Istanbul, or former Constantinople, is a vibrant and modern city sitting between Europe and Asia. As well as the geographical location, its history is also divided into two big pieces: Roman and Byzantine Empires (330 – 1453) and Ottoman Empire (1453 – 1922). I decided to dedicate an article to each part of its history, and below you’ll learn about Constantinople’s landmarks!
Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly the main landmark of Istanbul. It was built as an enormous Christian church, and it took almost two centuries, from 360 to 537 AD, to get its modern look because of the fire events: what we see today is the third church built on this site. For almost a thousand years it remained the largest cathedral not only on Constantinople but in the world – it was called Magna Ecclesia, or the Great Church!
Upon the Ottoman conquest, it was converted to a mosque – this fate touched the majority of Christian religious buildings. In 1935 it became a museum and just a few years ago it was decided by the government to convert it back to a mosque. The interior reflects the complex history of the building: the huge medallions with Islamic inscriptions are placed near the Byzantine mosaics and six-winged angels.
Usually the queue at the entrance is quite huge (this happens because of the security control taking place). If you’re visiting with a tour or private licensed guide, you can skip part of the queue. We however went to Hagia Sophia in the evening when there was literally almost no one, compared to the daytime, and had the opportunity to explore it quietly. The only downside of visiting in the evening was darkened stained glass (but luckily I saw them during my previous visit to Turkiye in the daylight).
Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı, is one of the best sites of the Byzantine empire you can visit in Istanbul – especially considering that it has just been opened after five year of massive restorative works and this is the largest cistern of Istanbul.
Overall, it looks very impressive: 336 columns reflected in water stretched over almost 140 metres, with changing mood lights. It was one of the cisterns out of the Constantinople underground water system built by Emperor Justinian I in 532 AD, and it’s famous for housing two Medusa heads serving as pillar bases and now there are multiple modern installations as well.
Hagia Irene is easy to miss if you’re visiting Topkapi palace, but this is a real gem of the Byzantine period opened for the general public on every day basis only in 2014! It’s dedicated to the Holy Peace, not to Saint Irene. The main feature of Hagia Irene is that it has never been converted to a mosque in contrast to so many other christian churches. It was initially constructed in the first half of the 4th century, then destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 6th century under the rule of Justinian I and renovated after the earthquake in the 8th century.
During the Ottoman period Hagia Irene happened to be in the first courtyard of the palace and was used as the armoury, and its original structure has been very well preserved. There are still some mosaics left like the big black cross, beautiful spolia and a few unnamed tombs (some even think that it might be a tomb of Emperor Constantin but this is not not an official point of view).
Little Hagia Sofia Mosque
What we now know as the Little Hagia Sofia Mosque (Küçük Ayasofya Camii), was once the Constantinople Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus built around the 530s during the rule of Emperor Justinian and was converted into a mosque in the beginning of the 16th century.
It’s still one of the most important buildings of the early Byzantine empire, and now it’s a gorgeous and quiet mosque with blue tiles and blueish carpet protected by UNESCO. You can have tea in a cafe nearby (the staff is super nice there!) and adore the countless cats running around.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
Once you’re in the very historical centre of Istanbul, the chances are you’ll be walking on the site of the former Constantinople Hippodrome. Once it was an entertainment centre (like chariot racing) of Constantinople, a city that became a capital in 330. Now it’s been converted into the square near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia mosque: it’s called Sultanahmet Meydanı (Square of Sultan Ahmed) but also can be referred as Atmeydanı, or the Horse Square, deriving from the greek origin of the word ‘hippodrome’.
The main landmark of the Hippodrome is the Egyptian obelisk, also known as the Obelisk of Theodosius I of the 4th century AD originally built by Thutmose III the Great in about 1500 BC. There are two other notable monuments: the statue of three serpents made from bronze and originating from Delphi and the Masonry Obelisk once covered in metal plates.
Palatium palace of Constantinople
If you’re looking for a place to eat in central Istanbul near the Hagia Sofia, you might choose the Palatium Cafe and Restaurant not far from the famous Seven Hills terrace.
In addition to the nice interiors and food you’ll get a look at the Palatium Magnum (the Magnaura) palace of Constantinople located on its territory! It’s a 4th century palace discovered in 1996 that has been excavated by the funds of the restaurant (only part of it is uncovered now).
Sarniç Navitas spa
Above you’ve already seen the largest cistern of Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern. But can you imagine having a part of the cistern all for yourself and to swim there? You can get this unique experience at the spa of İstanbul Curio Collection by Hilton Hagia Sofia called Sarniç Navitas spa!
Apart from traditional treatments, saunas and hammam, you can literally swim around the ancient columns protected by glass and enjoy modern jacuzzi in the most historical setting.
Mosaics of Chora Church and Pammakaristos Church
The Chora church is a must visit for everyone who’s interested in the Byzantine side of Istanbul history because it has an astounding collection of ancient mosaics and frescoes (for instance, Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator inside the dome). Its name refers to the location of the church: the full name is ‘Church of the Holy Saviour in the fields’ and ‘fields’ or’ chora’ in Greek means that the church is outside the city walls as per the time of Constantine the Great.
It’s been rebuilt many times, and the inner decorations mainly are attributed to the 14th century. It’s been converted into a mosque in 2020 as well as Hagia Sophia. Unfortunately, this Constantinople gem temporarily closed at the moment but I was lucky to visit it during my previous trip to Istanbul. Otherwise, you can visit The Pammakaristos Church, dating back to the 11-12 centuries: it’s famous for its mosaics as well!
62 metres high Galata tower is the highlight of Istanbul you can’t miss because it’s visible from everywhere! It’s located on the North bank and stands high above the other buildings. The current tower was built around 1348 by the Genoese residing in this part of the city and named the Tower of Christ (the initial tower of this place dated back to the 6th century).
After the Ottoman conquest it was used as a prison and later as a fire tower (19th century). The main feature of it always was the perfect view around the surroundings and this is why it served as a watchtower – and even now you can check it and climb to the top! As for me, I enjoyed the best views over the tower itself from the Barnathan!
Talking about the Genoese… You might also want to visit Yoros Castle, or Genoese castle, a ruine of an ancient castle partly closed to the public. It sits on a strategic location overlooking the Bosphorus and the Black sea, initially used by Greeks and Phieniceans and the fortification raised in significance in the Byzantine Empire.
Hope you liked my blog,