Istanbul has always held a strategic geographic position. It was on the historic Silk Road and it has always controlled rail networks between Europe and Asia and was the only sea route between the Black and the Mediterranean Sea.
First inhabitants of Istanbul are dating back to the second millennia BC; they were settled on the Asian side of the city. Its first name comes from Megara king Byzas who took his colonists here in the 7th century BC to establish a colony named Byzantium, the Greek name for a city on the Bosphorus, only access to the Black Sea. In the 6th century BC Persians ruled the city and then Alexander the Great took it over after the 4th century BC, which was a peaceful period until the 2nd century BC.
In 193 AD, the city became part of the Roman Empire and Emperor Constantine the Great made plans for a new Christian city to replace Byzantium giving it a new name: Constantinople. It became the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 395 AD.
During most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city on the European continent and at times the largest in the world. Among many, Hagia Sophia stands as a monument to the golden age of Byzantines.
Constantinople began to decline continuously after the end of the reign of Basil II in 1025. The Fourth Crusade was diverted from its purpose in 1204, and the city was sacked and pillaged by the crusaders. They established the Latin Empire in place of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and Hagia Sophia was converted to a Catholic church in 1204.
The Byzantine Empire was restored in 1261 but various economic and military policies, such as the reduction of military forces, weakened the empire and made it vulnerable to attack. Indeed, the Ottoman Turks lead by Sultan Mehmet II began to conquer smaller towns and cities cutting off Constantinople’s supply routes. The city was conquered in 1453 after an eight-week siege and the sultan declared it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He also rode to Hagia Sofia converting it into an imperial mosque.
The Ottomans transformed the city into a symbol of Islamic culture and the caliphate was claimed in 1517. Mehmet II also created a cosmopolitan city inviting people from all over Europe, repaired the water system and built the Grand Bazaar and its own official residence: Topkapi Palace.
From 1520 to 1566 Suleiman the Magnificent reigned the empire and this was a period of great artistic and architectural achievements such as the beautiful Suleiman mosque (Süleymaniye camii).
Ottoman rule lasted until World War I when Istanbul was occupied by the allied troops. After years of struggle led by Kemal Ataturk against the occupying forces, the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 and the capital was moved to Ankara province. But Istanbul has continued to expand dramatically; today its population is over 15 million (rumors say 20 million) and still increases constantly. It continues to be the commercial and cultural center of Turkey.
We arrived at Istanbul in the morning after a long but sleepy journey on the train from Sofia (see our journey across the Balkans for more details) and, surprisingly, a mini bus took as from Halkali Station to the city centre. We stayed at Sultan Hostel and Guesthouse in Sultanahmet, few steps away from Hagia Sofia and Topkapi. Actually, it’s not a hostel as there is no kitchen or common room but only their own restaurant (which is very expensive being in that area). However, the location is great and you can easily move on foot or by tram to go anywhere in the city.
We spent 3 days there and we selected what to visit as we both have been in Istanbul before. The first day, we visited the Topkapi Palace, the Harem and the archeology museum (we bought the cumulative ticket online). The palace and the harem are very beautiful so take your time to visit them! The museum was partially closed but still interesting due to its archeological items.
After the palace we walked around and went to visit Suleimani Mosque. We accessed to its garden from the back and we were in awe seeing the landscape of the city from there! The mosque is also stunning from the outside and the inside thanks to its huge chandelier in the middle. The entrance is free of charge and you are provided with stuff to cover, so no bother (nae bother, for Scottish pals :)). Just make sure you don’t go there in prayer time.
The second day, we waved around and booked the tickets to Cappadocia. After lunch we spent half an hour looking for a bottle of wine..we asked many people and the answer was always “100 meters” plus hand direction sign down 😆 we desperately wanted a bottle of wine as we were invited to dinner at the house of our Turkish friends! Well, the home-made dinner was absolutely delicious!!! Among all the amazing dishes, we fell in love with one called hünkôr begendî (meaning, the sultan liked it). We are not sure you can find it in restaurants though, sorry about it.
Finally, the last day we were a bit tired from the night before so we decided to take it easy and go to the Asian side to have lunch. We had a sandwich with fish..it was good but our mind was still dreaming of all the food we had the previous night 🤤 however, we were super happy as we put our steps in Asia… the first ones of our journey along the Silk Road.
Then, we spent the afternoon chilling at the “hostel”. Ready for another night bus we went to the Otogar ending up in one of the most messy bus station ever seen! There are no timetable screens so the best way to find your bus is to keep asking till you find someone local who is taking the same bus as you. Then you can follow them and relax 😅 we found our “local guide” and so, our bus… the oldest one in the bus station, of course! It had been scheduled extra due to the high request of seats. It was old but it gave us a good sleep till we got to Cappadocia the following morning!