One of the great things about speaking at conferences is the chance to visit lots of interesting places….
I spent time at University studying historical events in Istanbul while I was at University in St. Andrews for my Mediaeval History degree. So when I was offered the change to talk at a really cool conference in Istanbul (DevFest), I naturally jumped at the chance! As you might imagine, I came out a day early to see the sites. Here are some of the highlights….
The Hippodrome (Atmeydani)
Istanbul is an Ancient city and still lives with the legacy of its history. The hippodrome is where the Romans would organise their chariot racing. The supporters were named after the colours of the teams (Greens, Blues) and fights between supporters could get out of hand. On one occasion the resulting riot ended up destorying parts of the city and the army had to be called in….
Nothing survives of the old hippodrome except the remains of 3 monuments bought to decorate the stadium but the area is level and road round the square follows the path of the track for the chariots. So you can still imagine the real-life Ben Hur’s racing round the place.
The blue mosque
A short walk away is the Blue Mosque (named after its famous interior of Blue Tiles). This is still actively used as a place of worship, so visitors are not allowed inside on a friday morning. According to legend it was heated using water from the Turkish baths
The Basilica Cistern
Near Hagia Sophia you will find a large underground water storage tank. It was built by the Romans using recycled columns (one of which has the upside down head of Medusa on it). In more modern times, it was used as a scene in the James Bond film ‘From Russia with Love‘ and is now open to the public.
Another short walk to takes you to Hagia Sophia. This was the largest church in the world for much of the Middle Ages and boasts a very impressive dome. When it was the seat of a powerful empire, the point under the middle of dome was regarded as the centre point of the Earth.
It was changed into a Mosque when the Ottoman Turks captured the city in 1453. It became a Museum when Turkey became a Republic. You can see some of the world’s greatest mediaeval art inside.
The Topkapi Palace
This was the home of the Ottoman Sultans after they conquered the city. As the Ottoman Empire was a superpower, it was a grand palace with great riches (and fantastic views).
The Ottoman Sultan was also (as Caliph) an important religious figure and had a collection of Islamic holy items which are on display as well.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside the treasury rooms (and there was a whole army of officials watching out for IPhones snapping away). There are ruby and diamands but the Spoonmaker’s Diamond is easily the most beautiful.
In the 19th Century, the Ottoman rulers decided they needed a more modern base and built a new palace along the coast. It was also used as the Residence of Turkey’s revered first president (Ataturk) when he visited Istanbul and he died there in 1938. It is now open as a museum. It has many grand reception rooms and a chandelier weighing 4.5 tonnes. Again, photos were not allowed inside.
One thing which struck me walking around Istanbul was the large number of cats who live (and sleep) around the monuments. Here is a selection.
So there you have it. There are lots of other places to visit (really you need a week in Istanbul). Many of the sites are close together in the area known as Sultanahmet or easy to reach and you are literally tripping over history (and cats) in Istanbul. I hope it will encourage you to visit this wonderful city.