A World Winder exclusive by Guest Blogger Nick Gonzales–To see Nick’s photographic supplement to this article, click this link for photos of Istanbul.
Time: 3-4 Hours
Price: 20 Turkish Lira (14.00 U.S. Dollars)
Istanbul has entered the international scene as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Rightfully so, it truly is an amazing city: The people are warm and friendly. The food is amazing. The architecture and scenery-unparalleled. However, what makes Istanbul truly fascinating to the history teacher in me is its colorful and rich past. The Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and Galata Tower are a few of the more restored monuments that are favorites among tourists and give a glimpse into Istanbul’s Ottoman and Byzantine backgrounds. Every effort should be made to visit them if you plan to visit the city. Many websites in English can give you detailed explanations about them as well as information on Istanbul’s tours. However, there are also incredibly old and historically significant ruins that dot the city, which are barely marked or are unmarked. Hundreds in fact. You’ll find them if you walk or ride around the city long enough. Though many might be falling apart or may have been replaced with other monuments, they still pack a centuries-old wallop of the ancients. If you want restored presentable beauty, you should definitely visit the museums and popular tourist landmarks of Istanbul. However, if you’re willing to use your imagination and feel like hunting history down on your own terms, go on my “Historian’s Off-the-Beaten-Path Walking Tour of Istanbul.” The tour starts from the Sirkice train station in Sirkice.
1) Yedikule Zindanlari- 7 Tower Fortress, Entrance Fee (10 Lira-$6.50)
The first stop on the tour is Yedikule Zindanlari. From Sirkice station jump on the Sirkice- Halkali train (2 Lira -$1.40). Get off at the fifth stop- Yedikule station, and follow signs west to the fortress.
The Yedikule Fortress is the largest open-air museum in Turkey and one of the best-preserved features of the Istanbul’s 16th century outer wall ruins. From the top of the fortress you can view wall rampart ruins to the north and some lining the shore to the east. You’ll also get some breathtaking views of the Marmara Sea. The fortress is an extension of the “Porta Aura” or “Golden Gate,” which was constructed in the 4th century and added to for hundreds of years; this is the reason for the door-within-door appearance in the main entrance on the right.
These gates mark the beginning of the royal entrance into Constantinople, which ultimately culminated at the now non-existent Byzantine imperial palace in Sultanhamet. The path of concrete spheres commencing at the gate shows its first few steps. After exploring the ramparts and towers, get back on the Sirkice-Halkali train (2 Lira- $1.40) towards Sirkice. Get off at the Kumkapi exit and walk along the coastal highway, Kennedy Caddesi, in the same direction the train was traveling, west towards Sirkice station. Travel along the left side of the road not the coastal side.
2) Boukoleon- 7th Century Sea Wall (No Entrance Fee- Unmarked)
A ½ mile between the Kumkapi and Cankurtaran stations stands the unmarked “Boukoleon.” As you walk towards the wall, notice the ruins of old Byzantine and Ottoman coastal walls to the left. You will know you have reached the Boukoleon by the presence of a larger more preserved wall structure behind green fencing and a bus lot, just east of it. There are three white marble lined openings still visible in the wall and a seafood restaurant aptly named “Boukoleon,” standing to the rear of the traveller facade.
This wall stands as a remnant of the grandiosity of the imperial palatial complex in 8th century Constantinople. It served as an access point to Emperor Theophilus’s coastal pavilion and was used primarily to receive guests entering from the Marmara Sea. The three white marble openings still visible today likely featured statues or shudders under Theophilus. Though quite dilapidated, it is one of the more preserved areas of the Byzantine coastal wall. When you are done examining the surprisingly well-preserved doorways and arches, continue walking to the Cankurtaran station. Take the train (2 Lira-$1.40) one stop and exit at the Sirkice station.
3) Cemberlitas- Constantine’ s Column (No Entrance Fee- Marked, but mark not readily visible)
After exiting the station at Sirkice walk out of the parking lot, get on the Kabatas- Bagcilar tramway towards Bagcilar (2 Lira-$1.40). Ride two stations, and exit at Cemberlitas.
If there is one person who has left a lasting impact on western civilization outside of Jesus, it would probably be the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. He is responsible for aiding in Christian legitimization in the Roman Empire and for the birth of the Christian state. The name “Constantinople” is actually derived from his name. This column, though relatively modest looking today, stood in the center of an elaborate forum once dedicated to Constantine and featured a bronze statue of him depicted as Apollo. Its original base also housed a piece of the “True Cross” (the supposed original cross on which Jesus was executed) and other significant Christian relics. The millennia old bathhouse, now called the “Cemberlitas Hamam,” also stood alongside it, dating back to when the area was a forum dedicated to Greek deities over 2000 years ago. Because of Istanbul’s constant earthquakes and extreme weather, the column has had to be reconstructed a number of times. Today, it is being restored to a mixed Byzantine interpretation; note the royal Byzantine purple that has been recently applied to the column. After examining Constantine’s Column and its surroundings, get back on the tramway (2 Lira-$1.40) and go towards Bagcilar. Get off at Aksaray station.
4) Valens Aqueduct (Free- Unmarked but readily visible), Fatih Cami- Fatih Mosque (Free- Marked), Sultan Mehmed II Tomb and sarcophagus (Free- Marked))
Walk down the hill toward Ataturk Blvd, cross street, turn right onto Ataturk Blvd, and walk up the hill towards the Valens Aqueduct. Walk on the left side of the road, but walk over the tunnel, do not enter it. Take note of the Byzantine ruins towards the top of the hill on the left. When you reach the crest of the hill examine more closely the superb preservation of the Valens Aqueduct, which was built in the 4th century under Emperor Valens. Then turn left on Macar Kardeslar road.
Walk another 1/2 mile to “Fatih Cami” or Fatih Mosque. Please be aware that mosque attire should be worn when entering. Note the elaborate interior, and when you’re done taking in the beauty, exit the mosque and walk west around it to the tomb (turbe) of Sultan Mehmed II. In 1452, this Sultan conquered Constantinople and put an end to nearly 1000 years of Byzantine rule. His ornately embellished tomb now serves as a holy site for Turkish Muslims. An interesting historical tidbit to note is that the Church of the Holy Apostles, a 4th century church of famed grandiosity that rivaled the Hagia Sophia’s, once stood on the grounds of Fatih Mosque. It is no wonder that the greatest of all Sultans is interred within the complex, the former church once housed Constantine’s tomb, as well as one of the most extensive Christian reliquaries in the then known world.
This concludes “The Historian’s Off-the-Beaten-Path Walk Tour of Istanbul.” To get back to Sirkice station back track to Aksaray station and board the tram for Sirkice.
Nick Gonzales is a world history teacher, E.S.O.L adjunct professor, and curious traveller. He currently resides in Massachusetts and has lived in California, New York, Turkey, and Japan. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He strongly recommends visiting Byzantium 1200 for viewing historical depictions of the monuments and sights on his Historian’s Off-the-Beaten-Path Walking Tour of Istanbul.