With a 21st century city skyline punctuated by the domes and minarets of the Ottoman Era, it's easy to forget that Istanbul was once the capital of the Roman Empire. After Emperor Constantine took control in 324 AD, the great city of Byzantium was renamed Constantinople, a name it retained until Istanbul became its new title in the 1920s. Although many of the buildings have been destroyed or repurposed over time, elements of the city's Roman legacy still peek through.
Hagia Sofia is probably the most famous Roman structure remaining in Istanbul. This amazing feat of Byzantine engineering was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a millennium. The different architectural styles and materials make it easy to see that the building has been developed and modified over the years. The brown bricks visible on the lower levels are remnants of earlier incarnations. Above this, the great dome is supported by buttresses and semi-domes covered in red plaster which has faded to pale pink over time. The grey stone minarets, marble covered mausoleums and the gold tiled sadirvan (ablutions area) were clearly added much later, when the Ottomans converted this Orthodox Christian cathedral into a mosque.
Mausoleum at Hagia Sofia
Changing Hagia Sofia into a place suitable for Muslim worship required modifications inside as well. The building faces east, in the Christian style, so the mihrab and other Islamic elements were placed slightly off centre to direct worshippers towards Mecca rather than the sunrise. Many of the relics were destroyed but some of the mosaics were just plastered over and have since been uncovered. Hagia Sofia is now a secular museum celebrating both the Christian and Muslim history of this unusual building. The elaborate chandeliers and marble floors make it feel very much like a regular mosque but here and there mosaics depicting angels and saints appear alongside the Arabic calligraphy and geometric patterns.
Hagia Sofia Interior
An Ancient Egyptian obelisk and the Serpentine Column are all that remains of the Hippodrome that once hosted chariot races for up to 100, 000 spectators. The obelisk was already over 1000 years old when it was taken from Egypt by the Romans. The pedestal at the base was added later and its elaborate carvings depict racing chariots, cheered on by crowds of spectators along with images of the victor being rewarded by the emperor. A few streets away, the column of Constantine once stood 50m tall with a statue of Constantine on top, which has long since gone. The distinctive scorch marks now visible are a more recent feature, damage from a fire that ravaged this section of the city in the 18th century.
The Walls of Constantinople
Constantinople's position at the mouth of the Bosphorus and it's leading role in both the Roman and Byzantine Empires made it a prime target for invading hordes so like many great cities of that time it was protected by impressive land and sea walls. As the city grew beyond the confines of the earlier walls, new fortifications were constructed to protect more of the city. The double layered system of fortifications, part of which is still visible today, protected the city from Attila the Hun and many other threats until the development of siege cannons made such structures obsolete.
A complex system of aqueducts, cisterns and reservoirs was constructed to supply fresh water to the rapidly growing population of Constantinople. Today, a large section of the Valens Aqueduct spans all 6 lanes of Ataturk Boulevard forcing traffic through the narrow arches that support it. The Basilica Cistern in the city centre, the largest of over a hundred cisterns that were once in use across Constantinople, was rediscovered in the 16th century by Petrus Gyllius. This curious traveller was intrigued by the freshwater fish sold in central Istanbul and later learned that the locals could draw fresh water and even catch fish from nearby wells. Investigating further he entered one of the wells and was surprised to find this ancient cistern, which he explored by boat. After major restoration and cleaning in the 1980s that removed tons of mud and excess water, the cistern is now easily accessible.
This vast underground chamber is supported by hundreds of evenly spaced marble columns. The columns demonstrate a variety of styles, two of them even have a medusa's head at their base, and are likely recycled remnants of even older structures imported from ruins throughout the empire. The Hen's Eye Column is the most unusual and is named after the numerous tear shaped hen's eyes engraved along its length. It's purpose is still debated though some say these tears are a monument to the slaves who died building the cistern. There is a small hole in the column where visitors are encouraged to insert their thumb and rotate their hand 360 degrees in order to receive good luck. The legend behind this is unclear but there is a similar hole in one of the columns in Hagia Sofia where tour guides have their groups do the same.
Hen's Eye Column
With over 3000 years of history spanning the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Istanbul has a rich and diverse heritage. Elaborate Ottoman palaces and mosques demonstrate the Arabic influence of the last 6 centuries whilst remnants of the older Roman and Byzantine history of Constantinople are still available to any visitor.
Istanbul Travel Tips
Entry to the mausoleums at Hagia Sofia is free and they are accessed through a separate entrance, around the corner from the main gate. While the main building can be very crowded, the mausoleums are generally quiet and well worth a visit.
There are usually several street vendors around the Hippodrome and Hagia Sofia. Simit (Turkish bagels) and Nutella accompanied by a carton of the yoghurt drink, Ayran, make a great breakfast on the go.
The Hippodrome, Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sofia are all clustered in central Sultanahmet. They can easily be combined with a visit to the iconic Blue Mosque or the Pudding Shop, a cafe that was once a famous meeting place for hippies travelling east.