From Russia With Love.
Remember how Christians used recycled materials from the Greek temples they destroyed to construct Hagia Sophia? They did the same in constructing the cistern, although it’s less evident in the underground darkness. If you’re observant around the Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Turkish for Basilica Cistern), you might notice the different-colored pillars – again, because they were recycled from various Greek temples. Among the more evident examples of recycled materials here are the large Medusa heads. A head supposedly has no power upside down, but the ancient Romans also used it as the base of a pillar to symbolize Christianity over paganism. If you haven’t turned to stone looking into Medusa’s eyes, let’s look for the wishing column and throw some coins in the water. I wish….
Well, that’s it for today! What did you think? Everyone I’ve spoken to who hasn’t yet been to Istanbul would like to go, and everyone I’ve spoken to who’s already been talks about what a great city it is. I can’t argue. Although this site of the former Constantinople is now a cosmopolitan city, it still holds many great remnants of the past – much of Turkey does. Here, the ancient and the modern blend seamlessly into a metropolis that you just have to explore.
♦ Entrance into the Blue Mosque is free, but there are minimal fees for both the Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia. I suggest going with a guide for historical context (make sure your guide is government-licensed!). Guides point out interesting tidbits you might otherwise miss and, bonus, they get you straight to the front of the line.