Hagia Sophia Museum // © 2012 Skye Mayring
Toward the end of 2008, during the construction of Istanbul’s Marmaray underground metro tunnel, archeologists unearthed a human grave, complete with pottery and other artifacts, dating back to the Neolithic period. This remarkable discovery proved that Istanbul was 6,000 years older than previously thought. Indeed, the ancient city represents layer upon layer of history and culture, much of which present-day travelers have yet to discover. Naturally, any visitor to Istanbul will want to get a glimpse of ancient life, and perhaps the best place to get started is the old city, Sultanahmet.
Visitors should begin a day of sightseeing with a stroll through the Hippodrome of Constantinople, where the Romans famously held chariot races. The arena served as the social hub of the Byzantine Empire and still displays well-preserved monuments, including a 3,500-year-old Egyptian obelisk that juts upward from a 15-foot hole, the former ground level of the city of Constantinople.
From the Hippodrome, clients can walk to the north entrance of the Blue Mosque, named for the 20,000 blue tiles that line its interior. Visitors of any religious affiliation are welcome to tour and photograph this place of worship, so long as they remove their shoes upon entering and cover up properly (scarves are available so that guests can cover their shoulders and legs).
Nearby Hagia Sophia, which now operates as a museum, is another must-see holy site. Built in 532, this former Byzantine church was taken over by the Ottoman Empire and used as a mosque for approximately 500 years. Layers of history continue to unfold here too. In 2009, museum authorities uncovered a gorgeous mosaic of seraphim’s face, which had been covered with plaster for nearly 160 years. Indeed, travelers will find that, in Istanbul, there’s always more beneath the surface.