William Dalrymple on the overlooked empire that created one of the great cities
Standing amid the arcaded pavilions of the Topkapi Palace, looking down the wooded promontory of Sarayburnu with Asia to your right and Europe to your left, it is easy to see why Istanbul was always going to be one of the world’s greatest cities, and the natural capital for an empire that straddled three continents.
Many centuries compete for your attention here. On my previous visits I had always concentrated on the Byzantine monuments: the great land walls of Theodosius, the echoing basilica cisterns of Justinian and the impossibly beautiful interior of Hagia Sophia whose “great spherical dome”, wrote Procopius in the 6th century, “seems not to be founded on solid masonry but to be suspended from heaven by a golden chain”. This time, though, I decided to immerse myself in Ottoman Istanbul: a side of the city I had managed almost to ignore.