Travel to Turkey: Istanbul: Constantinople (Hippodrome/Kapalikarsi/Cemberlitas)
Constantinople, established in the fourth century by Constantine on the site of the older Byzantium, kept its name even after the Muslim conquest of 1453. Finally, in the heady early days of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk put his foot down and told the post office to return all mail not addressed "Istanbul." That did the trick. Still, 1,600 years isn't a bad run.
Yes, Virginia, there really is (or was) a Sublime Porte. It was the French name for the gate to the Ottoman vizier's offices, which adjoined Topkapi Palace. Today, it just leads to ordinary government offices, but the canopy has a Disneyesque quality, and there are still guards to chase you out and protect the Oriental aura.
A short walk uphill from the Sublime Porte, the Milion is a milestone going back to the distant days before the Ottomans to the Byzantine empire, when imperial distances were measured from this point.
Underneath that stone, the Byzantine emperor Justinian built a cistern in the 6th century. It's known informally as the sunken palace, and the 300-plus columns are certainly suggestive of a palace, but it's never been more than a place to which aqueduct waters were brought for storage. Over its long life, it's sometimes been not even that.
One of the columns in the cistern includes, at its base, this recycled Medusa head. Its original location is unknown.
Across the street from the cistern and Milion, there's a large open space fronting on the Blue Mosque. In Byzantine times it was a hippodrome. At its south end, there's a steep slope down to the Sea of Marmara. Walk down the slope, and you'll notice this amazing cliff. At least that's what it seems to be, until you notice the curvature and the arches. You could pass it ten times without realizing what it is, but the eleventh time you'll see that it's the base of the end of the hippodrome. It even has a name, the Sphendoneh.
Back up on the circuit of the hippodrome, there's an obelisk built in the 15th century, B.C., by Thutmose III. Almost two thousand years later, it was lugged here from Heliopolis, near Cairo, by the emperor Theodosius. Hence its usurping name, the Obelisk of Theodosius. In the background, the minarets of the Blue Mosque.
Close-up of the obelisk.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the work is its perch atop four small bronze blocks. Would you think that metal could be so strong?
Still within the hippodrome, there's this graceful kiosk. Ottoman? No. Then what? Would you believe it was designed in 1898 by Max Spitta and that it was a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm to Sultan Abdul Hamid? (The kaiser was a good friend of the sultan's, at least to the extent that crowned heads have friends.) It's a good example of European mastery of non-European styles.
Half a mile or so west of the hippodrome, and along the tramline leading from it, there is a remarkable column, the Cemberlitas. It was erected by Constantine to mark the shift of the imperial capital from Rome. That dates it to 330 A.D. Once, there was a statue of Constantine up top, but an earthquake a thousand years ago sent it crashing.
The Cemberlitas from a distance. It's composed of 70-ton drums of porphyry, mined at Jebel Dukhan, between the Nile and Hurghada, on the Red Sea. From Constantine's viewpoint, of course, this wasn't imported stone: it was stone from within the Empire.
One of many entrances to the famed Kapalikarsi, or covered market. (The Cemberlitas marks the spot.) The market would die without foreign tourists, but it has its moments.
The market's roof in the light of a new day and from the Nuruosmaniye mosque.
Edge of the market.
This is the cemetery of the little Aya Sofya mosque, not far below the hippodrome. The stones are mostly capped with turbans varying like regimental insignia.
A third. It's almost as if the deceased was still reporting for duty.
A nearby street, lined with the wooden buildings common in Istanbul. The tombstones are in considerably better shape.
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