Located on the historic Sultanahmet peninsula, close to Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque (“the Blue Mosque”), the Basilica Cistern is an impressive underground structure built at the time of the Byzantian Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Underground cisterns were commonly built in the middle ages to collect and store rainwater. There were possibly hundreds of them in Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern was by far the largest, measuring approximately 170 by 70 meters and supported by 336 marble columns mainly with Corinthian and Doric style capitals. The columns are 9 meters tall and most of them are thought to be taken from older buildings. There are also two unusual column bases in the cistern with Medusa heads carved on them. The blocks stand upside down and sideways, possibly for practical reasons. They are nevertheless believed to protect the cistern.
The Basilica Cistern was named after Basilica Stoa that once stood above ground in its place. The cistern underwent two major restorations during the Ottoman period in 18th and 19th centuries. Modern repairs and restorations continued in modern day Turkey and the cistern remains open for visitors.
Galata Tower has been one of the landmarks of Istanbul for centuries. Built in the 14th century by Genoese merchants to replace an older Byzantine tower, the tower is around 67 meters tall and has a diameter of 16.5 meters. Galata Tower was originally named “Christea Turris” or Tower of Christ. During the 18th century Ottomans used it as an observation tower, especially for fires which could easily spread in neighbourhoods of traditional wooden houses. Today, Galata Tower is a major tourist attraction offering one of the best views of the old city looking over the entrance of the Golden Horn.
If we had to pick out just one feature of Istanbul that had the most influence on the city from its ancient history to present day, we would undoubtedly say that it is the strait of Bosphorus. This unique natural waterway divides Istanbul into its Asian and European sides, connected today by three suspension bridges, a railway tunnel and numerous ferry lines.
In history, the Bosphorus and its inlet, the Golden Horn, provided the ultimate defence line for the “old city” on the historic peninsula. Its strategic importance continues today as the only waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea via the Sea of Marmara and the strait of Dardannelles. The Bosphorus carries a heavy shipping traffic with cargo ships, oil tankers, cruise liners and numerous ferries and recreational boats using the strait everyday. With its strong and complicated currents, narrow sections and sharp turns, it is a difficult waterway to navigate especially for large vessels.
Both the European and Asian shores of the Bosphorus are dotted with historical buildings such as the two castles (Anadolu hisari and Rumeli hisari) built by the Ottomans to take control of the strait before the conquest of Constantinople, as well as several Ottoman palaces, mosques, universities and schools, and renowned waterfront houses (called “yalı” in Turkish) dating back to Ottoman times. While busy coastal roads run along both sides of the Bosphorus, the best way to see the strait and the buildings on its shores by far is to take one of the special sightseeing ferries that go along the strait with varying itineraries, ranging from simple boat trips with or without lunch stops to dinner cruises and luxury yacht cruises.
Maiden’s Tower is built on a small rock around 200 meters from the shores of Uskudar (Scutari or ancient Chrysopolis) on the Bosphorus. The first use of the tiny island goes back to 300-400 BC when Byzantion was an ancient Greek colony, used as a customs station for ships passing through the Bosphorus strait. The first tower is believed to be built by the Byzantine emperor Comnenus in the 12th century. Since then the Maiden’s Tower (also known as Leander’s Tower) was restored numerous times and used for many purposes including watch tower, light house, quarantine station, radio station, and more recently as a café and restaurant.
There are several legends about the Maiden’s Tower. The best known is the story of the emperor’s daughter who was prophesized to be killed by a snake on her 18th birthday. To protect his daughter the emperor puts her in a tower on the Bosphorus where no snake could reach her. On her 18th birthday the emperor goes to the tower with a basket of grapes to celebrate, however a snake hidden inside the basket bites the princess and she dies in her father’s arms.
Located on the historic peninsula in the Sultanahmet region, Hagia Sophia is one of the oldest and most important landmarks of Istanbul. Originally built in the 6th century as a Greek Orthodox cathedral of the Byzantine Empire, the building was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman years and later into a museum in modern day Turkey. The building sits centrally in Sultanahmet with a commanding view of the entrance to the Bosphorus.
You can hardly appreciate the size and splendour of Hagia Sophia from the outside when you are standing next to it. Inside, visitors are stunned by its 32-meter diameter dome, its marbles and columns, and large beautifully preserved mosaics. The building today also has four minarets added by the Ottomans during its conversion to an imperial mosque after the conquest of Istanbul in 1453. The Turkish name for Hagia Sophia is “Ayasofya”.