A Self Guided Tour of Ottoman Istanbul

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When you arrive in Istanbul you will most likely want to visit the Old City to see the Topkapı Palace, Ayasofya, and Blue Mosque.  Don’t be intimidated by the throngs of travelers and tour guides attempting to sell you a Bosporus boat tour.  If you’re on a budget or simply want a different experience you can visit these sites without a tour guide and still have an enjoyable day.  Here are my tips for a successful self guided tour. (Note: if you would like to visit these sites plus museums get a museum card to save money!)

Topkapı Palace

We begin our tour at the Topkapı Palace, which was the main Ottoman palace when the Ottomans designated Istanbul as the capital.  The Ottomans were an Islamic Empire who ruled for six hundred years after the Byzantines.  The palace is gigantic, covering 700,000 square meters.  The palace is also built on the Roman Acropolis which means that once inside you have a gorgeous view of Sea of Marmara.  When you enter the palace through the imperial gate you will find yourself in the imperial courtyard.  Today locals use this space to picnic and read in the shade of oak trees but in Ottoman times this lush area was used exclusively as a parking lot.  If you have extra time I suggest strolling through this area and grabbing a simit to snack on.

You can easily spend a few hours in Topkapı Palace.  The space is filled with gardens and ornately decorated buildings that housed the grand vizier, harem, and the sultan.  The Topkapı Palace also houses sacred Islamic relics that are worth seeing.  Other rooms are filled with illuminated Ottoman miniatures and copies of the Quran.  The Ottomans held artists and architects in the highest regard.  This is reflected in the Iznik tiles and calligraphy that adorn all Ottoman structures.  Take a moment to sit on a bench and absorb Topkapı’s architectural beauty.

While you weave through the maze of rooms you will eventually come upon a balcony that overlooks the Sea of Marmara.  This space is tucked away from the bustle of visitors and provides a great spot for a photo.  If you’re hungry you can walk behind the harem into the gardens.   Walk down the stairs and you’ll see a full restaurant with a five star view of the Sea of Marmara.

Once in Topkapı Palace you must visit the harem.  Outsiders are skeptical of this institution, however the harem is a fascinating entity to study.  The Sultana, or the Sultan’s mother, patrolled the harem each day to choose the women who best suited her son.  These women had to be much more than beautiful.  Because they would eventually take the Sultana’s place potential wives needed to be intelligent and skilled in a variety of fields.  Women in the harem held considerable influence over Ottoman politics.  Although they were technically slaves from captured territories, the women in the harem defined Ottoman palatial life and were well versed in the arts of singing, dancing, weaving, academics, and linguistics. 

The Ayasofya

Once you have been satiated by Ottoman palatial architecture the Ayasofya is a natural segway into Ottoman religious life.  The Ayasofya is attached to Topkapı Palace but you will need to leave the palace to enter the mosque.  If you have you museum card with you the entrance will be free.  The Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia in Greek, meaning “Divine Wisdom”) was a church built by the Byzantine ruler Justinian in 532.  Justinian imposed outrageously high taxes on his people and in response they rioted and destroyed the church on this spot.  To reassert his power Justinian constructed the grandest church in Christendom, the Hagia Sophia.  When the Ottomans captured Istanbul in 1453 they created minarets to convert the Ayasofya into a mosque.  When you enter you will see Christian imagery alongside Islamic calligraphy which is a beautiful example of the coexistence of cultures within Istanbul.

When you enter the Ayasofya look straight ahead and you can just barely make out a mosaic in the apse.  This apse mosaic, called Virgin and Child, is flanked by Arabic calligraphy reading “Muhammad” and “Allah”.  Although the apse mosaic is small the Byzantines conceptualized seeing as touching.  Regardless of the distance between the viewer and the mosaic the Byzantines believed that their eyes sent out rays to touch the object, gathered up the image, and returned it to the viewer.  This indicates a very personal relationship with the divine.  The relationship between Islam and religious imagery is complicated and requires a lengthy explanation.   Suffice it to say that the Ottomans were more comfortable adorning mosques with images of nature and Arabic calligraphy.

After viewing the art within the Ayasofya I suggest you climb the stairs to the top story.  Here you can get a closer view of the apse mosaic as well as the calligraphy.  There are also far fewer people up here!  Just note that the ramp to the top of the mosque is uneven in some areas, so if you have difficulty walking you may not wish to climb these steps.

Basilica Cistern

In a rush to see the mosques and palace many visitors lose sight of the Basilica Cistern.  This could be because the entrance is small and easy to miss.  If you are tired of tourists escape into this underground cavern where the only noises you will hear are dripped water and the low murmur of music.  The cistern is refreshingly cool and dark.  I am claustrophobic but after climbing out of the tunnel the space opens up into an oasis broken only by rows of columns.  The cistern is one of many in Istanbul and was built by Justinian to supply the city with water.  You may recognize the cistern from the Bond film From Russia with Love.  Although Bond had to row his way through the cistern you actually walk through on an elevated pathway.  Make sure you walk all the way to the back so you can see the mysterious medusa heads!

Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque

I am completely enamored with the Blue Mosque.  Unlike the Ayasofya, which was constructed by Justinian, the Blue Mosque is entirely Ottoman.  It was built in the 1600s in response to the architecture of the Ayasofya.  The designers of the Blue Mosque wanted to emulated elements of the Ayasofya, such as the domes, while outperforming the Byzantine church in every way.  Whereas the Ayasofya has four minarets the Blue Mosque boasts six, which is the most in the world.  The Blue Mosque has a greater number of cascading domes and the interior is covered in 20,000 Iznik tiles.  These tiles were produced solely in the Ottoman city of Iznik.  From afar Iznik tiles appear to showcase simple patterns in blue and green.  When you view one up close you will notice that these patterns include natural elements like vines and flowers.  On a large scale they accentuate archways and domes and create a vibrant space.  

Due to their close proximity, the Ayasofya and Blue Mosque are in conversation with one another both architecturally and literally.  Five times each day during the call to prayer the mosques alternate Quranic verses in friendly competition.  Like all mosques the Blue Mosque was integrated into the Ottoman community.  The Blue Mosque hosted a madrasa (school), soup kitchen, and hospice.  The Blue Mosque is still an active mosque so dress accordingly on the day you plan to visit.  You must cover your legs and shoulders as well as your hair and remove your shoes.  The mosque provides head scarves and coats but if you don’t want to wear these I suggest you bring your own.

Happy exploring! Iyi yolculuklar! 


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Marita Ervin •Lake Stevens, Washington

Ottoman and food historian nestled into the Pacific Northwest | My Blog

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