Istanbul

Istanbul by CC user 94215313@N00 on Flickr

Introduction

Sitting astride a channel that marks the boundary between Europe and Asia/Middle East, the cultural pedigree that Istanbul has to offer the intrepid traveler is unparalleled by few, if any other cities on Earth.

Known in the past as Constantinople, this place rose to power as the central seat of power for the Byzantine Empire after the death of the Roman Empire to the west. It served as one of the most important cities in the world for 1,000 years until was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century.

Bringing in an Islamic influence, it sprinkled the landscape with mosques to mix with the cathedrals that had existed prior to their incursion. This blending of cultures gives Istanbul the exoticism that has drawn travelers for centuries, and continues to do so to this day.

Blue Mosque Istanbul by CC user gags9999 on Flickr

Cultural Experiences

Turkey is a Muslim majority country, and with Istanbul being a major regional centre, it is no surprise that there is an abundance of spectacular mosques with its city limits.

The most popular of the lot is the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is the largest of its kind in Istanbul, making it a major part of its skyline. Its sweeping marble courtyards will prep you for the next major Muslim house of worship on your tour, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Also known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles that line the walls inside, this institution contains chandeliers, stained glass windows and a vast inner sanctum covered by intricately weaved carpets that will shock you with its scale.

Istanbul was also a hub of the Greek Orthodox Church over the course of its lengthy history, with its greatest house of worship being the Hagia Sophia. Built in the 6th century shortly after the rise of the Byzantine Empire, this house of Christian worship was the largest cathedral in the world before being supplanted by the Seville Cathedral in Spain in 1520.

At that point however, the structure had been converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered the Byzantines a century earlier in 1455. It served in this capacity until 1935, when it was converted into a museum detailing its past rich history as a holy place for Christians and Muslims.

A beguiling mix of design elements from both religions can be sighted here, from Islamic altars and Quranic verses, to crosses and mosaics of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Simply put, this is a landmark that cannot be missed on a trip to Istanbul.

Being the largest surviving vessel that stored drinking water for the citizens of Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern is a surreal experience for those that view its musty yet atmospheric depths. Lit up in a spectacular fashion, the ornately carved pillars underscore the value placed upon beauty during the lengthy rule of the Byzantines. Be sure to have a cappuccino in the cafe fronting the cistern, reveling in the rare opportunity to reflect on life in such an auspicious place.

Lanterns in the Grand Bazaar by CC user laszlo-photo on Flickr

Other Attractions

If you are ready to put your haggling skills to the test, head to the Grand Bazaar and take on merchants that have learned from the multiple generations that came before them. You’ll have your pick of 3,000 stalls set over 61 streets, selling everything from carpets to multi-colored lanterns. Even if you don’t but anything to take home with you, have some Turkish style coffee and discuss the matters of the day with Istanbul locals.

After the Ottomans had toppled the juggernaut that was the Byzantine empire after 1,000 years in power, they saw fit to construct an opulent new keep known as Topkapı Palace from which to rule over their new domain. Over its 400 year run as the main royal residence of the Ottomans, they managed to get their hands on some immensely valuable relics, the most important of which is said to be none other than one of Mohammed’s cloaks and his sword. A great deal of antiquities can be found on display here, including porcelain, medieval weapons and armor, and Islamic manuscripts.

Finally, end your time in this cultural crossroads by sailing along The Bosphorus, which is considered by many to be the border between Europe and Asia. A variety of palaces, villas, and grand bridges can be seen on this tour, making it the perfect way to spend your last evening in the city before leaving for destinations further afield in Turkey.

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