The Historic Center of Istanbul

Brief Overview:
Situated strategically between Europe and Asia, and between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Istanbul has been associated with major political, religious and artistic events for over two milenniums. As capital of both the Roman Empire of the East from its foundation until 1453, and of the Ottoman Empire from 1453 until 1922, it contains the main architectural works of both civilizations. The old city center corresponds to the ancient Byzantion/ Constantinople/ Istanbul, which is between the Point of Serail which advances into the Bosphorus and the large walls which are 7 km. to the west.

It is in the old city that the magnificent palaces and mosques, churches, the Hippodrome and the Grand Bazaar are located. The city’s architectural masterpieces include the ancient Hippodrome of Byzantium, the 6th-century Hagia Sophia, and the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque. Four sites in Istanbul were included on the World Heritage List in 1985: the archaeological park at the tip of the peninsula, the Sülaymaniye neighbourhood, the Zeyrek neighbourhood, and the ramparts area.

Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city whose population has grown tenfold over the past fifty years. This growth in population, along with uncontrolled urbanization and pollution threaten the world heritage of Istanbul.

The Byzantine Period:
Settlements have appeared on the Asian side of modern-day Istanbul since around 700 BC, when the Phoenicians colonized Chalcedonia (today called Kadikoy). The first community to have left their mark on history was that of Byzas, who consulted the Delphes oracle before setting sail, asking where he should found a new colony. The oracle responded: “In front of the country of those that are blind.” He set sail and eventually arrived at the Serail Point (657 BC), on the western shore of what is modern-day Istanbul. Surprised that the Phoenicians on the eastern shore had not noticed the advantages of the magnificent site on the Point of Serail, he decided to found his colony in front of this “blind” people, in the natural port where the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Straits meet. The new town was called Byzantion.

Byzantion accepted to submit to Rome and fought at its side for centuries. A fight for the control of the Roman Empire ended when Constantine defeated his enemy in 324 AD; he consolidated the empire and renaming Byzantion “the New Rome.” He wanted a new capital far from Rome and chose the city for military reasons, because it was easily defendable. As Constantinople was destined to replace Rome as the centre of the Empire, it needed to be protected from invasions. An array of formidable fortifications was thus erected. The outline of the original walls can still be seen encircling the city. Constantine transformed, embellished, and enlarged the new capital, endowing it with some of the most prestigious buildings of late Antiquity. It was one of the major cities of the world in the 5th century, with a population of 100,000.

The Hagia Sofia Church was the architectural masterpiece of the Byzantine period, built by the Emperor Justinian in less than six years (532-537). It is not only the city’s most remarkable building, it also ranks among the greatest architectural monuments of all time. It was the Emperor’s intention to build the largest and grandest church the world had ever seen. When he saw the finished church, he exclaimed, “Oh Salomon, I have beaten you!” The Hagia Sophia remained the largest church in the Christian world between its inauguration in 537 AD and the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, at which time it was transformed into a mosque.

The large central dome, built from hollow bricks, constituted a challenge of the architectural laws of the epoch. The Hagia Sophia remains an utterly unique construction, with neither precedent nor successor. It is still said that what the architects of Hagia Sofia accomplished has never been surpassed. When the dome was built, there was an absence of visible supports; however, it became clear early on that the construction was fragile when a series of earthquakes caused the dome to cave in. The Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans had to reconstruct the dome and add supports over the centuries. The Church underwent the most severe damages during the Fourth Crusade, when the Latins who came to Constantinople pillaged it as if it belonged to another religion.

The church was endowed with religious representations and portraits of emperors. Though it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, most of the mosaics remained apparent and were only covered in the 17th or 18th centuries. The reason for this white-washing is because the Islamic religion forbids the portayal of any beings with a mortal soul. But the Ottoman sultans otherwise left the building in its original form, adding Islamic works of art.

Ataturk converted the mosque into a museum in 1935. Restoration work was since undertaken to retore the original mosaics, of which over 30 million gilded mosaics cover the dome. The building is open and gives an impression of space and gracefulness. Among the many mosaics are one of the Virgin Mary and the Child (one of the prettiest of the church) and one of Constantine offering Christ the city of Constantinople while Justinian offers him the Hagia Sofia. The Hagia Sophia is one of the oldest monuments in the world to come to us intact; its constant maintenance and restoration is a major concern for the world heritage.

A dozen other churches also survive from the Byzantine period. Their good condition is principally due to their conversion into mosques during the Ottoman period. As with the Hagia Sophia, restoration work carried out since the 1930s has led to the renovation of many frescoes and mosaics that had been concealed under the whitewash of churches converted into mosques.

The Hippodrome is another monument passed down to us from Byzantine times. This square was the center of Byzance life for 1000 years and Ottoman life for 400 years. It had been used for chariot races. The rivalry between horse clubs was such that the outcome could even influence politics. The Hippodrome, like the Hagia Sofia, underwent large-scale destruction during the Crusades. The Ottomans restored it after the conquest.

Today, on the site of the Hippodrome, sits a beautiful, sculpted fountain, a plain stone obelisk, a column made of three intertwined snakes, and the Obelisk of Theodose. The fountain was a present of the German emperor to the Ottoman sultan in 1901. The stone obelisk (the column of Constantine) dates back to the 4th century. It is plain because the gilded bronze plaques which once covered it were stolen by the soldiers of the Crusades. The Serpentine Column is one of the oldest monuments in Istanbul and commemorates the victory of the Greek cities over the Persians in 479 BC. The Obelisk of Theodose is most impressive. It was sculpted in Egypt in 1500 BC and brought to the city by the Byzantine Emperor Theodose in 390 AD. It is in remarkable condition; its heiroglyphics are preserved, and the faces of most of the figures are well intact.

Another still-extant landmark built by the Byzantines is the Yerebatan Cistern (Basilica Cistern), which is the largest covered cistern still existing in Istanbul. Its purpose was to supply the city with water during a siege. Built by the Emperor Constantine (306-337), it is completely underground and measures 141 m. long and 73 m. wide. Its roof is supported by 336 columns. After a certain time, the cistern served as a depository for all sorts of trash, including cadavers. The city government of Istanbul cleaned and restored the cistern in the 1980s.

Earthquakes caused great damage to Constantinople during the Byzantine period, but the greatest damage was caused by the city’s Christian “allies,” who laid siege to the city during the Fourth Crusade. Fires ravaged the city, and afterwards there was a general decline in the city and a shrinking of the population. The town became poorer and poorer during the 14th and 15th centuries, and a large part was deserted.

The Ottoman Period:
The Byzantine Empire lasted from the re-foundation of Byzantine (Constantinople) in 330 until the conquest of the Turks in 1453. What the Westerners call “The Fall of Constantinople” is called “The Conquest of Istanbul” by the Muslims. The Byzantines had stretched an immense chain across the Golden Horn to prevent enemy ships from passing, but Mehmet II the Conqueror surprised them by hauling his ships overland by night. His cannons against the city’s wall proved ineffective, however, so a Hungarian cannon manufacturer proposed to sell the Ottomans the largest cannon in the world (In an ironic twist of fate, he had previously proposed to sell his cannons to the Byzantines to defend Christianity against the Muslims!) The Byzantines eventually capitulated, and those areas of the city which had resisted saw their neighborhoods pillaged and their churches turned into mosques.

Mehmet the Conqueror immediately reconstructed and repopulated the city, which was to become the center of his new empire. Palaces, mosques, hammams, and fountains gave the city its Turkish character. He brought Muslims from other parts of the Empire, doubling the city’s population, and one church after another was converted into a mosque; the Christians and others were still allowed to freely practice their religion, however.

The Ottoman period is much better represented than the Byzantine period, and the monuments of that time make up the essential landmarks of Istanbul’s skyline. One of the great architectural pieces in the old city is Topkapi Palace, built on the tip of the Serail Peninsula where the Byzance colonists originally settled. It is essentially a city within a city, an ensemble comparable with such great palace complexes as the Forbidden City of Peking (now Beijing) or the Mogul palaces of Agra and Delhi.

The Topkapi Palace was constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after the Conquest of Istanbul in 1453. It was completed in 1478 and remained the government seat and the residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, until the 19th century, when they preferred to build palaces in the European style along the Bosphorus Straits. The Palace was turned into a Museum by Ataturk in the 1930s.

Topkapi is comprised of four courts. The First Court consists of beautiful gardens on the hillsides, from where you can see the ships in the Bosphorus Straits and the Asian side of the city. It had always been open to the public, even during the days of the Empire.

The Second Court was open to people having business with the Empire, such as ambassadors. It is where the grand imperial ceremonies took place. The Imperial Council Chamber was where the Grand Vizir, the Sultan, and the ambassadors discussed state affairs. It is a small domed building decorated in red and blue tiles and gilded decoration; you can still see the gold cage behind which the Sultan sat and from which he followed the debates.

The Armory houses an impressive collection of Ottoman arms, and to a lesser extent European and Asian arms. With some 400 pieces, it is one of the richest assemblages of Islamic arms in the world. Its collection, which spans 13 centuries (from the 7th to 20th centuries) showcases chain armor, pointed metal helmets, bows and arrows, rifles, and swords which are often curved and which are richly decorated with inscriptions or motifs typical of the period.

The Harem, which has been traditionally associated with the debauchery of the Sultan in Western portrayals, consisted in fact of the apartments of the imperial family. Each detail of harem life was governed by rules and tradition. Women of the harem had to be foreigners because Islam prohibits the slavery of Muslims, Christians, and Jews (with a few exceptions). There were also girls that were sold to the harem by their parents or given by nobles as gifts to the Sultan.

In entering the harem, the girls were given a Muslim education and taught the Turkish language and customs, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, music, embroidery, dance, reading, and writing. According to their merits, they served the concubines, the children of the sultan, his mother, or the sultan himself. The harem was governed by the mother of the sultan, who often had great influence on him by helping to choose his wives and concubines.

According to Islamic law, the Sultan could have four legitimate wives, and as many concubines as his wealth permitted. Certain had up to 300.

The Topkapi harem was comprised of 300 rooms, mostly built during the reign of Soliman the Magnificent (1520-66). There are six floors, and among the rooms that can be visited are the courts of the black enuchs, the courtyard of the concubines and wives, the apartments of the sultan’s mother, and the emperor’s salon. We would have liked to have visited the Harem, but the cost was prohibitive. It cost an additional $8 just to visit a few rooms on a rushed 30-min. guided tour given in the Turkish language.

The Third Court was reserved for the imperial family, employees, and those of high rank. The Ottomans followed in the tradition of the Byzantines by isolating the monarch from the people. You entered this Court by the Gate of Felicity, which helped to preserve the imperial mystique.

Inside of the Third Court is the Wardrobe Room, where you can see imperial robes, shirts, boots, slippers, pajamas, fezes, and caps – from both before and after the Dress Revolution of 1826. The robes, caftans, and uniforms are decorated in silver and gold thread. There is a large collection of Talismanic shirts, which were supposed to protect the wearer from enemies and misfortune and to restore health to the sick. They were made in white cotton and verses from the Koran, traditions from the prophet, the names of angels, and Talismanic charms, formulae, and prayers were embroidered in blue, black, red, and gold inside of geometrical designs (mostly rectangles, triangles, and stars).

The Portrait Room shows portraits of all 36 sultans, which is interesting because it shows the progression of how dress and turban styles changed throughout the centuries. All of the sultans had long beards and white turbans, until the 19th century, when the turban was replaced by the fez.

The Turban Room housed the imperial turbans. The shapes of the turbans were built into the 16th-century walls, which were covered in mother-of-pearl in the shape of tortoise shells. Red velvet couches lined the walls of the small domed building.

The Circumcision Room was used for the crown princes and was decorated in the same way as the Turban Room.

The Pavilion of Holy Relics was interesting to visit. All of the objects inside are considered to be sacred. The building is decorated with tiles from the 16th and 17th centuries. An imam sits behind a glass case in the building, chanting verses from the Koran. Some of the Holy Relics were brought to Istanbul after the conquest of Egypt in 1517.

There were several objects which had belonged to Mohammed, such as a sword and bow, a footprint (he must have been a big man!), dust from his tomb, and reliquairies containing his tooth (which you can’t see), his hair (1 hair), and hair from his beard (2 hairs in a small glass container). There is also a golden throne, the rod of Moses, the turban of Joseph, and the sword of David.

The Imperial Treasury apparently has outstanding objects made of gold, silver, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and diamonds. It has a golden throne and the fifth largest diamond in the world (86 carats), which Mehmet IV wore during his coronation in 1648. We opted not to see the Treasury, either, as it was another $8 to visit.

The Fourth Court was accessible only to the royal family. Its gardens, with their fountains, are almost tropical in nature with their palm trees. Inside the Court is the Baghdad Pavilion, which was built in 1638 to commemorate the victory over this city. It, like some other pavilions, is also decorated in mother-of-pearl tortoise shell. Today there is a restaurant in the Fourth Court, and there is a stunning view over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.

The Ottomans excelled in religious art and architecture. Many religious complexes consist of a mosque with a courtyard surrounded by buildings used for social or educational purposes, such as hammams, soup-kitchens, hospitals, religious schools, and shops, which supplied the revenue for the upkeep of the buildings. A large number of these complexes were built in Istanbul, and they are an outstanding feature of the old city. Some of these complexes were rebuilt after fires and earthquakes; others still have their original architecture.

The most prestigious complex is the one built between 1550 and 1557 by Soliman the Magnificent, the richest and most powerful of the Ottoman rulers. Sitting atop one of Istanbul’s hills, it dominates the skyline of the Golden Horn and offers an excellent view of the city. It is the point from which we first saw the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The Süleymaniye Mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul, and one of the most beautiful examples of Muslim architecture. Although the interior is very large, its decoration remains extremely simple. Its tiles, like many others of the classical Ottoman period, come from Iznik in western Turkey. We toured the huge complex, including the tombs of Soliman and his favorite wife Hurrem Sultana (Roxelane).

The grand viziers of Soliman’s reign also vied with each other in public works. The Rüstem Pasha Mosque, built in the 16th century near the port of the Golden Horn, is a smaller mosque, but a veritable ceramic museum. It has beautiful painted tiles from Iznik. It is a chef d’oeuvre of Turkish art, both architecturally and decoratively. The glory, power, architecture, and ceramic art of the Ottoman Empire attained their zenith during the epoch of its construction in 1561.

The New Mosque, located on the port of the Golden Horn, is one that we particularly liked. Nicknamed the Pigeon Mosque because of the preponderance of these birds by its outer court, this mosque was built in the classic Ottoman style 400 years ago. It has two triple-balcony minarets and is one of the last large buildings in the city built in the classical Turkish architectural style.

We visited the mosque in the evening. It brought us peace and tranquillity from the bustling city; there were only one or two worshipppers present besides us. The mosque has a large domed ceiling, low-hanging lights, and a few simple stained-glass windows. Its white tiles were painted red, blue, and turquoise in flower motifs and geometrical designs. These floral and geometrical designs are common in all mosques because the representation of any being – animal or human – with a mortal soul is prohibited by Islamic law.

The last prestigious building of the period is known as the Blue Mosque and was built by Sultan Ahmet between 1609 and 1616 next to the former Byzantine hippodrome and opposite the Hagia Sophia. In building this mosque, the Sultan had the intentions of surpassing the Hagia Sofia Church which was built over 1000 years before. Although it is said to not have the same architectural daring as the former, it is still beautiful and elegant. It has a huge domed ceiling, like all mosques, and is the only mosque in Istanbul to have six minarets. As is typical to the Ottoman style, the outer court has a fountain (the simple faucets for purifying being on the side walls of the building, outside of the courtyard). Three sides of the courtyard are lined with shaded, stone galleries, which can serve for prayer, meditation, or study.

The “blue” name comes from the square tiles which cover the walls, especially in the gallery. The tiles covering the walls and ceiling are white and covered mostly in red and blue geometrical designs. The Arabic prayers are inscribed in gold lettering. String of lights hang low from the ceiling. There are no benches or pews. The people sit on the floor or prostrate themselves when they pray. The Blue Mosque is very touristic. It smells like a million pair of feet when you enter!

As the mosque is a religious place, you would think that tourists would respect certain obvious codes of conduct and dress. But we were surprised at certain things. Like the woman who showed up very discreetly dressed in 4-inch heels, fishnet stockings, a revealing top, and died bleached-blond hair, even though women are supposed to be modestly dressed and covered except for the face, hands, and feet. And the man who proceeded beyond the big sign: “No Tourists Beyond This Point” in order to lie down on his side in the middle of the mosque. He was asked to leave by security.

The Blue Mosque was lit up at night, looking like a Disney fantasy palace. A show took place every night, recounting the history of Istanbul and of the Mosque. There was even Disney drama in the telling of the story. The lights changed from blue to red to yellow to white and back again. A voice full of emotion quivered out: “Each Empire tried to outdo the last one. After seven years, I stood, glorious in front of the Sultan and the people…And then I knew glorious days, in which my gardens were covered in tulips…I was ravaged by fire, gutted by war…After WWI, I stood the symbol of a mutilated nation, revived by hope…I will last forever, the symbol of Turkey eternal.”

As the Ottoman Empire declined during the 19th century, several populations revolted. There was an incessant series of civil wars, the Empire’s goods were under the control of European banks, and the Empire had become “the sick man of Europe.” The sultans of this century turned towards European models of administration and style. One of the signs of this westernization was the abandonment of the pavilion complex of Topkapi Palace in favor of European-style palaces built on the Bosphorus. European districts developed around the ambassadors’ residences north of the Golden Horn.

The Ottoman Empire lasted for 400 years, until the end of WWI, after which Ataturk installed the new capital in Ankara, far from the attack of cannons.

Vernacular Architecture:
Over time, fires have regularly ravaged and destroyed most of Istanbul’s vernacular heritage, which is composed almost exclusively of wooden houses. Today, there are about 525 wooden houses from the Ottoman period which are protected in the Zeyrek neighborhood. They give an insight into the Ottoman civilization; unfortunately, many of these houses are in bad shape and are detiorating. In walking around the city, you can perceive that some are uninhabited, that the rooves are caving in, that windows are broken. Others are still lived in, but in obvious disrepair.

The problems are many: structural problems and decrepit material, the difficulty of inserting modern equipment, the uprooting of local populations. The UNESCO would like to restore or repopulate these houses, which were the principal reason for the inscription of the Zeyrek quarter on the World Heritage list. They are working on a way to improve living conditions in the quarter. Some of the houses have been rebuilt and transformed into hotels and restaurants. Although the materials used were completely new, the architectural style was preserved.

Perils to Istanbul’s Heritage:
Modern living and population growth pose the most serious threats to Istanbul’s heritage. As the capital of several empires, Istanbul’s population numbered several hundred thousand inhabitants at different times in its history. It was almost one million between the two World Wars. Since then, it has seen its population increase tenfold to ten million in the year 2000. It now numbers around 12 million souls. This has caused several problems, including uncontrolled urbanization. Large-scale building, the construction of large avenues, inadequate infrastructure, and unregulated town-planning on the outskirts have seriously affected the natural environment and the urban structure. The banks of the Bosphorus, in particular, are threatened by building ventures which extend gradually from the higher parts of the city down to the sea.

Today, the environment and the urban fabric are more threatened than the monuments themselves. The most prestigious monuments in the historic center have been restored and are well-maintained. It is the vernacular heritage which is threatened; in the absence of proper funding, even listing by the UNESCO will not prevent its rapid disappearance.

Despite pressures on the environment and urban structure, some progress is being made, however. With funds from the European Union and other organizations, the World Heritage Center has undertaken an operation to protect several neighborhoods near the Golden Horn.