top of page
  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Art and History Heaven

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • Photographs of art & architecture around Istanbul

  • My personal experience with the art I saw in Istanbul

  • Lots of fun facts


Very excited in the Hagia Sophia

If you love history, you’ll enjoy what Istanbul has to offer. If you love art and history, you’ll love what there is to find in Istanbul. I have always been deeply interested in both subjects (thus the minor in Art History and near minor in History), which meant I was exceedingly captivated by the art I saw in Istanbul, both the things that seemed ripped out of an art history book and the beautiful surprises. So, this post will be mostly composed of pictures, brief descriptions of what I found exciting about this particular art historical feat, and more than a few fun facts.

Let’s start with a heavy hitter:

Hagia Sophia

Started in 532 and completed in 537, it was originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral and the world’s largest building at the time. It is a canonical example of Byzantine architecture, what with its gold mosaics, massive domes, rounded arches, naturalistic depictions of figures, and emphasis on atmospheric light. The building had me super excited because of this! See, because even though Byzantium was a part of the Roman Empire, it developed its own aesthetic style and Byzantine architecture is a precursor for the European architecture that followed. The building stayed a Christian cathedral until 1453, which is when it was converted into an imperial mosque after the Ottomans captured Constantinople. It remained a mosque until 1931, which is when it was secularized and opened as a museum in 1935.

Let’s see, what other fun facts are there?

  • The name “Hagia Sophia”: The name Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom”, based on the Greek concept of holy wisdom, often personified as a woman, like Lady Justice.

  • How do you pronounce it? There are a few ways. There’s “Aya Sofya” with a silent H, “Haya Sofya” with an audible H, and “Hag-ee-ah So-fy-ya” with a hard G (like “great”) and long I. This is the result of the different cultures and languages that have built up in Istanbul over the centuries.

  • It’s the third church to exist in this spot, the first two having been destroyed by fire and riots.

  • A history of damage: The original dome of the Hagia Sophia was cracked by an earthquake in 553, then completely collapsed in 558 after another earthquake. The reason it collapsed is essentially because the weight of the dome and its support system didn’t agree with the quaking of the earth. The replacement dome was significantly lighter and built by the nephew of the guy who built the original. The building also suffered damages from fire, four more earthquakes, a variety of intentional damage from the first iconoclasm and its conversion to a mosque, rising humidity levels, and leaks in the roof.

  • The tomb: Speaking of the Crusades, Enrico Dandolo, the guy who facilitated the Crusades with his bank account and piety, is—or perhaps was—buried in the Hagia Sophia. I’m not entirely sure if he’s still there or if the tomb was completely destroyed after the building was turned into a mosque.

Nalli Mescit Camii (Vilayet Mosque)

This was the first beautiful thing I saw in Istanbul. On Google Maps it’s listed as Vilayet Mosque, but when I tried to research more about it I couldn’t find any information, which was odd because the building had such a unique design. Then I found this Google review: Old BabıAli Mosque (Nallı Mescid) became "Vilayet Mosque" after receiving a controversial restoration. It has beautiful decoration and hand made arts inside. But on the outside the new style was not welcomed by all. Now that I know the original name— Nalli Mescit Camii—I shall leave you with this link if you want to know more about it.

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)

Started in 1601 and finished in 1616, the blue mosque served as a place of worship, a school, a hospice, and the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a functioning mosque. It got its name from its interior, which is covered in blue İznik ceramic tiles and plenty of windows, allowing the light the infinitely bounce off the tiles. It is partially built on what was once the Great Palace of Constantinople, a Byzantine palace, and has five domes and six minarets . . . which sounds less exciting on paper than it did in my head. The site was closed for renovation when I was in Istanbul, but seeing the outside was still more than worth the visit.

Carpet Museum

It is as it sounds: A museum full of old Turkish carpets. The museum itself is pretty low key, which was refreshing after exploring the big sites like Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace (which are all generally in the same area). It’s a unique museum with a beautiful collection, especially if you have a thing for history, patterns, textiles, color, design, symbols, décor . . . the museum appeals to a lot of special interests, I suppose.

Basilica Cistern

There are hundreds of ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul and this one is the largest. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Justinian I, the same guy who commissioned the Hagia Sophia (which is within walking distance of the cistern). It got its name, however, from a 4th century basilica that used to sit above it. Most of the columns in the cistern were recycled from other structures around the empire, including remnants from the construction of the Hagia Sophia. There are some columns in the basilica that stand out: The Hen’s Eye column (which is covered in tear drops) and two Medusa head columns, one of which has the head turned on its side.

Topkapı Palace

Built in the 15th century and continuously expanded and renovated over the subsequent centuries, the palace complex served as the residence and administrative headquarters for the Ottoman sultans. It was commissioned by Sultan Mehmed II (also known as Mehmed the Conqueror, the guy who took Constantinople in 1453). It was originally called “New Palace”, so as not to be confused with the “Old Palace,” but was given the name Topkapı in the 19th century, which translates to “Cannon Gate”. By the 18th century, the royal court spent less time at Topkapı and in 1856 court was officially relocated to the new Dolmabahçe Palace.

In 1923, the palace was covered into a museum, but I gotta say I didn’t much enjoy my experience at here. The entry system was tiny and overwhelmingly crowded, full of people who were literally pushing to get in. The palace complex itself was very spacious and nice to explore, but it was also organized in a way that just felt . . . cluttered and awkward, and with some artifacts that just felt out of place. The restrooms were also terribly disgusting with no toilet paper or hoses and broken doors. All these aspects of the environment is what ultimately detracted from the environment.

On the plus side, though, the palace has a beautiful view of the Golden Horn.

Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam

Long title, interesting place. There were a lot of different objects in this museum, things that you just wouldn’t imagine existed. Like . . . have you ever thought about the different ways civilizations have sought to tell time? Or the different kinds of machines used to map stars? The museum was just chop full of interesting things (and conveniently located next to a gorgeous park).

Museum of the Ancient Orient and Istanbul Archaeology Museum

Tiled Pavilion Museum

There are two different museums that were essentially connected, so I put them in the same collection. They’re also very close to the Tiled Pavilion Museum, which is lovely (though you must resist the urge to view the upper balcony because, apparently, it’s off limits despite the lack of signage).

I enjoyed what both museums had to offer, but I was undeniably more excited about the Museum of the Ancient Orient. It was in that museum where I saw so many examples of the types of things I’d seen in art history books and it was surreal to see them in real life, especially since I was able to get so close to some of them without a hair-trigger alarm blaring. To boot, ancient history is my favorite historical period despite its vastness, so I was like a kid in a candy shop . . . or a nerd in a museum.

Art exhibitions in random museums

Prayer rug and beads in the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia and the Istanbul Archaeology Museum had small art exhibits going on. I also think that some kind of city-wide art exhibit was going on at the time (I thought it was the Istanbul Design Biennial, but then I learned that didn’t start until September). These kind of surprise exhibits inside museums that weren’t devoted fine art museums were cool and something I’d keep in mind if I were to plan another trip to the city.

Obelisk of Theodosius

This is the Ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, erected between 1479-1425 BCE near the temple of Karnak in Egypt to commemorate his Victoria in Syria. Then, in 357 CE, it was relocated to Alexandria to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Roman emperor Constantius II being on the throne. In 390 CE, Theodosius I—the last Roman emperor to rule over both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire—moved it from Alexandria to Constantinople to commemorate the defeat of Maximus and Victor, a father-son duo of usurpers.

What I found most interesting about this object was its provenance and the name it's known by. History is written by the winners, right?

Street art

Near the metro in Kadıköy

Istanbul had a lot of murals and graffiti that were coupled in a way I’d never seen before. I had recently come from Athens, where there were some murals but mostly graffiti, graffiti on everything from market stalls to government buildings. Then there’s Richmond, which has a lot of murals, but very little graffiti. Istanbul had a mix of both that was exciting to see; it was a combination of new and familiar.

Walls of Constantinople

These walls went up when Constantinople was founded in the 4th century and surrounded the city on all sides, even the sides that faced the sea. In the 5th century another line of walls was built, known as the Theodosian Walls. This fortification system is considered one of the most elaborate defensive systems ever built and protected the city during multiple attempts at siege over the centuries. Though they became more vulnerable after cannons were invented, the walls could still be rebuilt in between cannon loading. It wasn’t until 1453 when Mehmed II took Constantinople that the walls were completely penetrated, but even then it took six weeks and an army with 80,000-200,000 troops, an 70 pieces of artillery (like cannons), and a navy of 320 ships, absolutely massive for the time.

The walls were maintained until the 19th century where parts of the wall were dismantled so that Istanbul could, well, grow. The city was becoming too big to exist solely within the confines of the walls. Apparently there has been a huge restoration project going on since the 1980s, and though I don’t know what exactly that entails, I do know that I was able to simply walk up to a section of the wall and climb all over it. At first I was reluctant; after all, it had survived for centuries and I didn’t want to be the one to break it (or otherwise contribute to its deterioration). But then I thought, This thing has survived much more than my 100lb body and size 7 sneakers. Plus, there were two other people there just casually hanging about the walls too. So, I decided to get as close to the walls as I dared, walking halfway up steps, climbing on some remnants of a pediment, and taking in the awe of looking at such an incredible and historically significant feat of engineering.

See, because when you think about it, these walls changed everything. Istanbul was a major city throughout most of its history, mixing cultures, religions, languages, and art together within the confines of these walls. The walls are the pot that allowed Istanbul to stew for centuries mostly uninterrupted, which contributed to not only the city’s history, but also its personality, its uniqueness. And to think: Seeing the walls wasn’t even on the itinerary. My partner and I literally stumbled upon the walls while riding a bus, on our way to some other attraction. What an incredible thing to find by accident, huh?

Chora Church