With its unique geography, more than three thousand years of history and diverse urban lifestyles, Istanbul is a fascinating city by any measure. These series of posts will bring the city to life in pictures, maps, articles and stories to give you a different view before your next visit.
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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”, meaning Holy Sophia.