One of the reasons that I wanted to go to Turkey was to visit Istanbul or rather Constantinople. I had never really ‘done’ Istanbul before – I had seen it for several individual days but I wanted to spend several days to do it thoroughly. In particular I wanted to viisit Constantinople, the city of Constantine, and to see what remained of the city that was the heart of the late Roman Empire.
One of the sites I wanted to see was the Hippodrome, or Circus, which was in many ways the centre of the late Roman city. This was where all the best riots took place – football crowds are very well behaved as compared to the crowds in the circus, where the Blues and the Greens always took different sides in everything. About half of the length is now laid out as a park with three columns still surviving more or less from the central spine.
Our biggest surprise was to discover part of the Great Palace. We were looking one evening for somewhere to dine and we came across the Palatium, cafe (right) which seemed in a rather modern building. Imagine our surprise when under the floor we discovered a fragment of the Great Palace. The owner of the restaurant had dug down – I am sure quite illegally – and had discovered room after room of what was clearly part – a very small part – of the Great Palace.
He had continued to dig through room after room till eventually he came up in another restaurant in the next street, so one goes in one restaurant and comes up in another restaurant in a different street. I’m sure it was all quite illegal – but very interesting
One of the most remarkable remains in the city is the so-called Basilica cistern. This huge underground cistern was built by Justinian in A.D. 532 in order to provide water for the Great Palace. There are said to be 336 pillars in the cistern, all of them reused.After the Turkish conquest of the city in 1483, the position of the cistern was lost, but it was eventually re-discovered and in 1985-8 the cistern was drained, leaving only a shallow depth in the bottom, walkways were erected and it is now a popular visitor attraction.
One of the finest remains of the Roman city is this aqueduct built by the Emperor Valens in around AD 375. There are two tiers of arches and it remained in use until the 19th century, supplying water to the city. It was supplied by a network of canals having their origins in the Belgrade Forest over 12 miles away
Among the most remarkable remains are the great walls of Constantinople built originally by the Emperor Theodosius II between A.D. 412 422. We took a round-the-city bus ride, which went right along the length of the defences, some 4 miles or 6.5 km long, and from the top of the bus, I was able to take some remarkable photos.
Here we see the main wall and some of the 92 Towers. However in A.D. 447 there was a huge earthquake and many of the towers were thrown over. Even worse, Attila the Hun was threatening the city, and it is said that the citizens set to work and the defences were rebuilt in just two months the rival teams in the Hippodrome, the Blues and the Greens combining for this purpose. A second wall was built as an addition defence in front of the original wall, and here the foundations of the second wall can just be seen, though this modern road that runs alongside it has removed any further remains
The wall was pierced by 11 fortified gates one of which can be seen here. This stretch has been heavily restore and most of what you see is in fact modern.
The walls were hugely successful and withstood siege for over 1000 years: when Constantinople was captured by the Venetians in the Fourth Crusade, the attack came in from the sea, as they were unable to breach the walls. It was not until May 1453 that the Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror finally breached the walls, with the help of canons.
But what of the Turks?
The biggest Turkish monument is the Topkapi Palace from where the Ottoman Empire was ruled for four centuries. I must say, the Topkapi was a disapointment. certainly is as a Palace it is a mess, a jumble of buildings with little overall shape. It was not grand at all but instead it consisted of a series of courts with a jumble of buildings, the best of which were ‘kiosks’ .
The site was chosen by Meymet the Conqueror between 1459 and 1464. The old Byzantine palace, to the west of the peninsula, had become ruinous so he chose a new site on the east of peninsula on the highest point of the hill which in fact the site of the original city of Byzantium.
Here we see one of the finest pieces of architecture, the Gate of Salutation, or the Middle Gate, between the First and the Second Court. Only the Sultan was allowed to ride through it – everyone else had to dismount. This was the beginning of the Palace proper
The finest architecture is to be found in a series of pavilions. This is one of the most beautiful, the Baghdad pavilion, situated in the Fourth Court, the most intimate of the courts. It was built by the sultan Murad IV in 1638 to celebrate the conquest of Baghdad.
I think this is th e best of the interiors. This is the library of Ahmed III, built in 1790 in the 18th century at the height of the ‘Tulip period’ often considered to be the most elegant period when Ottoman art was already beginning to be influenced by Western ideals
So that concludes my account of a very enjoyable visit to Turkey. I have lots more photos, — which sometime I would like to show you.
But whereto now?
Would you like to go ‘home’?
Or how about a trip to India?
24th December 2012, revised and enlarged 13th April 2013