İstanbul holds an unserpassed concentration of places of religious interest and importance. From sites touched by mythology, to the world’s masterpieces of St. Sophia and the Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, to such a simple demonstration as the sign in Ortaköy that celebrates the community of Jews, Christians and Muslims living in harmony together, Istanbul has always been an intermediary. Its residents have been heretical, syncretistic, byzantine, rank and contentious. They have been imperious and expedient, both religiously and politacally. Taking all these into consideration, on balance their contributions to Western civilization are incalculable and their city has been a bridge, a go between, an agent of geography and in human exchange.
Greater İstanbul bridges the continents of Europe and Asia. It includes the old city within its 5th century walls and then in increasingly wider perimeters Karaköy, Beyoğlu, both shores of the Bosphrous, Üsküdar, Kadıköy and beyond taking in the European and Asian shores of the Sea of Marmara and the Princes’ Islands. The city is continuing to grow in area and population.
The first written record about the Bosphrous speak of a leader named Byzas and his dollowers who had come in 667 BC from Megara to occupy the thumb of land, now called the Seraglio Point. Descendant of these Byzantines and later colonists from Rome honored their emperor by changing the city’s name to Constantinople in AD 330. From that time on for 1100 years (except for the brief Latin occupaiton from 1204 to 1261), it was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and an exemplar of civilization to the Western world.
Conquered by the muslim Turkish Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, the city became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a position it held until the Turkish Republic was proclaimed in 1923 and the capital was moved to Ankara. While its political situation is changed, İstanbul continues to influence the whole country.
Geographically İstanbul is usually divided into four parts for the purpose of describing the historic sites most tourists want to see. These enclose many of the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments. 1)The old city is the European thumb of land within the 5th century AD walls that circle from the Seraglio Point on the southeast along the Golden Horn, cross the peninsula between Ayvansaray and Yedikule, and return along the sea of Marmara. 2) The “new city” lies on the European side of the Bosphorus north of the Golden Horn. 3)Asiatic Greater İstanbul includes Kadıköy 4) The Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara are also a part of Greater İstanbul.
Seven hills are used by geographers to describe the regions of the old city. The First Hill includes The Topkapi Palace, St. Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Second Hill takes in the Covered Bazaar the Burnt Column and the Nuruosmaniye Mosque. The Third Hill is the land of İstanbul University plus Süleymaniye Külliyesi (the complex of buildings with the mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent at the center). The Fourth hill is crowned by the mosque of Fatih Sultan Mehmet II, and the Fifth Hill by the Mosque of Selim II. The top of the Sixth Hill is at the Edirne Gate of the city walls with the Mihrimah Camii rising prominently there. The Seventh Hill, once the place of kitchen gardens, is the least defined, being the slope from Millet Caddesi to the Sea of Marmara. The Haseki Hürrem Külliyesi is here, and at the far western edge the Museum of St. John the Baptist of Studion.
Residences line both sides of the narrow Bosphorus, and ferries play back and forth between Europe and Asia. This strait is probably the world’s busiest international shipping lane. Both the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea town north Istanbul have popular bathing beaches.
Remains of pagan site of worship in the city limits of Istanbul are not commonly identified as such. One of the oldest is the bronze Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome that was once in the Temple to Apollo in Delphi. Made from the shields of the fallen Persians, this column commemorated one of the first battles for independence. Names of the Greek states who united to defeat the Persian invaders at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC are engraved on the base (now hidden in the dirt). There used to be three serpents’ heads; the only one left is in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The column is only one of many art objects that Constantine the Great took from Rome to embellish his new city, following the tradition of his Roman predecesors who had helped themselves to whatever caught their fancy around their world.
There is the stoy of a Column of Venus (is it the Kız Sütunu in Aksaray/Fatih) that had the reputation of embrassing girls who pretended to be virgins. The column, or maybe censorious Venus, called up a mischievous wind to toss the girls’ skirts above their heads if they ventured near The Column of the Goths in Gülhane Park is thought to date about AD 268 or 279, but it was a war memorial to a victory against the Goths, not a religious site. The foundations of St. Irene (in the First Court of Topkapi Palace) are on a Roman Temple to Aphrodite. An old back and white mosaic exposed in the floor of the building may be from that temple.
The Burn Column (Çemberlitaş) was part of Constantine’s political maneuvering to please both the pagans and the Christians in his city. He built into the foundation of the column and a small chapel at its base a number of religious items symbolically meaningful at the time to both groups: a wooden figure of Pallas Athnea that Aenas had carried from Troy to Rome, Noah’s ax with which he hewed the timbers of the Ark, the rock that Moses struck in the Wilderness to produce water, and the crumbs gathered after Jesus had fed the five thousand. At the top of the column was a statue of Constantine crowned with the rays of the sun god, while a piece of the True Cross that his mother St. Helena had found in Jerusalem was enclosed in the statue itself. The statue stood until it was toppled during a storm in 1105; the authenticity of the other items is debatable.