When I was a child, my Midwestern grandmother taught me to spell Constantinople. “C-O-N spells Con,” I would recite, “S-T-A-N” spells stan,” I would continue, in the same way, with the rest of the name, until I would proudly shout “Constantinople“ and be praised for my spelling ability. Little did I dream then that I would, one day, be in that great Turkish city.
In 1930, the city bearing the name of Constantine the Great, who founded it in 330 AD, was renamed Istanbul. It is cut in two by the Strait of Bosphorus, which puts part of it in Europe and part in Asia. It has a population of 15 million people. The evocatively named Golden Horn inlet of the Bosphorus cuts the European section of the city in two. Istanbul is a city full of monumental sites - mosques, churches, synagogues, museums, squares, shops and bazaars - it deserves a minimum of a week-long visit.
Since my trip was shorter, I elected to stay in the touristic center of Sultanahmet. It is here that the sixth-century Church of Hagia Sophia stands, and the 17th-century Blue Mosque, built to vie with it in grandeur. Topkapi Place where the sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived from the 15th into the 19th century is also here, as well as the Grand Bazaar of more than 3,000 covered shops - the oldest and the largest covered market in the world.
I chose the 26-room Blue House Hotel (www.bluehouse.com) for my overnights since all of these sites were within easy walking distance of it, as were good restaurants and streetcar transportation if I wished to go farther afield inexpensively.
My first morning was devoted to a visit to Hagia Sophia, built in 537 AD by the Roman Emperor Justinian, to be “like nothing seen before since the day of Adam or can be seen in the future.” Until 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Turks, and the Hagia Sophia became a mosque, it was known as the grandest church in the Christian world. Today it is a museum with mosaic panels and medallions of Christ and the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, the Last Judgment and many more on its gallery walls and its great dome.
A 10-minute walk away, my next visit was to the Blue Mosque. This mosque with six minarets and an enormous courtyard gets its name from the thousands of blue tiles from the ceramic city of Iznik on its interior walls. The intricate decoration of its domes and semi domes makes it look as though an Oriental rug had been flung high, and never fell down.
From the Blue Mosque, I walked to Topkapi Palace. To get there, I crossed the Hippodrome that today is a park area, but was once used for Roman chariot races. Its highlights include two obelisks, one from Karnak in Egypt, carved from pink granite; the other the 4th-century Walled Obelisk, now rough stone, but once covered in gilded bronze plaques. When I was there, it was pomegranate season, and that bright red fruit was being freshly squeezed into juice at stands everywhere. I stopped for a glass before getting in line to visit
Built between 1359 and 1466, Topkapi has so many pavilions that one must choose which to visit, or spend a full day exploring. I chose to go to the Imperial Costume Pavilion to see magnificent silk kaftans that once belonged to sultans; the Clock Pavilion of elegant timepieces, and the treasury. I remembered the treasury’s riches - among them a bejeweled dagger with emeralds on its hilt - from the long-ago film, Topkapi, in which Peter Ustinov and fellow thieves sought to steal it from the treasury by ingenious methods. Finally, I went to the 400-room harem where the sultan’s concubines, his mother, his wives and children, eunuchs and
Late that afternoon, I visited the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered marketplace in the world, with its rabbit warren of more than 3,000 shops selling silk scarves and embroidered pillow cases, silver and gold jewelry, carpets and slippers and handbags and souvenirs of all sorts.
Wanting to see both sides of the Bosphorus, I took a bus tour to get a glimpse of greater Istanbul, and a brief cruise on the Bosphorus. Since I was on the waterfront, I stopped to have one of the fresh fish sandwiches for which that area is renowned.
In Istanbul’s New District that seemed a world away from Sultanahmet, I admired the high fashion of shoppers. On the New District’s tree-lined streets are elegant hotels and fine shops such as Tiffany’s, Prada and Louis Vuitton.
After my bus tour, wanting to see more of the Asian side of the city, I took a taxi across the water and found a more peaceful, restful and greener area than on the European side.
There was much more that I was not able to see on my brief visit, and I wished I had more time. But my Midwestern grandmother would have been well pleased that I had seen anything at all of the Constantinople of her spelling bees.