The gulls that have wheeled over beautiful world-city Istanbul for centuries have a special fondness for the district of Sultanhahmet in the heart of the Historic Peninsula. Flapping their grey wings day and night, they swoop between the domes and minarets emitting petulant cries.
Built by Sultan Ahmed I, the splendid six-minareted mosque for which the district and square are named is flanked on one side by the Haghia Sophia, eighth wonder of the world, and on the other by the four-thousand-year-old obelisk of the Egyptian Pharoah Thutmoses III, one of the oldest monuments in the world.
Sultanahmet heads the list of places that the foreigners who come to Istanbul from the four corners of the earth want to see and tour. For this was the heart of the capital of two great empires, decked with buildings, each more magnificent than the last, where the history not only of ceremonies and festivals but also of revolts and uprisings was written.
History here begins at the square, with its still-surviving traces of the 60,000-person Hippodrome where chariots once raced and ceremonies were held. Its counterpart is the Circus Maximus in Rome.
The Hippodrome is covered with monuments brought here from the lands under Byzantine rule, monuments that symbolize the prestige of the Byzantine emperors from Constantine, who gave his name to the city, to Justinian, who built the Haghia Sophia.
A SQUARE WHERE MONUMENTS RISE
One of three important monuments still standing on the ancient Hippodrome is the obelisk, Istanbul's oldest monument, built by Thutmoses III for the god Amon and brought to the city from Egypt by the Emperor Theodosius in 390 A.D. The carvings and hieroglyphics on it express thanks to Amon, the god who protected Thutmoses III not only from his enemies, but also from natural disasters and contagious diseases.
Immediately next to the obelisk stands a second monument, which dates back to 470 B.C. Known as the Serpentine Column, this was made by melting down and reshaping the swords, shields, armor and helmets left behind by the Persians when they were routed by the Greeks on the Plain of Platea in 479 B.C. Centuries later the Emperor Constantine, for whom the Byzantine city was named, had this monument, an indicator of prestige, brought to Istanbul from the Temple at Delphoi and erected in the center of the Hippodrome.
The chin of one of the serpents on the column, not all of which has survived, is on display in the British Museum today while another fragment is exhibited in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.
The third surviving monument from the ancient Hippodrome is the 21-meter-high Braided Column. There was once another statue here as well, standing atop a pedestal and known as the 'quadriga' for its four bronze horses. But that was carried off to Italy by the Crusaders in the 13th century and today adorns the Cathedral of St Mark's in Venice.
THE MOSQUE FOR WHICH THE QUARTER IS NAMED
On one side of the Hippodrome today rises the palace of Ibrahim Pasha, son-in-law of Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the Ottoman Empire's most illustrious rulers, and simultaneously a grand vizier. It is used today as the Museum of Turkish-Islamic Art.
The exceptional carpets, lovely woodwork and stone artifacts in the museum are among the rarest and most beautiful examples of Turkish Islamic art.
On the other side of the Hippodrome stands the world-famous architectural wonder of the six-minareted Sultanahmet Mosque, dubbed by Westerners since time immemorial the 'Blue Mosque' for the myriad tones of blue it harbors from its dome right down to its walls. With its slender, erect minarets and their stone balconies carved like fine lace, Sultanahmet Mosque exhibits an originality all its own from its domes which are a wonder of symmetry to the 21,043 Iznik tiles that grace its walls.
The Ottoman Empire's fourteenth sultan, Ahmed I began building the mosque that would rise opposite the Haghia Sophia from the minute he acceded to the throne. So splendid was this mosque, built for his sultan by Sedefkâr Mehmet Ağa, who had been trained in the school of the great architect Sinan, that its doors were opened to worship in a great ceremony on 9 June 1617.
EIGHTH WONDER OF THE ANCIENT WORLD
After the Sultanahmet Mosque, the second building in the Istanbul skyline that has inscribed itself into miniatures, engravings, paintings and photographs from past to present is the Haghia Sophia, termed by some historians the eighth wonder of the ancient world.
This magnificent monument, regarded as the forerunner of the great cathedrals built in the West starting in the Middle Ages, was commissioned by Justinian, who was exalted to the rank of saint following his death.
Easier said than done, this glorious building 55.6 meters in height took only five years to build. Thousands of workers came from various countries to work on the construction, and the names of its two great architects, Antemius of Aydın and Isidorus of Miletus, have been immortalized.
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With its columns, marble-paneled walls and priceless mosaics, the Haghia Sophia continues today to reflect the splendid richness of Byzantine art.
OTHER RICHES IN THE QUARTER
Sultanahmet does not of course consist only of the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the monuments on the Hippodrome. Not far away in the same district are other historic riches, each more interesting than the last. The Yerebatan Cistern, for example, with its 336 columns, dating back to the 6th century A.D. and unmatched in the world for the water stored in its basin; the Haseki Sultan Hamam, built by Suleiman the Magnificent's beloved wife Hürrem; the German Fountain, all of whose parts were sent from Germany in 1902 as a gift of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the people of Istanbul; the Mosaic Museum where the mosaic floors left from the old Byzantine imperial palace are displayed; a fragment from the Milion monument, the Byzantine Empire's ground zero; the mosque complex of Sokullu Mehmet Pasha, a famous grand vizier of the 16th century; the fountain built by Nakşıdil Sultan, an imperial consort of French origin; the Binbirdirek or Cistern of 'A Thousand and One Columns', and the old houses, dervish lodges, religious colleges and mansions all go together to make up the riches upon riches that are Sultanahmet Square and its environs.
With its buildings that add beauty upon beauty to world-city Istanbul, this picturesque historic quarter, loved as much by its gulls, pigeons and cats as by its people, continues to harbor the indelible traces of a glorious, mysterious and noble past.