According to a Turkish city planner sitting with us on the plane from Cappadocia (Turkish Airlines, US$34 pp), Istanbul has about 30 million people though the official tally is half that and he said no one actually knows. Whatever the exact number, it is a very large city spread across Europe and Asia and divided by the Bosporus, a strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (known in antiquity as the Propontis) and from there through the Dardanelles to the Aegean, the Mediterranean and the rest of the world.
Formerly called Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and centre of Christendom was seized by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453 and forcibly converted to Islam. Thus the Byzantine Empire became the Ottoman Empire.
Our visit started with a taxi from Istanbul Airport across the Bosporus to the reasonably-priced Empress Zoe Hotel, located about three blocks from Hagia Sophia and named after a former ruler of the Byzantine Empire. The lobby of this quaint European-style hotel shares an exposed wall with the ruins of a 1483 hamam or Turkish bath, the domes of which overlook the hotel’s lush garden. Unfortunately, shared walls can be a problem and the hotel’s owner told me he is in a years-long legal dispute with the owner of the ruins. The Empress Zoe provided a comfortable room and a lovely breakfast with great rooftop views up to the city and across the Sea of Marmara. We enjoyed their hospitality and recommend it highly.
Our first visit outing was to the Basilica Cistern, a 138x65m underground water tank (admission US$2.50) only a 10 minute walk from the Empress Zoe. The cistern was built in 532 after the city burned in the Nika sports riot and its 30-foot-high ceiling is supported by 336 random, repurposed Greek columns. Nineteenth-century visitors rented rowboats to float among the fish and the columns but the site has been dredged and walkways constructed. Look for the Crying Column, carved with perpetually wet tears to commemorate the many slaves who died building the cistern. Also notable are two Medusa columns rising from large Gorgon heads, upside-down or sideways to foil their ability to turn men to stone. It’s worth a visit.
And that was it. Next day we were off to Hagia Sophia.
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