istanbul part 2: sultanahmet district

DSC04104Our second day started with the most beautiful sunshine, warmth and Turkish breakfast (which became our ritual for the next few days). We planned to visit the historical sights of Sultanahmet District which is a few tram stops away from our hotel. The tram system in Istanbul is highly commendable and extremely easy to use. It is connected to every single major part of the city so you literally never have to take a taxi!

Sultanahmet District offers a diverse concentration of historical sights, shopping complexes, hotels, restaurants and hamams all within easy walking distance – a visitor’s dream! Historical sights include: the magnificent Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Mosque (known as Blue Mosque), Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar only 1 tram stop away! This wonderful neighborhood is an ideal place to spend an entire day getting lost in history and delicious cuisine!

DSC03994  DSC04118 DSC04120  DSC04115    We started with the Blue Mosque – Istanbul’s most photographed building. I am not an expert on Islamic architecture, however I was so impressed by the intricacy of the work done on both the interior and exterior. The mosque was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I in the early 1600’s who wanted to build a rival mosque to Hagia Sophia, and is the epitome of classic Turkish Ottoman architecture.

DSC03931More than 20,000 blue iznik tiles were used to adorn the interior of the structure with blue light shining through more than 250 windows, attributing to it’s nickname “Blue Mosque“. It is a fully functioning mosque and is closed to the public during prayer times, so be cautious about that when visiting. We were able to visit the interior of the building, and like in every mosque, had to remove our shoes and cover our hair out of respect. It is the only mosque which has 6 surrounding minarets, while most have only 2 or 4.  The mosque complex also includes a covered market, Turkish bathhouse, kitchen, hospital, school and the tomb of Sultan Ahmet I. While visiting the mosque up close is fascinating, admiring it from across the park showcases it’s full glory and that special “blue” glow.

Sitting beside the fountain and munching on toasty chestnuts, we enjoyed a few minutes in the sun to regain our energy for the next best thing – Hagia Sophia. The 1,400 year old story of this majestic building is not only an architectural but a historical phenomenon. Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) which means “holy wisdom” was commissioned by Justinian I, Byzantine Emperor of Constantinople in the year 537 A.D, and resembled opulence and divinity. The church was built with countless rare marbles, gold mosaics, liturgical frescoes, and the architectural style used during this period was the first of it’s kind. Even more impressive, the church was built in less than 6 years – simply a blink of an eye, compared to the decades and centuries it took to build other global landmarks.

The fate of the church changed in 1453 when Mehmet the Conquerer overthrew the Byzantine Empire and the Ottomans took control over Istanbul. With the construction of 4 minarets measuring an impressive 60 metres and covering nearly all Christian frescoes, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Over the years, several Ottoman rulers influenced additions and more changes to the mosque, most notably by engraving a verse from the Quran on the impressive dome. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Turkish government declared Hagia Sophia a museum and commissioned experts from around the world to work on the preservation of the frescoes and historical artifacts.

DSC03938  DSC03957  DSC03967  DSC03975As a great appreciator of both history and architecture, I had goosebumps throughout the entire visit. The preservation process is still an on-going one so I was able to see very clearly how the frescoes were uncovered from centuries of hiding. The most impressive however was the untouched fresco of the Virgin Mary with Child located on the dome’s ceiling in the Apse part of the museum.  Despite the invasions and destruction of this magnificent building, this fresco served as a beacon of hope for millions throughout the years, and I felt very proud to be able to witness it myself. Another unchanged aspect of the museum is a section of inlaid marble on the main ground floor known as “omphalion” – the place where the Byzantine emperors were crowned.

DSC03972  DSC03953 During the Ottoman rule, a kitchen, school, hospital, hamam and several tombs were added, creating a society rather than simply a place of worship. Across the complex we discovered the hamam of Sultana Hurrem which was a gift from Suleyman the Magnificent… for those who have watched the series “Magnificent Century”, you will appreciate this as much as me 🙂

Hagia Sophia has survived 2 earthquakes, riots, fire outbreaks, multiple invasions… and still stands today with the same grace and opulence as it did 1,400 years ago. Having spent the entire day in Sultanahmet District basking in the history, enjoying a bit of shopping and a delicious lunch, we were too late to visit the Topkapi Palace, however stay tuned for the next postcard, because our 3rd day was full of spontaneity and surprise! 😉

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