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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, Ankara was declared the capital in 1923.  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

The Empress Zoe Hotel

On the recommendation of a friend we opted for The Empress Zoe,  a small boutique hotel.   From the  semi basement lobby we reached our room via a spiral staircase and a couple of flights of regular stairs.  There is no elevator but the staff were happy to help with luggage.   The guest rooms are mostly very small by North American standards but what they lack in size they make up for in traditional Turkish furniture and textiles, you certainly know you are not at a Best Western

We asked for room 41,  as we knew it to be one of the larger ones, this was only possible because we were staying for a week.  It shares the forth floor with the lounge bar and terrace which overlooks the Marmara Sea.  With a bit of a stretch of the neck you can see the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia.   They serve a wonderful breakfast either in one of the two dining areas in the hotel or in the small walled garden next to an ancient Hamam. Thank you Joan, the Empress was the perfect choice for us 

The Neighbourhood

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.  The shoeshine guy adds a touch of local colour to he scene

A vintage Bentley circa early 1950's,  in front of the former Sultanhamet Jail.  Transformed now into the up market Four Seasons Hotel 

And it wouldn't be Turkey if there were no carpets hanging around looking for a new home

Sultan Ahmet Camii -The Blue Mosque

Built by Ottoman Sultan Ahmet between 1609 and 1616, sited by the Hippodrome,facing the church of Aya Sofia so as to compete with it.  Originally it supported a hospital, primary school, college, public kitchens, a market, mausoleum and caravansary.  The Sultan did not live to see it's completion

Mosques traditionally had a maximum of four minarets, the holiest mosque in the world, the Harem Mosque in Mecca with six being the exception .  Ahmet was thought sacrilegious in his attempt to compete with Mecca

In his defence he claimed his mosque has six minarets in a mix up over instructions to his architect.   Ahmet requested 'gold' minarets and the architect understood he wanted 'six' minarets, the words being similar enough to believe it was a genuine mistake

Whatever the truth the Sultan had to send his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret to the Harem Mosque.  The architect, Sedefkar Mehemet Aga died the year after the completion of his masterpiece

The Blue Mosque is magnificent any time of day but is serenely beautiful when floodlit at night.   Sitting in Sultanhamet park between the Mosque and Aya Sofia, the flashing white undersides of the keening seagulls caught in its lights as they circle the minarets while listening to the Call To Prayer ring out with the surrounding Mosques responding,  is one of our most cherished memories of the city.  Wondering if the Iman still climbed the stairs to call the faithful to prayer, he obligingly, coughed confirming that he did.  I like to think he still does and it is not now a recording

Only the Sultan was allowed to enter the courtyard of the Blue Mosque on horseback.   To ensure his humility a chain was hung across the upper part of the court entrance necessitating he bow his head in a symbolic gesture to his divine ruler every time he entered

Photo by Babak Gholizadeh    Wiki Media Commons License

There are five main domes, eight secondary domes and of course the contentious at the time six minarets.   The domes unlike the gargantuan Aya Sofia are supported by so called "elephant foot pillars'.  The domes are lit by over 200 windows originally supplied with intricate stained glass designs as a gift to the sultan from the Signoria of Venice.  Sadly most of the original glass has been replaced with modern glass of inferior quality but maybe you have to be an expert to appreciate the difference

The mosque is famed for it's blue tiles made at Iznik, some 20.000 of them line the interior.  The tiles at the lower level are of a traditional design  becoming more flamboyant on the upper levels where flowers and fruit are depicted.  They have faded and the glaze deteriorated over the centuries but they are still wonderful to behold  

The Basilica Cistern


Visiting dance troupe encountered on our way to the Basilica Cistern

                                                        Robert Raderschatt WikiMedia Commons Licence

Built in 532 to supply water to the Grand Palace and surrounding areas.  Following the abandonment of the palace, it lay forgotten until 1545 when a Frenchman researching Byzantine antiquities noticed the local residents drawing water and sometimes fish in buckets lowered through holes in their basements

                         Reclining Medusa Head


There are several  hundred such cisterns under Istanbul but this is the largest.   It's vast roof is supported by 336 mismatched marble columns resting on plinths, thought to have been salvaged from earlier Roman buildings 

These Medusa heads serve as plinths for two of the columns because they were the right height when somewhat eccentrically placed

                         Upside Down Medusa Head

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