The radical transformations this city has undergone are vividly expressed by its changes of name: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. The capital successively of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and now modern Turkey’s booming metropolis, it is one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world. But it is also a place of strange and sometimes subdued moods, a city that was eclipsed for much of the 20th century.
Initially a modest Greek city, it was chosen by Constantine as the site of the new capital of the Roman Empire and inaugurated in ad 330. The Byzantine Empire continued in direct succession to the Roman, and its capital became one of the largest cities in medieval Europe, the guardian of classical culture and a bastion of Orthodox Christianity.
The city walls were the strongest in the western world, and while the Byzantine Empire gradually shrank before the onslaughts of Persians, Arabs and Latin crusaders, it was not finally extinguished until 1453 when Ottoman Turks captured the city.
In the century and a half after the Ottoman conquest, the city steadily acquired some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world, aided by the example of Hagia Sophia, the architect Sinan and the brilliant tile factories at Iznik.
Minarets and mosques now dominate the skyline, but churches, temples, palaces and other pre-Ottoman buildings, whole or fragmentary, and the arts which decorated them, are to be found in abundance. Istanbul has evolved into a melting-pot of cultures, with a lively streetlife and colourful bazaars. The city’s international outlook is epitomised by its division between Europe and Asia, now linked by modern bridges crossing the mighty Bosphorus, and a new underwater railway tunnel.
Fly at c.11.30am (Turkish Airlines) from London Heathrow to Istanbul. Arrive early evening and drive to the historic quarter of Sultanahmet for the first of six nights.
A short stroll around the Hippodrome, originally constructed c. ad 200 by Septimius Severus and completely rebuilt on a larger scale by Constantine. The Byzantine Great Palace is largely lost, but at the Mosaic Museum a vast expanse of its Roman mosaic pavement can be seen, rich in marvellous domestic detail. The remainder of the day concentrates on
Byzantine monuments, including the sixth-century Hagia Sophia, the mother church of Orthodox Christianity, and Hagia Eirene, Church of the Divine Peace.
The Topkapı Palace was the Sultan’s residence and the political heart of the Ottoman Empire. Explore the palace kitchens, courtyards, gardens, pavilions and famous harem, as well as the contents of the Imperial Treasury, with its collection of sacred Islamic relics. After lunch we take in the magnificent Sülemaniye Camii, masterpiece of the great architect Sinan. A detour through the Covered Bazaar, trading hub of the Ottomans, takes us to Sinan’s exquisite Rüstem Pasha Camii, clad in the finest 16th-century Iznik tilework.
In the morning take the ferry up the Golden Horn to Eyup, among the holiest places in Islam and the shrine of the Prophet’s standard bearer. Walk along parts of the Byzantine city walls arriving in the vicinity of the Kariye Museum (church of St Saviour in Chora). A thorough exploration of this stunning church allows time to absorb the finest assemblage of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes to survive anywhere.
Travel by private boat along the Bosphorus, the historic and beautiful strait that divides Europe from Asia. Enjoy superb views of Istanbul and the villas and castles of its suburbs. We visit the Sadberk Hanim Museum, a private mansion museum with artefacts from across the span of Anatolian civilisation, and also Beylerbeyi Palace, an imperial summer residence during the late Ottoman era.
The grounds of the Dolmabahce Palace lead to the Naval Museum with its impressive collection of imperial caiques. In the afternoon, the recently renovated Archaeological Museum presents an outstanding collection of ancient art and artefacts, Hellenistic and Roman sculpture. The collections deserve time for guided and independent study, and will be appreciated all the more in the context of the sites visited during the week.
Fly from Istanbul, arriving Heathrow c. 3.00pm.
Travel writer and tour leader specialising in Turkey. His award-winning books include A Fez of the Heart and Meander, the last an account of a solo canoe journey he made down western Turkey’s Buyuk Menderes River. He has written about the country for the Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and others. He teaches literacy for the Royal Literary Fund and has worked in teaching, broadcasting and publishing. He is currently writing a book about Turkey’s fraught political history, due for publication in 2020. Twitter: @JeremySeal1 | Instagram: @jeremyinturkey | Website: somewherewonderful.com
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,890 or £2,680 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,150 or £2,940 without flights.
Air travel (economy class) with Turkish Airlines (Boeing 777-300); travel by private coach and boat; accommodation as below; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and a Turkish guide.
Entry visas for Turkey must be secured prior to arrival (this can be done online). This is not included in the price of the tour as they must be applied for individually. Further information will be provided in the Essential Tour Information document.
Hotel Sultanhan. A traditionally furnished 4-star located in the central district of Old Istanbul. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
You will be on your feet a lot, there is a considerable amount of walking and standing around, and Istanbul is quite hilly. This tour is not suitable for anyone with walking difficulties or difficulties negotiating stairs. Average distance by coach per day: 9 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.
'Our lecturer was excellent – very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and an effective, entertaining commentator. We learned a lot of art history and political history from her.'
'Excellent: a fine, utterly engaging blend of Muslim and Christian.'
'A wonderfully comprehensive itinerary covering all of the major sites plus a representative range of mosques and several of the more minor Byzantine churches.'