another stroll down memory lane

A Walking Tour of Old Istanbul


img624 - CopyOctober 29 is Republic Day in Turkey, so most people are off work. One of the teachers at my branch recently offered to do a tour for us. He used to be a tour guide and knows Istanbul very well. What a great opportunity! Several of us met on Istiklal Caddesi near the Narli Han and started our long walk.

tower and kirlangac

As we walked down towards Galata, David explained the history of the area. We stopped at the Galata Tower, where we looked at a water fountain that had been moved there when the old walls had been moved, rebuilt, or torn down. He pointed out the various decorations, including the roses, the trees, and the fruit. There was also Osmanli writing on the fountain, painted gold with a green background. We didn’t go up the tower, but he did tell us how it had been a Genoese fortification for some centuries.


We then walked past the tower and down a street towards Karakoy. As we walked we saw a lot of very old buidlings, most in quite bad shape. One in particular was an old “han”, or business building. It was typically Ottoman in that it was built of red bricks with white mortar and the windows were protected by crossed bars. As we stopped to look at it, a man looked out the window from the second floor. Little did I know that we would soon meet him! David took us in to the building.

As we walked up an old sloping stone stairway, we walked through what was once an open coutryard with arched windows along the corridor. We walked along that corridor and into a workshop where men were making aluminum heating ducts. The reason we went in there was to look at the main room of the workshop, which was where the man had been looking down at us. The room had a domed ceiling, freshly painted white, and in the center of the dome was an oval panel made of wood and carved into a picture of what looked like a professor or scientist from the Middle Ages. It was one of the high points of the walk for me. We thanked the men and continued on our walk.

As we walked through Karakoy, we saw more Ottoman buildings, as well as some lovely art nouveau buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are mostly business places now and many are somewhat run down. David also pointed out an old bedestan, which is a kind of covered market, built by one of the sultans. Now it is used for people selling hardware and plumbing supplies. He also pointed out another old han tucked away in a side street which apparently is quite interesting inside, although run down, but it was closed that day. We emerged at the shore of the Golden Horn, where a man offered to take us on a boat tour, which we declined. Another day. That area is undergoing some transformation, as there is actually green grass along the water and the remaining old buildings are set back a bit from the shore.

From that side we had a wonderful view of Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Sulemaniye Mosque. As we walked over the Galata Brdige we were able to enjoy them even more. We walked past the Spice Bazaar, then walked behind the Yeni Cami, the New Mosque, as David explained it all. We walked along the tramway tracks to Gulhane, where we stopped briefly at a gateway. That particular gateway used to be called the Sublime Portal, and it was where the emissaries to the sultan would meet to present themselves. There was a kiosk on the wall of the palace across the street, which is where the sultan would watch the proceedings.

Well, we were sublimely pleased with our walk and proceeded up a side street towards the Archaeological Museum. We did not go in, but David told us about some of the things we could see in there, including the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. We walked up the hill there, but were met by a soldier sentinel, who was turning people back from the grounds of Topkapi Palace because it is closed on Tuesdays. However, we walked down and took another route, past the restored Ottoman houses along the wall of the palace, with a short look around at a very nice restaurant occupying what was once a water reservoir (cistern). Now it is a romantic and expensive place to eat.


David then took us past Aya Sofia, through the park, and to a tea garden, where we welcomed the opportunity to sit and sip tea while listening to his fascinating details of the early history of Constantinople and some of its more colourful citizens. Refreshed, we walked past the Blue Mosque and along the Hippodrome, stopping to see the obelisk, imported from Egypt by Justinian in 400AD. Amazingly, David could read many of the hierglyphics on it. David took us around the obelisk to have us look at the carvings in the marble base, one of which showed the men raising the column. We also looked at the Serpentine Column, which long ago lost its serpent heads to foreign museums.

Then we left the Hippodrome and headed down the hill to the Sokullu Cami, which is a small mosque with lovely tiles. The women had to wear headscarves, available at the door. It was a lovely little mosque, well kept up, as it has a Koranic school attached to it.

Near there was Kucuk Aya Sofia, Little Aya Sofia. It doesn’t resemble its big sister at all, but it was very interesting. It was the time for prayer when we got there, so we walked around the medrese, which was once a religious school but is now offices and restaurants. It had a charming garden, where we sat for more tea (or Turkish coffee, in the case of me and a friend). Prayer time over, we went into the mosque. It had actually been built as one of the very first real churches in early Christianity. There were four wings and the columns had very delicate stone carving around the tops and along much of the supporting beams. Also along the beams was Greek writing. The floor was wooden, definitely not original, as it was partly taken up for some repair. Underneath was dank old marble. One of the domes on the ceiling had a crack in it about 5 centimers wide and about 50 centimeters long. When I asked the man looking after the mosque if it was because of the 1999 earthquake, he said yes. In general, the place is being looked after, with help from the municipal government, though as we were putting on our shoes outside, he asked us for donations, which we were glad to give.

At this point we were getting into sensory overload, so we headed back up the hill to SultanAhmet. The others went to Cemberlitas, which is where the Constantine Column is (with the statue of Constantine long gone). My friend and I parted from the others at this point and walked the back streets to the Spice Market, where we shopped as we went. We had dinner at a well-known restaurant with a wonderful view of the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower, and the Bosporus. It was a lovely end to a long and informative walking tour.