From history to today, the old city of Istanbul perfectly reflects Turkey's cultural and historical significance. This destination that shaped current day Turkey seems vastly different to other fast-paced city destinations. Touches of nostalgia linger over Istanbul's old city part known as Sultanahmet, and if you pause and reflect, you can easily imagine various events over centuries. What was once the walled city and prize gem for invading armies is now Turkey's top tourist attraction. Reflecting Ottoman history, and the Byzantine's imperial capital, this status also makes Sultanahmet desirable for Turkish real estate, with some nearby properties fetching top money and others historically conserved for future generations.
About Sultanahmet - The Old City of Istanbul
Where is the Old City in Istanbul?
Istanbul's old city is on the European side of the Bosporus Strait. Also called Istanbul's historical peninsula, the ancient city area encompasses several historic neighbourhoods, including Sultanahmet, Fatih, and Balat. The Sultanahmet area is the heart of old Istanbul and home to important historical landmarks, like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace. Cobbled streets, ancient walls and historical buildings surrounding Sultanahmet's old city make the area a delight to explore.
The Byzantine Emperor who Founded the Old City
Istanbul was the Byzantine Empire's capital, and all Byzantine emperors ruled from the city. Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) made Constantinople the Roman Empire's new capital. Notable successors who also ruled from here include...
- Roman emperor Justinian I (527-565), who commissioned the Hagia Sophia.
- Basil II (976-1025), who expanded and strengthened Byzantine military power.
- Constantine XI (1449-1453), the last Byzantine emperor, ruled until the Ottoman conquest.
The Ottoman Empire Conquers the Old City
The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, led by Sultan Mehmed II, laid siege for many weeks and broke through the walls. This significant event ended the Byzantine empire and marked expansion into Europe. Moreover, the conquest of Constantinople allowed Ottomans to control the Bosporus Strait between the Black Sea and Marmara Sea and gave them immense Byzantine wealth and power. After the win, Ottoman Turks transformed the old city into their new capital.
The Blue Mosque of Istanbul
The historical Blue Mosque, aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque, sits on Sultanahmet square. The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), commissioned in the 1600s by sultan Ahmet I, is known for intricate blue tiles, from which the Blue Mosque gets its name. The Blue Mosque emphasises imperial mosques with mixed traditional Islamic and Byzantine styles. With six minarets and a 43 metres high central dome, the 20,000 Blue Tiles that were imported from Iznik and cover the interior walls, dome, and arches are synonymous with the mosque and Sultanahmet square. They also highlight the Blue Mosque's intricate calligraphy and other decorative elements. Ultimately Sultanahmet Blue Mosque symbolises Ottoman power and Islamic culture. (More about visiting the Blue Mosque of old Istanbul.)
The Hagia Sophia of Old Istanbul
The original 6th-century Byzantine Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia became a museum until 2020, when it was re-converted into a mosque. Hagia Sophia glorifies Byzantine architecture with a massive dome and intricate mosaics depicting biblical scenes, geometric patterns, and calligraphy. Hagia Sophia's long and rich history, as the religious Byzantine heart and Ottoman Mosque, makes the Sultanahmet landmark a prize gem. (About the Hagia Sophia of old Istanbul.)
Turkish Baths in the Old City
Several historical Turkish baths in Sultanahmet reflect Ottoman-era cultural and architectural heritage while attracting Turkish citizens and tourists. The baths feature intricate tilework, marble columns, and domed ceilings to admire while enjoying traditional rituals, which include steam rooms and massages. The best Turkish bath to visit in Sultanahmet is the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. (What happens in a Turkish bath?)
Istanbul Old City and the Golden Horn
The natural Golden Horn harbour, with a distinctive horn-like shape along the Bosporus Strait, sits in European Istanbul and fronts the Sultanahmet district. The golden horn was an important port and harbour for centuries. The key strategic location during the Ottoman Empire and the city's walls and fortifications built along the shores protected the city from invasions. The Golden Horn offers stunning views and chances to explore villages and districts. Visitors take ferry trips, cross the Galata bridge to new Istanbul, or visit shoreline neighbourhoods and mosques. (About the Golden Horn of Istanbul.)
How to See the Old Walls of Istanbul
The outer wall of Istanbul, known as the Theodosian Wall, was defensive fortifications that encircled the city for centuries. Visitors can explore the remaining sections in various places around Istanbul for glimpses into the city's history and architecture. Another popular place to see restored walls is Yedikule. Additionally, Istanbul Archaeological Museums displays sections, along with other artefacts and exhibits.
The Golden Gate of Constantinople was an arch in the city walls. The Golden Gate, built in the 4th century AD by Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, was the main western entrance and ceremonial gateway used for state processions. Decorated with elaborate sculptures, columns, and reliefs, the original Gate no longer exists, but foundations still exist in the present-day walls of Istanbul near the Topkapi Palace. The Golden Gate of Constantinople reflects the Byzantine history and Istanbul's cultural heritage.
Is Sultanahmet a Good Area to Stay in?
If seeing old landmark buildings is your only aim when visiting Istanbul, Sultanahmet is the best place. The convenient location of Istanbul's most iconic landmarks, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace, makes Sultanahmet ideal. Additionally, walking distances between main attractions makes sightseeing on foot, without public transport, easy. Sultanahmet also offers various accommodation options, from budget-friendly hostels to luxury hotels.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the world's largest and oldest covered markets and has been a hub of trade and commerce for centuries. The Grand Bazaar comprises over 60 streets and over 4,000 shops, offering various goods, including jewellery, textiles, ceramics, spices, and souvenirs. This vibrant shopping district is ideal for haggling, eating local foods, and shopping for souvenirs. The Grand Bazaar opens daily, but be prepared for crowds, especially on weekends and during peak tourist season. (Helpful tips for visiting the Grand Bazaar.)
The Basilica Cistern of Sultanahmet
The 6th-century underground Basilica Cistern supplied water to Constantinople. The cistern, with impressive engineering, spans 140 metres in length and covers 9,800 square metres. Three hundred thirty-six marble columns with clear water and plenty of fish support the cistern. Opening to the public every day, visitors walk along raised wooden platforms running through the Basilica cistern, home to two marble columns with intriguing carvings, including Medusa heads.. (Visiting the Basilica cistern of old Istanbul.)
The Byzantine Era Great Palace of Constantinople
The Byzantine Era Great Palace of Constantinople housed emperors and an administrative centre. In addition, the Great Palace featured many buildings, gardens, and courtyards, like offices, entertainment halls, living quarters, chapels and bathhouses that spanned over 30 acres. The grand palace, built in the 4th century AD, underwent many expansions and renovations reflecting emperors' changing needs and styles. As one of the world's most ornate palaces, the great palace screamed of royal status. Today, the Great Palace and royal residence are no longer standing, but what historians know provides insight into Byzantine history, architecture and lifestyle.
Topkapi Palace and Royal Residence
Ottoman sultans lived and ruled from Topkapi Palace for nearly 400 years. The palace overlooks the Bosphorus Strait and features several courtyards, gardens, and buildings, including the Harem, Imperial Council Chamber, and Treasury, and houses an impressive collection of Islamic art and artefacts, including Ottoman manuscripts, jewellery, and ceramics.
The Imperial Treasury called the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, stored the Ottoman Empire's wealth, including gold, silver, jewellery, and other precious objects. Mehmed the Conqueror established the Imperial Treasury that grew over the centuries to include gifts from other rulers and objects acquired through conquest like the Spoon maker's Diamond, Kasikci Diamond, and Topkapi Dagger.
Sultan Ahmed the third expanded Topkapi Palace to include grand buildings and gardens. Sultan Ahmed the third is notably known for promoting the tulip era through architecture. Topkapi palace underwent several expansions and renovations under Sultan Suleiman the magnificent. Suleiman the Magnificent reigned from 1520 to 1566 and reached immense power and prosperity during this time.
The Hagia Irene church in the Topkapi palace outer courtyard has been a mosque and museum, but today hosts events. Hagia Irene's unique blend of Byzantine and classical architectural styles features a central dome surrounded by smaller domes and semi-domes supported by pendentives. Intricate mosaics and marble flooring adorn the interior. The architectural style of Hagia Irene represents Byzantine artistic and architectural heritage.
The Imperial Gate was the main entrance to Topkapi Palace. The Imperial Gate, an ornate structure used by sultans to enter and exit the palace, is adorned with intricate tile work, calligraphy, and relief sculptures, reflecting Ottoman decorative arts. (Guide to visiting the Topkapi Palace of old Istanbul.)
Istanbul Archaeological Museum
The Istanbul Archaeological Museum displays and preserves artefacts and art from ancient Mediterranean and Middle East civilisations. The Archaeological Museum, founded in 1891, includes collections from the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Ottoman rule. The museum houses Alexander the Great's Sarcophagus, the Sphinx of Tanis, and the Crying Women's Sarcophagus. In addition, the museum's extensive collection of ceramics, metalwork, Islamic art, glassware, coins, seals, and manuscripts from various historical periods reflect the ancient orient.
The German Fountain of Sultanahmet
Germany gifted the Fountain of Sultanahmet in the 19th century. Made of marble and bronze and decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from German and Turkish mythology, the German Fountain attracts attention because of architecture, historical significance, and location. Standing in plain sight, the German Fountain testifies to strong cultural ties between Turkey and Germany. (Discover 7 of Istanbul's Old Fountains.)
The Hippodrome Egyptian Obelisk
The walled Obelisk, called the Egyptian Obelisk, was initially erected in ancient Thebes in Egypt around 1500 BCE and later brought to Constantinople in the 4th century AD. The 25 metres tall Egyptian Obelisk of Sultanahmet, made of red granite, has hieroglyphics and relief sculptures depicting scenes from Egyptian mythology. Visitors to Sultanhamet can see the structure in the old hippodrome, next to the Blue Mosque.
Final Thoughts and Summary on Old Istanbul
Unfortunately, the sultan Ahmet district's royal demise started declining in the 19th century. Ottoman sultan Abdul Mecit moved their official royal palace to Dolmabahce, on the other side of the Golden Horn and Galata bridge. Dolmabahce palace featured Ottoman Rococo and Baroque styles of that era. Lining the Dolmabahce court with gold, expensive carpets and tiles, the status didn't last because, in the early 20th century, the new Turkish republic disbanded the Ottoman sultan. They also moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara.
Still, when we look at the story of the old city of Istanbul, from Byzantine rule to various Ottoman emperors, Islamic art, and famous buildings like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the importance to Istanbul is undeniable. These days, the Sultanahmet area and Faith district are one of Istanbul's prime areas for real estate. Given the high tourism status, many properties for sale in Fatih are accommodation choices. But, undoubtedly, the glory of the old city of Istanbul carries on.
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