In today's modern and trendy era, it would be easy to assume that all traces of former Constantinople have disappeared yet the opposite is true. Sultanahmet, the historical area of Istanbul that was once the throne for both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, sits perfectly preserved in all its glory so current and future generations can see magnificent buildings from which important decisions that shaped the future of the world were decided.
The political, religious and infrastructure buildings of the Sultanahmet district are all situated within close distance of each other, and although it is pleasant to see them all at a slow pace, anyone on a flying visit to Istanbul can see them in one day. Now listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, a cluster of landmarks take tourists on a whirlwind tour through the historical timeline of Constantinople.
Major Sites of the Sultanahmet District of Istanbul
Undoubtedly the first place to see should be the Topkapi Palace. As former home to the Ottoman sultans, the palace itself was like a mini city housing more than 4000 people. Behind the high stone walls, lies a collection of romantic kiosks, pavilions, sleeping quarters, kitchens, treasury, armoury and much more but the highlight is the harem. At one point, housing more than 400 rooms, the harem, led by the Sultan mother was home to concubines and eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire.
Just around the corner, sits the majestic Hagia Sophia that at one point was the largest domed building in the world. Starting its long historical timeline as a church, the Ottomans upon invading Constantinople converted it into a mosque. Now holding the crown as the most famous museum in Turkey, visitors enter through a large stone arch doorway into the domed hall, from which ancient frescoes look down from the ceiling along with Islamic calligraphy plagues. A pleasant blend of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture styles form the two-story structure that is one of the most photographed landmarks of current day Istanbul.
Directly opposite the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, dating from 1616 dominates the skyline with its unique six minarets that at the time of construction caused much controversy in Mecca. 260 windows, as well as 20,000 blue tiles, adorn the interior, of which nonmuslims are welcome to see outside of prayer times. Also known as, the Sultanahmet Mosque, this building is an incredible insight for everyone into the religion of Islam.
Next to the Blue Mosque, the famous Hippodrome does not have a grand appearance or structure like its neighbouring landmarks. Yet, its historical importance as the scene of the famous Nika riots and social centre of Byzantine Constantinople warrants time to be spent in the small square. The obelisk of Theodosius dating from the 4th century AD outshines the walled obelisk, making it the must-see landmark of the old Hippodrome.
Crossing the road, a small house holds some of the finest antique carpets depicting a cultural tradition stemming back from the days of nomadic Turk tribes. The Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, based in a former house of Pargali Ibrahim Pasa, who was grand vizier to Ottoman sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, highlights the life of the nomad tribes through ethnographic displays and Islamic art pieces that demonstrate the talent of the Eastern art world in history perfectly.
Down a winding flight of stone steps, the 6th-century Basilica Cistern (yerebatan) remains hidden from public view, yet the simple and humble appearance is a calming and soothing sight in what is Turkey’s busiest city. Visited by Mark Twain and also featured in the James Bond film, from Russia with Love, carp fish, illuminated by gentle lighting swim their way around the ancient columns that lead to the most famous column of them all; the head of Medusa. Uniquely known because it is upside down, historians can only assume it sits this way so people can avoid the evil glare of the former goddess.
Walking back up as if to visit the Topkapi Palace, the Istanbul Archeological Museum greatly delights all those interested in not only the history of Istanbul but also the former lands of the Ottoman Empire that at one time, nearly stretched across half the world. Separating into three sections including the ancient Orient, and the tiled kiosk collection, one of the most valuable artefacts is the Alexander sarcophagus. Don’t be misled by the name because it did not belong to Alexander the Great, but instead, show his character carved into murals on the side.
Lastly, if time allows, one should spend time in the beautiful Gulhane Park. Really coming alive in April during the annual tulip festival, this historical urban green space once belonged to the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, and then opened to the public in 1912. Apart from being a great place to relax, on the western side of the park, visitors can also tour the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam.
Tolga Ertukel, owner, and director of Turkey Homes, says: While the Sultanahmet district is a great place to explore the historical side of Istanbul, there is much more to see and do in the city , so you might like to read our article on how to get around Istanbul.