Istanbul is a cultural melting pot that has developed over millennia due to the converging influences of Phoenician, Roman, Anatolian, Slavic, Levantine, Genoese, Ottoman, Greek, Arabic, and modern Turkish cultures – all of which have left an indelible mark on the city, and have rendered it one of the world’s architectural gems. From the ancient Walls of Constantinople, built in the 5th century B.C.E. by the great Roman Emperor Theodosius, to the stunning Byzantine churches, glorious Ottoman mosques, and cutting-edge contemporary architecture, Istanbul is home to a diversity of architectural styles.
Probably the most famous style of Istanbul architecture, it stems from the period when the city was known as Byzantium, as it was called from at least six centuries before Christ until it was renamed Constantinople by Roman Emperor Constantine in 330 B.C.E. Because Constantinople served as the new capital of the Roman Empire, Eastern and Western traditions were carried in from across the Empire and combined into an amalgam known henceforth as Byzantine architecture. This style carried on through the Byzantine Empire and into the Middle Ages. Most extant examples of Byzantine architecture are found in ecclesiastical buildings. Christianity began to flourish after the Edict of Milan in 313 B.C.E, so the burgeoning religion necessitated novel approaches to building design on a large scale. Numerous churches and religious buildings were commissioned and built at the behest of the emperors and religious leaders. Byzantine architecture dominated the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the reign of Justinian, but the influences of the Roman Empire spanned centuries, from 330 AD until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Byzantine architecture features characteristics such as square-shaped, central-plan churches, high central domes often accompanied by half-dome pillars known as pendentives, mosaic decorations, clerestory windows above eye level designed to bring fresh in air and light, decorative impost blocks and experimental building methods. Prime examples of Byzantine architecture include the 6th-century Basilica Cistern (also referred to as the Sunken Palace), Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and of course the great Hagia Sophia – a crowning masterpiece of the style that has, since its dedication in 360, served as a Greek patriarchal cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral, an Ottoman-era mosque, and a museum.
Istanbul’s placement as an imperial center guaranteed its rich display of exquisitely preserved palaces, which offer fascinating insight into the opulent lifestyles of the rulers along with their royal courts and harems. The most stunning example of Ottoman architecture is unquestionably the Topkapi Palace, named in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For four centuries, until the sultans migrated to estates along the Bosporus in the mid-19th century, the Topkapi was the center of the massive empire. The palace grounds include several buildings, numerous courtyards, the famed and extensive harem quarters, and enormous kitchens that could serve over 6,000 meals per day. All feature the typical Ottoman harmony between exterior and interior spaces, huge but elegant domes, articulated light and shadow, elegant arches and pillars, prominent artistic treasures and intricate murals.
Genoese Medieval Architecture
The rich seafaring traders of then-Republic of Genoa established trading posts through the Mediterranean and, through their 1261 treaty with a Byzantine emperor as well as the aid they provided to the Byzantine re-conquest of the city, they were rewarded with the privilege of setting up a Genoese quarter in Istanbul, which would make a long-lasting mark on the city in terms of architecture, religion, and culture. Examples of Genoese-era medieval architecture include the partially ruined Yoros Castle and Palazzo del Comune, built in 1316 as a replica of the Palazzo San Giorgio in Genoa, and the Galata Tower. Built in 1348, the nine-story tower has had a rich history as a lighthouse, fortress, watchtower, and now a visitor center with a cafe and restaurant on its top floors, which offer visitors a gorgeous panoramic view of the city and the Bosphorus.
Although Istanbul architecture is mostly known for its preservation and conversion of old buildings, the city’s modern works cannot be ignored. These include the Kanyon Center, the Istanbul Sapphire, and the still-under-construction Diamond.The Kanyon Center lives up to its name. The modern metal-and-glass complex winds through downtown like a canyon, and within it lies an innovative setup of offices, residences, and a shopping complex. The Sapphire is a 54-floor ecological skyscraper located in the Levent business district. It is Istanbul’s tallest skyscraper and one of Europe’s largest. And its sister gem, the Diamond, which is currently under construction, is slated to include three massive vertical wings over a central core in its radical design. A range of spectacular architecture is just one of the reasons to discover why Istanbul is the hottest destination in Europe. Plan a trip today and come experience the wonder and beauty of this city for yourself!