The Seven Hills Of Istanbul: Tracing the City’s Roots
Like Rome, Istanbul was built on seven hills, but this isn’t a canny coincidence. The Byzantine Empire built the city on seven hills to proclaim themselves as the new Rome. It was a deliberate snub to the former grand empire in the beginning stages of decline.
On top of the seven hills of Istanbul, they built churches, and when the Ottoman Empire invaded the city that by then was known as Constantinople, they built mosques instead. Anyone with a passion for Istanbul’s history can visit the hills sitting in the European Fatih district and discover Byzantine and Ottoman landmarks, palaces, places of worships and much more that tell the story of its illustrious past. Let’s find out what to see on which hill.
Exploring the Seven Hills of Istanbul
1: Topkapi and Hagia Sophia
The old historical centre sitting in the current Sultanahmet district is the first and most significant hill. From here, Greek settlers first built up the Byzantium city, and Ottoman sultans ruled over their vast empire from Topkapi Palace, a sprawling complex that was, in fact, a mini-city within a city. Both realms saw many advantages of placing their ruling centres here because the peninsula surrounded by water on three sides was perfect for a fortress. As a hub of grand power for over 2000 years, when Turkey changed their capital from Istanbul to Ankara in 1920, it lost its supreme status.
2: Cemberlitas Hill
Sitting a short distance away, the great forum of Constantine sat on Cemberlitas Hill. These days, just the bottom half of the 330AD Constantine column, also nicknamed the burnt pillar is still on the show. The 18th-century Nuruosmaniye Mosque, its other famous landmark, is instead reaching for prestigious status by awaiting approval to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
3: Beyazit Hill
Beyazait was home to the Theodosius Grand Forum. Once again, little of it remains, but the hill still has a claim to fame through two prominent landmarks. The 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque designed by Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s favourite architect, belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits next to Beyazit square also known as freedom square. Otherwise, most tourists to Istanbul head to the second famous landmark for souvenir shopping. The Grand Bazaar, a maze of alleys and shops is also one of the largest markets in the world.
4: Fatih: The Conqueror’s Hill
During the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Apostles Church, an important religious building of that time sat on this hill. Over time, it crumbled, and when the Ottomans invaded, they cleared the ruins and built the 15th century Fatih Mosque. It seems like fate wasn’t kind to this religious building either. Damaged by an earthquake, it had to be rebuilt in the 18th century. Such is its esteemed status, prominent people buried in the courtyard include Mehmet the Conqueror who instigated the Byzantine Empire’s fall by invading Constantinople at the age of just 21.
5: Yavuz Selim: The Fifth Hill
The Cukurbostan neighbourhood is home of the fifth hill where the 16th century Yavuz Selim Mosque stands. Once the location of Aspar Cistern, a Byzantine open-air water reservoir, it’s the closest hill to the Golden Horn separating the two sides of European Istanbul. While here, visitors should also take a slight detour to Balat and Fener, old Greek and Jewish quarters that are full of surprises. Popular walking tours provide a cultured look at these two prominent and nostalgic neighbourhoods including prominent buildings like the Greek High School and Ecumenical Patriarchate building.
6: Edirnekapi: Sun and the Moon
Sitting across a valley from Yavuz Selim Mosque, the Edirnekapi quarter was the highest point of the walled city. Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned the most prominent landmark, the 16th-century Mihrimah Sultan Mosque for his daughter. Staying in trend with other famous mosques of Istanbul, architect Mimar Sinan also designed it. Hundreds of windows make it a bright and airy space, and original mother-of-pearl jewels appear on the main gate. This mosque also stands out from other royal places of worship because it only has one minaret.
7: Sumbul Efendi: The Old Slave Market
Coming to the seventh hill sitting in the Sumbul Efendi neighbourhood, our last prominent landmark to visit is Kocanmustafapasa, that was a 13th century Byzantine church and later converted to a mosque. As well as being home to the Forum of Arcadius (ox,) next door to the mosque is the tomb of Sundul Efendi, a follower of the Sufi order after whom the neighbourhood is named after. Arriving here, we have walked the path of the seven hills of Istanbul, a lesser talked about, but important fact of the city’s history. If you have time left, find more things to see and do in our Istanbul blog.