Is there anywhere else in the world that is so very jam-packed full of major sites than Sultanahmet?
Once known as Constantinople, Sultanahmet is a small neighbourhood located on the edge of the ever-expanding city of Istanbul.
Our first stop was the Hagia Sophia. Built in 537 the church survived through countless wars and earthquakes, before being converted into a mosque in 1453. It has been a museum since 1935.
I was left completely speechless as I walked in through the nave. The inside of the Hagia Sophia is even more impressive than the exterior. And it wasn’t the just main rooms and ‘big ticket’ items, so much thought has been given to each and every detail.
Talk about an incredible way to provide a city with water; the Basilica Cistern covers a whopping 9,800 square metres and could hold 80 million litres of the stuff. 336 pillars keep the roof up and make for the most amazing atmosphere. There are only a few centimetres of water in there now, which is enough to keep a few shoals of fish alive.
The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque is actually the first mosque that I’ve been inside of, but like all religious buildings, I find it strange to visit while people are praying. The blue in the title actually comes from the colour of the Iznik tiles used inside.
I’ve not visited somewhere as fascinating and beautiful as Topkapi Palace in a very long time. We started with the Harem, a maze of corridors and rooms that were once home to the sultan’s wives, concubines and children. The beautiful interior was totally hidden from the outside, a completely controlled internal world which felt both beautiful and suffocating.
The palace follows the Ottoman tradition of incorporating outside space into the building, so it is a series of pavilions and smaller buildings, rather than one large structure. We had a look at the treasury and kitchens, each in its own area and surrounded by gardens. The kitchens were huge and included the history of how they fed 10,000 people daily from huge cauldrons.
The palace itself was a glimpse into how the ottoman empire was run and managed, a complex with space for staff, couriers, politicians and the sultan’s advisors, all built on the rocky hill overlooking the rest of the city. Awe inspiring, and a reminder of who was boss at the time, as all you had to do from anywhere in the city was look up and see the palace.
With so much to see in Sultanahmet we knew that we wanted to stay in the centre of the old town. Just a five minute walk from the Blue Mosque and with rooms that promised views of the Marmara Sea the Celine Hotel fit the bill perfectly. Built in a renovated Ottoman mansion, the Celine provided all the conveniences we wanted (huge bath to soak in, super-fast wifi and tasty breakfast) but with lots of historical touches that made our stay even more of a treat.
So how to sum up Sultanahmet? A heady mix of history mixed with great places to eat and stay. Yes. A multi layered slice of the civilisations that have existed for the last 3000 years on the site? Absolutely. Would I recommend it and go back again? Definitely. Like Rome, it’s impossible to soak up all it has to offer in one visit. I’ll be back for more soon…