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Istanbul Ancient Attractions Part 1

To live in Istanbul is to be part of living history including at least 5000 years of human habitation back to around 3000BC. One of the reasons I love Istanbul so much is that a good deal of that history still remains. Istanbul is a very fought-over piece of real estate, due to its position at a major crossroads of the world. Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait with European Istanbul to the west and Asian Istanbul to the east. The location also allowed Istanbul to control shipping traffic across the Bosphorus which is the only water link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. Centuries of conquest and reconquest gave our Istanbul many names: one possible ancient name was Lygos, then Byzantium (under Greek control), Constantinople under the Christian Romans starting around 400AD, then finally Istanbul after the Ottoman Turks (Muslim) conquered the city in 1453.

One ancient building in Istanbul epitomizes the centuries of history and succession of rulers: Aya Sofya. Completed in 537 AD, it was known by the Greek name Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), and was the most important church in the Christian Eastern Orthodox world. Its massive wide dome and other elements changed architectural history, and it remained the largest cathedral for almost 1000 years. In a wonderful example of open-mindedness, the Ottoman conquerors of 1453 did not destroy the icon of the Christian world but converted it to a mosque, adding minarets and painting over the mosaic images of Jesus and Mary. Finally in 1935 Aya Sofya was turned into a museum by the new secular republic of Turkey, and the Christian mosaics were slowly uncovered. It’s a joy to see Christian and Muslim icons together today in the same magnificent building.

Click on the photo to open the gallery of all Aya Sofya pics, then scroll down for more Istanbul attractions including the Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace!

The remaining parts of this mosaic are truly gorgeous in their detail, showing Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist

The Basilica Cistern was one of many wonderful surprises during our month in Istanbul. The glowing lights on the pillars and water along with the feeling of history stay in the mind for weeks after visiting. The cistern is the largest of hundreds of ancient underground cisterns found in Istanbul’s old city. It was built in the 6th century by thousands of slaves, and provided filtered drinking water to nearby Topkapi Palace and other buildings, and continued to be used into modern times. The cistern was re-discovered by a French archaeologist in the 1500s who heard that some local residents obtained water by lowering buckets through their floorboards!

Click the photo below to enjoy the gallery of cistern photos, then return and scroll down to see photos from Topkapi Palace.

Excellent engineering from the 1500s is able to withstand the weight of roads and cars above the cistern in the 21st century!

Topkapi Palace is another major attraction giving a window into the life of ancient Istanbul. It was the royal residence of the Ottoman Sultans from the mid 1400s to 1800s. The palace is now a museum and contains wonderful examples of Ottoman architecture, along with a gorgeous display of calligraphy. One of the most popular sections is the very large harem complex from the 1600s, with its detailed descriptions of the social structure and rules of harem life. Young girls from around Turkey were brought to Topkapi Palace and trained up in the ways of court life as concubines for the Sultan. They lived in small rooms on the lower floors of the harem. Concubines who pleased the Sultan were able to rise to the ranks of Kalfas and Ustas. A concubine who was allowed to share the bed of the Sultan became a Gozde (favorite), Kadinfendi (consort), of whom one would become Valide Sultan (queen mother who wielded great power.) There were usually 4-8 Kadinfendi who had borne children to the Sultan, and who were next in power to the Valide Sultan. The Bas Haseki was the favorite of all Kadinfendi and was the mother of the crown prince. Above all though was the Valide Sultan (queen mother) who ruled over the harem and regulated relations between the Sultan and his wives and children.

Enjoy the Topkapi photo gallery by clicking on the photo below!

Room of a Sultan in the harem complex at Topkapi Palace - a band of beautiful calligraphy wraps the room


6 Comments… add one

Keli Rowley 16 July, 2014, 12:42 pm

I love how you can click on the photos to see the photo galleries. Very cool! The Basilica Cistern was one of my favorite places in Istanbul. Such a unique find. Great historic details throughout, too!

Dave 16 July, 2014, 4:47 pm

Thanks for the nice comment! It’s important to have a bit of historical grounding when learning about a place such as Istanbul – so much history is right there at your fingertips day to day. A bit hard for us to understand as Americans the feeling of living in a place with a 5,000 year history!

Vik 16 July, 2014, 2:37 pm

Nice !

Pictures make the places look so good, and usually pictures dont’ even convey the full glory of such places.

Hope you are having fun,


Dave 16 July, 2014, 4:45 pm

Hello Vikram! Glad you enjoyed the pics. I’m glad they turned out nice, and it’s so fun to look at the photos and remember the vibe of being in those places. Lots more blog postings to come!

Dave Lake 18 July, 2014, 10:48 am

Very nice post. Very informative!

Dave 18 July, 2014, 12:59 pm

Thanks Dave! Have you ever been to Istanbul in your travels? I know you’ve been all over. We really loved Istanbul, one of our favorite cities in the world! Filled with surprises and bustling.

We’d love to hear your comments!