Interesting Facts About the Museums of Istanbul

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Interesting Facts About the Museums of Istanbul

Since 638 B.C. when it was founded, Istanbul has served as the capital for 3 empires.  Istanbul was the administrative center of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires in the past and in order to explore this city thoroughly, one needs to visit the museums in Istanbul consciously and it’s clear why. Istanbul’s historical monuments and museums are what proves how rich the history of Istanbul is.

In this post, we will have a look at the most astonishing museums, alongside some beautiful photos, of Istanbul. And let’s see if we know enough about these historical works under the light of the facts that are known by few.

  • Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is the monument that I’ve visited the most since I was a student and it’s the one that amazes me the most. Considering it was built in 537, we can easily say it reflects the history of Istanbul with its historical and mystic atmosphere.

Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian and two architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, were in charge of the construction. I am sure most of you know some things about Hagia Sophia. However, let’s have a look at the facts about Istanbul’s museums that are not widely known.

Hagia Sophia’s columns that were gathered from elsewhere

As the time allocated to complete Hagia Sophia was short, some columns from ancient cities were used to build it. For example, it’s rumored that the eight columns at the center of Hagia Sophia were brought from Ephesus.

Ancient Columns in Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Columns of Temple of Artemis

Hagia Sophia’s strong resistance against earthquakes

The reason why Hagia Sophia is still standing despite the fact that others around it are lost is that the architects of that period analyzed the earthquakes in history well and they built it to be flexible so that it would resist strong earthquakes.

Moreover, a special mortar was used to build the Hagia Sophia and the content of this mortar has still been a mystery to this date. When you look at the walls of Hagia Sophia, you can see the red bricks mixed with the mortar is mingled and a special mixture was composed.

The fact that the Marmara Sea is named after marble (marble)

Most of the marbles that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia were brought from the islands on the Marmara Sea. Thanks to the rich nature of Marmara, this sea was named as Marmarion in the past, which means marble.

If you look at the walls of Hagia Sophia, you will see that the marbles are divided into two and their veins are used as an element of decoration.

Museums of Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

Marbles of Hagia Sophia

  • Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace is like heaven in Istanbul, where it’s really hard to find the green.  As a professional tour guide, I especially like showing tourists this historical monument due to being in touch with nature and the scene it offers.

The construction of Topkapi Palace began in 1461 following the conquest of Istanbul and it was finished in 1478.  It was built by Mehmed II and 25 Ottoman sultans lived in this palace.

Topkapi Palace has features similar to Hagia Sophia that not every guest can realize. Let me mention some of the very interesting features of this monument where the most influential sultans such as Mehmed II and Suleiman the Magnificent lived.

The Fact that Topkapi Palace Was Actually a Military Post

Topkapi Palace was originally designed to serve as a military post. Following the conquest of Istanbul, Mehmed II (also known as Mehmed the Conqueror) had built a smaller palace where Istanbul University stands today and he left his family there.

In the beginning, Topkapi Palace served as a place where the sultan received guests, exercised, trained for wars and used as an office. However, in Suleiman the Magnificent’s era, the Harem of the Sultan moved to Topkapi Palace by the request of Hurrem Sultan with whom the sultan was in deep love.

The Fact that Harem Room Was Dimly Lighted and It Was Small

Due to the impact of TV series in recent years, Harem Rooms of Topkapi Palace is flooded by visitors and many people have taken a big interest in this part of the palace. However, Harem, as I’ve mentioned above, was moved to the palace later and built unaesthetically.

The rooms of Harem were small and they were dimly lighted, which doesn’t meet the expectations of its visitors. Ilber Ortayli, a famous Turkish historian, concludes that this feature of Harem stems from the fact that this place was added to the palace later and the rooms were divided into smaller ones as everybody requested to have their own room.

Museums of Istanbul: Topkapi Palace

Privy room of Sultan in Harem

Topkapi Palace Harem Rooms

The Fact that Classical Ottoman and European Architecture is Mixed

Numerous fires broke out at Topkapi Palace and it was restored countless times after every fire. Thus, it’s possible to come across two different architectural elements in the same room.

A good example of such a case is the two rooms inside the Imperial Council (Divan-i Humayun). While one of the rooms is embroidered with blue tiles and oriental patterns, creating the impression of classical architecture, the other room is under European influence and designed in baroque and rococo style.

Classical Design (Early Years)

Topkapi Palace Divan Room

Imperial Council > Classical Style

Modern Design (18th and 19th Century)

Imperial Council > European Influence

  • Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern, like Hagia Sophia, was built by Emperor Justinian I. Therefore, we can easily say Justinian I contributed to Constantinople immensely to make it a historical capital. He is the one who built monuments such as Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene Churches as well as Basilica Cistern.

The Columns of Basilica Cistern That Were Gathered from Elsewhere

There are exactly 336 columns in Basilica Cistern and they are from the Ancient Greek era. If you look at the heads of these columns, you can realize these are in Doric and Corinthian style. As the cistern was simply a water storage room, there was no point putting fancy columns here.

Byzantine Empire brought these columns from Byzantium, which as a Greek city before the Roman era. Therefore, in a sense, these columns were recycled. Considering the cistern was built in 540s and it’s 1500 years old, the columns are older than 2000 years old, which makes this cistern even more special.

Museums of Istanbul: Basilica Cistern

Columns of Basilica Cistern

World-famous Medusas of Basilica Cistern

The walk inside Basilica Cistern will take you to the Medusa statues at the end of the cistern. As these columns were brought from elsewhere, they have different lengths and a piece of stone was put under each column to bring every column to the same level.

The statues of Medusa, a creature from the Greek mythology that turns anyone into stone who looks at it, were put under these columns to serve the same purpose. The Byzantine were quite religious people who attributed great importance to superstitions.

Therefore, neither of the Medusa statues were put facing visitors. Instead, one of them faces upside down while the other one faces the side. This is by no means a coincidence and it stemmed from the fact that the builders of this cistern didn’t want people to come eye to eye with Medusa.

Medusa Heads in Basilica Cistern

Medusa Heads

The Streets of Istanbul

The streets of Istanbul reflect its hundreds of years and every period. Unfortunately, even most people residing in this city don’t notice such features of Istanbul.

The beautiful streets, the secret gems of the city, and hundreds of years of shops of Istanbul are all in the Old City area. Therefore, I recommend you to visit Sultanahmet, Sirkeci, Eminonu, Vefa, Zeyrek, Fener & Balat thoroughly and observe the amazing history behind these places. No doubt, some younger neighborhoods such as Karakoy and Galata also offer notice worthy historical features too.

Especially, Fener and Balat have been the center of attraction in recent years and nice cafes and restaurants are opened continually that match the atmosphere of these neighborhoods. I recommend you to visit Fener and Balat before they become victims of urban transformation.

Fener and Balat have the best streets that reflect Istanbul’s cosmopolite style that is a mosaic of past cultural and religious features. If you need a guide while you stroll in these neighborhoods, you can have a look at the post titled Fener Balat Walking Tour.

Fener and Balat Neighborhoods

Fener and Balat neighborhoods

Museums of Istanbul blog post by Serhat Engul

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