Exploring the Many Faces of Istanbul

Photo: Jann Segal

I explored Istanbul with Overseas Adventure Travel on their tour Turkey’s Magical Hideaways, and some on my own after the tour of Turkey and the Mediterranean concluded. I found the Istanbul portion of the tour to be a great orientation with a focus on historical and religious sites, but certainly not all that Istanbul has to offer. Even with three extra days on my own, I barely scratched the surface afterwards. There is the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar to visit for sure, but other important sites give a broader glimpse into the cultural and religious heritage of this rich city. 

Istanbul is a geographically unique city that straddles both the European and Asian continents, and it also sits at the edge of the Bosporus (or the Straight of Istanbul) and the Sea of Marmaris. The cultures for which it is famous are as divergent as its geography; Muslims, Christians and Jews had lived there in harmony in years gone by. It is a city of many levels both as you walk down the streets and up the many stairs. But that is also true for its many cultures.

The best way to explore the multiple facets of Istanbul is to see the sites for which it has been made famous, and some for which it has not. The Sultan’s Palace for instance, also known as Topkapi Palace, gives a glimpse of a very ornate Istanbul, with an 86-carat diamond on display known as the Spoonmakers Diamond. There is also an extraordinary collection of other ornate jewelry. Topkapi was the main administrative headquarters of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. It gradually lost its importance in the 17th century. In the 1800s it was moved to a completely different palace, the Dolmabahce, and in 1924 the Ottoman Empire transformed it into a museum.

 The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmad Mosque, is currently a functioning mosque in addition to a tourist site that gives a glimpse of Turkey during Ottoman rule. It has five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. It’s one of the mosques that is a landmark on the Bosporus in Istanbul, has an ornate interior, and is famous for its blue tiles. It was bult between 1609 and 1616. It is next to the Hagia Sophia, so a visit to one will likely generate a visit to the other.

The Hagia Sophia really does get right to the point about how all religions respected each other at one time. Or maybe not, since it was a church first, then later transformed into a mosque. It was originally built in 537 by the Emperor Justinian 1 to be the largest church of the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Orthodox Church. However, in 1453, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, it was converted to a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1931 and was re-opened in 1935 as a museum. In 2020, a controversial decision was made by President Erdogan to return the architecturally and historically rich building back to being a functioning mosque.

The Rustem Pasa Mosque is one I missed, but not for lack of trying. Everyone raves about it, although it can be difficult ot find. The directions to the Rustem Pasa Mosque from a Rick Steves guidebook are as follows:  From Istanbul University “keep going until the end of the wall…turn right steeply downhill about 150 yards to the second street on your left – Uzun Carsi.  Walk left along this street which soon becomes a narrow alley.  The alley runs directly into a two-story stone building with an arched entryway.  Go through the humble doorway and take the stairs up into the courtyard of the Rustem Pasa Mosque.”  He goes on to say, “if the Blue Mosque is Istanbul’s Notre-Dame, this tiny gem is its Sainte-Chapelle.”  

The Basilica Cistern is an unbelievable underground water storage facility with plenty of room to walk around.  It was built around 500 AD. Many movies (or parts of them) have been set in this humid but unique cistern.  It was so unique I strolled around it a few times and found the Medusa’s heads for which this cistern is famous. It was built under a basilica, hence the name. It was also built by the emperor Justinian. Along the line of churches and Christianity, one I missed but which is often included in tours is the Chora Church. However, it is also called the Kariye Mosque and is used as a mosque today even though it was built as a as a Greek Orthodox church and monastery in the 4th century.

The many levels of Istanbul became more evident when I took a private Jewish walking tour after my formal tour had concluded. I saw such a different part of Istanbul, including four synagogues, and was inside two of them. Some of my money for the tour paid for the maintenance of the Ashkenazi synagogue, which is still an active house of worship, and was built with help by Franz Joseph. It was a wonderful tour which ended by the Bosporus on that bridge with the famous mosques on each side.

Another not-to-be-missed sight in Istanbul is the Archaeological Museum. It is really more like a museum of religious archeology. Included among its many curated items are the first pages ever discovered of the Koran, and artifacts from the prophet Mohammed. Many are at Topkopi palace as well, but they are more beautifully preserved in this museum. In fact, pieces of his beard look like they are being housed in a Jewish mezuzah. So, between that and all the six-pointed stars I saw around me at this museum, I actually had a sense of sadness. In Istanbul there are vestiges of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism everywhere.  

I was reminded on our trip down the Bosporus, when we passed a synagogue, mosque and church sitting side by side, that there was in fact a time when all the major world’s religions got along harmoniously. Not that the Ottoman empire was a shining example of that, let alone the current situation today. My trip leader told us that as a mainstream Muslim living in Turkey, he worries for his daughter’s future in this country. The world would be so much richer culturally if all three religions had been allowed to flourish in peace and continued to share their practices with each other and learn together. That was my big take away from my time in Istanbul. It is a more multi- cultural city historically than a casual traveler can glean without entering some of these sites.  

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