Straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey has enormously diverse scenery, with rolling central plains, soaring mountains, desert and orchards, white sand beaches and towering sea cliffs. The Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Selçuks, Ottomans, Armenians and a host of smaller civilizations have all added intricate layers of architecture, art and culture, creating a mosaic as rich as any of the gilded Byzantine glories. Today, Turkey's thousands of kilometers of magnificent coast, sunshine and fine food have turned it into a major tourist destination. Much more than that, it is still fascinating culturally - a modern, westernised country, with a largely Muslim population, cautiously spanning the divide between religions and cultures.
The only city in the world to span two continents, Istanbul is a bustling, cosmopolitan place, officially founded by Emperor Constantine in AD 326 on the back of a much older village.
It remained capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires right up until 1923, its illustrious past leaving a rich legacy of mosques, churches, museums and magnificent palaces, coupled with bustling bazaars and a vibrant street life. Istanbul is made up of three distinct cities. The old city of Istanbul is decorated with parks and gardens. Amongst hundreds of fascinating sights, the main attractions include Topkapi, the sumptuous palace of the Ottoman sultans overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus; the delicately decorated Blue Mosque, the only mosque in the world with six minarets; the vast dome of Ayasofya, built in 536 as a Byzantine cathedral, later a mosque and now a museum and, underground, the Yerebatan Sarayi, a vast Byzantine cistern supported by 336 Corinthian columns. Nearby, the commercial heart of the city, the Grand Bazaar, is still a captivating sight for shoppers and window-shoppers alike, while further along the narrow inlet of the Golden Horn, the Kariye Camii has some of the finest Byzantine mosaics to survive today.
Across the Golden Horn, 'modern' Istanbul, Beyoglu, dates back to the foreign cantonments of the 13th century. This is where you find the restaurants, hotels, and modern shops, while the truly modern areas around Taksim are home to cultural centres, exhibition halls and office blocks.
For almost a thousand years, the Ayasofya was a triumph of Christianity and the symbol of Byzantium, and until the 16th century, maintained its status as the largest Christian church in the world. The cathedral is so utterly awesome that the Statue of Liberty's torch would barely graze the top. Erected over the ashes of two previous churches using dismantled and toppled columns and marble from some of the greatest temples around the empire, the Ayasofya (known in Greek as the Hagia Sophia and in English as St. Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom), was designed to surpass in grandeur, glory, and majesty every other edifice ever constructed as a monument to God. Justinian began construction soon after his suppression of the Nika Revolt, indicating that combating unemployment was high on the list as well. He chose the two preeminent architects of the day: Anthemius of Tralles (Aydin) and Isidorus of Miletus. After 5 years and 4 months, when the construction of the Ayasofya was completed in A.D. 537, the emperor raised his hands to heaven and proclaimed, "Glory to God who has deigned to let me finish so great a work. O Solomon, I have outdone thee!" Enthusiasm for this feat of architecture and engineering was short-lived, because 2 years later, an earthquake caused the dome to collapse. The new dome was slightly smaller in diameter but higher than the original, supported by a series of massive towers to counter the effects of future earthquakes. Glass fittings in the walls were employed to monitor the weight distribution of the dome; the sound of crunching glass was an early warning system indicating that the weight of the dome had shifted. Several more earthquakes caused additional damage to the church, requiring repairs to the dome (among other sections), which was increased in height thanks to the support provided by the addition of flying buttresses (additional buttresses were added at two later dates).
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