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Walking Through Constantinople

posted Mar 4, 2015, 7:22 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 9, 2018, 5:35 AM ]

Istanbul. Constantinople. Byzantium. The City.

It had been some eight years since my last visit, and so much has changed in that time. I now find myself writing for a living (thank you, thank you, thank you to all those who have supported me and helped spread the word about my books), and writing more often than not about this exquisite and enigmatic old city. Pavo and Apion have walked these streets in the Legionary and Strategos books, and now it was my turn once again. I was particularly looking for 'off the beaten track' late Roman and Byzantine ruins, so please forgive the lack of obvious marvels like the Hagia Sofia. 

Anyway, here are the highlights. Each day comes with a slideshow - just click on any pic to see the full gallery and to read the captions (usually a bit of the history or just some random warblings from me).

Day 1: The Imperial Palace Region

We experienced every season in our week in Istanbul: snow, rain, wind and fiery sunshine. Today, there were still snow drifts from the violent wintry storm the city had endured prior to our arrival. Still, it would keep us cool on our brisk walk around the city's first and easternmost hill which once housed the Imperial Palace (now known as the Sultanahmet district).

The term ‘Imperial Palace’ is something of a misnomer as there wasn’t really one palace as such. In fact, the huge complex contained many fine manors and wondrous gardens spread across the terraced slopes of the hill. This palace region, as it is sometimes referred to, served as the home for Byzantine Emperors serving between the 4th and 11th centuries, after which the emperors moved to the Blachernae area and the wonders on the first hill fell into disrepair.

On the roof of the Magnaura Mamboury B! Excellent views of the Marmara and the Bosphorus Strait, with ancient Chalcedon and Mount Auxentius in the background. Click here or on the image to open the full gallery (opens in a new window).

Day 2: The Galata Region and the Istanbul Military Museum

The trek over the Galata bridge was well worth it on this pleasant and sunny day, as it allowed us to take a bundle of snaps from the top of the Galata Tower (click on any pic to read some intriguing history associated with the structure - birdmen and jealous sultans!) and visit the gold mine of history that is the Istanbul Military Museum.

Atop the Galata Tower, with the Golden Horn and old Istanbul in the background. Click here or on the image to open the full gallery (opens in a new window).

Day 3: The Walls!

Scottish folk are well-acquainted with sunburn, but not usually in February! Anyway, mild sunburn it was as we trekked first along the Marmara sea walls south of the city to Yedikule and then north, along the full length of the land walls to Blachernae and the Golden Horn.

Walking along Kennedy Caddesi, outside the sea walls, it was interesting to consider that prior to the 1960s when this coastal motorway was built, Istanbul was a city surrounded by water – right up to its walls. Indeed, in his 1925 book, Mamboury recommends hiring a small boat and exploring the sea walls that way. If only! We had to make do instead with trudging on foot. As we passed the area once known as the Harbour of Julian to the Romans and the Kontoscalion to the Byzantines, I stumbled upon a lovely and evocative piece of history: in Ottoman times, the women used to bring their clothes to wash them in the harbour’s shallow waters, and they spoke of seeing the long-sunken turquoise/green outlines of Byzantine warships at the bottom. Thus, they named this area ‘Kadirga Limani’ (meaning Galley Harbour in Turkish). The harbour is long-gone thanks to the coast road, but the imagery still sends a shiver up my spine.

Another highlight before we reached the start of the land walls was the fine vista of the Yenikapi excavations. It was here that in 2005, workers digging a tunnel under the Marmara Sea found the remains of the Ancient Harbour of Theodosius. Amongst the remains they found seven Byzantine galleys, wrecked in a storm around 1000 AD.

But the real highlight of the day was the epic trek along the land walls: the triple defensive system of the towering inner wall, sturdy outer wall and broad moat cannot fail to stir the heart of any Byzantine enthusiast. How many sieges have those walls endured? How many men have been broken upon them? Anyway, I attempted part of this walk on the vertiginous (and vertigo-inducing, let me tell you), crumbling ramparts of the inner wall. I made it as far as the second military gate (the Belgrad Kapi) before clambering back down, rather more pale than I had been at the start. On we went past the five main gates and five military gates, towards the Blachernae Palace. Truly breathtaking.

The magnificent Theodosian Land Walls of Constantinople. Click here or on the image to open the full gallery (opens in a new window).

Day 4: The Imperial Way

Today we trawled the old Imperial Way, or the 'Mese' as it is also known. This was the processional avenue for triumphal marches, leading from the land walls to the Imperial Palace via a series of glorious forums. There were also plenty of welcome detours (to coffee shops, kebab houses, wondrous mosques and churches and old ruins nestled in the backstreets off the main route).
Me on the roof of the Valide Han! Click here or on the image to open the full gallery (opens in a new window).

So, replete with historical facts (plus pistachio ice cream, cinamon salep, millet boza and turbo-charged turkish coffee), we headed for home. I hope you enjoyed the highlights. 

And, of course, if reading about Constantinople is your thing, then please check out my books, set in this very city in the late Roman and Byzantine eras!