Tag Archives: Strolling

Along the Land Walls to the Chora Church

Having explored a section of ancient Istanbul’s sea walls we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the city’s land defences. Running for approximately 6.5km from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Byzantine land walls complete the defences which made Constantinople, as it then was, such a secure place, invulnerable to invasion for centuries. They were initially built in AD413 but an intense earthquake in 447 caused considerable damage and, as Atilla the Hun was advancing on the city, the repairs needed to be speedy. Constantine, the Prefect at that time, threw all of the city’s resources at the task and managed to complete the job in just two months with improvements in the form of an outer wall and moat. Impressive indeed and successful in holding back Atilla.

The Marble TowerThe Marble Tower was the point where the sea walls joined the land walls

We started out from the Sea of Marmara coast at the Marble Tower, so called because its lower half is faced in marble. This structure was the joining point between the sea and land walls although nowadays it is disconnected from both by a busy road. We had a scramble behind the tower and poked about in the remains of its rooms, now being used by some of the city’s homeless for shelter.

Istanbul's Land WallsThe land walls form an imposing landmark in this part of the city

After about 400m walk alongside the wall we came to Yedikule, literally ‘Seven Towers’, a castle within, and a part of, the walls. After the Conquest, the Ottomans built three additional towers and an enclosing wall inside one of the gates of the land wall. The castle was not used for military purposes but partly as a prison and partly as storage for the State Treasury. The tumbledown minaret of a small mosque still stands in the centre of the courtyard.

Inside Yedikule fortressThe interior of Yedikule castle seen from its walls

We were able to climb inside some of Yedikule’s towers as well as around its wall, admiring the sturdy construction and getting good views out to the sea and over the city. We even spotted some of the city’s landmark buildings – Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Exploring one of the towers of the Yedikule fortressExploring the Tower of Ambassadors in Yedikule, once used as a prison for foreign envoys

View down the land walls to Sea of MarmaraLooking from the top of the walls of Yedikule along the land walls to the Sea of Marmara. The Marble Tower can be seen beside the sea in the centre left of the photo.

Moving on we found that although some sections of the wall have been restored so that you can walk along them, much of it is crumbling and even if it is possible to walk along the top there are not good ways to get up and down so for the most part we were following small streets as close to the wall as we could get.

Unrestored section of land wallsUnrestored tower in the land walls

Vegetable gardens between the inner and outer wallAlong the outside of a lot of the wall we saw allotments and vegetable gardens

Originally and for centuries afterward there were just ten gates in the whole length of the wall and only five of those crossed the moat allowing access to the outside world. However, in the last hundred or so years sections of the wall have been knocked down to allow the passage of the railway line and several large highways. Even so, the old gates are still in use and given their width (only a little larger than one van or minibus) they must cause bottlenecks of traffic between what is now the city without the walls and the old town.

Gate in land wallsThe narrow Mevlevihane Gate

Towards the Golden Horn end of the walls is Tekfur Saray, originally a Byzantine palace but since the end of the 14th century it has had rather a chequered history serving time as a brothel, a pottery and a menagerie for larger kinds of exotic animals amongst other things all the while somehow maintaing its original character. Unfortunately it isn’t open to the public at the moment although it looks like it’s under restoration so perhaps soon it will be. By the time we reached this point of the walk it was late in the afternoon. Walking the streets through the nearby neighbourhood on the descent to the Golden Horn we were amused to see housewives doing their shopping by lowering down baskets from their apartment windows to the stallholders below, presumably with a list and payment inside.

Tekfur SarayThe impressive Tekfur Saray near the Golden Horn end of the land walls

Chora Church Museum

Christ Pantocrater mosaicThe church was dedicated to Christ Pantocrater (the Almighty) shown in this mosaic over the door to the inner narthex

Close to the Golden Horn end of the land walls is the former Church of St Saviour in Chora, known in Turkish as Kariye Muzesi. Like many of the Byzantine churches that we’ve visited in Istanbul, this one was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Conquest. Fortunately its magnificent mosaics and frescoes were preserved, even if unconsciously, by being covered in plaster and in the 1950s they were restored and the building opened as a museum. Further restoration has begun recently and the nave of the church was closed off for this work during our visit.

Chora Church inner narthexAlthough the church is quite small, the ceilings are absolutely covered in shimmering mosics

A church or monastery has stood on this spot since before the land walls were built. It underwent several remodellings from the 11th century onwards culminating in the rebuilding and redecoration which gave the church its current form in the early 14th century. The man responsible for this was Theodore Metochites, a high ranking official in the court.

Theodore Metochites presenting his church to ChristMosaic portrait of Theodore Metochites presenting the church as a gift to Christ

The mosaics form a series of groups including the life of the Virgin Mary, the life of Christ and Christ’s ministry. The Strolling Through Istanbul book highlighted them for us in order which greatly enhanced the experience as we were able to follow the stories being told.

The Ancestry of Christ dome mosaicDome mosaic showing the ancestry of Christ

MosaicMosaic from the life of Christ showing Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem to be taxed

Temptation of Christ mosaicMosaic of Christ’s temptation in one of the domes of the outer narthex

In the south-east corner of the church is the Paracclesion, a type of side chapel. Here, rather than mosaics, the walls and ceiling are covered with frescoes showing various aspects of the passing over from life to death, along with portraits of Orthodox saints. Remarkably it is thought that the same artist responsible for the mosaics also did the frescoes. While undoubtedly masterly these were for us much less spectacular than the wonderful gilded mosaics.

Paraclession frescoesFrescoes in the Paracclesion

Resurrection frescoThe centrepiece of the frescoes is in the semidome over the apse, called the Anastasis in Greek which translates as Resurrection; it shows Christ having broken down the gates of Hell pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs while various other Biblical figures look on

Fresco domeThe dome of the Paracclesion shows the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels

The church was busy but as everything you want to see is at a height and requires looking up other people don’t get in the way so much. For us this was definitely a highlight of our stay and I would say a must see sight for anyone visiting Istanbul.

Üsküdar – a walk on the Asian side

This time our chosen walk from Strolling Through Istanbul took us around the coastline of the Asian shore, opposite the mouth of the famous Golden Horn. This one is chapter 16, page 372, and even though we’ve done quite a few of the walks in our guidebook and find them quite straightforward, for some reason we got lost between nearly all of the sights!

Graffiti in the park where we had lunch in Uskudar

Graffiti in the park where we had lunch in Üsküdar, next to Ayazma Camii

The book opens with an explanation of why the architecture in this part of the city isn’t as old as those on the European shore, because it lacked massive wall defences and was therefore razed numerous times. For this reason it’s still a fascinating place to visit, as far fewer tourists make the short ride across the river so it has a much more local, laid-back feel to it.

Şemsi Paşa Camii

Şemsi Paşa Camii, a cute little mosque right on the Bosphorus shoreline with its single minaret

Şemsi Paşa Camii, a cute little mosque right on the Bosphorus shoreline with its single minaret

Even though there aren’t any monuments dating to the Byzantine period, the Ottoman royal families liked to build mosques and pious foundations across the river in part for the same reason we wanted to visit – because it allowed them to escape the bustle of the centre.

Our favourite sight of the day was the cute riverside mosque called Şemsi Paşa, described as one of Sinan’s most delightful smaller külliyes (a complex of buildings, centred on a mosque).

Şemsi Paşa Camii has a few unique features, such as an attached türbe separated by a grille from the main prayer room

Şemsi Paşa Camii has a few unique features, such as an attached türbe separated by a grille from the main prayer room

When we entered we were greeted by the friendly imam who handed us a sheet of information in English, asked us if we spoke Turkish or German – to which we said no and apologised for not knowing either – then he proceeded to give us the tour. In German.

We got the gist and he was delighted to point out a few of the unusual features of the mosque, such as the türbe being attached and visible through a grill in one of the walls, and perhaps the coolest mihrab in Istanbul if not the world.. it has spinning marble columns!

The imam showing us and 3 other visitors from England some of the unique features of this quaint little mosque, like the spinning green marble columns in the mihrab!

The imam showing us and 3 other visitors from England some of the unique features of this quaint little mosque, like the spinning green marble columns in the mihrab!

Ayazma Camii

The imposing baroque Ayazma Camii, undergoing renovations so sadly we couldn't take a look inside

The imposing baroque Ayazma Camii, undergoing renovations so sadly we couldn’t take a look inside

Prominently positioned on the crest of the hill overlooking the end of Üsküdar and the mouth of the Golden Horn is the imposing baroque Ayazma Camii. A dark, towering hulk of a mosque which we were glad to see being restored, but sad we weren’t able to look around as it was completely surrounded by fences and scaffolding.

Atik Valide Külliyesi

The heart of the delightful Atik Valide Complex - the Atik Valide Mosque and ablutions fountain in the courtyard

The heart of the delightful Atik Valide Külliyesi – the Atik Valide Mosque and ablutions fountain in the courtyard

After a long walk up the main street from the ferry port, we came to another külliye with a vantage point over the Bosphorus, also designed by the hand of the great Sinan, the lovely Atik Valide Külliyesi.

Inside the Atik Valide Camii with a few latecomers to afternoon prayer

Inside the Atik Valide Camii with a few latecomers to afternoon prayer

Described as the “most splendid and extensive of of all Sinan’s constructions in Istanbul with the sole exception of the Süleymaniye” it consists of a medrese (school), a hospital, an imaret (public kitchen), a tabhane (hospice for travelling dervishes), a dar-ül hadis (school for learning sacred tradition), a dar-ül kura (school for learing the Qu’ran), a mektep (primary school), a kervansaray (inn or hostel for travelling merchants), and a hamam (public bathhouse) – remarkably all of the them still exist today, though in various states of repair.

Details of Atik Valide Camii

Details of Atik Valide Camii. Clockwise from top-left: beautifully decorated central dome and four semi-domes; the decoration continues over the main door; rich painted ceilings of the ground floor galleries; and hardly noticeable repairs to the exterior tile work

The main access to the medrese is opposite the mosque, but finding the doors locked we wandered down to the side entrance to find it also closed. We tried the handle and tentatively pushed it open, stepping inside. An old man sitting at a table with a drink locked eyes with me, and in my best tourist charades I asked if it was OK for us to enter. He motioned to one of 3 younger guys moving chairs who looked up, saw us and gave us a most welcoming gesture.

The medrese of the Atik Valide Complex, a peaceful, enclosed courtyard

The medrese of the Atik Valide Complex, a peaceful, enclosed courtyard

After we’d had a good look around, the young guy came over to meet us and opened up the main door back to the mosque which afforded a lovely framed view of the domes of the şadirvan (the ablutions fountain) and the mosque.

The domes of the Atik Valide şadirvan and mosque viewed from the medrese

The domes of the Atik Valide şadirvan and mosque viewed from the medrese

The mosque and the medrese where the only buildings that it was possible to enter – indeed the kervansaray looks to be an advanced state of decay, but, like many of the old buildings across Istanbul, is currently being restored.

For all there were only a few highlights for us on this stroll, it was nice to get a different, more local feel for the city.

Istanbul’s Markets

Istanbul is full of interesting places to shop. Even if, like us, you’re not interested in buying lots of souvenirs there’s a lot to see. The walking tour that we took started at the Sahaflar Bazaar or book market, a small walled courtyard tucked behind Beyazit Square.

Shopfront in Sahaflar BazaarShopfront in Sahaflar Bazaar, the market of second-hand booksellers

Grand Bazaar

We exited Sahaflar Bazaar through a gate which is just over the street from the most famous market in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar. This is a vast covered complex which, even though it’s laid out in a grid, is incredibly disorientating once you’re inside. How big is it? Well, it contains more than 4000 shops so you really could lose yourself in here looking at everything that’s for sale!

Inside the Grand BazaarThe walkways through the Grand Bazaar are beautifully decorated

Lamps in the Grand BazaarMy favourite shops were the ones selling the jewel like lamps

Tea waiterMost of the shops are pretty small and so filled with merchandise that there’s no room for a kettle. Tiny tea shops send out runners with trays full of the typical tea glasses to keep everyone in the market going.

In the centre of the market is an area called the Old Bedesten. It is one of the original structures of the market dating back to the early 15th century. Historically it has housed the most precious of the market’s wares as it can be securely locked at night. Nowadays it is still home to some swanky looking jewellery and antique shops.

Old BedestenOld Bedesten (clockwise from top left): the heavy doors can be locked at night; there were lots of antique pipes of interesting designs; tiled fountain; display of beads

Gold shop window displayGold shops feature heavily in and around the Old Bedestan

Carpet sellerIt wouldn’t be Turkey without someone trying to sell you a carpet. This seller had set up shop outside one of the Grand Bazaar’s gates but there were plenty inside too

Gold dummiesThe most surprising sight of the day was seeing gold dummies in a gold shop’s window display!

Shopping streets

The area running from the Grand Bazaar down the hill to the Galata Bridge is a warren of narrow streets filled with shops. As in the Grand Bazaar (and many other market areas we’ve visited in Asia – Hanoi and Hong Kong to name just two) shops are grouped roughly according to the product they’re selling so we found streets full of underwear and pyjamas followed by streets of cookware and so on.

Shopping streetsI liked looking up and noticing the ancient architecture of the buildings housing the modern shops

PorterMany of the alleys are too narrow for trucks to access so porters run to and fro with massive loads, usually on trolleys but occassionally on their backs

The walking tour directed us into the courtyards of several hans. These are old commercial buildings which were used to store a merchant’s goods and for merchants from distant places to stay in safety, they’re also known as caravanserais. Each han had buildings arranged around one or more courtyards with strong gateways to keep the goods safe. Several of the ones we saw were in a pretty poor state of repair but were often still used for commerce containing either shops or storage.

Han courtyardCourtyard of Kürçü Hanı where we found dozens of shops filled with knitting wools, buttons and haberdashery

Copper coffee potsTurkish coffee is thick and strong and served in tiny cups. It’s made by boiling the coffee grounds with sugar and water in copper pots like these which we saw on a street full of metalwares

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

At the edge of the shopping streets is the Rüstem Paşa Mosque. We found the mosque easily enough, but finding a way in was not so straightforward. The mosque is built above the shops below and is accessed via two unobtrusive staircases between the merchandise.

Rüstem Paşa MosqueCourtyard of Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Tiled interior of Rüstem Paşa MosqueThe most notable feature of the mosque are the beautiful tiles which cover large portions of the walls as well as the columns, mihrab and mimber

Spice Market

The final stop on our market exploration was the Spice Bazaar. Originally a part of the Yeni Cami mosque complex this market is an L-shaped block of shops selling not only spices, but Turkish Delight (lokum), nuts and dried fruit, along with other fancy foodstuffs as well as a generous sprinkling of souvenirs.

Spice stallSpices for sale at the Spice Bazaar

Turkish DelightThere are far more versions of Turkish Delight available in Istanbul than the pink one that we’re used to, lots of them contain nuts or pieces of dried fruit

Inebolu Market

As a complete contrast to the bustling streets and souvenir stalls around the Grand Bazaar, the next day we headed to the Sunday Inebolu farmers market at Kasımpaşa. Here we didn’t see any other tourists, just lots of locals stocking up on seasonal fresh vegetables, bread and cheese.

Inebolu Market

Mushroom stall at Inebolu MarketAs it’s autumn mushrooms were everywhere with whole stalls dedicated to them

Fresh produce at Inebolu MarketFresh produce (clockwise from top left): green peppers; chestnuts ready for roasting; a cascade of green; pretty baskets of eggs

Olive stallIt’s customary to just approach the olive stall and help yourself to a sample from each tub until you find the one that you would like to buy!

Garlic mushrooms on toastWe bought a large bag of the mushrooms and a very dense loaf of bread – what better way to use them up than garlic mushrooms on toast?

Around the Blue Mosque and the Sea Walls

Continuing our strolling explorations through Istanbul, we popped our heads into Sultan Ahmet Camii, known in English as the Blue Mosque, which is also the starting point for the day’s walking trail which took us downhill to the edge of the Marmara Sea (chapter 6, page 107).

Sultan Ahmet Camii aka The Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmet Camii, otherwise known as The Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmet Camii, also known as The Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmet Camii is the most famous purpose-built mosque in Istanbul. I say it that way because, in a “keeping up with the Joneses” kind of way, it sits next to the larger, grander Hagia Sophia. Founded by Sultan Ahmet I, he instructed his architect – a student of the famous Sinan – to build a mosque that surpassed the beauty of Hagia Sophia. There are a few nice tales about its construction.. firstly, the young Sultan was so keen to see it completed that he often pitched in himself; and secondly that when it was unveiled as having 6 minarets rather than 4, Sultan Ahmet was accused of being too self-aggrandising because Mecca was the site of the only other 6-minareted mosque. His solution was to pay for a 7th minaret in Mecca.

Sultan Ahmet Camii, as viewed from its courtyard on an overcast day

Sultan Ahmet Camii, as viewed from its courtyard on an overcast day. The other two minarets are just behind us

We got there just after the opening time hoping to beat the inevitable queues from the tour busses as this is Istanbul tourist central. Our timing was perfectly coordinated with said coaches, and from the entrance in the south-west corner the queue stretched the length of the mosque, its courtyard, around the corner and half-way up the other side. We were offered expedited entry with a local tour guide for 40 lira (about £13) but being British we secretly like waiting in line and it only took 35 minutes.

Outside, the dark stone of its distinctive silhouette so iconic in Istanbul’s skyline looks fantastically detailed in bright sunlight, but seemed to make it one with the dreary overcast cloudy sky we had. This lowered our expectations for what we were about to find inside..

Inside the Sultan Ahmet Camii or Blue Mosque. The colours, light and shapes are almost too much for the senses!

Inside the Sultan Ahmet Camii or Blue Mosque. The colours, light and shapes are almost too much for the senses!

Inside the Blue Mosque: the barriers separate the tourists from the worshippers as this is very much a working mosque

The barriers separate the tourists from the worshippers as this is very much a working mosque. I thought the blue Iznik tiles of the first balcony were the reason for the name ‘Blue Mosque’, but it comes from the main dome..

Despite being restricted to the back 3rd of the main prayer hall, this, like so many times in Uzbekistan, was a “wow” moment. The space is huge, and dominated by the giant red carpet on the floor and the massive, beautifully decorated dome overhead. It’s the blue in the dome’s design that gives the mosque its name.

The main dome is decorated with stunning blue and gold painting

The main dome is decorated with stunning blue and gold painting, and this is why the mosque gets its name


Hippodrome, Istanbul

The central section of the Hippodrome hints at the greatness of this once mighty arena

Just outside the Blue Mosque we stopped for an early packed lunch next to the massive Egyptian obelisk while we read the introduction to the Hippodrome from our guidebook.

Now a narrow park, it was really difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of the once mighty Hippodrome. Even when we read that the courtyard of the Blue Mosque was built on the foundations of the Hippodrome’s seating, we still weren’t able to fully appreciate how big and important this arena was to Byzantine society. In researching this post, I found this reconstructed image..

A computer generated reconstruction of the Hippodrome

A computer generated reconstruction of the Hippodrome. The current park is about half the width of the chariot racetrack. The domes in the background are that of Haghia Sophia (source: Byzantine Military)

All that remains of the Hippodrome today are a fountain, 3 central columns, and the foundations of the western rounded end. The largest of the central columns is called, appropriately, Colossus, and having stood next to it in person, to then see it in situ as the middle-marker of the 30,000 seat capacity of the Hippodrome finally gave us a sense of scale.

Columns of the Hippodrome: Egyptian obelisk; Serpent column; Colossus

The columns of the Hippodrome: the amazingly well-aged Egyptian obelisk that looks brand new; the bronze Serpent column which has seen many better days; and the Colossus, once covered in metal

Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Camii

Tour guide Julie

Tour guide Julie, reading aloud from the excellent Strolling Through Istanbul

Skipping a few of the smaller sights on the route, we arrived at another of Sinan’s mosques, Sokullu Mehmet Paşa. Built in 1571-2 on the site of a former church, we entered through a long outdoor corridor into the serenity of an empty courtyard and an all but empty mosque – a far cry from the bustle of the Blue Mosque earlier!

Courtyard of Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque

The lovely quiet courtyard of Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque

We loved the quiet serenity of this mosque, and the 3 reasons why it features on the stroll:

  1. It’s built by Sinan, that automatically gets attention but as there almost 100 of his structures left that doesn’t guarantee a place. The book describes this as “one of the most beautiful of the smaller mosques of Sinan
  2. The Iznik tiles in the mihrab are exquisite, and
  3. There are 3 fragments of black stone from the Kaaba in Mecca embedded into the walls: one above the main entrance, another above the entrance to the mimber and the last in the centre of the mihrab
Sneaky picture of Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque

Sneaky picture of Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque while the imam was telling someone else off for taking photographs. The fragments of the Kaaba from Mecca are too small to see in the photo, but they’re just below the panel of writing on both the mihrab and the mimber


Namazgah of Esma Sultan

Namazgah of Esma Sultan. Nice, but what’s it for?

At first glance we weren’t sure we’d found what we were looking for when we entered a small park and children’s play area and spotted an old stone square fenced off in the corner. On closer inspection it was, as our book describes, the last remaining namazgah within the city walls, and one of 3 left in Istanbul.

So what is it? Well, a namazgah is an outdoor prayer area. We thought it was a really interesting thing to see, and it was a shame we couldn’t get closer than the surrounding fence.

SS Sergius & Bacchus

SS Sergius & Bacchus

The lovely light interior of the former Byzantine church of SS Sergius & Bacchus

Approaching the sea, but not yet past the defence of the sea walls, we arrived at SS Sergius & Bacchus, which, like many of the mosques in Istanbul was once a Christian church and subsequently converted to a mosque. Our guidebook introduces it thus:

“SS. Sergius and Bacchus were two Roman soldiers martyred for their espousal of Christianity; later they became the patron saints of Christians in the Roman army. These saints were especially dear to Justinian because they saved his life some years before he came to the throne, in the reign of Anastasius. It seems that Justinian had been accused of plotting against the Emperor and was in danger of being executed, but Sergius and Bacchus appeared in a dream to Anastasius and interceded for him. As soon as Justinian himself became Emperor in 527, he expressed his gratitude to the saints by dedicating to them this church, the first of those with which he adorned the city.” – Strolling through Istanbul, p123

Just like Sokullu Mehmet Paşa earlier, we found SS Sergius & Bacchus to be quiet, and we were encouraged to do something we’ve wanted to do in every mosque we’ve visited with an internal balcony – go upstairs!

SS Sergius & Bacchus

Us inside the Church of SS Sergius & Bacchus, now known as Küçük Aya Sofya Camii – which means “Little Haghia Sofia”

The late afternoon light through the windows was lovely, we loved the light airiness of the decoration and the luxurious sky-blue carpet which felt decadent to walk on.

Byzantine Sea Walls and the Palace of Bucoleon

All that remains of the Bucoleon Palace, part of the Grand Palace

All that remains of the Palace of Bucoleon, one of the seaside buildings of the Grand Palace of Byzantium

The route then ducks under the railway lines which once carried the Orient Express, and through the old sea wall defences to highlight some of the oldest parts of the city.

The highlight of this section for us was the huge marble window frames of the Palace of Bucoleon, which was part of the original Grand Palace of Byzantium, once the heart of Constantinople, and sadly all that remains of it above ground. Even though little of this palace remains, it gave us a sense of scale and grandeur.

After the Palace, we passed ruins of old gates into the city, a marble pavilion and the foundations of an old church. A lot of the old vaulted sub-structures and gatehouses are being used for temporary shelter, and while we felt perfectly safe wandering along the sea walls, the smell of impromptu toilets did prevent us from inspecting some of the vaults more closely.

The massive vaulted sub-structures along the sea walls, Istanbul

The massive vaulted sub-structures of the church of St. Saviour Philanthopes. I’m just working out if I can get out once I get in; yes I can, and here’s the view from inside. This was the largest open one we found at 4 chambers wide

Grand Palace Mosaic Museum

The entrance to the Mosaic Museum behind the Blue Mosque, not a mosaic in sight.. yet..

The entrance to the Grand Palace Mosaic Museum behind the Blue Mosque, not a mosaic in sight.. yet..

The walk ended just behind the Blue Mosque at the Mosaic Museum, which doesn’t look much from the outside but it’s mentioned briefly in our guidebook, and the reviews we’d read elsewhere highly recommended it.

The first room of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. We weren't expecting so many mosaics!

The first room of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. We weren’t expecting so many mosaics!

After passing an unkempt garden of old stone columns and capitals, we entered what looked like a temporary shed and found ourselves on a 1st floor catwalk overlooking the restored mosaic peristyle of the Grand Palace.

Thought to date from Justinian’s reign (527-65), and believed to be the floor of the north-east portico of the Grand Palace, the mosaics were uncovered during excavations in 1935 and have since been restored a couple of times.

Collage of mosaics from the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul

Collage of mosaics from the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. Clockwise from top-left: most of the scenes are of hunting, either humans hunting animals or animals hunting animals like this Eagle with a rodent; A bear feeding on a deer; the head of a boy at play; a very intricate and colourful section of a border; and two boys with a bird riding an ox

The mosaics are wonderful – we weren’t expecting such detailed work or such an extensive collection. The most recent restoration effort is explained in fascinating detail along with what is known about their history in panels throughout.

It was a nice end to another day of strolling, and something quite different to mosques and old walls.

Through the backstreets to Süleymaniye Mosque

We really enjoyed the first ‘stroll’ that we did in Istanbul so for our second one we chose to head a little off Istanbul’s beaten tourist path towards the Şehzadebaşı district. We again began at the Galata Bridge but, rather than walking towards the tour group crowded square in front of the Haghia Sophia, this walk went in the opposite direction to areas where people live and go about their daily business without thinking about tourists.

Süleymaniye MosqueSüleymaniye Mosque from the ferry arriving at Eminönü, this would end up being our destination for the day

Although it doesn’t incorporate any “big sights” this walk gave us a real appreciation for how steeped in history Istanbul is. It took us past many small mosques and other buildings, many over 500 years old, tucked away in commercial and residential areas and still in use today.

Ahi Çelebi MosqueThe waterfront Ahi Çelebi Mosque dates from the early 16th century

Church of the Pantocrator

Probably the most impressive sight on this stroll is the former Church of the Pantocrator. Unfortunately for us it is undergoing what appears to be extensive restoration so we weren’t able to explore it fully. It was built between 1120-36 during the Byzantine (Roman) period when Istanbul was called Constantinople (there’s a song in there somewhere…) and is actually two churches joined by a chapel. Due to the builders’ fencing we could only really get a good look at the southern church which, as with many of the Byzantine churches, was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans took the city in the 15th century.

Church of the PantocratorChurch of the Pantocrator from the south

It isn’t currently open to the public but we managed to sneak in along with some people who had an appointment with the imam! Inside it was strange to see the mihrab not in the centre of the wall opposite the door (as it is in purpose built mosques) but set off to an angle on one side. This is because the Byzantine churches were oriented to the east but mosques in Istanbul face towards the south-east, the direction of Mecca.

Interior, Church of the PantocratorInterior of the Church of the Pantocrator, now called Zayrek Mosque. The mihrab can be seen just to the right of the window in the front left corner of the building


Trying to find the next sight on the itinerary, we were hailed by a man working in a bakery. We said hello and carried on our way but quickly discovered the Şeyh Süleyman Mescidi covered in scaffolding (the authorities here are really in restoration mode) so we retraced our steps for a bite of lunch. We were the only customers eating in but there was a steady flow of takeaway business and as the friendly waiter took our order (part guesswork on our part and part his recommendation) we settled back to watch it being made and baked in the wood fired oven behind the counter. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that local style food from a busy shop, freshly prepared and still hot from the oven was absolutely fantastic!

Lahmacun for lunchTucking into lahmacun for lunch at Fatih Çitir restaurant

Having slightly over-ordered (and hence overeaten) we shambled into the back streets beyond the shop to search out yet more historic mosques. This felt even more off the beaten path. We found locals gossiping on the streets, old men drinking tea and reading newspapers, and kids running up and down with cap guns more than once scaring us with a nearby bang. We got a little lost but eventually managed to reorient ourselves and carry on with the stroll.

Şehzadebaşı mosquesŞehzadebaşı mosques (Clockwise from left): the prettily patterned minaret of Haci Hasan Mescidi; gravestones in the grounds of Aşık Paşa Camii; Eski Imaret Camii, another converted Byzantine church, this one was the Church of St Saviour Pantepoptes

Itfaiye Street

Retracing our steps back past the Church of the Pantocrator we turned, as instructed, down Itfaiye Street where we were expecting to find a hamam, built by Istanbul’s most famous Ottoman architect, Sinan, and recently reopened. We suspect that this was the building completely covered in scaffolding (yet more restoration) but we were too distracted by the pens full of sheep and goats to investigate more closely. It looked more like a livestock market than a butcher’s shop but, as we watched, sheep were sold and then hustled over to the shops across the way where they were slaughtered and butchered. It reminded us of the goat slaughter we witnessed in Mongolia.

Sheep for saleSheep for sale in Itfaiye Street

We later found out that it was a national holiday when traditionally each family sacrifices an animal and so this market is likely not a permanent fixture. One enterprising seller engaged Andrew in conversation, trying to sell him a sheep and reassuring him that it would be butchered for him to take away! Granted, we do have a kitchen in our apartment here, but I’m not sure we have the equipment or appetite to deal with quite so much mutton…

Aqueduct of Valens

Having escaped without a carcass we made our way to the end of the street where we found the hugely impressive Aqueduct of Valens. This structure was built around AD 375 as part of a system to bring water into the city. Incredibly 900m of the original one kilometre length remains. It seems to pass right through local life unnoticed, crossing a busy road, sheltering teashops and bordering a public park.

Aqueduct of ValensLocals drinking tea under the Aqueduct of Valens

Apart from the archaeological remains of another ancient church, this was the end of the stroll. As we had a couple of hours of the afternoon left we decided to head up one of Istanbul’s many hills to visit the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Süleymaniye Mosque

This mosque was commissioned by, and is named after, Süleyman the Magnificent, Ottoman Sultan from 1520-66. Its architect was Mimar Sinan, regarded as the greatest of the Ottoman architects. This is the largest building that he constructed and our guidebook assures us that the Süleymaniye Mosque is “by far the finest and most magnificent of the imperial mosque complexes in the city”.

In the courtyard of the Süleymaniye MosqueUs in the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque

The exterior is extremely beautiful, both in general form with its multitude of domes and the four tall and graceful minarets, but also in the details. We especially liked the arches made up of alternating marble stripes, but everywhere there was intricate stone carving and attention to detail.

Süleymaniye Mosque detailsExterior details (clockwise from top left): striped marble arches in the domed gallery around the inner courtyard; men perform their ritual ablutions before entering the mosque for afternoon prayers; calligraphy on bright blue tiles over one of the windows; stone carving detail on the balcony of one of the minarets

View from the courtyardIts location atop the city’s Third Hill affords spectacular views over the domes of two of the mosque’s medreses, across the Golden Horn to Galata and down the Bosphorus Straits

The inside is just as imposing, it’s essentially one huge open space with the central dome soaring to 47m above the floor. I really liked the painting on the dome, the stained glass windows in the eastern wall and the huge metal circles of lights suspended around the room for illumination and which seem to be typical of all the mosques we’ve visited in Istanbul.

Interior of Süleymaniye MosqueInterior of Süleymaniye Mosque

The mosque is at the centre of a complex of buildings which were all part of the same religious foundation. These include theological colleges, a hospital and a hamam. For us one of the most interesting areas of the mosque complex was the graveyard. Including the türbes, or mausoleums, of Süleyman himself as well as his favourite wife, Haseki Hürrem. Known in the west as Roxelana she is judged by many to have had too much influence over her husband the Sultan. By pressing our noses up against the windows, we discovered that the türbes are beautifully decorated inside with stained glass and blue patterned tiles.

Süleyman the Magnificent's mausoleumThe türbe of Süleyman the Magnificent is surrounded by other graves

Sinan himself is buried on a corner to the northwest of the mosque in a mausoleum which he designed and built in the garden of what was his home.

Sinan's mausoleumSinan’s mausoleum is the smaller dome which you can just see in the triangular enclosure behind the corner fountain