Saturday, February 16, 2008

The historic icons of Istanbul.

stanbul (Turkish: İstanbul) is Turkey's most populous city and its cultural and financial center. Located on both sides of the Bosphorus, the narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe both literally and figuratively. More importantly for Lei and I, it's the first stop on our trip through Turkey and Croatia.

Founded by Constantine the Great in 324 CE on the site of ancient Byzantium (going back to 650 BC), Istanbul was the capital, successively, of the Roman Empire (324-476), the Byzantine Empire (476-1453) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922).

Aya Sophia. There are many historical landmarks that I want to visit in Istanbul and I'm hoping that we'll be able to find the time to the highlights. On the top of my "must see" list of places is the Aya Sophia. Its name – rendered variously as Aya Sophia, Hagia Sophia, Haghia Sophia or, in Turkish, Ayasofya – comes from the Greek (the language of the Byzantines), Άγία Σοφία, meaning "Holy Wisdom", a shortened version of the full name "Church of the Holy Wisdom of God". (The name is sometimes seen in English as "St. Sophia", but the church was not named after any saint; the Greek word "sophia" (σοφία) means "wisdom".)

Dating from the sixth century, the Aya Sophia was originally a Catholic basilica constructed for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. A masterwork of Byzantine engineering, the huge 30m diameter dome covers what was for over 1000 years the largest enclosed space in the world. The basilica was looted in 1204 during the fourth Crusade, and became a mosque in the 15th century. Today, the vast interior of the Aya Sophia includes both Christian and Islamic symbols. Over the years, the minarets were added - in total 4 mismatched minarets were added over the years. The Aya Sophia was turned into a museum in 1930's and remains that today.

Sultanahmet Mosque. In the 17th century, Sultan Ahmet I wished to built the mosque as place of Islamic worship to rival the Aya Sophia. The Sultanhamet Mosque stands next to the Aya Sophia so I'm absolutely certain we'll be visiting it.

Construction on the mosque began in 1609 and took seven years. Sultan Ahmet I died only a year after the completion of his masterpiece, at the age of 27.

One of the most notable features of the Blue Mosque are its six slender minarets. This is very unique, as most mosques have four, two or just one minaret.

One of the iconic landmarks of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet Mosque is often called the Blue Mosque for the 20,000+ blue hued Iznik tiles that line its interior walls. From the pictures that I've seen of the interior of the Sultanahamet Mosque, I think that Lei and I will be seeing artistic beauty that no words can do justice to.

Unlike the Aya Sophia, the Sultanahmet Mosque is still a working mosque so we'll have to make sure to dress appropriately (no shorts, bare shoulders and we must keep our heads covered) on the day that we tour it.

Topkapi Palace. The Topkapi Palace was the imperial enclave of the Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1853.

Initial construction started in 1459, ordered by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople. The palace is a vast complex with an assortment of various buildings constructed around four main courtyards, interconnected with galleries and passages, rather than a single monolithic structure. Interspersed are trees, gardens and water fountains. The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only a few are accessible to the public today.

Today, the Palace Museum houses large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals, as well as a display of Ottoman treasure and jewelry. From the pictures I've seen, the palace complex is absolutely enormous - I think we're going to have to carefully pick and choose what we see. I would love to see the jewelry and Ottoman swords.

Basilica Cistern. The Basilica Cistern ("Yerebatan Sarayi" in Turkish), was constructed by Constantine the Great and then enlarged by Justinian I in the 6th century. The cistern was largely neglected after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Yerebatan Cistern was basically a muddy subterranean ruin until it was cleaned up and opened up to the public in 1987.

The Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred cisterns that line beneath Istanbul. It supplied water for the royal palace - holding water that travelled, via aqueducts, from the Belgrade Woods which lie 19km north of the city.

Imagine this, an underground pool that is 143 by 65 metres in dimension, capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water; the large space broken up by a forest of 336 marble columns each 9 metres high. The columns are arranged in 12 rows each consisting of 28 columns. WOW!

One of the columns has an upside down Medusa head holding it up and the other a sideways Medusa head - historians are still speculating as to why both heads are not in the upright position.

....and if it's not already odd to see an underground cistern, designed to look like the interior of a basilica, there are fish swimming about!

The Aya Sophia, Sultanahmet Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern are just four of the historic landmarks in a city that has been shaped by hundreds of years of civilization. I can't wait to get there and experience the sights and sounds of touring these magnificent national treasures!!