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Topkapı Palace

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The seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, Topkapı Palace is today one of Istanbul’s most popular sights. The massive complex consists of four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, and the treasures on display are among the world’s most valuable. A visit to Topkapı Palace is almost compulsory during a trip to Istanbul… just expect to be exhausted afterward.

Everything about the Topkapı is excessive, and visiting is an exercise in patience and endurance. You’re going to be waiting in a lot of long lines, and there’s just no way around it. Although the courtyards and outdoor areas are spacious, the rooms and pavilions which hold the various treasures aren’t. You spend much of your time in ı waiting to enter them, then shuffling briskly through in single-file queues.

Luckily, the rewards for patience are spectacular. Once you’re through the Gate of Salutations, which separates the publicly-accessible first courtyard from the second, there’s an overwhelming amount to see, and much of it is unforgettable. The sword and mantle of Muhammed. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the world’s largest. The Topkapi Dagger (which features in a popular 1964 heist movie). The marvelous pavilions where the royal family would rest, such as the Baghdad Kösk, the Terrace Kösk and the Grand Kösk. The arm of John the Baptist. The libraries. The throne room. The Gate of Felicity. The circumcision room. The garden views across the Golden Horn and to Asia. The keys to the Kaaba. The Harem.

Let’s just put it this way… Topkapı Palace has the Staff of Moses. And I knew this, but was so dazzled by the other treasures, I forgot to search it out. Topkapı: awesome enough to reduce the Staff of Moses to an afterthought.

One of the best things about Topkapı is that chances for rest are plentiful. The palace is so large that you can always find a place to sit down and relax in the sun… and after a few hours of filing through rooms, you’ll need to sit. These were the moments I most enjoyed Topkapı. Relaxing on a bench under a tree, reading from a history book about the murderous, amorous or deceitful practices of the sultan and his court. And then looking up! These buildings provided the scene for so much amazing history. Just being inside this palace is an incredible experience.

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June 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm Comments (7)

SALT and the Ottoman Bank Museum

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Established in 1856, the Ottoman Bank was a part of a comprehensive effort to modernize the flagging Ottoman Empire. Today, its former headquarters in Galata is home to SALT: a non-profit organization dedicated to art, architecture and urbanism.

Ottoman Bank Istanbul

The ambitious period of reform known as the Tanzimat Era introduced a number of new concepts to the struggling Ottoman Empire, which was trying to reorganize itself along the lines of more successful Western countries. Post offices, a national anthem, civil rights, the abolition of slavery, a census, modern universities, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and many other novelties were force-fed to a bewildered Turkish public between the tumultuous years of 1839 and 1876.

The former headquarters of the Ottoman Bank can be found on Bankalar Sokak, near the entrance to the Karaköy Tünel station. The northern facade, facing the foreigner-dominated neighborhood of Galata, was designed in a European, neoclassical style, while the south-facing side, visible from the old town across the Golden Horn, is neo-orientalist. The bank itself was seen as a bridge between east and west, and its headquarters symbolized this brilliantly in its architecture.

Today, in the basement, you can find the Ottoman Bank Museum. “Bank History” is not a topic I usually get excited for, but the exhibits on display are surprisingly engaging. You can visit the old vaults where gold was kept, and browse folders full of portraits of the bank’s 19th-centuries employees (most of whom, of course, sport fabulous mustaches).

On the first floor of the old bank building, SALT has installed an amazing public library focused on art and architecture. There’s also a cafe, a bookstore and, on the upper floors, spaces for temporary exhibitions and conferences.

SALT has another seat on nearby İstiklal Caddesi, which is one of the coolest galleries we visited in Istanbul. Temporary exhibits rotate through constantly, along with performances and films. We saw a retrospective on the work of subREAL: a Romanian art duo that “undertakes political, social and cultural criticism with a sharp sense of humor while creating a vigorous visual language”. Modern and eclectic, i’s exactly the type of thing you can expect to find at SALT. Considering its cost (free), SALT Beyoğlu is worth visiting regardless of what’s on, but you can check the current exhibitions at their website.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: SALT Galata | Beyoğlu

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June 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm Comment (1)

The Ottoman Fortress of Rumeli Hisarı

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It was the mid 15th-century, and although the Ottoman army had long since surrounded the city, Constantinople was proving stubbornly resistant. In order to more effectively isolate the Byzantine capital, the invaders hastily constructed the Rumeli Hisarı. This fortress along the Bosphorus is still in marvelous condition, and makes for a fun outing.

Fortress Rumeli Hisarı

By running a heavy chain between Rumeli Hisarı and its Asian counterpart, the Analodu Hisarı, the Ottomans were able to prevent any of Constantinople’s northern allies from sending assistance to the beleaguered city. The fortress was completed in 1452, and a weakened Constantinople fell just one year later. A section of the original chain which helped break Byantium can be seen in the Military Museum.

We had already walked past the Analodu Hisarı on our way to Kanlıca, and hadn’t been terribly impressed by its meager remains. But the Rumeli Hisarı is another matter altogether. This fortress is massive, and a lot of fun explore. From the ramparts which soar high above the Bosphorus, you can enjoy some incredible views, especially of the nearby Fatih Bridge.

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May 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm Comments (5)

The Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum

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The Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum needs a new name. Look, Disneyland wouldn’t be nearly as popular if it were called “The Anaheim Place of Enjoyment and Fun with Cartoon Characters Theme Park”. Yes, we know exactly what to expect from the Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum, but by the time we’re done saying its name, we no longer feel like going!

The Istanbul History of Science

While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, the world’s most advanced learning was being done by Islamic thinkers. In the West, we like to pretend that humanity’s higher scientific achievements all happened after the Renaissance. But the IHSTIM (I’m not typing that out again) is there to remind us that Copernicus wasn’t the first to look toward the stars. Descartes didn’t exactly invent the scientific method. And one the first tasks of Renaissance-age medicine was the translation of Arab medical texts.

Most of the items on display in the IHSTIM are modern reconstructions of historical devices, based on plans and blueprints, and not the ancient models themselves. That was initially disappointing, but it’s actually better to examine the intact replica of an antique Armillary sphere, for example, than the rusted old remains of an original. The museum had a ton of exhibits; we particularly enjoyed the ingenious clocks, which used elements like water and fire to keep track of time. The celestial globes, the models of early observatories, and strange mathematical devices like beautifully-designed astrolabes were also worth spending time at.

The museum was larger than I expected, and we were visiting toward the end of a long day spent in Gülhane Park, so we eventually succumbed to fatigue. Turns out that there’s a limit to the number of antiquated sextants a person can admire before losing interest. But still, the museum is certainly worth a visit, especially for anyone with curiosity in scientific history.

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May 28, 2013 at 7:28 am Comments (2)

The Küçüksu Pavilion

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Built in 1857 as a lodge for Sultan Abdülmecid I, the elaborate facade of the Küçüksu Pavilion looks out over the Bosphorus Strait from the Asian side of Istanbul. Though its days as a summer retreat for Ottoman rulers may be a thing of the past, the pavilion has been meticulously preserved and now serves as a museum.


As is evident from the first glance, the pavilion was built during the Ottoman craze for all things European. The architect, Nigoğayos Baylan, had studied in Paris and the pavilion’s highly-stylized facade belongs to the Rococo style which was, at the time, très à la mode. Baylan was of Istanbul’s Armenian minority, reflecting the trend among the Ottoman court to eschew Muslim architects for Christian, and western-oriented, points of view.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, all palaces and royal lodges were possessed by the state. The Küçüksu Pavilion underwent a long period of restoration and was re-opened in 1983. Happily, the government proved to be a top-notch caretaker. The building is in splendid condition, with original furniture, and looks brand new both inside and out. It’s hard to say whether the pavilion is more impressive for its exterior, with its ostentatious and finely-wrought detailing, or for the baroque elegance found within.

The pavilion consists of four equal-sized rooms on each floor, decorated with colored glass which casts a strange light across the floors and furniture. Heat was provided by fireplaces, each of which is individually designed and built from a different-colored Italian marble. The Küçüksu Pavilion is often referred to as a “palace”, which is certainly in fitting with its opulence, but not quite correct: it was never intended for sleeping and was designed without a single bedroom. (I’d have been fine on the couch.)

Before we visited, I had glanced only briefly at a brochure describing the pavilion as an “Ottoman hunting lodge”, and hadn’t seen any pictures at all. So arriving at the gate, I was blown away. The fact that this incredible building appears only very rarely in “must-see” lists of the city just underlines the ridiculous abundance of sights in Istanbul.

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April 27, 2013 at 7:17 am Comments (2)

The Military Museum and Mehter Band

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Whether fighting for the Ottoman Empire or the modern Republic, the Turkish war machine has a long and storied past, and it’s all breathlessly recounted in the Military Museum near Taksim Square. While visiting the museum, it’s almost compulsory to take in a performance of history’s most famous military musical squad: the Mehter Band.


The Military Museum is huge. That’s the first thing we noticed during our visit — the collection of weapons, paintings, stories, artifacts, and dioramas is overwhelming, and only the most dedicated army enthusiast is going to be able to fully appreciate the museum’s depth. For us, it was enough to amble through, stopping when an especially cool gun or painting caught our eye.

If you limited your knowledge of history to the information provided by the museum, you’d probably conclude that the world has never seen a fighting force like the Turkish military. Undefeated throughout the ages! The museum revels in one glorious victory after the other… and only the victories. We couldn’t find a single word about any defeat or setback.

But were it dedicated to a sober and accurate analysis of the past, the museum wouldn’t be as popular. We were shocked by the number of people visiting, almost all of them locals. We eavesdropped on a guy relating the magnificent details of the 1521 Battle of Belgrade to his non-Turkish (and visibly bored) girlfriend, and tailed two older gentlemen who were perhaps a bit too fascinated by the pistol collection. And when we sat down in the auditorium for the Mehter Band’s performance, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The hall seats at least 1000, and was completely full.


Established in the 13th Century, the Mehters were history’s first military band, formed to inspire Ottoman forces and instill fear in their enemies. They’re the inspiration for a musical style in Spain called “a la turca“, as well as Mozart’s famous Turkish March, and led to the formation of similar military bands throughout Europe.

But the days of marching into a field of battle are long since past, and the Mehter Band now exists only to thrill the crowds at the Military Museum. Their performance was pretty good, even for those of us without much interest in martial music. Very loud. The crew which marched out onto the stage was 55 strong and consisted of only a few flutes and trumpets. The rest were drummers and singers. And every man in the band had a full, bushy mustache, although half of these were glued-on.

Even if your interest in Turkish military history is lacking, the museum is worth the price of entrance just for the spectacle of a standing-room-only crowd thrilling to marching music performed by guys in fake mustaches. Not something you’re likely to see anywhere else.

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April 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm Comments (2)

The Kalenderhane & Şehzade Mosques

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Within the immediate vicinity of the Aqueduct of Valens are two worthwhile mosques: the ancient Kalenderhane and the enormous ?ehzade Mosque, built on the order of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1548.


The Kalenderhane Mosque was originally a Byzantine church built towards the end of the 12th century. After the conquest of Constantinople, it was granted to the Kalender Dervishes as a tekke, or lodge. The Kalender dervishes are an Islamic sect whose beliefs demand a life of endless wandering, so it’s unsurprising that they eventually abandoned their tekke. Today, it’s been converted into another of the city’s mosques, popular with students from the nearby Istanbul University.

The Kalenderhane is small, and impressive for both its marble panels and its age. Inside, the oldest known painting of Saint Francis d’Assisi was discovered in 1966. The fresco, which depicts the saint preaching to the birds, is believed to have been painted shortly after his death in 1266, and can currently be seen in the Archaeological Museum.


Near the humble Kalenderhane, we came upon the much larger ?ehzade Camii. A jaw-dropping structure, but that was a given. It’s not as though an “adequate” mosque was going to satisfy a sultan who calls himself “Magnificent”. The ?ehzade Camii (or “Prince Mosque”) was built to honor the untimely death of Süleyman’s oldest son to smallpox, and was one of Mimar Sinan’s first major constructions in Istanbul. According to a plaque outside, the master architect was unsatisfied with the result, calling it an “apprentice work”, but we think he was being too hard on himself. Unlike many of the larger mosques in the city, visitors here are allowed to wander here at will.

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April 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm Comments (3)

Lunchtime in Eminönü

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Hungry for lunch? Then join the throngs heading for the semicircular Eminönü Plaza, on the western side of the Galata Bridge. “Why? What’s there to eat?” you might be asking. Well, try not worry about that quite yet!


This plaza between the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus Ferry Terminal is one of the most popular places in the city to grab a quick and cheap lunch. Three restaurants floating on the riverside offer the exact same thing — fish sandwiches. Just step right up, hand over 5 TL and grab a seat at the first available stool. Lather your sandwich with diluted lemon juice and salt, and dig in!

Don’t walk over to the edge and peer into the murky river from which the fish are caught… stop that! Instead, look around you. Look at the funny little waiters dressed in Ottoman-era costumes! Isn’t this fun? Look at the other customers, mostly locals, happily enjoying their fish sandwiches. Hey, I said to stop looking at the water! Just close your eyes and concentrate on the fish. It’s good, right?

Chowing on a grilled fish sandwich really works up a thirst, doesn’t it? You know what sounds really delicious right now? You got it: neon-red vinegary pickle juice. You’re reading my mind! Yes sir, put a cup of that sweet stuff right here. So vinegary, so full of pickles and radishes… so bright! Mmmm, that’s the taste of a new, slightly disturbed, generation.

So, a meal in Eminönü is kind of an adventure, but in truth the pickle juice is not totally undrinkable and does complement the fish sandwich — which is just as delicious as a grilled fish sandwich should be. The experience is fun, and the price is great. You can also find non-fishy foods in the plaza, such as chestnuts, simits, corn ears and döner, and with the boisterous, almost carnival-like atmosphere and the view of the Galata Bridge, it’s an excellent place to grab a quick bite.

Just make sure to save room for dessert. There are stands offering Halka Lokma Tarifi, which are freshly-fried donut balls topped with ground pistachio. Or those with an even sweeter tooth can try out the Tarihi Osmanlı Macunu (Traditional Ottoman Candy): five different flavors of thick taffy spiraled deftly around a stick, creating a delicious lollipop.

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April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am Comments (4)

The Archaeology Museum Complex

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Set atop a hill in Gülhane Park, just meters from Topkapı Palace, the Archaeology Museum Complex boasts one of the world’s most stunning collections of ancient artifacts. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire stretched across major sections of Europe, Asia and Africa, so it should come as no surprise that countless treasures have found their way to Istanbul.


The museum was established in the late 1800s, partially to combat the widespread practice of spiriting off archaeological finds to countries like England or Germany. (Whether this was done to loot or protect them is perhaps a matter of perspective.) The Ottoman Empire was in the process of Westernizing, and the establishment of a Archaeological Museum to protect and display its treasures was a step in the country’s new direction.

Today, the complex consists of three museums. Of these, the Archaeology Museum is the focal point, occupying a massive neoclassical building. The museum wastes no time in impressing, placing its most stunning artifacts in the rooms just past the entrance: The Sarcophagi of Sidon. Found during a famous dig in modern-day Lebanon, these incredibly well-preserved and exquisitely decorated coffins held the bones of kings. The most famous of them is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which depicts the great Macedonian king in battle scenes (though it was not, as originally thought, his coffin).

The museum features objects found across the Ottoman Empire and ancient Byzantine, with mummies and statues joining historic relics like the snake’s head stricken from the Hippodrome’s Serpentine Column. A large exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to the archaeological history of Istanbul — a collection so complete and interesting, that it could easily justify its own museum. Another exhibit is dedicated to objects from the regions neighboring Turkey, mostly Cyprus and Syria.

This museum requires at least an hour from even the most disinterested visitor, and we were inside much longer than that. So, our legs were happy to take a tea break at the pleasant outdoor cafe, in a garden decorated with an army of ancient statues.


Right across from the Archaeology Museum is the beautiful Tiled Kiosk, home to the Museum of Turkish Ceramics. Thankfully, this museum was small. The tiles found within are striking, and there was plenty of information about the history of Turkish ceramics, but (for us) the highlight was the building itself, built in 1472 for Sultan Mehmet II as a pleasure palace.

Finally, we drug our weary bodies into the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which concentrates on artifacts from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. We liked this collection almost as much as the Archaeology Museum’s. It includes the world’s oldest peace treaty, the Treaty of Kadesh, signed between Egypt and the Hittites in 1297 BC (a copy of which hangs on the walls of the United Nations). There’s also a beautifully preserved, and opened, Egyptian coffin and mummy, as well as tiles from Babylon’s legendary Ishtar Gate.

Given the ridiculous amount of incredible things to see in the Archaeology Museum Complex, the price is entirely fair, at just 10TL ($5.50). I also found the audio-guide to be worthwhile. Despite its proximity to Topkapı Palace, there are relatively few tourists here, so it makes a great place to escape the hordes and lose yourself in the ancient world. In all, a highly-rewarding place to spend a few hours… or perhaps even an entire day.

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April 11, 2013 at 5:23 pm Comments (8)

Three Mosques of Üsküdar

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Much of our first day on the Asian side of Istanbul was spent visiting Üsküdar’s mosques. There are over 180 in just this section of the city, so we had a lot to choose from, but stuck to three of the most well-known: the Yeni Valide, Şemsi Paşa and Atik Valide.

The Yeni Valide Camii

Üsküdar’s “Mosque of the New Queen Mother” was the very first mosque we visited in Turkey. Completed in 1703 by Emetullah Rabia Gülnûş, the mother of Sultan Ahmed III, the mosque is situated near the Bosphorus and its twin minarets have become part of Istanbul’s Asian profile. As a girl, the Greek Emetullah had led a peaceful existence on Crete before being kidnapped by the Ottomans and sent to the harem of Sultan Mehmet IV. Lovely and intelligent, she soon attracted the sultan’s favor and bore him two sons, both of whom would become sultans as well.

Since this was our first mosque, its huge dome, colorful tiles, intricate patterns, and stunning courtyard were especially astounding to us. The Queen Mother is buried here, in a tomb protected by a nicely-wrought cage of green iron. [More Pics | Location]

The Şemsi Paşa Camii

This tiny mosque on the Bosphorus coast was unfortunately encircled by the massive construction of the Marmara project, which will link Asia to Europe by subway. It was built in 1581 by Mimar Sinan for the Grand Vizier (prime minister) of the time, Şemsi Paşa.

The noise and mess of construction really detracted from our experience here, which is a shame since the Şemsi Paşa is considered one of Istanbul’s architectural gems. There’s a pleasing simplicity to the humble mosque, with its lone dome and single minaret, and when there’s no construction, the courtyard with its view over the Bosphorus must be wonderful. [More Pics | Location]

The Atik Valide Külliyesi

Completed in 1583, the mosque of the Atik Valide Külliyesi was our favorite of the day. It took a while to reach, as it’s found at the top of a hill further inland, but was worth the effort. The mosque was built at the behest of the Sultan Valide Nurbanu, wife of Selim the Sot (one of the Ottoman Empire’s most disastrous rulers) and mother of Sultan Murad III. During her time as valide sultan (mother of the sultan), she exercised enormous influence, and was recognized as the true power behind the throne. She died in 1583, possibly poisoned by Genoese agents, and was buried in the Hagia Sofia.

The complex (Külliyesi) which Nurbanu commissioned in Üsküdar was the final masterpiece of Istanbul’s ubiquitous architect Mimar Sinan, and includes a dervish lodge, insane asylum, and soup kitchen. The mosque is glorious, sporting a wide central dome surrounded by five smaller domes, but is very nearly eclipsed in beauty by the attached courtyard, where there are old burnt trees, a fountain and a popular tea house. We love this aspect of mosques; they double as community centers, providing a place hang out even when there’s no service. [More Pics | Location]

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March 20, 2013 at 7:11 am Comments (2)
Topkap? Palace The seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, Topkapı Palace is today one of Istanbul's most popular sights. The massive complex consists of four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, and the treasures on display are among the world's most valuable. A visit to Topkapı Palace is almost compulsory during a trip to Istanbul... just expect to be exhausted afterward.
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