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Istanbul is built on seven hills and is the bridge between east and west.  It has served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine  Latin and Ottoman Empires but is not the capital of modern day Turkey .  With the third largest city in the world to explore we chose to base ourselves in Sultanhamet it was the only location we considered.  It is within walking distance of most major tourist attractions, including the ferry terminal and bazaars.   The tram stop is on the door step if the walk is too daunting in the heat of the day

On the recommendation of a friend we opted for The Empress Zoe,  a small boutique hotel.   Thank you Joan, it was a great choice

From the  'basement' lobby we reached our room on the forth floor via a spiral staircase and a couple of flights of regular stairs.  There is no elevator but the staff will help you with your luggage.   The guest rooms are mostly very small but interestingly and individually furnished with Asian textiles

The view from the forth floor terrace overlooking the Marmara Sea.  With a bit of a stretch of the neck and imagination you can also see the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia

We asked for room 41, one of he larger rooms.  Is shares the forth floor with the lounge bar and terrace

They serve a wonderful breakfast either in one of the two dining areas in the hotel or in the small walled garden next to this ancient Hamam

A Classic Bentley circa early 1950's, stands in front of a former prison.  Now the very up market Four Seasons Hotel. 

 From my morning shower on the forth floor of the neighbouring Empress Zoe hotel,  I could watch the young men putting up the deck chairs on the roof top garden of the hotel 

Anyone for a shoeshine?

And it wouldn't be Istanbul without the omnipresent indefatigable carpet salesmen

Nestled against the walls of the Topkapi Palace is a row of restored 19th century Ottoman town houses.   Because of  the Northern climate these wooden homes typically  had a cikma, or covered balcony projecting over the street.  The windows on the upper floors were covered with lattice so the ladies of  the house could see out without being seen.  Not many of these wooden structures survived and those that did are now mostly hotels

Sultan Ahmet Camii   -   The Blue Mosque

Approach the Mosque from the Hippodrome, follow the steps through the main portal and into the courtyard.  In the center is the now strictly ornamental ablutions fountain, the dome of which is in the bottom of the picture


 When building began in 1609, the inclusion of 6 minarets was thought to be sacrilegious in it's attempt to rival Mecca.  It took seven years to complete.  At that time the Mosque supported a hospital, a primary school, college, public kitchen, market, mausoleum, and caravansary

Cascade of  leaded domes

The Mosques facade is a picture of symmetry unfortunately the area to the left was covered with scaffolding and swarming with workmen

The courtyard covers the same area as the prayer hall and is surrounded on three sides by a covered portico supported on columns.  It can be used for prayer meditation or study during the summer months

The Prayer Hall.

  Vast and serene.  Visitors are allowed into the Mosque between prayer sessions.  Appropriate clothing must be worn and shoes checked at the door

The central dome is 77 feet across and 140 feet high.  It is supported by four colossal columns some 16ft in diameter.  Graceful arabesques decorate the domes and semi domes.   The original 17th century stained glass windows are long gone but modern replacements are being added

The Mosque is named for the famous blue and white Iznik tiles which decorate the lower walls with floral designs of lilies, carnations, tulips and roses  

The Blue Mosque is magnificent at any time of the day but is serenely beautiful when floodlit at night.  The white undersides of the keening seagulls caught in the lights as they circle the minarets, is one of my most cherished memories of Istanbul.  Another is sitting in Sultanhamet Park between the Mosque and Aya Sofia and listening to the Call To Prayer ring our from neighbouring minarets.   Magical

On our way to the Basilica Cistern we came across this dance troupe.   We were happy to oblige and take their photograph

The Basilica Cistern is an amazing feat of Byzantine engineering.  It was built in 582 to supply the demand for water from the Grand Palace.   It is the largest remaining of the original 18 cisterns under the city

It's existence was unknown to the conquering Ottomans for a century.   The roof is supported by 336 columns each 26 feet high.  We walked on wooden walkways surrounded by the sound of leaping fish,  dripping water and classical music

Two pillars rest on Medusa heads, plundered from earlier monuments as were many of the miss matched columns.  It is possible the Medusa mark a shrine to the water nymphs.  James Bond fans may recognize the location in 'From Russia With Love'

Topkapi Palace
We were at the gate as the Palace opened.  Having bought our tickets and paid the photography fee we went straight across to the Harem ticket booth and bought tickets for the first tour of the day.    One can only enter the Harem as part of a conducted tour and they sell out early in the day.    Once you have your ticket you can tour other parts of the Palace and return to the Harem at the appointed time   

The Byzantine church of Aya Eirene pre dates the Topkapi.  Once construction on the Palace began it could no longer be used as a church and was turned into an armoury.  For this reason it never became a Mosque.   It is now used as a concert hall

The Topkapi is a collection of pavilions and gardens built around 4 courtyards, similar in concept to the tented cities from which the nomadic Ottomans came.   Building began at Seraglio Point, where the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara meet, soon after the conquest of Constantinople in 1459.  From then until 1853 when it was abandoned in favour of the European style Dolmabahce Palace, it remained a work in progress

The kitchens were designed by Sinan the famous Architect responsible for Suleymaniye Mosque.  The rows of chimneys above small domes make an interesting addition to the Palace roofscape

A chimney dome and shaft.  

In it's heyday the kitchen served 5000 people a day with up to 10,000 on holidays.  Nowadays it houses not only some of the original kitchen equipment but also a collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain

The Courtyard of the The Valide Sultan  Mother of the Sultans

The Harem is not the stuff of Hollywood legend but rather the private apartments  of the Sultan and his family, and up to 1000 concubines!  The odds therefore of attracting the attention of the Sultan or his mother were not good.  The women of the Harem were slaves from all corners of the Ottoman Empire.  Most never rose beyond the service of their more favoured peers 


Courtyard of the Concubines

We enter via the tradesmen's entrance passing through the quarters of the Black Eunuchs,  who  guarded and waited on the women of the Harem.  An interloper would have to  evade some 200 of them to reach this area.   Some concubines who bore the Sultan a son would become wives.  However the apartments of the First Wife are not nearly as grand as those of the Favourite Concubines.  All are insignificant when compared to those of his mother   The apartments of the favourites are above the portico

The Paired Pavilion

Twin apartments, built in the 17th century for the Crown Prince

The upper coloured windows and ornate ceiling of the Crown Princes Apartments.  A blue and white Koranic tile frieze runs below the windows

The Throne Room

 Radically  altered and redecorated in the  18th century

The Fruit Room

Magnificently decorated  with paintings of fruit and flowers the 18th century Dining Room of Ahmed 111

The Apartment of the Valide Sultan

As the most powerful woman in the Harem she had the largest and most sumptuous rooms.  It was she who arranged the introduction of the concubines to her son.   To ensure there were no chance encounters he always wore slippers made of silver to announce his presence in the Harem and allow the women time to hide 

The Has Oda -Salon of Murad III 

Principle private chamber of the Sultan in the Harem Designed by the architect Sinan in the 16th century.  The large square room with its high-domed ceiling  features a copper canopied fireplace, a baldachin and the fountain pictured below.  The walls are decorated with beautiful tiles.  An inscription in jali-thuluth Arabic script pm blue and white tile, runs around the room.   The windows are double glazed against  the Istanbul winter

Here he received the ladies of the Harem. The fountain is decorated with distinctive coral red tiles.  It served to obscure the ladies  conversation and prevent eavesdropping in this palace of intrigue


The library of Ahmet I,

With a square, domed ceiling and window shutters inlaid with ivory 

Painted and gilded doors

The bathrooms in the Palace are all marble and gold as befits the Sultan of the people who invented the towel

Aya Sofia
Aya Sofia stands on the site of two former Basilicas, both destroyed by fire.  Emperor Justinian had a fireproof replacement built in 532-37.   The architects achieved the near impossible with their design for the apparently unsupported dome.  It was built from special  hollow, porous bricks imported from Greece.   This time it was not fire but an earthquake which brought it tumbling down just 11 years after it's completionAya Sofia is no longer a place of worship but a museum.   Christian images survive side by side with those of Islam.

Following the siege and subsequent fall of Constantinople,  The Basilica of Aya Sofia became a mosque and all images and Christian symbols were removed.  Four minarets, were added to the corners thought not at the same time and the cross on the dome became a crescent


Many Emperors and Sultans have been involved in buttressing and strengthening the foundations and the 'impossible' dome still stands.  When we visited a massive and much needed interior restoration job was under way.  The vast interior was covered in the bane of my travels, scaffolding


In spite of the passages in Exodus forbidding the use of 'graven images'  the walls of the upper gallery, where women went to pray were covered with spectacular mosaics depicting Christ, the saints and various Emperors and their wives.   The Koran leaves no doubt on the question of idolatry which is why when the Basilica became a mosque in the 15th century, the murals were plastered over and the altar  pulpit replaced by the Muslim equivalents.  These huge roundels, some 30 feet in diameter were added in the mid 19th century.  Calligraphy is raised to an art form in Islam and these are the work of a master.   The words are the names of God and can be seen in many Turkish mosques .

Of the remaining images the most beautiful and most famous it the early 14th century, Deesis Mosaic  in the South gallery.  This is a detail of the head of Christ the Pantocrator.  Only the head and torso remain.  In Byzantine art, the Deesis is a traditional representation of Christ enthroned, flanked by Mary and St. John the Baptist; these two figures are appealing to Christ for mercy on behalf of the beholder on Judgment Day


Mural of Christ Flanked by Emperor Constantine and Empress Zoe

By the 4th century BC glass mosaics were being used extensively and Byzantium was the center for the craft.  The glittering gold backgrounds of the Aya Sofia mosaics were obtained by sandwiching gold leaf between tiny pieces of glass to prevent tarnishing.  Other colours were obtained by metallic oxides.  The tessarae were hand set into damp mortar. Slight irregularities in the surface cause light to reflect at different angles.

The figure of the enthroned Christ dominates the mural, and reinforces the difference in stature between the divine and the merely human.  To ensure this he is depicted on a larger scale.  The Byzantine Emperors always aligned themselves closely with the church.


Constantine lX  Monomachus 

Close examination reveals that the head and inscription which reads 'Constantine by the Divine Christ, Faithful King of the Roman's, has been changed.  Empress Zoe's first husband the Emperor Romanus lll contributed to the repair of the basilica, hence the purse.  His was the first head, followed by Michael lV husband number 2,  and finally Constantine who outlived her.

The Empress Zoe.   978-1050 

To ensure the stability of the Empire,  she married for the first time at the age of 50.  Six years later Romanus lll was poisoned, presumably by Zoe.  She married her lover on the evening of the day his body was found.  Zoe and Michael lV, ruled jointly until his death.  Until her third marriage she ruled with her elder sister Theodora at which time it became a triumvirate.  After the death of Zoe in 1050, Theodora and Constantine ruled on  together .  He died in 1055 and She in 1066.

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