The old city of Sultanahmet is bursting with the treasures of past empires. Mosques, churches, museums and markets are all squeezed into the district in European Istanbul that is surrounded by the Sea of Marmara and the Haliç. Sultanahmet is easy to walk around and it is possible to see all the main sites within a couple of days. However, it is so compelling that it is impossible not to be drawn back here time and again.
The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya
The best way to see Sultanahmet is to start at the arched entrance at Aksakal Sokak off Kennedy Caddesi, the main coastal road. The winding cobblestone streets from Aksakal Sokak take you into the main square, where the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya eye each from opposite ends, each bidding to be more majestic than the other.
In Roman times, the square itself was a hippodrome, where sport and festivals took place. Constantine established the square as the center of his city and chariot races took place there for centuries. The hippodrome could hold 100,000 spectators. The area fell into decline in the 13th century when the royal family moved out of the Grand Palace. By the 16th century, the Ibrahim Pasa Palace was built, followed a century later by the Blue Mosque, bringing wealth and glamor to the district.
Sultanahmet also has a violent past. In 1826, Sultan Mahmut II slaughtered thousands of the Janissary corps, the sultan’s elite army, in the hippodrome following a revolt. Today, there are few reminders of the hippodrome. The original race track is now buried underground, and the three obelisks are the main remnants of the period. The Egyptian Obelisk was carved around 1450BC and stood in Thebes until it was somehow carried to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius I in 390AD. Close by is the Serpentine Column, comprising three intertwined snakes carved by the ancient Greeks to commemorate their victory over the Persians. The monument was moved from Delphi by Constantine. The third obelisk is of unknown origin.
Ibrahim Pa a Palace
Opposite the obelisks is Ibrahim Pa a Palace (9am-5pm, closed Monday, entrance fee), a beautiful Ottoman building housing the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, an award-winning collection of artifacts and carpets dating as far back as the eighth century. After your tour, linger in the coffee house, set in the palace’s peaceful gardens.
Yerebatan Saray (Basilica Cistern)
Across from the Aya Sofya is the Yerebatan Saray, the sunken palace, also known as Basilica Cistern (open daily, 9am-5pm, entrance fee). It is an underground cistern built by Constantine and expanded by Justinian in the sixth century to house the imperial water supply.
Visitors to the cistern follow a series of walkways down to two Medusa heads mounted on columns at the far end. Classical music is piped through the chamber and artful lighting give an eerie effect. The cistern is a great attraction for children.
From the cistern, a lane on the opposite side of the road leads behind the Aya Sofya to So ukçe me Soka i, a narrow road of painted wooden houses that were restored by the Touring Club. Halfway along is the recently opened Istanbul Library ( 0212-5125730), with its enormous collection of photographs and books on the city donated by Celik Gulersoy, the longtime chairman of the Touring Club. At the end of So ukçe me Soka i is the entrance to Topkapi Palace.
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