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 twentieth 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 330 AD. 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 Haghia 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 morning is then spent concentrating on the Byzantine monuments. Begin with 6th-century Haghia Sophia, the mother church of Orthodox Christianity. The Byzantine Great Palace is largely lost, but at the Mosaic Museum a vast expanse of its mosaic pavement can be seen, rich in marvellous domestic detail. In the afternoon a visit to the Archaeological Museum, known for its outstanding collection of ancient art and artefacts, Hellenistic and Roman sculpture. For a shift of perspective, a short walk through Gulhane Park takes us to Sirkeci Station, formerly the terminus for the famed Orient Express.
The Topkapı Palace was the Sultan’s residence and the political heart of the Ottoman Empire. Explore the palace courtyards, gardens, pavilions and harem, as well as the contents of the Imperial Treasury with its collection of sacred Islamic relics, including the Prophet’s Mantle. In the grounds we visit Haghia Eirene, the Church of the Divine Peace. After lunch visit Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), the last of Istanbul’s imperial mosques. Then to the great Covered Bazaar, trading hub of the Ottomans, before we take in the magnificent Sülemaniye Camii, masterpiece of the great architect Sinan and his 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. See parts of the Byzantine city walls en route to the nearby Kariye Museum (church of St Saviour in Chora), which contains the finest assemblage of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes to survive anywhere. In the afternoon we cross to Pera/Beyoglu, increasingly home to the Greek Orthodox and other minorities after the Muslim conquest of the city. After taking in the grand fin-de-siècle apartments along the city’s foremost boulevard, Istiklal Caddesi, formerly La Grande Rue de Pera, we visit Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s beguiling Museum of Innocence, a swansong to the city of Pamuk’s childhood.
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.
In the morning visit the Şale Köşku, the huge pavilion that Sultan Abdulhamid built to house visiting monarchs and magnates in the early-20th century, which houses the world’s largest carpet. The nearby Naval Museum contains an impressive collection of imperial caiques. We cross by ferry to the Asian side for a visit to Kadikoy, former Chalcedon, for lunch in the renowned Guneslibahce Sokak foodie quarter. On our return to the European side there is some free time to saunter or take in one of the many museums, mosques and other attractions we haven’t yet seen.
Fly from Istanbul, arriving Heathrow c. 2.55pm.
Travel writer 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.
Price –per person
Two sharing: £2,710 or £2,460 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,970 or £2,720 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).
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 FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
'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.'