Day 35 – Istanbul, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace – June 25th 2015

Today’s tour includes visits to carpet weaving, Grand Bazaar, Bosphorus Cruise, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. This post covers the visits after the cruise, which entailed a 5 hour walking tour of the attractions, which are located in the same general area of Old Istanbul.

On departing the cruise we re-boarded the bus for the drive back up the hill in Old Istanbul, where we were dropped off at the Hippodrome.

Hippodrome of Constantinople

Translated into English, Hippodrome is a combination of the words horse and path. This was the sporting and social centre of the city, used for ancient horse and chariot racing. The Hippodrome was initially built in 203 AD, when the area was still known as Byzantium, as it wasn’t changed to Constantinople until 300’s AD. The original Hippodrome was a “U” shaped track of about 1,500’ in length and 430’ wide. The stands had a capacity for 100,000 and the Emperor had a private box connected to the palace by a tunnel. The chariot races comprised four teams from each of the political parties, with each team supplying two chariots pulled by teams of four horses each. It is now a public park, often referred as Horse Square.

Hippodrome of Constantinople with the Obelisk of Thutmose in background

Hippodrome with monuments, gardens and park benches.

Hippodrome of Constantinople with the Walled Obelisk

Walled Obelisk, built in the 10th Century. Originally covered gilded bronze plaques, which were stolen by Latin troops during the 4th Crusade.

Hippodrome of Constantinople with the Obelisk of Thutmose

Obelisk of Thutmose III, which was brought from Egypt in 390 AD and erected inside the racing track. Carved from pink granite, it was originally built at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor about 1490 BC. The obelisk was cut into three pieces and shipped to Constantinople. Only the top section survived and it stands on the original marble pedestal. This obelisk is 3,500 years old and is in remarkable condition.

Hippodrome of Constantinople with the Obelisk of Thutmose base depicting Emperor Theodosius

Marble pedestal of the  Obelisk of Thutmose III. The base sits on the original level of the Hippodrome, which is about 4’ below the current level.


Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Next on the agenda was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque, due to the abundance to blue tiles lining the interior walls. Built by Ahmed I between 1609 to 1616, it is still used as an active mosque.

After the Persian Wars, Sultan Ahmed decided to build a large mosque in Constantinople to reassert Ottoman power. It consists of a central dome, 6 minarets and 8 secondary domes. Containing some Byzantine Christian elements and Islamic architecture, it is considered as one of the world’s last great classical mosques. Inside, the lower levels and each pillar are lined with 20,000 hand made ceramic tiles containing more than 50 tulip designs. The lower tiles are traditional, but at the gallery level they become flamboyant, with representations of flowers, fruit and cypress. The upper levels are painted blue and natural light is provided by over 200 stained glass windows.

Blue Mosque inside showing main dome

Main dome of the Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque red carpet area for praying

Red carpet of the male’s praying area

Blue Mosque inside showing columns, roof and exterior wall

Inside Blue Mosque showing the many tiles and windows

Blue Mosque exterior

Blue Mosque exterior with the gardens between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia


Hagia Sophia

Built in 537 AD as a Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Basilica, it continued to serve as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral until 1453, when it was converted to a mosque. It remained as an active mosque until 1931 when it was converted to a museum. Famous for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine Architecture. It remained as the world’s largest cathedrals for almost 1,000 years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.

In 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, the church was ordered converted into a mosque.The bells, altars and most artefacts were removed or covered over and replaced by Islamic features.

The dome is apparently not round with a 3’ difference in diagonals. This places uneven stress on the lower structure, with some columns now leaning to the side. Extensive restoration work is taking place inside with the current scaffolding being in place for over 20 years.

Hagia Sofia exterior close-up

Exterior view of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sofia entrance with thick walls

Thick walls at the main entrance

Hagia Sophia interior dome that is not round

Main dome inside Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia interior roof and windows

Interior roof, walls and windows.

Hagia Sophia interior Mihrab located where the Altar used to be in the Apse

The Mihrab was added to the Apse when the Altar was removed during the conversion to a mosque.

Hagia Sophia solid granite columns

Solid marble columns.

Hagia Sophia Imperial Gate Mosaic

Mosaic at the Imperial Gate

Hagia Sophia interior Virgin mother and child mosaic at the exit

Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I Mosaic

Hagia Sophia interior with granite walls and old cross from days as a church

Marble walls and cross from original days as a church.


Topkapi Palace

A large palace, this was the primary residence for the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years from 1465 to 1856. In addition to a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainment. It is now a museum, containing relics of the Muslim World, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. In 1985 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Construction began in 1459 and was originally called the New Palace, changing to Topkapi, or Cannon Gate in the 19th Century. Over the centuries, the palace has expanded to 4 main courtyards, with the final courtyard being for the exclusive use of the Sultan and other members of the royal family. During its heyday, the palace was home to about 4,000 people. From the 1800’s the palace waned in importance, as the Sultans preferred other palaces along the Bosphorus shores, although some functions such as Treasury, Library and Mint were retained at Topkapi.

At the conclusion of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Topkapi Palace was converted into a museum of the Imperial Era, administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Topkapi Palace Imperial Gate and walls

The Imperial Gate, or Gate of the Sultan is the gate used by the Sultans to enter the palace. Originally constructed in 1478 the massive gate accentuates the defensive character of the defensive wall. In the 19th Century it was covered in marble. This gate leads into the first courtyard.

Topkapi Palace Hagia Irene in first courtyard

Church Hagia Irene in the first courtyard, which was not destroyed by the Ottomans and was used as a storehouse and armoury. The first courtyard is the largest and contained most functional areas such as the Mint.

Topkapi Palace Gate of Salutation which is entrance to 2nd courtyard

The Gate of Salutation, also called the Middle Gate, is the entry to the Second Courtyard. This crenelated gate has two large octagonal pointed towers, but the construction date is unknown, since the architecture is of Byzantine influence rather than Ottoman. An inscription at the door dates from at least 1542. Speculation states the gate emulates the Gate of St. Barbara (Cannon Gate), which was the royal seaside entrance to the palace gardens from the Bosphorus shore. The gate is richly decorated on both sides, and in the upper part, with religious inscriptions and monograms of sultans.

Restricted access to the inner reaches of the palace dictates that only those on official visits and foreign dignitaries were permitted entry to the gate. Only the Sultan could enter this gate on horseback, so all other visitors had to dismount.

Entry through the Middle Gate provided access to the 2nd Courtyard, which was completed about 1465 and remodelled from 1525 to 1529. This courtyard is surrounded by the hospital, bakery, stables, Imperial Council and kitchen, with the kitchen open for viewing. The kitchens are topped by many chimneys, but all original cooking equipment is long since removed. It is now a large open space with numerous glass displays showing old pots, pans, serving dishes, cutlery, etc. No photography permitted.

Topkapi Palace domed roof of the Imperial Council building

Domed roof of the Imperial Council chambers, which was the meeting place for Council Members and Ministers of State.


Topkapi Palace Gate of Felicity or entrance to 3rd courtyard

The Gate of Felicity or entrance to the 3rd Courtyard, which was restricted to the Sultan and the Royal Family. Senior ministers were permitted access, only at the discretion of the Sultan, and usually only on stated days. The gate consists of a dome supported by marble pillars and probably dates from the 15th Century.

Within the 3rd Courtyard are the Imperial Treasury, The Audience Chamber, Portrait Galley and Library. We toured the Imperial Treasury, which contains the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, an 86 carat pear shaped diamond, set in silver, with a double row of 49 brilliant diamonds. Displayed in a case, this is an impressive sight, but again no photography was permitted.

Outside the Imperial Treasury is a large patio overlooking the Bosphorus Straights.

Topkapi Palace outside the Treasury Room looking down the Bosphorus

View from the Imperial Treasury patio.

A 4th Courtyard for the exclusive use of the Sultan, Royal Family and invited guests was available behind the Imperial Treasury. We were running short of time, so only had a quick look. It looked to be a number of gardens and pavilions, mostly for relaxing and enjoying the stunning views of the Bosphorus.

This brought an end to an exceptional day in Istanbul as we trudged back through the multiple courtyards to the bus for the journey back to the Sea Princess.

2 thoughts on “Day 35 – Istanbul, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace – June 25th 2015

  1. Enjoying the cruise very much reading your blogs. Do you think the Sea Princess will be less tired and rusty after the refit?


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