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Though it is often remarked that Turkey straddles Europe and Asia, it's really the city of Istanbul that does the straddling. European Istanbul is separated from its Asian suburbs by the Bosphorus, the narrow channel of water that connects the Black Sea, north of the city, to the Sea of Marmara in the south. What will strike you more than the meeting of East and West in Istanbul, though, is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, of tradition and modernity. Office towers creep up behind historic old palaces; women in jeans or elegant designer outfits pass others wearing long skirts and head coverings; donkey-drawn carts vie with shiny BMWs for dominance of the streets; and the Grand Bazaar competes with Western-style boutiques and shopping malls. At dawn, when the muezzin's call to prayer rebounds from ancient minarets, there are inevitably a few hearty revelers still making their way home from nightclubs while other residents kneel in prayer.
Arkeoloji Müzeleri (Istanbul Archaeology Museums). Step into this vast repository of spectacular finds, housed in a three-building complex in a forecourt of Topkapı Palace, to get a head-spinning look at the civilizations that have thrived for thousands of years in and around Turkey. The main museum was established in 1891, when forward-thinking archaeologist and painter Osman Hamdi Bey campaigned to keep native antiquities and some items from the former countries of the Ottoman Empire in Turkish hands. The most stunning pieces are tombs that include the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, found in Lebanon, carved with scenes from Alexander the Great's battles, and once believed, wrongly, to be his final resting place. An excellent exhibit on Istanbul through the ages has artifacts from prehistory through the Byzantine and Ottoman periods and helps put the city's complex past into context. Exhibits on Anatolia include a section displaying some of the gold jewelry and other artifacts found in excavations at Troy. There is also an extensive collection of classical sculpture and even a model Trojan horse for the kids.
Don't miss a visit to the Çinili Köşk (Tiled Pavilion), one of the most visually pleasing sights in all of Istanbul-a bright profusion of colored tiles covers this one-time hunting lodge of Mehmet the Conqueror, built in 1472. Inside are ceramics from the early Seljuk and Ottoman empires, as well as brilliant tiles from İznik, the city that produced perhaps the finest ceramics in the world during the 16th and 17th centuries.
In summer, you can mull over these glimpses into the distant past as you sip coffee or tea at the café in the garden, surrounded by fragments of ancient sculptures.
The Eski Şark Eserleri Müzesi (Museum of the Ancient Orient) transports visitors to even earlier times: The vast majority of the panels, mosaics, obelisks, and other artifacts here, from Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, date from the pre-Christian centuries. One of the most significant pieces in the collection is a 13th-century BC tablet on which is recorded the Treaty of Kadesh, perhaps the world's earliest known peace treaty, an accord between the Hittite king Hattusili III and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Also noteworthy are reliefs from the ancient city of Babylon, dating to the era of the famous king Nebuchadnezzar II. Gülhane Park, next to Topkapı SarayıAdmission charged.
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom). This soaring edifice is perhaps the greatest work of Byzantine architecture and for almost a thousand years, starting from its completion in 537, it was the world's largest and most important religious monument. As you enter, the half domes trick you before the great space opens up with the immense dome, almost 18 stories high and more than 30 meters (100 feet) across, towering above-look up into it and you'll see the spectacle of thousands of gold tiles glittering in the light of 40 windows. Only Saint Peter's in Rome, not completed until the 17th century, surpassed Aya Sofya in size and grandeur. It was the cathedral of Constantinople, the heart of the city's spiritual life, and the scene of imperial coronations.
Recent restoration efforts have, among other things, uncovered the large, beautifully preserved mosaic of a seraph, or six-winged angel, in the northeast pendentive of the dome, which had been plastered over 160 years earlier. The 9th-century mosaic of the Virgin and Child in the apse is also quite impressive: though it looks tiny, it is actually 16 feet high. To the right of the Virgin is the archangel Gabriel, while Michael, on the left, is almost totally lost.
The upstairs galleries are where the most intricate of the mosaics are to be found. At the far end of the south gallery are several imperial portraits, including, on the left, the Empress Zoe, whose husband's face and name were clearly changed as she went through three of them. On the right is Emperor John Comnenus II with his Hungarian wife Irene and their son, Alexius, on the perpendicular wall. Also in the upper level is the great 13th-century Deesis mosaic of Christ flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist, breathing the life of the early Renaissance that Byzantine artists would carry west to Italy after the fall of the city to the Turks-note how the shadows match the true light source to the left. The central gallery was used by female worshippers. The north gallery is famous for its graffiti, ranging from Nordic runes to a complete Byzantine galley under sail. On your way out of the church, through the "vestibule of the warriors," a mirror reminds you to look back at the mosaic of Justinian and Constantine presenting Aya Sofya and Constantinople, respectively, to the Virgin Mary. Aya Sofya Sq. Admission charged.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Cami). Only after you enter the Blue Mosque do you understand the name: the inside is covered with 20,000 shimmering blue-green İznik tiles interspersed with 260 stained-glass windows; calligraphy and intricate floral patterns are painted on the ceiling. After the dark corners and stern faces of the Byzantine mosaics in Aya Sofya, this mosque feels gloriously airy and full of light. Indeed, this favorable comparison was the intention of architect Mehmet Ağa (a former student of the famous Ottoman architect Sinan), whose goal was to surpass Justinian's crowning achievement (Aya Sofya). At the behest of Sultan Ahmet I (ruled 1603-17), he created this masterpiece of Ottoman craftsmanship, starting in 1609 and completing it in just eight years, and many believe he indeed succeeded in outdoing the splendor of Aya Sofya. Sultanahmet Sq.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). It's said that this early version of a shopping mall is the largest concentration of stores under one roof anywhere in the world, and that's easy to believe. Yeniçeriler Cad. and Çadırcılar Cad.
Süleymaniye Camii (Mosque of Süleyman). Perched on a hilltop opposite Istanbul University, Süleymaniye Camii is perhaps the most magnificent mosque in Istanbul and is considered one of the architect Sinan's masterpieces. The architectural thrill of the mosque, which was built between 1550 and 1557, is the enormous dome, the highest of any Ottoman mosque. Supported by four square columns and arches, as well as exterior walls with smaller domes on either side, the soaring space gives the impression that it's held up principally by divine cooperation. Sinan was guided by a philosophy of simplicity in designing this mosque and, except for around the mihrab (prayer niche), there is little in the way of tile work-though the extremely intricate stained-glass windows and Baroque decorations painted on the domes (added later) more than make up for that. Thanks to a three-year, multimillion-dollar restoration project completed in late 2010, the Süleymaniye can now be seen in its full glory. The tomb of Sinan is just outside the walls, on the northern corner, while those of his patron, Süleyman the Magnificent, and the sultan's wife, Roxelana, are housed in the cemetary adjacent to the mosque. The külliye, or mosque complex, still includes a hospital, library, hamam, several schools, and other charitable institutions that mosques traditionally operate, so take a stroll around the beautiful grounds-and don't miss the wonderful views of the Golden Horn. Süleymaniye Cad., near Istanbul University's north gate.
Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapı Palace). This vast palace on Seraglio Point, above the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, was the residence of sultans and their harems, in addition to being the seat of Ottoman rule from the 1460s until the middle of the 19th century. Few other royal residences match this hilltop compound when it comes to mystery, intrigue, and the lavishly exotic intricacies of court life.
Sultan Mehmet II built the original Topkapı Palace, known simply as the New Palace, between 1459 and 1465, shortly after his conquest of Constantinople. Over the centuries sultan after sultan added ever more elaborate architectural frills and fantasies, until the palace had acquired four courtyards and quarters for some 5,000 full-time residents, including slaves, concubines, and eunuchs. Topkapı was finally abandoned in 1853 when Sultan Abdülmecid I moved his court to Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus.
The main entrance, or Imperial Gate, leads to the Court of the Janissaries, also known as the First Courtyard-it is, and has always been, freely accessible to the general public. Today, the courtyard where these members of the sultan's guard once assembled is a tranquil green park full of tourist groups, and there is little to evoke the splendors and tragedies of the palace's extraordinary history. You will begin to experience the grandeur of the palace when you pass through the Bab-üs Selam (Gate of Salutation). Süleyman the Magnificent built the gate in 1524 and was the only person allowed to pass through it on horseback; others had to dismount and enter on foot. Prisoners were kept in the towers on either side of the gate before they were executed next to the nearby fountain, a handy arrangement that made it easy for executioners to wash the blood off their hands after carrying out their orders. Babıhümayun Cad., Gülhane Park, near Sultanahmet Sq. Admission charged.
Istanbul has been a shopper's town for, well, centuries, but this is not to say that the city is stuck in the past. Along with its colorful bazaars and outdoor markets, Istanbul also has a wide range of modern options. Whether you're looking for trinkets and souvenirs, kilims and carpets, brass and silverware, leather goods, old books, prints and maps, or furnishings and clothes (Turkish textiles are among the best in the world), you can find them here. Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, one of the major streets leading to the Grand Bazaar, is lined with some of Istanbul's most stylish shops, with an emphasis on fine carpets, jewelry, and antiques.
The Arasta Bazaar. Just behind the Blue Mosque, the Arasta Bazaar is a walkway lined with shops selling items similar to those you'll find at the Grand Bazaar (primarily carpets and ceramics), but often at lower prices. The atmosphere is also considerably calmer and, unlike the Grand Bazaar, the Arasta is open on Sunday. Sultanahmet.
The Egyptian Bazaar. The Egyptian Bazaar is also known as the Spice Market, and has stall after enticing stall filled with mounds of exotic spices and dried fruits. Near Yeni Cami Meydanı, Eminönü.
Sahaflar Çarşısı. The Sahaflar Çarşısı, reached through a doorway just outside the western end of the Grand Bazaar, is home to a bustling book market, with both old and new editions. Most are in Turk
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