The sun is setting over the ancient walls of Istanbul, walls that are almost 2,000 years old and witness to some of the bloodiest sieges in its history. Yet there are no tourists around: instead I find myself in a strange netherworld of shacks, hooded kids, wild dogs howling and vegetable gardens. The gardens grow next to the very walls built by the Emperor Theodosius II to defend this city.
The city has borne three names – Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, the capital of two vast empires, one Christian, one Muslim, astride two continents, Asia and Europe.
Discoveries: Simon Sebag Montefiore explores the alleyways of Istanbul
It is, along with Jerusalem and Rome, one of the most famed holy imperial cities in the world; but it’s still full of mysteries and secrets. The city is filled with magnificent tourist sites such as Hagia Sophia – but it is also easy to explore and find amazing jewels just as important and evocative, yet lost in time.
This section of wall tells one of the most terrifying and extraordinary moments in the city’s history: after more than 1,000 years as the Christian capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in 1453 the depopulated, impoverished city was besieged by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II and his 200,000 troops. It was defended by the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI and just 5,000 daredevils, adventurers and desperadoes.
The Byzantine defenders – these Greek-speaking Christians of the Eastern Roman Empire always called themselves Romans and it was Victorian historians who dubbed them Byzantines – had one last weapon left. The Ottomans couldn’t besiege the entire city because the defenders had hung a huge chain across the entrance of the Golden Horn, the narrow channel of water alongside the city.
In the Naval Museum by the Bosphorus, you can see this very chain. Mehmet, who was just 21, had a brilliant idea. He would avoid the chain by moving his entire fleet over land at night. His engineers laid wooden tracks. Mobilising thousands of slaves and oxen, they pulled the ships over a spot which is today close to Taksim Square.
The world’s trading post: The Suleymaniye Mosque seen from the Golden Horn
Nowadays it is the centre of 21st Century, liberal, funky Istanbul, the setting of recent protests. The best way to see what Mehmet did that night is to get the lift to the chic restaurant at the top of the Pera Tower Hotel. When the Byzantines awoke next day, the Turkish ships were in the Golden Horn and they were surrounded on all sides.
This brings me back to sunset by the walls … As the Byzantines waited, the bustling camps of the Turkish armies suddenly went quiet. An ominous silence fell. They knew the final reckoning was coming. It was 1,000 years since the city had been founded as the new Rome by Emperor Constantine the Great. Now this great Christian civilization was about to end – unless there was a miracle.
It was held that the walls had been saved before by a vision of the Virgin Mary. But this time they dropped her icon into the mud. In the Palace of Blachernae, the Emperor spoke. ‘A man should die for four things – his faith, his family, his homeland and his sovereign – and I am asking you to die for all four,’ he told his weeping retinue.
Everyone prayed in St Sophia. The former church, now Hagia Sophia still dominates the city. It was built by the greatest of Byzantine Emperors, Justinian.
On the night before the fall, the Orthodox priests held constant services. Then the silence outside abruptly ended as the Turkish armies started to shout, beat drums and cymbals and sound trumpets. If you climb the walls, you can imagine the sight the defenders saw as the entire hinterland and the water were dark with soldiers and ships.
The Turkish cannons started to bombard the walls. The Byzantines sallied out, but when they returned they left a tiny postern door open; Turks poured in. The biggest cannon in Europe brought down a whole section of wall. The last Emperor calmly wished his men goodbye and removing his purple sandals, insignia of a Roman sovereign, threw himself into the fray where the fighting was hottest. He was never seen again.
As the Turkish troops burst into St Sophia, the priests continued the service until the last minute then walked calmly into the walls and disappeared … It’s a city of legends! Mehmet inspected St Sofia, sprinkling dust on his turban as a mark of humility. Seeing one of his soldiers looting he hit him with his sword: ‘The people are yours, but the buildings are mine!’ he said.
Catch a bite: Freshly cooked fish is sold on the city’s waterfront
Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih in Turkish) declared St Sophia as the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia. It had been a church for 900 years; it would be a mosque for 600 years – and it is now a museum … Mehmet’s Ottoman dynasty ruled the city until 1922. It was he who created the city of Istanbul you see today. In everything he emphasized the continuity between him and the Roman Caesars, declaring himself Caesar of Rum (Rome) as well as Sultan. You must visit his Palace – the Topkapi – built right on top of the Great Palace of the Roman Emperors.
He placed his Conqueror (Fatih) Mosque on the site of the Church of Holy Apostles, where the Roman Emperors were buried. Mehmet too is buried there. A mercilessly ambitious autocrat, he was a tolerant and cosmopolitan Muslim: he settled Jews, Christians, Arabs, Serbs and Albanians in Istanbul, Refuge of the World.
The best way to feel the magnetism of this international trading post is to watch the fishing boats go out, eat in the seafront fish restaurants – under the Bosphorus bridge and at Karakoy fish market or, if you prefer a more expensive meal, at the famous Babek Restaurant. In the fish market you can have a fresh sea bass for £3 and eat it with your fingers.
When one visits the city, one can live history because everything is there to see. Like Jerusalem and Rome, it’s not layered as you might expect, but more interwoven. Probably the giant pillars of Mehmet’s Fatih Mosque or Suleiman the Magnificent’s Suleimaniye Mosque once stood in the Church of the Holy Apostles or other Byzantine churches.
Taksim Square is the centre of 21st Century, liberal, funky Istanbul and the setting of recent protests
Feel the power of Constantine the Great, who took a Greek pagan town named Byzantium and refounded it as Christian Constantinople, by seeing the Egyptian obelisk he placed in the Hippodrome for the inaugauration of his new city. It’s still there! To grasp the ambition of Justinian, be awed not just by Hagia Sophia but by the subterranean glory of his Basilica Cistern which more resembles a palace-temple. But watch out for the huge fat carp that frenziedly seeth to eat crumbs of bread – they resemble the carnivorous courtiers of the Byzantine court. Nothing prepares you for the exquisite beauty of the mosaics of the Chora Church, the last blossoming of Byantine art.
Meanwhile the Suleymaniye Mosque tells the story of the greatest romance of the Ottoman dynasty. It is the majestic work of the World Ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent. Next door you see the tomb of the Sultan himself and that of his concubine-slavegirl, stolen from what was then Poland and is now Ukraine and sold into slavery, then brought to his harem where he fell in love with her.
Nicknamed Roxelana, she was ruthless too, for she encouraged him to kill his eldest son to make her son Selim the Sultan. She was the force behind the less-known but most exquisite mosque in the city: the Rustem Pasha Mosque with its timeless breathtaking turquoise tiles.
The Topkapi tells the story of some of the now forgotten but exceptional sultans. The Baghhad Pavilion was the work of the last conqueror Ottoman: Murad IV, ruling in the 1630s, a cross between Julius Caesar and Caligula, and such a giant he could lift a courtier over his head with each hand.
He retook Baghdad, but he also killed 20,000 people to reassert his power and came to enjoy killing so much that he wandered the city by night incognito despatching victims.
Mehmet the Conqueror’s Palace – the Topkapi – is built right on top of the Great Palace of the Roman Emperors
By the 19th Century, the empire was weak and rotten. The Sultans left the Topkapi to live in new palaces along the Bosphorus – and so should you. If you stay, like me, in the Ciragan Palace Kempinski you are actually living in the Ottoman Palace of Sultan Abdul Aziz in the mid 19th Century. Elegant, chic, modern yet romantic with delicious food and perfect service, this hotel was my home for the shoot of my BBC4 series. Sit on the terrace at breakfast and watch gargantuan tankers, pleasure boats, and little fishing boats passing. Then you’ll understand why these straits were the desire and prize of the great powers.
After his overthrow, Abdul Aziz was a prisoner here – and he died here mysteriously. The Ottomans backed the wrong side in the First World War. The Kaiser twice visited to negotiate with Sultan Abdul Hamid II and his Yildiz Palace is filled with German buildings to make him feel at home. At the end of the war in 1918, the British and French occupied Istanbul. The best way to feel its British period is to stay – or have a martini – in the Pera Palace Hotel.
This too is one of the most chic hotels in the world. British officers spent time here drinking cocktails and flirting with exiled Russian princesses.
Its bar is super chic in the spirit of the Jazz Age in Istanbul.
It was here too that Kemal Pasha, the visionary general who became Ataturk and founded modern Turkey, stayed in 1918. He was infuriated by the arrogant British and left to take command of the army and liberate Turkey. His suite is kept exactly as he left it.
It’s the hotels, mosques, palaces, walls and fish restaurants that give you just a taste of the amazing story of the city so good they named it thrice.