Any visit to Istanbul should begin at Hagia Sophia. The great church with its enormous dome was built in the early 6th century by the Emperor Justinian, and still dominates the skyline of the Old City. It contains some of the most magnificent mosaics to have survived from the Byzantine period, including a haunting Virgin and Child.
Blue Mosque, which lies only a short distance away across a carefully tended park is hardly less splendid and takes its name from the exquisite tile decoration of its interior.
It opens out onto the
Hippodrome, the ancient stadium of Byzantium, which was the scene of chariot races and public ceremonies for a thousand years.
On its far side is the
Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, which is housed in the elegant palace of Ibrahim Pasha, one of Suleyman the Magnificent’s many ill-fated grand viziers. Among many other wonders, it contains an unrivalled display of Turkish carpets, some of which date back to the early 13th century. This collection is sure to impress you with both its beauty and variety, whetting your appetite to discover more of Turkey’s traditional art forms.
Archaeological Museum, the starting point of our tour, is one of the largest and most important museums of its kind in the world, containing over a million artifacts. It is, in fact, three museums: the main museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which has a particularly fascinating collection of finds from the Yemen, and the Tiled Pavilion, built in 1472 by Mehmet the Conqueror, which now houses a magnificent collection of Turkish ceramics. Perhaps the most striking exhibit in the main building is a series of monumental sarcophagi unearthed by the museum’s founder, Osman Hamdi, at Sidon in Lebanon. The finest of them is the so-called “Alexander Sarcophagus,” which is decorated with wonderfully vivid scenes of hunting and combat.
Topkapi Palace is only a short distance away from the Archeological Museum and as fully embodies Turkey’s Ottoman past as the other does its Hellenistic and Roman. The vast labyrinth from which the Ottoman sultans ruled their empire is arranged around a series of three courts. The famous harem, the private quarters of the sultan and his extended family opens off the second court. All its rooms are richly decorated with gilding, frescoes and tiles and beyond it, in the third court lies the principal audience chamber, and a delightful group of terraces, fountain and pavilions. Numerous of the structures, most notably the mammoth kitchen complex, were designed by Sinan, the greatest of the Ottoman architects. The palace is now a museum and houses (among other things) outstanding collections of silk caftans and one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese celadon pottery.
The last visit of the day will be to the world famous Grand
Covered Bazaar, more dazzling than any other oriental bazaar, built in 1461 and in service ever since. It contains 3,500 shops employing more than 20,000 people all under one roof. Everything imaginable in the world is for sale here, glittering gold and silver jewelry, antique tiles, leather, and souvenirs. Just seeing and experiencing this fascinating bazaar is a memorable experience.