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Istanbul: Sultanahmet, Topkapi, Cistern

As my very first – and very short – trip to Istanbul perfectly illustrated, you can claim reasonable familiarity with the main sights of Istanbul by spending just a few hours in or around the Sultanahmet area. There is a high concentration of prime points of interest in Sultanahmet, which is why practically every visit to the grand city starts here.

The two unmissable highlights – Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque – are well covered in that photo essay from 2019. This time around, I mostly kept my camera away near those, so the appearance of the dome of Hagia Sofia in the background of this shot with the German Fountain at the fore is a happenstance of the perspective.
Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul
Sultanahmet Square features a trio of monuments, the most prominent of which is the obelisk of Theodosius, dating from around 1400 BCE and standing in this same place since around the 4th century CE.
Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul
Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul
The smallest of the three is the Serpent Column, whose replica stands in Delphi in Greece. This original has been here also since the early days of Constantinople. The last of the three obelisks is the one that commemorates the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which is what this public place used to be all those centuries ago.
Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul
Ok, here is actually a shot of the Blue Mosque, or rather of its courtyard. I knew that I did not have a good perspective of this kind in my first-visit portfolio, so I fixed that.
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The minaret in this next perspective belongs to the Blue Mosque as well. The visibly dilapidated house in the foreground illustrates the fact that well-cared-for and not-so-well-cared-for regularly exist side by side in Istanbul.
Istanbul
I probably have other visual examples of that in upcoming sets.

A fragment of mosaics from the collection of the Grand Palace Mosaics Museum.
Palace Mosaics Museum, Istanbul
The museum was closed for renovation during my visit to Istanbul. In a fairly rare occurrence for me, I was not aware of any restrictions, opened an unlocked door and, having found no one blocking the entrance, stepped in to take a look. The custodians were out getting lunch and found me wandering around upon returning. They were not very pleased and locked that door after escorting me out.

On to Topkapi Palace (or, more correctly, Topkapı – that last vowel is equivalent to “ы” in Russian but has no real equivalent in English). The extensive complex does not lend itself to a short visit – even at a canter, you’ll be hard-pressed to cover it all in less than three hours. And in a sense, it is short on the “wow” factor. The wealth of historical information and context and the various collections on display are not matched by the somewhat muted visual impact of the surroundings.

Here are a few exterior perspectives in different parts of the complex.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Among the most arresting perspectives are the Bosporus views from the palace terraces. This one is towards the Dolmabahçe Palace (seen at the right edge), with the business district of Levent far in the distance.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
This is the view of the Asian side, highlighted by the Maiden’s Tower.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
And the perspective towards Karaköy on the northern side of the Golden Horn, presided over by the distinctive Galata Tower.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
The interiors of the palace pavilions are mostly understated and sparsely furnished. Bluish tiles and golden weaves of calligraphy provide all of the decorations, where they exist.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Only a few rooms can be called “lavish” to any extent, and several of them are of a decidedly European type.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Kitchens and baths are part of the ensemble as well.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
A number of the interiors are enlivened by wax figurines made to illustrate the function of the space.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Ceiling and dome decorations are among the most consistently impressive features of various interior spaces.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
You can also find occasional remains of fresco decorations on the walls.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Several pavilions are home to a variety of impressive collections, including tableware, accessories, weapons, jewelry, furniture, ceremonial clothes, manuscripts, clocks, etc.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
The former Orthodox church of Hagia Irene, with a history going back to the 4th century CE, is part of the Topkapı Museum complex.
Hagia Irene, Istanbul
It is also explicitly named among over a dozen of the Istanbul sights that comprise its World Heritage inscription (of course, Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı, and other major sights also feature there prominently). Unfortunately, the interior of St-Irene is almost entirely barren and nearly devoid of decorative elements.
Hagia Irene, Istanbul
Hagia Irene, Istanbul
Hagia Irene, Istanbul
Another major point of interest in Sultanahmet is the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground 6th-century reservoir that provided the city with water well into the Middle Ages. On my first visit to Istanbul, I saw the monumental structure and took pictures of it, but back then it was drained of water for some renovation work. The ambiance changes significantly when you catch column reflections in the water, even if there is just a thin layer of it.
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Somewhat inexplicably, these close-ups of Medusa Heads appear to sit in waterless enclosures. I cannot say with certainty whether it is by design or a form of optical illusion.
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
The positioning of the heads is certainly not by design (or, at least, that’s what every tour guide will tell you). The humongous carved blocks were apparently placed haphazardly by the cistern builders.

In fact, while there is a clear pattern in the column spacing, there is only a limited uniformity in their design. There are 336 columns in total – many recycled from ruins of other buildings from different parts of the empire of the time.
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Modern statuary offers an interesting juxtaposition in places.
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
So, now I can claim a reasonably deep familiarity with Sultanahmet. Expanding my acquaintance with Istanbul and its sights will be the topic of future installments.