A Guide to Byzantine Istanbul: Experiencing the Legacy of Constantinople

Last Updated on: 23rd August 2023, 11:52 pm

For over 1,000 years, Constantinople was considered one of the world’s most glorious cities. But exploring Istanbul today, the city’s Byzantine legacy largely goes unnoticed by tourists and residents alike. Most Byzantine churches are now mosques, while other structures have largely been left to rot. But if one puts forth the effort, there’s a lot more left of Byzantine Istanbul than first meets the eye.

The following guide covers most, but not all, of the former Byzantine structures that one can find in modern Istanbul. The goal is to provide some much-needed historical context to better understand this important era of the city. Not only is Istanbul’s Byzantine legacy largely ignored in present-day Turkey, but some fear it’s being deliberately erased.

Nearly all of the following locations can be found within Istanbul’s Fatih district, the large area which corresponds to the former walled city of Constantinople. And the Byzantine sites can easily be visited in tandem with the best-known structures of the Ottoman era.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

Constantinople: A Brief History

By the late 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire had been weakened by incessant civil wars, and so officials decided to divide the empire into two halves, hoping to achieve a balance of power. And one of the rulers of the East was Emperor Constantine, later known as Constantine the Great. 

Constantine decided to construct a brand new capital near the Bosphorus Strait, at the site of the small Greek city of Byzantium. He called his new city Constantinople, dedicating it as the capital of the entire Roman Empire in 330.

Constantine quickly started a massive new building campaign which included the city’s legendary defensive walls. He even commissioned the city’s first churches, later becoming the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity on his deathbed.

When the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, Constantinople accepted scores of refugees from throughout Europe. And later in the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I sought to reconquer the lost lands of the west. 

But he was highly disliked at home, giving rise to the Nika Riots. Not only did the riots destroy many of the city’s most important buildings, but tens of thousands of citizens were killed in response.

Nevertheless, Justinian remains one of Byzantium’s best-known emperors, as he commissioned the new Hagia Sophia cathedral to replace the previous damaged church. The structure continues to dominate the Istanbul skyline to this day.

Also during Justinian’s reign, two Byzantine monks managed to smuggle silkworms from China, giving Constantinople control over silk production in Europe that would grow its economy tremendously. Throughout the ages, various visitors to Constantinople raved about its opulent palaces and lavish wealth.

As the Byzantine Empire’s territory expanded, the formidable Theodosian walls managed to repel numerous invasions at home. In the 7th century, they met their most formidable challenge yet: Arab invaders from the south. But the Byzantines managed to protect their city with an innovative weapon known as ‘Greek fire,’ an early version of a flamethrower.

In the 11th century, a schism occurred between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, after which all Latin churches in Constantinople were shut down. And relations between the two sides would never truly thaw. 

Later in the 11th century, the Byzantines would lose much of their eastern territories to the invading Seljuk Turks. Emperor Alexios I Komnenos begged the Catholics for help. And as they were intent on retaking Jerusalem from the Turks, they sent over a huge army in a religious war that would become known as the Crusades.

Things got especially wild in the 1200s when the Fourth Crusade was launched to retake Jerusalem from the Ayyubids. When the European Crusaders ran out of funds, they aligned themselves with the son of a deposed Byzantine Emperor, Alexios IV Angelos, who promised them great riches in return for taking Constantinople.

Unfortunately for Alexios, there was much less money in the city treasury than he’d expected. Unable to pay them, the Crusaders revolted, eventually taking Constantinople for themselves. And from 1204-1261, Constantinople became a Latin Catholic city.

While the Orthodox Byzantines eventually regained control, they found a damaged, depleted, and largely empty city. Over the next few centuries, Constantinople would gradually be able to recuperate, but their former territory would almost be entirely gobbled up by the Ottomans.

By the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire had already controlled much of Anatolia, the Balkans and Thrace. But they were unable to conquer Constantinople due to its impenetrable walls.

But in 1453, after a 53-day siege and with help from innovative new cannon technology, they finally managed to breach the city walls. The Hagia Sophia was soon converted to a mosque, and the Byzantine Empire was over for good. 

The fall of Constantinople is largely considered to be the official end of the Roman Empire, a state that had existed in some form or another since the 6th century BC.

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia, completed in the year 537, is Istanbul’s most famous Byzantine landmark and the most well-known building in the entire city. 

Following the events known as the Nika Riots, in which the previous church near the imperial palace was burnt down, Emperor Justinian I replaced it with one of the largest and most elaborate religious structures in the world.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

He employed tens of thousands of workers, using stone brought in from all over the empire. The project’s main architects were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, both of whom were said to be Neoplatonists.

Surrounded by a multitude of half domes, the central dome stands at around 55 meters off the ground, or 18 stories high. Damaged in 553 by an earthquake, it was repaired several years later. 

Another major earthquake damaged the dome in 989, after which it was repaired by Armenian architect Trdat, designer of the Cathedral of Ani.

At first glance, the Hagia Sophia seems to resemble some of its neighboring structures, such as the Blue Mosque. But that’s because even a thousand years later, the former church remained the main source of inspiration for Ottoman architects.

And speaking of mosques, Hagia Sophia has once again been turned into a mosque in 2020 after almost a century as a secular museum.

Hagia Sophia as a Museum

For most of its history, the Hagia Sophia was an Orthodox Christian cathedral, though it was briefly converted to a Catholic church in the 1200s upon the Latin conquests.

Once the Ottomans managed to take Constantinople in 1453, they converted the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, which it remained until 1935. As depictions of the human form is forbidden in Islam, the Ottoman conquerors plastered over the walls, obscuring the mosaics and reliefs.

Eventually, though, Republic of Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who sought to establish a modern and secular Turkey, decided to convert the structure to a secular museum. And subsequent restoration efforts revealed much of the original artwork that had been hidden for centuries.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
A 10th-century mosaic of emperors Constantine and Justinian presenting the Virgin Mary with a model of the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

I was fortunate to have visited the Hagia Sophia while it was still a museum before recently seeing it again as a mosque.

During its time as a museum, visitors could admire the elegant stone floor which dates to the 6th century. Comprised of various colored stones, it was praised by ancient authors for its resemblance to the sea.

As we’ll cover shortly, the flooring is now obscured by a generic green carpet that doesn’t match at all with the Hagia Sophia’s color scheme.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

Also in the past, visitors were able to access the upper level, which is where many of the most remarkable artwork and mosaics can be found.

The most notable mosaics include those of Empress Zoe and Emperor John Commenus II and his family. From the second-story windows, one could also view the tombs of various princes and sultans.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

Hagia Sophia as a Mosque

In 2020, the decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to revert the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque was met with great controversy. The international community largely condemned the move, while reactions within Turkey have been mixed. 

Unfortunately for those who simply want to admire the structure as a tourist, numerous recent changes have hampered the visiting experience.

A revealing quote now adorns Hagia Sophia's entrance
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

As mentioned above, a new carpet obscures most of the marble flooring. And looking up, you’ll notice that the apse mosaic of the Virgin and Child has been obscured – even outside of prayer times.

To be fair, though, the Hagia Sophia’s appearance largely remains the same – at least from the ground floor. Many of the Islamic elements had already been present, such as the minbar and mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca. 

The large medallions with Arabic writing that mention the names of Allah and Muhammad were also there during the museum phase.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

Some of the other Christian mosaics are visible during visiting hours, while special curtains have been installed to obscure them during prayer times. Considering the countless other mosques throughout the city, this seems like a lot of extra work.

Another addition dating to Ottoman times are the large marble jars brought here in the 16th century by Sultan Murad III. Dating from the Hellenistic era, they were retrieved from the ancient city of Pergamon.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

As mentioned above, the second story is now completely inaccessible. And even large portions of the bottom floor have been designated as the women’s prayer area, leaving it entirely off-limits for males.

The Hagia Sophia is now free for all to enter. And while that sounds like a plus, the structure now maintains a constant loud and raucous atmosphere, paradoxically feeling even less sacred than it had as a museum.

We should at least be thankful that this masterpiece has remained intact for all these years. The Byzantines themselves were much less kind to numerous architectural marvels throughout Anatolia that happened to be of pagan origin.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople

Just nearby the Hagia Sophia is the former Hippodrome of Constantinople, now known as Sultanahmet Square. In the Byzantine era, this was where chariot races took place along tracks that were as long as 450 meters.

And while no longer evident, the Hippodrome featured stands that could seat as many as 30,000 people! 

Today, the space functions as a nice place to relax in the shade on a hot day (but beware of touts). And it’s also home to three interesting landmarks that were erected in the Byzantine era.

Obelisk of Theodosius Byzantine Istanbul

The Obelisk of Theodosius

As obvious at first glance, the Obelisk of Theodosius is not Byzantine in origin but ancient Egyptian. In fact, it was originally erected by Thutmosis III outside of Karnak Temple’s seventh pylon in the 15th century BC. So what’s it doing here?

During Roman rule over Egypt, it was first transported by Emperor Constantius II from Luxor to Alexandria in 357. After remaining there for decades, it was finally transported here by Emperor Theodosius I in 390, possibly marking the finish line of the racetrack.

Obelisk of Theodosius Byzantine Istanbul
Obelisk of Theodosius Byzantine Istanbul

For those who’ve seen other Egyptian obelisks, you’ll notice how short this one looks. Now around 20 meters high, it used to be 10 meters higher.

While we don’t know for sure, it was possibly broken down on purpose for easier transportation, which makes one wonder how the Egyptians managed to do it over a millennium prior.

It sits atop a carved marble pedestal showing scenes of Theodosius honoring the victors of the local races.

The Serpent Column

Yet another landmark taken from an ancient wonder is the Serpent Column. This bronze column comes from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece, home of the famous oracle. And it was brought here by the first Byzantine emperor, Constantine the Great. 

The column was originally erected in honor of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians in the 5th century BC. 

Now standing at only five meters of an original eight, it was once topped with the heads of three different snakes emerging from its base. Part of one is now on display at the nearby Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Obelisk of Theodosius Byzantine Istanbul

The Walled Obelisk

The Walled Obelisk was likely added at the southern end of the racetrack to mirror the Obelisk of Theodosius at the opposite end. It stands at 32 meters tall, the same height as the obelisk at the Circus Maximus in Rome.

It was entirely plated with gilt bronze in the 10th century, all of which was plundered by participants of the Fourth Crusade a few centuries later.

Walled Obelisk Byzantine Istanbul
Walled Obelisk Byzantine Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern

Ancient Constantinople was home to dozens of cisterns that ensured the city wouldn’t run out of water even during prolonged sieges. And the largest of them all is the Basilica Cistern, located just southwest of the Hagia Sophia. It’s presently one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions. 

It contains no less than 336 marble columns which stand at 9 meters high. Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Justinian, it’s named as such because a basilica once stood at this spot.

Basilica Cistern Byzantine Istanbul
Basilica Cistern Byzantine Istanbul

The cistern makes for a nice respite from the midday heat. And as you walk around, there are a few notable landmarks to look out for.

One of them is the ‘Crying Column,’ also known as the Hen’s Eye, which resembles the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I. Not only is the column usually wet (it was dry in 2020), but the tear-shaped patterns are said to commemorate the workers who perished during the cistern’s construction.

Basilica Cistern Byzantine Istanbul

In the northwest corner, meanwhile, are two large Medusa heads acting as pedestals for columns. One is sideways while another is upside down, and the origin of both remains a mystery.

It seems they were placed this way purely for practical, and not aesthetic reasons. The builders never could’ve envisioned that hordes of tourists would one day be lining up in front of them to snap pictures!

Basilica Cistern Byzantine Istanbul
Basilica Cistern Byzantine Istanbul

In Byzantine times, this cistern would’ve been entirely filled with water. But as a modern tourist attraction, the level has to be kept low enough for visitors to get around.

While there’s typically enough water to house a large community of fish, the cistern was entirely dried up during my more recent visit. Asking a local why, he explained that too many of the fish were mysteriously dying, leaving officials with no choice but to empty everything out!

Basilica Cistern Byzantine Istanbul
With water . . .
. . . and without.

The Cistern of Theodosius

Not far away is yet another ancient cistern that was built in the early 5th century by Theodosius II. It’s only been open to the public since 2018 following eight years of restoration. 

While this cistern only contains 32 columns, they’re just as high as those of the Basilica Cistern and noticeably thicker. The lack of crowds combined with the brighter lighting arguably makes this the better visiting experience, though you can easily visit both.

Theodosius Cistern Byzantine Istanbul

And for people who are really into cisterns, the Byzantine cistern of Dara Ancient City is also worth a look for those traveling to the east. It was constructed right around the same time as the Basilica Cistern.

Great Palace Mosaic Museum

If you’re interested in Byzantine-era mosaics, the Great Palace Mosaic Museum is a must. But the building itself is also an important landmark for the history of the city, as it was the royal residence of the Byzantine emperors.

The palace was lost at some point, and not much was left when archaeologists discovered it in 1935. What did survive, however, were large portions of the mosaic flooring which have remained in place all these years.

Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Great Palace Mosaic Museum

The mosaics largely date to the 6th century and depict animals, various mythical creatures and hunting scenes. Many of the empire’s top artists were commissioned to work here, and they clearly took great inspiration from the mosaic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome.

Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Great Palace Mosaic Museum

In addition to the huge flooring piece, numerous fragments discovered throughout the area have been placed along the walls. While the museum could use a modern facelift, you’ll at least find ample English signage. 

Despite its historical importance, the Great Palace Mosaic Museum gets relatively few visitors compared with the other landmarks around Sultanahmet.

Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Hagia Irene

On your way to Topkapi Palace, you’ll pass by a significant yet relatively unassuming Byzantine church known as Hagia Irene. While the current structure dates to the 6th century, it was built on the spot of the very first Byzantine church constructed by Emperor Constantine.

Hagia Irene Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Irene Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Irene Byzantine Istanbul

Following an earthquake in the 8th century, much of the church had to be reconstructed. And this happened to be during a unique period in Byzantine history in which all religious imagery and icons were banned. That’s why the dome above the apse features nothing but a simple cross.

Given the absence of human figures here, it’s rather surprising that this was one of the few Byzantine churches to have not been converted to a mosque! It was instead used by the Ottomans as an arsenal.

Hagia Irene Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Irene Byzantine Istanbul
Hagia Irene Byzantine Istanbul

At the time of my visit, there was hardly anything to see inside due to restorations. Hagia Irene was, however, an attraction included on the Istanbul Card Museum Pass (more below).

If construction is still ongoing during your visit, 60 TL for entry simply isn’t worth it.

Little Hagia Sophia

Quite surprisingly, the Little Hagia Sophia is slightly older than the famous one, having been completed a year earlier in 536. 

Located in the southern Fatih district in the neighborhood of Kumkapı, it receives few foreign visitors. But it’s a beautiful building that should be visited by those with an interest in Byzantine Istanbul.

Little Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

The church was also known as Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, after two saints who supposedly rescued Justinian I when he was a boy. At the time, his uncle was on the throne and Justinian was accused of treason. But Sergius and Bacchus vouched for him and saved the day.

Little Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul
Little Hagia Sophia Byzantine Istanbul

The building features an octagonal dome surrounded by half domes. The church was converted to a mosque in Ottoman times and also became home to the Huseyin Aga Madrasa, an Islamic theological school.

The interior is worth a look for its beautiful marble columns. It’s clearly received some recent paint jobs, however, and much of the Byzantine artwork is likely long gone.

More Around Eastern Fatih

The Column of Constantine

Located near the Grand Bazaar, the Column of Constantine is one of the city’s most important historical landmarks, as it was erected to commemorate Emperor Constantine’s official dedication of the city on May 11, 330.

Standing at around 35 m tall, it originally once stood as high as 50 m and was topped with a bronze statue of Apollo made to resemble Constantine himself. 

It was constructed of a purple-reddish stone called porphyry that was commonly associated with royalty. The iron reinforcing hoops we see today, meanwhile, were later added by the Ottomans.

Intriguingly, numerous important relics are rumored to have been buried beneath it. These include a fragment of the True Cross, an axe used by Noah, and even the palladium of Troy.

According to Greek mythology, Troy couldn’t fall as long as it maintained its palladium, a wooden image of Pallas Athena. As such, Odysseus and Diomedes managed to sneak into the city and retrieve it, and Troy fell not long after. 

After a long series of travels, some believe it was later brought to Constantinople from Rome and buried here.

Column of Constantine
Sphendon Wall Byzantine Istanbul

Sphendon Wall

In the southeastern part of the Fatih district, not far from the Little Hagia Sophia, are some dilapidated Byzantine-era remnants that officials don’t seem quite sure what to do with.

One is the Sphendon Wall, which marked the southern boundary of the Hippodrome structure.

Bucoleon Palace

Another is the Bucoleon Palace, a royal palace built alongside the Marmara seashore. It may be as old as the 5th century, while the crumbling walls we see today were likely added in the 9th century.

Some of the former supporting pillars are on display at the nearby Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Bucoleon Palace Byzantine Istanbul

Galata Tower

The only landmark in this Byzantine Istanbul guide located outside the Fatih district is the Galata Tower, which nevertheless plays an important role in the history of Constantinople.

Situated in the Beyoğlu district, just across the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. While perhaps best appreciated from the water, the tower can also be visited for excellent views of the city.

Galata Tower Byzantine Istanbul

Erected in 1348, the Galata Tower was not built by the Byzantines but by the Genoese, who controlled the Golden Horn’s northern shore. At 67 m high, it was the tallest building in Istanbul at the time.

But it had replaced an earlier tower built as early as the 6th century by Byzantine emperor Anastasius. Amazingly, a long iron chain, stretching all the way from the city walls across the water, was sometimes attached to the tower to block enemy ships.

Galata Tower Byzantine Istanbul
Galata Tower Byzantine Istanbul

Nowadays, a modern elevator takes visitors to the top to enjoy the 360° panoramic views of Istanbul. But after admiring the views, history lovers shouldn’t miss the smaller exhibitions spread out amongst the lower floors.

Here you’ll find displays of artifacts from early Roman times as well as the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. The museum also explains how the Genoese built a thriving merchant colony here that was even surrounded by its own city walls.

Galata Tower Byzantine Istanbul

And don’t miss the fragment of the original iron chain used by the Byzantines for defense. While it repelled most unwanted guests, the invaders of the Fourth Crusade managed to destroy the original tower and bring the chain down.

But a lost, nearby tower was later used for the same purpose, with an iron chain being used again to block Ottomans ships in the 15th century. In response, the Ottomans dragged their ships overland around Galata Tower, entering the Golden Horn from the middle!

Galata Tower Byzantine Istanbul

Chora Church

Chora Church is one of Istanbul’s most impressive landmarks – from the Byzantine era or otherwise. But given its location at the western end of the Fatih district in the Edirnekapı neighborhood, it gets relatively few visitors. 

But that’s all the more reason to visit, especially for mosaic lovers. In fact, the glittering mosaics here are widely considered to be among the finest the Byzantine Empire ever created.

Chora Church Byzantine Istanbul

Chora Church was originally built in the 5th century outside the initial city walls, and Chora means ‘countryside’ in Greek. But it became part of the walled city after Emperor Theodosius expanded the city’s boundaries. 

The church was renovated multiple times over the years and the structure standing today was likely built in the 12th century.

Chora Church Byzantine Istanbul

Most of the mosaics, which largely depict scenes from the New Testament and various saints, date from the 14th century. Major importance was placed on realistic proportions and the style would go on to influence later mosaic projects throughout Byzantium.

The entire outer narthex is bursting with detail and color, and it’s easily one of the most impressive churches you’ll encounter in former Byzantine lands.

Chora Church Byzantine Istanbul

The building is supposed to be quite impressive from the outside as well, but it was totally obscured by scaffolding at the time of my visit. 

As you’ll discover when entering the nave, Chora Church was converted to a mosque in Ottoman times, as evidenced by the minbar and mihrab.

Chora Church Byzantine Istanbul
Chora Church Byzantine Istanbul
Chora Church Byzantine Istanbul

And it was later changed to a secular museum, which it still was at the time of my visit in late 2020. But within days of my trip, the Chora Church was officially transformed into the Kariye Mosque.

With all of the active mosques in Istanbul, there’s really no rational explanation for the move, other than President Erdoğan’s desire to liken himself to an Ottoman conqueror.

Edirne Gate & City Walls

In the 4th century, Constantine the Great built the city walls much further out than the inhabited area of the city at the time. He fully expected the city to grow tremendously, and he was right. But even Constantine underestimated what a huge city Constantinople would become.

Later in the 5th century, Theodosius II built a new set of walls a further 2 km to the west. In total, the city walls stretched out to a massive 20 km.

Rather than a single layer, the fortifications were comprised of a series of walls which were in turn surrounded by a moat and flanked with 96 limestone towers.

Edirne Gate Byzantine Istanbul
The Edirne Gate

The walls were soon tested, and they successfully managed to repel Atilla and his army of Huns. And for the next thousand years, they were also able to fend off a multitude of other invasions.

But the Turks, after years of trying, finally managed to breach the walls during the siege of 1453. While the first gate to be breached was the San Romano gate further south, the Edirne Gate (Edirnekapı) was that through which Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror first entered the city.

Palace of the Porphyrogenitus

Also in the Edirnekapı district is the 13th-century Palace of the Porphyrogenitus. Together with the two palaces mentioned above, this is just one of three Byzantine palaces to have survived in the city. And it’s by far the best-preserved.

The multistory structure now functions as a museum. At the time of my visit, a photography exhibit and documentary screening were taking place in the outer courtyard, though neither had anything to do with Byzantine Istanbul or Turkey in general.

Palace of the Porphyrogenitus Byzantine Istanbul
Palace of the Porphyrogenitus Byzantine Istanbul
Palace of the Porphyrogenitus Byzantine Istanbul

Inside are some interesting exhibits, including a full miniature model of the surviving city walls. And the upper floors largely focus on the Ottoman period, when the structure functioned as a ceramic factory.

As a rare surviving example of a secular Byzantine structure, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus is worth a quick visit and can easily be combined with a trip to Chora Church.

Palace of the Porphyrogenitus Byzantine Istanbul
Palace of the Porphyrogenitus Byzantine Istanbul

More Around Western Fatih

Pantokrator Monastery

Pantokrator Monastery, currently known as Zeyrek Mosque, is one of the largest surviving Byzantine churches in the city. It was constructed in the early 12th century by Byzantine Empress Irene, and the monastery contained a library, hospital, medical school and pharmacy.

While the mosque was closed for restorations at the time of my visit, it was still impressive from the outside.

Pantokrator Monastery Byzantine Istanbul
Pantokrator Monastery Byzantine Istanbul
Pantokrator Monastery Byzantine Istanbul

Valens Aqueduct

The Valens Aqueduct is the city’s largest surviving aqueduct, and it was built as early as the 4th century. Started by Emperor Constantine II, it was completed by Valens in 373. It’s via this aqueduct that water was transported to the city center’s main cisterns.

It even remained in use during Ottoman times, and today has merged seamlessly with a modern highway.

Aqueducts Byzantine Istanbul

Gül Mosque

The Gül Mosque, located in the Ayakapı neighborhood, is yet another former Byzantine church to have been converted to a mosque by the Ottomans.

A nun named Theodosia was worshipped here, who famously prevented the removal of an icon during the iconoclastic period of the 8th century. Despite causing the death of the officer who tried to take it and getting executed for the crime, she later came to be revered as a martyr.

Gul Mosque Byzantine Istanbul
Hirami Ahmet Pasha Mosque Byzantine Istanbul

Hirami Ahmet Pasha Mosque

The petite Hirami Ahmet Pasha Mosque was formerly known as ‘Saint John the Forerunner by-the-Dome’ and little is known about it. It does hold the distinction of being the smallest surviving Byzantine church, however.

While not worth going out of your way for, it’s worth a quick look for those exploring the Çarşamba neighborhood.

Pammakaristos Church

Also within the Çarşamba neighborhood is Pammakaristos Church, one of the few elaborate Byzantine churches to have remained a museum.

Built in the 11th or 12th century, it’s known for both its beautiful exterior and well-preserved mosaics. While completely inaccessible and covered by scaffolding during my visit, it should be worth seeking out once restorations are finished.

Pammakaristos Church Church

Additional Info

Nearly all of the locations mentioned above are located in Istanbul’s Fatih district, or historical Constantinople. And staying somewhere within Fatih would be ideal for easy access to the main Byzantine Istanbul landmarks as well as the main Ottoman ones.

The Fatih district as a whole is huge, but the neighborhood with the highest number of historical monuments is Sultanahmet (Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, etc.). Accordingly, there are plenty of hotels to choose from around here.

I stayed in the Eminönü neighborhood to the west of Sultanahmet, which I found perfect for getting around. Not only is the neighborhood within walking distance of Sultanahmet, but it’s also near the ferry port from which Bosphorus cruises depart, along with boats to the Anatolian side and Büyükada.

If you’re a budget traveler, there’s a certain section of Eminönü just southwest of the Haliç Metro Station that’s home to numerous cheap hotels.

Most of them aren’t listed online, but you can simply walk around and pick one out. I stayed at a place called Ferah Otel which only cost me 75 TL per night for a private room/bathroom and with decent internet. It was a bit rough around the edges, but there are slightly fancier hotels around the area as well.

Many visitors choose to stay in the Taksim district, as did I during my first visit to the city. But as nice as Taksim is, it’s located some distance from many of Istanbul’s major attractions.


Given its population of over 15 million people, Istanbul’s public transport system is surprisingly substandard. While the city has both a subway and a tramway, there are many significant landmarks and bustling neighborhoods that neither rail system will take you to. On top of that, Uber doesn’t work in Istanbul, either.

That’s why you should consider renting a car for your trip from a site like Discover Cars. Picking one up at the new Istanbul Airport, you can make the long journey into the city independently and easily. And then you’ll be free to explore Istanbul’s historic sites at your leisure.

If you’re doing further travels in Turkey (and you definitely should), Discover Cars offers various one-way rental options between different cities. At the time of writing, small car rentals start from as low as € 23 per day.

If you don’t have your own transport, public bus would probably be the most convenient way to get around Istanbul, though traffic jams are a frequent problem. The bus routes are marked on Google Maps, so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting around as long as you have internet access.

If you’re based in the Sultanahmet or Eminönü districts, many of the Byzantine Istanbul attractions mentioned above can simply be accessed on foot.

And for those visiting the Anatolian side, frequent ferries depart from Eminönü and Karaköy.

Before beginning your explorations around the city, you may want to consider buying an Istanbul Museum Card.

As one might expect, the entry fee for attractions in Istanbul are considerably higher than in other parts of the country, and this pass is one of the few that actually saved me money.

At the time of my visit, the pass cost 325 TL. Valid for 5 days, it allowed access to Galata Tower (30 TL), the Istanbul Mosaic Museum (30 TL), the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (50 TL), Hagia Irene (60 TL), Topkapı Palace (100 TL) and Harem Apartments (70 TL), and numerous other attractions.

It also included the Chora Church, though that should already be a free mosque by now.

As prices are always changing in Turkey due to inflation, be sure to check the current prices of everything before making your decision.

While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.

I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.

Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.

Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.

Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.

While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.

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