Istanbul is inspiring because it has its own code of architecture, literature, poetry, music.
According to UNESCO's website, Turkey has sixteen World Heritage Sites. One of those sites is the historic areas of Istanbul (once Constantinople) described as having a "strategic location on the Bosphorus peninsula between the Balkans and Anatolia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean" and being associated with major political, religious and artistic events for more than 2,000 years. UNESCO says listing highlights include the ancient Hippodrome of Constantine, the 6th-century Hagia Sophia and the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque, all now under threat from population pressure, industrial pollution and uncontrolled urbanization. This post focuses on the nine mosques, public promenade, and mosque-turned-museum that I was able to visit in one day in Istanbul (I'll highlight Topkapı Palace in a future post, it's that spectacular), all open to the public and free to visit, with the exception of Hagia Sophia and the mosques at prayer time. So put on your imaginary walking shoes and join me on a walking tour of Istanbul's UNESCO treasures.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)
Istanbul's most well-known mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built in the early 1600s by architect Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa and is referred to fondly as the Blue Mosque because of its lovely hand-painted, ornate blue tiled interior walls. The mosque has five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes and is bathed in blue light each night.
Hagia Sophia Museum
Built in 537 AD as a Greek Orthodox church, the massive Hagia Sophia later became an imperial mosque then the museum it is today. Visitors exit through "the beautiful door" which is a bronze door from a Hellenistic temple of Tarsus of the 2nd century BC, so it's safe to say this place is full of ancient history.
Little Hagia Sophia Mosque
Like its senior namesake, the Little Hagia Sophia mosque was once a Greek Orthodox church and converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. This petite mosque built in 527 is tucked into the edge of a quiet neighborhood and doesn't attract many tourists, although its elaborate carvings and simple yet intricate interior designs make it worth a visit.
One of Istanbul's best-known sights, Süleymaniye Mosque is the second largest mosque in the city and built by famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1550. The complex is large and, like Istanbul's other grand mosques, boasts carefully landscaped lawns and people coming to worship or enjoy the lovely setting.
Şehzade Mosque (Prince's Mosque)
Built in the mid-1500s, The Şehzade mosque (meaning "prince" in Persian) was also built by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. I really liked this mosque the best, with its alternating pink and white marble arches and terracotta details. Even though the mosque is located on a busy city street, once inside the gate the grounds are tranquil and lushly landscaped. A beautiful park next door is the perfect spot for a picnic with a view.
Fatih Mosque and Complex
The large Fatih mosque was originally built in 1463 but rebuilt in the 1700s after an earthquake. It is a great example of Turkish architecture, and its location in the middle of the Fatih neighborhood means the place is swarming with kids playing, people socializing, Muslims praying, mourners attending funerals, and the occasional tourist such as myself.
Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque
On a steep slope in a quiet-ish part of town is the lovely Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque by architect Mimar Sinan. The intricately-painted blue tiles on the interior walls are gorgeous, and the mosque is unique with its two-story courtyard.
Built in the early 1100s, the Zeyrek Mosque or Monastery of the Pantocrator, is a significant mosque in Istanbul made of two former Eastern Orthodox churches and a chapel. (Wikipedia) When I visited, the building appeared to be under major renovation and closed to visitors, so I was unable to get inside.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
The Hippodrome of Constantinople was once a circus that served as the sporting (horse racing and chariot racing) and social center of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Now it is known as Sultan Ahmet Square, and it continues service as one of Istanbul's social centers. In the 300s, Constantine and other rulers brought works of art from the empire to the hippodrome, include the Serpent Column and various obelisks.