Being a geek of Byzantine and religious studies, the only thing I could think of when first arriving to Istanbul was how die-hard on seeing the Haghia Sophia. Coming from a Greek Orthodox background, this would be the crown jewel of experiences. Having picked up a helpful Istanbul travel guide in New York, I realized several of the Byzantine sights in the city were on the same side; the Golden Horn. Visiting the key Byzantine sights was going to be my first adventure in Istanbul, thus I call it my Byzantine Mecca.
Now, for all those who are interested in such a tour, here is my rough guide to Byzantium. It’s meant for people who want to take Istanbul by foot. This is not meant for family groups or people who are afraid of a few backstreets. This is meant for a small group of friends or the person with nothing but a travel bag and a sense of adventure. Bring a camera, a diary, and a sense of wonderment.
Start off with the Haghia Sophia. Not knowing exactly the ‘best way’ to get to the site, I just winged it, making judgments from my small travel guide. Leaving the hotel, my friend and I made our way to the port in Besiktas, taking the ferryboat to Uskudar, and from Uskudar transferring to another ferry to Eminonu. Cost was about 2 lira, in exchange for a boat ride on the Bosphorous. The lightness of the breeze hit our faces, relaxing every aspect of our minds. In the distance, the Haghia Sophia and Sultanahmet Camii are visible on the tip of the Golden Horn. Once arriving in Eminonou, we walked our way to the great Byzantine cathedral of Haghia Sophia.
The church dates back over 1,000 years, and is equivalent to the Vatican in meaning for Orthodox Christians. Meaning “Holy Wisdom”, the church turned mosque-now a museum, is still considered to be the greatest physical achievement in Orthodox Christian history. The design is humungous, and depending the day, so is the line of admission.
At first glance, the architecture is mind-boggling. Unlike other fantastic ancient monuments like the pyramids or the Parthenon, the greatness of this structure is in the design and achievement of its giant dome. When the Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque) was built centuries after to compete with that of the Byzantine design, the architects realized they could not surpass the dome’s circumference. The science behind the design was ahead of its time, later on becoming the blueprint for mosque architecture for the Ottoman Empire.
The addition of the minarets is also astounding, as they are gigantic, and look as if they were naturally a part of the structure.
Across the street from the Haghia Sophia, you will find the entrance to the Basilica Sisterns. It was incredible to realize that such amazing historical sites were so close to each other! Dark, dank, and mysterious, the cistern itself provided water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings, with the Ottomans continuing its use for the Topkapi Palace.
The underground cisterns span far and wide, with white Ionic and Corinthian columns lined up and down. Making our way towards the back of the site, you can see the famous Medusa’s head, which is used as the base of one of the columns. When establishing the Byzantine kingdom, the rulers decided that the ancient Greek world’s “sinful” past of polytheism aught to be forgotten and destroyed, hence, using pieces of the old world for the new one.
In the end, the cistern is more of an experience of the moment, than anything memorable. My next stop, the Patriarchate of Constantinople!