Istanbul, Turkey

Perhaps no city on Earth showcases more Western history than Istanbul.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture

The Ahırkapı Lighthouse (1906/1907) by Michael Zeno DiemerPera Museum

Stretching across the Bosporus, the narrow channel that divides Europe and Asia, Istanbul has been a trade crossroads, a military strongpoint, a religious melting pot, and a seat of empires for thousands of years. 

War 1453 Turks V Byzantium Fall Of ConstantinopleLIFE Photo Collection

During Greek times, it was known as Byzantium. The Roman empire claimed it until 395, when the empire split in two and the emperor Constantine declared it his eastern capital, renaming it Constantinople. The eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire lasted until 1453.

Mehmed IV Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1642/1693) by Unknown artistNational Archives of Hungary

Then, Muslim Ottomans captured the city and made it the capital of a rich empire that lasted until 1923, when Turks formed the modern republic. The city’s architecture reflects its history as a place of wealth, culture, learning, and constant change.

The Old City/Sultanahmet Square

This view takes in much of the oldest part of Istanbul, between the Golden Horn harbor to the north, the Bosporus to the east, and the Sea of Marmara (which opens to the Mediterranean) to the south.

The Old City contains some of the most famous sights of Istanbul, including several of its famous domed mosques.

The Bosporus Strait

Istanbul’s historical importance depends on this narrow water passage that links the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This waterway lay along the Silk Road, and was critically important for empires from the Mongols to the British.

The Golden Horn

A side channel called the Golden Horn provides Istanbul with a natural harbor and divides the Old City from the Galata neighborhood. During Ottoman times, Galata maintained a European or Western culture, while Muslims ruled the Ottoman Old City.

Sultanahmet Square

The Old City is centered around Sultanahmet Square, named for Sultan Ahmet, whose tomb is the white dome to the southwest. The square is located on the site of a hippodrome, or stadium, dating to Roman times.

Roman Obelisks

Few remnants of the first Roman Empire remain in the city. The exceptions are a series of obelisks, or towers, that date from the time of the Hippodrome.

Outside the Hagia Sophia

Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor, and he made his eastern capital a Christian city. After the western Roman empire declined, the Roman Pope grew in power, clashing with the Byzantines.

Eventually, the Christian church split into Roman Catholic in the west, and Eastern Orthodox in Constantinople.

The Byzantine emperor Justinian I built the Hagia Sophia in 537 AD as the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is still considered one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture.

Central Dome

The central dome, 30 meters (100 feet) across and over 50 meters (180 feet) from the floor, was an engineering marvel of the time. Its vast weight appears suspended over empty space. However, parts have collapsed over the centuries.


The central dome is made more astonishing by a honeycomb of windows that appear to suspend it in space. Arches and columns transfer the dome’s weight past the windows and into the main structure.

Half Domes and Side Domes

Symmetrical smaller domes and buttresses form the sides of the building. Circles, arches, and domes are hallmarks of Byzantine architecture.


The Ottomans converted the Christian church into a mosque, adding minarets in the late 1400s. They also replaced many of its interior decorations with Islamic elements, but kept its basic structure.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Today, the Hagia Sophia is a museum. Its interior is a spectacular example of rich Byzantine architectural decoration. (In fact, one definition of the word byzantine is “highly complex.”)

Marble panels, intricate mosaics, and brilliant colors showed the glory of Christianity and the Byzantine empire. As Istanbul changed hands, conflicting religious groups added, removed, covered, or destroyed the decorations.

Domes, Arches, and Light

The interior view gives a great sense of the dome’s apparent “weightlessness” as it seems to float above arcades of windows. The Hagia Sophia is famous for its feeling of light-filled open space.


Different colored slabs of marble and other decorative stone create a series of circles called an Omphalion. This marked where the emperor would sit during religious services. Beautifully colored marble panels also decorate the walls.

Abstract Mosaics

Mosaics are images or designs made from pieces of tile, colored stone, or other materials. The Hagia Sophia is covered with mosaics, many of them abstract geometric patterns that emphasize the architecture.

Figurative Mosaics

Throughout its history, different religious groups either promoted or banned the use of icons, or pictures of religious figures. Many mosaics of Jesus, Mary, and the saints were added, removed, or covered. Today, the surviving figurative mosaics are on display.

Galata and Galata Tower

To the north of the Old City, across the Golden Horn, lies the Galata or Karaköy neighborhood. This area’s history adds even more complexity to Istanbul’s story. During Byzantine times, medieval European powers, including the Genoese and Venetians, had trading centers here.

The Ottomans allowed the Europeans to remain in this “new city.” Though the Ottomans eventually expanded into the area, they retained its character as a trading center, and kept much of the European architecture.

Tokapi Palace

In the 13th century, Muslim Turkish groups called the Ottomans began taking over Byzantine territory. In a historic battle on May 29, 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire and beginning the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire grew wealthy and powerful, ruling much of the eastern Mediterranean up until the 20th century. The peak of Ottoman power, learning, art, and culture is reflected in Tokapi Palace, home of the Ottoman Sultans (emperors) for over 400 years.

Suleymanyie Mosque

The Ottoman Empire reached its peak under Sultan Suleiman I, known as Suleiman the Magnificent. A great conqueror abroad, Suleiman’s reign at home was characterized by flourishing arts, poetry, law, learning, and architecture. 

His imperial mosque is a classic example of Ottoman Islamic architecture.

Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque

Completed in 1616 by Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque is considered the pinnacle of Ottoman architecture. While its exterior has obvious parallels with the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymanyie Mosque, its highly decorated interior is its greatest asset.

Unlike many historic Ottoman mosques that have become museums, the Blue Mosque remains an active place of worship.

Facing Rivals

The Blue Mosque is prominently positioned atop a hill directly opposite the Hagia Sophia, previously the greatest mosque in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque’s location is meant to both echo and challenge the earlier structure.

Too Many Minarets?

Legend says that architects misread Sultan Ahmed instructions for “gold” (altin) minarets as “six” (alti) minarets. Previously, only the holiest mosque, in Mecca, had six. Legend says that Ahmed made up for this by constructing a seventh minaret in Mecca.

A Large Courtyard

The Blue Mosque’s courtyard is nearly as large as the building itself. It contains two places for ritual washing.

Blue Mosque Interior

The Blue Mosque gets its name not from how it looks on the outside, but from its interior decorations.

Covered from floor to ceiling with tile mosaics, calligraphy, paint, and architectural details such as arches, columns, and balconies, the Blue Mosque is considered one of the most ornate in the world.

Dome and Blue Paint

The ceilings and upper levels are decorated with painted geometric decorations. The interior is lit by many stained-glass windows, providing a cool-colored natural light that brings out the blues, teals, and greens used in the decoration.


A major element of Islamic art is calligraphy, or script, quoting the Quran. Plant forms are also common in Islamic art and architecture, and are meant to remind worshippers of a peaceful, green paradise.


Muslims face the city of Mecca during prayer. Most mosques contain a mihrab, or small niche indicating the direction of the city. This one is made of carved marble, with a complicated ceiling and gold plating.


Muslims must remove their shoes before prayer, to keep the sacred space clean. Lush red carpet, donated by the faithful, provides a beautiful and comfortable surface for sitting and praying.

Taksim Square

In the 20th century, an elected legislature and political parties eased, but did not end, calls for democracy in the Ottoman Empire. During World War I, the Ottomans attacked Russia, throwing them against the Allied powers.

When the Allies won the war, they divided up the Ottoman Empire. In the chaos, Turkish rebels led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk won independence and set up a democratic government. Taksim Square is the center of today’s modern Turkish Istanbul.

Monument of the Republic

Five years after the Turks won independence from the divided, European-controlled remains of the Ottoman empire, the city built a monument to the movement’s leaders. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who commissioned it, is prominently shown.

Ataturk Cultural Center

Ataturk’s importance to modern Turkey is hard to overstate. His name graces many places and structures, including this large performance space. This modern Turkish architecture is environmentally friendly, using recycled materials in its construction.

Istanbul Metro

Taksim Square, in the European side of the city, is the major stop on the Istanbul Metro, one of the oldest in the world.

Taksim Gezi Park

Ancient cities rarely included public parks, and as Istanbul expanded, this lack of green space became a problem. Taksim Gezi is one of the few parks in this area. In 2013, thousands protested a plan to build a mall there.

Bosporus Bridge

As the link between Europe and Asia, the Bosporus has both physical and symbolic importance. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that people had the technology to build a bridge from one continent to the other.

When the Bosporus Bridge was complete in 1973, it became the longest suspension bridge in either Europe or Asia. Today, it is a symbol of modern Istanbul and its mix of people and influences from around the world.

Bosporus Bridge

The main span of the bridge is over 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) across and 64 meters (210 feet) above the water to allow for shipping. The road links old Istanbul with Beylerbeyi, the neighborhood on the Asian side.

Bosporus Shipping

Today, shipping on the Bosporus is no less important than in historical times. Oil tankers, especially from Russia’s Black Sea ports, make up much of the traffic.

Asian Side

The Asian side was once a separate city, but has been linked to Istanbul via the bridge and the metro. It is known for being newer, quieter and more residential, with spectacular mansions along the coast.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps