A few weeks ago was a rainy day in Istanbul. With a gray sky and a soft rain, there were few options on how to spend the day. One could go to a cinema, luck themselves up at the gym, get a nice back massage and do a spa day or stay in, watch DVD. I would have gone for the massage and the spa; but a close friend of mine, who was in the city for a few days, seduced me for a day in Sultanahmet. So, we ended up with a nice and easy stroll, one that involved less of the monuments, but more of the soul of the historic quarter.
For those who know less about Sultanahmet, Sultanahmet is the historic center of Istanbul, what the 19th century travelers used to refer to as simply “Stamboul.” All the well-known monuments, Palaces, Mosques and museums are line up around this historic quarter. For instance Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Mosaic Museum, Archeology Museum, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Binbir Direk Cistern are only some of the monuments you will find in and around the Sultanahmet square – not to mention the Grand Bazaar, which is like another, unique town of its own.
If you are already staying in Sultanahmet, lucky you, just rise and shine and head for breakfast before you join the stroll. But, if you are staying in some other part of the city, you will have to ride the bus, the boat or the tram… From where we were coming (around Besiktas), the easiest mode of transportation was with the tram. If you are staying around Taksim, Sisli or Nisantasi, tram is also your best possible option.
[Image By MarkusMark (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
The tram reaches right to the middle of the Sultanahmet square. Sultanahmet square has a unique aura that slaps me each time I go there. On a given weekday, it lacks the troubling rush and noise of traffic that has become a natural part of life in Istanbul. This is not to say, Sultanahmet square is very calm. When the clock hits the time of Ezan, all the nearby mosques join forces for the traditional hymn of Ezan. Instantly the square is filled and banging with oriental tunes and chants. This is not disturbing at all; on the contrary it is quite moving.
It is around 12.30 when we recollect ourselves. My friend was dying to see the Archeology Museum; but we decided to have lunch first before we hit the museum. Right next to the tram station in the Square is the Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi by Selim Usta (Chief). Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi is the legendary meatball restaurant founded in 1920, it is an authentic place. This is the one and only branch that Selim Usta has. As you walk around Istanbul, you will be seeing many other restaurants under the same name. Those are branches of a chain that has nothing to do with Selim Usta’s original place.
[Image By Antidiskriminator (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Next to Selim Usta’s meatball heaven is yet another legendary place: The Pudding Shop. The Pudding Shop is very well-known by the hippie generation of 1968. For that generation the Pudding Shop was more than a patisserie, it was a meeting place. We were tempted to eat kazandibi, which is a traditional Turkish dessert, white pudding with a blackened surface. Neither of us could finish one on our own; therefore we shared one together with fresh Turkish tea.
Time to go to the museum. In Sultanahmet, monuments are all walking distance from each other. Even if not, we are willing to walk. Across from the Pudding Shop is the entry to the Sultanahmet Square. From there we pass onto the wide street surrounded by Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. This street leads on towards the Four Seasons Hotel, which is currently under renovation. Not that guests are unwelcome, but there is construction that is also somewhat blocking the road as well. The construction moves slowly due to archeological significance of the place.
As we turn left from where Four Seasons and its constructions were, we arrive to the Topkapi Palace. In the first courtyard of the Palace is the Aya Irini Church. The Museum is further below the Church. However, Aya Irini is most often also home to a cultural event. It has a very good acoustic structure and thus usually hosts many great concerts -parts of major music festivals or individual ensembles. On that particular day there was an exhibition going on at the Church. It was the Kültepe Kaniş Karumu, which is still continuing (to end by the end of this month).
The exhibition was unlikely to take more than 30 minutes of our time, so we decided to enter. It is a ceramics exhibition that delineates the influences of Hittite and Assyrian culture on the ceramics. Kültepe is a tiny town, near Cappadocia and thus the 3000 years old bronze artifacts did carry a lot of cultural interaction and historical significance.
Aya Irini was also hosting a concert that night: that of Luz Casal. So, whilst we were visiting the exhibition, the stage was being prepared for the concert in the evening. We had another temptation to check out tickets for the night. Who knows if we could pass enough time until 8 pm, we might as well treat ourselves to some fine music. We did not immediately yield to our temptation and decided to do first what we had actually come for: the Museum.
[Image By Chapultepec (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Archeology Museum is s a group of three archeological museums: Archaeological Museum (in the main building), Museum of the Ancient Orient and Museum of Islamic Art. The museum cannot be described in a few words; it is a “must-see” for any history lover.
After the museum, we were too tired to go back and check for the tickets. Instead, we headed to Caferaga Medresesi, where we had a cup of tea. Medrese is translated as “madrasah”, theological school or building. Caferaga Madrasah is a small one that functions today as an “Applied Turkish Handicrafts Center”. At the Center are many workshops and exhibitions of traditional Ottoman arts such as, calligraphy, miniature painting, ebru (traditional Turkish marbling), tile work, glass work and carpet weaving. There are also tiny stores that sell samples of Ottoman art. The cafe is right in the middle, in a garden, surrounded by these shops.
Time to head back… The closest tram station to the Madrasah is the Gülhane stop; but we decide to walk until Eminönü, where we wish to do a bit of grocery shopping as well. Eminönü has the best of many things: cheese, coffee, pickles, nuts etc. In fact, we line up at Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi and buy coffee.
Back home, I was too tired to move a muscle. But, it sure was a pleasant and fulfilling day. Funny though, we did not even cover half of Sultanahmet… In fact we did not even cover quarter of Topkapi Palace, even though we did enter to it on our way to the Museum… Therefore, strolls through Sultanahmet are bound to continue, to focus on its other parts. Hope you enjoyed this one.