Ottoman İstanbul in 10 iconic monuments
Even in the later years when the Empire was in terminal decline, Constantinople (İstanbul) remained the cradle for experiments in architecture that eventually came to define the modern city.
These are some of the buildings that will give you an insight into the İstanbul of the Ottomans.
Why? Base for Sultan Mehmet II's assault on Constantinople
In 1452 the young Sultan Mehmet II determined to wrest the hugely important city of Constantinople from the weakened Byzantine emperors. As part of his preparations, he commissioned a huge new castle at the narrowest point of the Bosporus, opposite the castle built by his great-grandfather in what is now Anadolu Hisarı. Using these two castles the sultan was able to prevent food supplies passing up the strait to the besieged city, thus hastening its collapse.
Restored for the 500th anniversary of Sultan Mehmet II's victory in 1953, the castle now forms a dramatic landmark for Bosporus cruises. You can look round the interior too, although as yet nothing has been done to explain its role in the hugely important events of 1453.
Why? Private home of early sultans and base for early Ottoman government
Built over the ruins of the old Byzantine palace on a superb site overlooking the confluence of the Bosporus, Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara, Topkapı Sarayı is the finest -- and most visited -- Ottoman monument in the city, its multiple pavilions, chambers and gardens an unexpected glimpse for most Western visitors of a style of architecture far removed from that of their home countries. Although parts of the complex date back to the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, it was many years before Topkapı became the permanent home of the Ottoman rulers and their families who lived in the famous harem -- really just the private apartments of the imperial family.
But Topkapı Sarayı was also the center of early Ottoman government, with the most important dignitaries gathering in the divan to make their decisions, with the sultans sometimes listening in unseen. Only slowly did the business of administering the Ottoman Empire move into separate premises away from the family home.
İbrahim Paşa Sarayı
Why? Only surviving example of early Ottoman private palace
Now home to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in the Hippodrome, the İbrahim Paşa Sarayı is often overlooked as an important building in its own right. In fact it was built in 1524 for İbrahim Paşa, the grand vizier, son-in-law and favorite of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, and somehow managed to survive his fall from grace and the depredations of the centuries until today it stands as the sole reminder of the grand homes once lived in by the upper echelons of early Ottoman society.
Currently closed for restoration, the palace is home to some of the city's most magnificent carpets as well as to a fine exhibition of ethnography. It should reopen soon.
Why? Center of Ottoman commerce for hundreds of years
Touristy it may be now, but Kapalı Çarşı, also known as the Covered or Grand Bazaar, has an illustrious pedigree stretching right back to 1461 and the reign of Sultan Mehmet II. To appreciate that fact you need to look for the solid stone Bedesten, the covered market within a covered market whose mighty gates are still locked every evening. Then imagine how the extra buildings have been added gradually over the years until now there are said to be more than 4,000 shops making up the complex.
Why? Masterpiece of greatest Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan
Unanimously regarded as the greatest of all Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan (c. 1490-1588) was responsible for around 320 buildings, of which 84 still stand in İstanbul, including 42 mosques. Of these mosques, the most conspicuous on the skyline is Süleymaniye Cami, generally regarded as the finest of his gifts to the city despite strong competition from rivals such as the Şehzade, Rüstem Paşa and Sokollu Mehmet Paşa mosques. In the newly restored Süleymaniye Cami, Mimar Sinan brought to perfection a style of centrally domed building that had formed part of the city's silhouette since the days of the Hagia Sophia.
Süleymaniye Cami is also important as the most complete surviving example of an Ottoman külliye, the complex of social buildings associated with the imperial mosques. Clustered around it you can still see the imaret (soup kitchen), kervansaray (caravanserai), hamam (Turkish bath), hastane (hospital) and multiple medreses (schools) that all once functioned alongside it.
Fine funerary monuments on Cülus Yolu, Eyüp
Why? İstanbul's most holy shrine where Ottoman sultans were confirmed in office
At the far end of the Golden Horn, Eyüp Cami is the most sacred of all İstanbul's holy places, the believed burial place of Eyüp el-Ensarı, standard-bearer and friend of the prophet Muhammad, who had been killed during the Umayyad siege of Constantinople in 668-69. So important was el-Ensarı that it was over his grave that Sultan Mehmet II built his first mosque after capturing the city. Today, nothing remains of that building, the mosque having been completely rebuilt in 1766 after an earthquake.
Throughout the Ottoman era, Eyüp Cami played an important role in the ceremonial attached to the coronation of a new sultan. Once appointed, the sultan would be rowed up the Golden Horn to Eyüp where he would process along the Cülus Yolu (Accession Road) to the mosque where the Sword of Osman would be strapped onto him to confirm him in his new office. The route of the old Cülus Yolu is still marked by some of the city's finest Ottoman buildings.
Why? First example of a more Westernized style of mosque architecture
Frequently overlooked in the rush to reach the shopping treats of the Kapalı Çarşı, the huge Nuruosmaniye Cami is interesting, according to urban historian Murat Gül, as the first example of a new approach to mosque architecture that utilized Western-style ornamentation rather than the motifs familiar from early Ottoman buildings. Not only that, but it boasts the only horseshoe-shaped courtyard in the city. Lengthy restoration work appears to be nearing completion if you'd like to admire these innovations.
Why? Private home of later Ottoman sultans
In time the Ottomans tired of congested Topkapı Palace. At the same time, desperate to revive their declining empire, they had begun to flirt with Western ideas that found their natural home on the other side of the Golden Horn in Galata and Pera --modern Beyoğlu. So when the time came to design a new palace more suited to modern tastes, the decision was made to build it on reclaimed land in what is now Dolmabahçe. The men charged with creating this new palace were Garabet Amira and Nikoğos Balyan, scions of an Armenian family of architects that left as strong a stamp on late Ottoman Constantinople as Mimar Sinan had on the earlier version. The palace they completed in 1856 had 258 rooms, including a Ceremonial Hall with a 38-meter-high ceiling.
Topkapı served the imperial family for centuries but Dolmabahçe speedily fell from favor after an attack on the neighboring Çırağan Palace in 1878 exposed its vulnerability. It continued to be used for state business and it was here that the Republic of Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, died on 10 November 1938. To this day, his bed is draped with a Turkish flag. All the clocks in the palace stand still at the moment of his death.
Why? Final home of the Ottoman sultans
In 1878 the sultans made their last move inland and uphill to Yıldız Park where the paranoid Sultan Abdülhamid presided over the creation not so much of a cohesive palace like Dolmabahçe but of a complex of buildings separated from each other by walls and tunnels that make it difficult for modern visitors who need to make two separate trips to see everything. More of the buildings are being restored to be ready to open to the public. Meanwhile the most striking section is the Şale, a long, low building that must surely be one of the grandest guesthouses in the world and was largely built to accommodate Abdülhamid's friend, Kaiser Wilhelm II, on his visits.
Why? First bridge to link old Turkish part of city with new, more Westernized part
Today it's almost impossible to imagine a time when there was no bridge across the Golden Horn linking the historic part of the city with what is now Beyoğlu. Yet that is indeed how matters stood until 1845, even though both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo had drawn up tentative plans for a bridge way back in the 16th century. Since then, Galata Bridge has gone through several rebuilds, most recently in 1994. A tram now sweeps majestically over the bridge, completely dispelling the colorful ghosts of the Ottoman past who swarmed across it so vividly in Edmondo de Amicis' travelogue, "Constantinople."