One of the great historic cities of the world, Istanbul is the chief city and seaport of Turkey as well as its commercial, industrial, and financial center. Manufactures include textiles, glass, shoes, motor vehicles, ships, and cement. The European part of Istanbul is the terminus of an international rail service (formerly called the Orient Express), and at Haydarpaşa station, on the Asian side, begins the Baghdad Railway. Yeşilköy International Airport is nearby.
Always a cosmopolitan city, Istanbul has preserved much of its international and polyglot character and contains sizable foreign minorities. The city experienced explosive population growth in the 1970s and 80s (it tripled in size), with the Turkish Muslim majority increasing. The present administrative districts of Istanbul include Fatih and Eminönü on the European side and Kadiköy (ancient Chalcedon) and Üsküdar (Scutari) on the Asian side. Massive efforts have been made to keep up with recent growth by modernizing the city's infrastructure and municipal services. In 1973 the European and Asian sections of the city were linked by the opening of the Bosporus Bridge, one of the world's longest (3,524 ft/1,074 m) suspension bridges. This was followed by the Second Bosporus Bridge (3,322 ft/1,012 m), completed in 1988. The first section of a new subway system opened in Sept., 2000.
Istanbul is the seat of Istanbul Univ. (founded 1453 as a theological school; completely reorganized 1933), a technical university, Univ. of the Bosporus (formerly Robert College), Marmara Univ., Mimar Sinan Univ., and Yildiz Univ. It is the see of the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, of a Latin-rite patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church, and of a patriarch of the Armenian Church.
The city is visited by many tourists and is a popular resort. The environs of Istanbul, particularly the villas, gardens, castles, and small communities along the Bosporus, are famed for their beauty. The part of Istanbul corresponding to historic Constantinople is situated entirely on the European side. It rises on both sides of the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosporus, on one of the finest sites of the world, and like Rome is built on seven hills. Several miles of its ancient moated and turreted walls are still standing. Outside the walls and N of the Golden Horn are the commercial quarter of Galata, originally a Genoese settlement; the quarter of Beyoğlu (formerly Pera), which under the Ottoman sultans was reserved for foreigners and their embassies; and Hasköy, the Jewish quarter.
The Golden Horn is crossed by two bridges, the new Galata Bridge (which replaced the famous old Galata Bridge) and the Atatürk Bridge. The former leads into the historic quarter of Stambul, the city's ancient core, abutting the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. The quarter of Phanar in the northwest, near the former site of the palace of Blachernae of the Byzantine emperors, contains the see of the Greek Orthodox Church and is inhabited mainly by Greeks. Some palace walls still stand. Excavations on the sites of the former Byzantine palaces have found fine works of art, and Istanbul has many monuments of the Byzantine past. Remains of the imperial residence, the Great Palace, were unearthed in 1998. The chief monument surviving from Byzantine times is the great Hagia Sophia. Originally a church, it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and is now a museum.
The city was destroyed (1509) by an earthquake and was rebuilt by Sultan Beyazid II. Turkish culture reached its height in the 16th cent. and from that period date most of its magnificent mosques, notably those of Beyazid II, Sulayman I, and Ahmed I. They all reflect the influence of the Hagia Sophia—yet are distinctly Turkish—and give the skyline of Istanbul its unique character, a succession of perfectly proportioned domes punctuated by minarets. In the gardens by the Bosporus stand the buildings of the Seraglio, the former palace of the Ottoman sultans, now a museum. The Seraglio, begun by Muhammad II in 1462, consists of many buildings and kiosks, grouped into three courts, the last of which contained the treasury, the harem, and the private apartments of the ruler. In the 19th cent. the sultans shifted (1853) their residence to the Dolma Bahçe Palace and the Yildiz Kiosk, N of Beyoğlu on the Bosporus.
After the humiliating Peace of Zsitvatorok and the unfavourable result of the wars with Persia, Sultan Ahmed I decided to build a large mosque in Istanbul to placate Allah. This would be the first imperial mosque in more than forty years. Whereas his predecessors had paid for their mosques with their war booty, Sultan Ahmed I had to withdraw the funds from the treasury, because he had not won any notable victories. This provoked the anger of the ulema, the Muslim legal scholars.
The mosque was to be built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors, facing the Hagia Sophia (at that time the most venerated mosque in Istanbul) and the hippodrome, a site of great symbolic significance. Large parts of the southern side of the mosque rest on the foundations, the vaults and the undercrofts of the Great Palace. Several palaces, already built on the same spot, had to be bought (at considerable price) and pulled down, especially the palace of Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, and large parts of the Sphendone (curved tribune with U-shaped structure of the hippodrome).
Construction of the mosque started in August 1609 when the sultan himself came to break the first sod. It was his intention that this would become the first mosque of his empire. He appointed his royal architect Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa, a pupil and senior assistant of the famous architect Sinan as the architect in charge of the construction. The organization of the work was described in meticulous detail in eight volumes, now in the library of the Topkapı Palace. The opening ceremonies were held in 1617 (although the gate of the mosque records 1616) and the sultan was able to pray in the royal box (hünkâr mahfil). But the building wasn't finished yet in this last year of his reign, as the last accounts were signed by his successor Mustafa I. Known as the Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet Mosque is one of the most impressive monuments in the world. It is one of the elements included in the complex built by Ahmed I to compete with Ayasofya.
The design of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the culmination of two centuries of both Ottoman mosque and Byzantine church development. It incorporates some Byzantine elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. The architect has ably synthesized the ideas of his master Sinan, aiming for overwhelming size, majesty and splendour, but the interior lacks his creative thinking. During the rule of Ahmed I, Sultan Ahmet mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 CE. Designed by architect Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is considered to be the last example of classical Ottoman architecture.
The façade of the spacious forecourt was built in the same manner as the façade of the Süleymaniye Mosque, except for the addition of the turrets on the corner domes. The court is about as large as the mosque itself and is surrounded by a continuous, rather monotonous, vaulted arcade (revak). It has ablution facilities on both sides. The central hexagonal fountain is rather small in contrast with the dimensions of the courtyard. The monumental but narrow gateway to the courtyard stands out architecturally from the arcade. Its semi-dome has a fine stalactite structure, crowned by a rather small ribbed dome on a tall drum.
A heavy iron chain hangs in the upper part of the court entrance on the western side. Only the sultan was allowed to enter the court of the mosque on horseback. The chain was put there, so that the sultan had to lower his head every time he entered the court in order not to get hit. This was done as a symbolic gesture, to ensure the humility (smallness) of the ruler in the face of the divine.
At its lower levels and at every pier, the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea) in more than fifty different TULIP designs. The tiles at lower levels are traditional in design, while at gallery level their design becomes flamboyant with representations of flowers, fruit and cypresses. More than 20,000 tiles were made under the supervision of the Iznik master potter Kaşıcı Hasan,and Mustafa Mersin Efendi from Avanos(Cappadocia). However, the price the builders were able to pay for tiles was fixed by the sultan's decree, while tile prices increased over time. As a result, the tiles used later in building were of lesser quality. Their colours have faded and changed (red turning into brown and green into blue, mottled whites) and the glazes have dulled. The tiles on the back balcony wall are recycled tiles from the harem in the Topkapı Palace, when it was damaged by fire in 1574.
The upper levels of the interior are dominated by blue paint, but is of poor quality. More than 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light, today assisted by chandeliers. On the chandeliers, ostrich eggs are found that were meant to avoid cobwebs inside the mosque by repelling spiders. The decorations include verses from the Qur'an, many of them made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari, regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time. The floors are covered with carpets, which are donated by faithful people and are regularly replaced as they become worn out. The many spacious windows confer a spacious impression. The casements at floor level are decorated with opus sectile. Each exedra has five windows, some of which are blind. Each semi-dome has 14 windows and the central dome 28 (four of which are blind). The coloured glass for the windows was a gift of the Signoria of Venice to the sultan. Most of these coloured windows have by now been replaced by modern versions with little or no artistic merit.
The most important element in the interior of the mosque is the mihrab, which is made of finely carved and sculptured marble, with a stalactite niche and a double inscriptive panel above it. The adjacent walls are sheathed in ceramic tiles. But the many windows around it make it look less spectacular. To the right of the mihrab is the richly decorated minber, or pulpit, where the Imam stands when he is delivering his sermon at the time of noon prayer on Fridays or on holy days. The mosque has been designed so that even when it is at its most crowded, everyone in the mosque can see and hear the Imam.
The royal kiosk is situated at the south-east corner. It comprises a platform, a loggia and two small retiring rooms. It gives access to the royal loge in the south-east upper gallery of the mosque. These retiring rooms became the headquarters of the Grand Vizier during the suppression of the rebellious Janissary Corps in 1826. The royal loge (hünkâr mahfil) is supported by ten marble columns. It has its own mihrab, that used to be decorated with a jade rose and gilt and one hundred Qurans on inlaid and gilded lecterns.
The many lamps that light the interior was once covered with gold and gems . Among the glass bowls one could find ostrich eggs and crystal balls . All these decorations have been removed or pillaged for museums.
The great tablets on the walls are inscribed with the names of the caliphs and verses from the Quran, originally by the great 17th-century calligrapher Ametli Kasım Gubarım, but they have frequently been restored.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is one of the two mosques in Turkey that has six minarets, the other is in Adana. When the number of minarets was revealed, the Sultan was criticized for presumption, since this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque of the Ka'aba in Mecca. He overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at the Mecca mosque.
Four minarets stand at the corners of the mosque. Each of these fluted, pencil-shaped minarets has three balconies (ṣerefe) with stalactite corbels, while the two others at the end of the forecourt only have two balconies.
Until recently the muezzin or prayer-caller had to climb a narrow spiral staircase five times a day to announce the call to prayer. Today a public address system is used, and the call can be heard across the old part of the city, echoed by other mosques in the vicinity. Large crowds of both Turks and tourists gather at sunset in the park facing the mosque to hear the call to evening prayers, as the sun sets and the mosque is brilliantly illuminated by coloured floodlights.