In March 2016 I finally realized my dream of visiting Istanbul, bringing along my husband and our youngest daughter. I scrupulously planned out our 10-day visit. I scheduled a number of tours for sites that I thought would require an experienced guide, while for other sites we got the audio guides.
The Heart of the Old City
Our hotel was in the old city – the heart of imperial Constantinople. We were a few steps from the Basilica Cistern and the remains of the Milion. A few more steps and the Hagia Sophia loomed over us, with what’s left of the Hippodrome just to the right. We visited the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and Galata Tower all on our first day. On one of the tours we visited the city walls and climbed to the top at one spot. Chora, Pantokrator, Pammakaristos, and several other Orthodox churches long since converted to mosques were on a different day. On one long day we drove to both Gallipoli and Troy.
On our own we saw Topkapi, the Dolmabahce Palace, Hagia Irene, the Beylerbeyi summer palace, the Archaeological Museum, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum and the Mosaic Museum. The Museum Pass card included most of those places for one reasonable price.
Istanbul was almost more than I expected. The Hagia Sophia is the city’s crown jewel – still magnificent after over fourteen centuries. I stood in the empress’s gallery (see the photo), saw the mosaics of Zoe and Monomachos, and John and Irene Comnene, and stood beside the Omphalion – the spot where emperors were usually crowned. We visited it twice but even that was not enough to glean more than a small fraction of its secrets.
None of the sites disappointed us – even the two relatively minor underground cisterns we visited.
The Divan Yolu
Our hotel was close to the Divan Yolu which was known as the Mese during the eastern Roman empire. This busy street has a tram running down its middle, with cars and buses crowding the road. By today’s standards it really isn’t all that wide, although in the long ago times of the Roman emperors it would have been enormous compared to the narrow streets most people lived on. The Divan Yolu/Mese has seen emperors parading, riots, celebrations, and funerals. Walking its sidewalks with the noisy city around me, I could imagine the raucous calls of the crowds in the nearby Hippodrome from centuries past cheering on their favorite teams.
Although I had not thought of it before we arrived, I think what surprised me most was the Turkish people we met. They were almost universally friendly and cordial. The recent tragic events – bombings and the coup attempt – worry me about how the people we met are coping. I can only hope that this gem of a city – and its friendly citizens – weathers these storms so that visitors will again come to appreciate its historic sites and many charms.
Footnote: If you enjoy my blog, I hope you will read my book, Tales of Byzantium. And if you have read it, I would greatly appreciate a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Writers need reviews for their books to get traction in the marketplace. Thank you.