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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY
Istanbul is a city of such mystique and magnetism that it is impossible not to be captivated by it. Ergün's illustrations reflect this charm with a magic of their own. Both of us believe that the city is gradually and insensibly habit-forming, making life without Istanbul inconceivable.

When I speak of the heart of Istanbul, I refer to Sultanahmet and the headland on which Topkapi Palace stands within the historic walled city, which is where the city's pulse throbbed for centuries. One sunny day we made our way there, and first visited the cistern known in Turkish as the Sunken Palace, and in Byzantine times as the Basilica Cistern.

The Byzantines built numerous huge cisterns to provide water for the inhabitants of the capital when it was besieged, and the Basilica Cistern was constructed in the 6th century by the emperor Justinian to supply the palace primarily.
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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY
The Ottomans discovered this cistern a century after conquering Istanbul in 1453, and used it for watering gardens. As I was telling Ergün this, he took over and finished the story for me, explaining that the raised walkways along which we were strolling dated only from the 1980s, and that previously it had only been possible to explore the cistern by boat. As we emerged into the sunlight, my eye was caught by the Milion Stone, which during the time of the Eastern Roman Empire marked the centre of the world, and was the starting point for measuring distances. How satisfying, I thought, to have resolved the question of the centre of the world once and for all.

By this time we had arrived in Sultanahmet Square, which was the Hippodrome of the Byzantines and known to the Ottomans as At Meydani (literally Horse Square). Construction of the Hippodrome commenced in the year 196, during the reign of Septimus Severus.
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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY
It stood right next to the Great Palace, where the Byzantine emperors, who appeared in public on no other occasions, would watch the chariot races from a balcony known as the kathisma, while the common people gathered in the hippodrome and cheered on the contestants.

Originally there were four competing teams, but in time the Whites and the Reds declined in importance, leaving the Blues and the Greens, which at the same time represented political and religious factions. The Blues were supported by the poor sector of the populace and upheld the doctrine of monophysitism, while the Greens supported by the rich took the part of orthodox doctrine.
In this way the Hippodrome became an arena where political and religious struggles were played out. In 532 the Nika rebellion led by the Greens and their supporters was crushed by a strategem orchestrated by the Empress Theodora, and thirty thousand rebels were trapped in the hippodrome and slaughtered.
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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY
In 1204 the hippodrome was razed by the Fourth Crusaders, leaving only the Sphendone Wall, which is still standing, a few columns and the obelisk. But the hippodrome had still not had its fill of competition, pomp and blood. The Ottomans used the area as a field for the equestrian game of cirit (jereed) and splendid festivities celebrating the circumcision of royal princes.

The fountain at one end of the square was a gift of the German emperor Wilhelm II to the sultan at the end of the 19th century. So where is the blood in all this you might ask. The first janissary rebellion took place here in the early 17th century and ended in the death of the young Osman II. The janissaries marched from the district of Fatih and gathered in the hippodrome. A century later, during the Tulip Era, the janissaries again gathered here in rebellion, and were only appeased by the execution of Grand Vezir Ibrahim Pasa.
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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY

Moving on into the 20th century, it was here that the woman novelist and activist Edip Adivar delivered her celebrated speech in May 1919 on the eve of Turkey's War of Independence.

From here we made our way to Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Blue Mosque as it is popularly known on account of its beautiful tiles. This was built between 1609 and 1616 by the architect Mehmed Aga, second only in genius to Sinan.

The mosque has six instead of the usual four minarets, a fact that was decried by some quarters at the time as a disrespectful assertion of superiority over Mecca. During Byzantine times this was part of the Great Palace, which covered an enormous area stretching from Haghia Sophia to the Hippodrome and right down to the sea. The palace was badly damaged during rebellions in the 5th and 6th centuries, but rebuilt and enlarged with various new buildings until the 10th century.

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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY

In the 12th century, as Byzantine power declined, the palace began to lose its former splendour, and the Fourth Crusade of 1204 marked the beginning of the end. The crusaders, led by the Venetians, sacked the city, destroying both the Hippodrome and the Great Palace. In the Mosaic Museum east of Sultan Ahmed Mosque can be seen the the famous mosaic pavements, last surviving traces of this vanished palace.

Following the conquest Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481) built a palace in Beyazit before commencing construction of a new palace on the promontory overlooking the mouth of the Bosphorus. This was Topkapi, which was to be home to the Ottoman dynasty for four centuries, and additions were made over the years until Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-1861) moved to a new home. We now made our way there. The main portal of Topkapi Palace was constructed by Mehmed II. It leads into the first courtyard, to the left hand side of which is the church of Haghia Eirene.

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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY

This Byzantine church was used as an armoury during Ottoman times, and today is an atmospheric venue for concerts. Beside the church a narrow road leads downhill to the Archaeological Museum, housing one of the most remarkable collections in the world. However, we carried on into the second court of the palace, eager to see the Imperial Harem, although disappointingly only the halls of the sultan and sultan mother, and the quarters of the black eunuchs and concubines are open to the public.

The portal leading into the third court is the Gate of Felicity, which as our illustrator remarked commanded awe and respect even from rebels, and explained that apart from the uprising in which Osman II was killed, no one had the audacity to pass through it into the private part of the palace without authority, even at times when the empire was at its weakest. As he was talking, I demonstrated my own daring by walking straight through it!

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WHERE ISTANBUL'S HEART BEATS
2001 / JULY

When we left Topkapi Palace and stood in front of Haghia Sophia, I was filled with admiration for the architects. The church was constructed in 537 for the Emperor Justinian by two scientists, the mathematician Anthemius and geometer Isidorus, and has withstood numerous wars and earthquakes.

It was converted into a mosque in the 15th century, and is now a museum. That brought our fascinating tour to an end, and to round off the day we strolled to a café in Sultanahmet Square. I read a book while Ergün carried on sketching the scenes around him. Then we puffed on a water pipe and sipped sage tea as twilight fell. l



By GRESI SANJE*
* Gresi Sanje is a freelance writer

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