Although Istanbul has a past of more than two thousand years, it's not a city whose antiquity is apparent at first glance. Much of the cultural heritage that Istanbul has acquired as a result of its being a capital of several empires is hidden away amidst modem buildings lining streets that have frequently been redrawn from one generation to the next. Palaces, mansions, fountains, and monuments of every kind lurk silently within the bustling vitality of this giant metropolis' day-to-day existence and patiently wait to be discovered and seen by those with a more discerning and inquisitive eye.
For those who want to follow the trail of Istanbul's ancient past however, the "Historical Peninsula" lying between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara is like an oasis because a substantial part of the city's rich store of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman works is to be found lying on this elongated arm of land.
Sultanahmet Meydani, lying close to the southeastern tip of the peninsula, is surrounded by a bevy of historical monuments lovingly put there by nations and cultures that were as different from one another as it was possible be.
The area that is today Sultanahmet Meydani and its vicinity is the site of Istanbul's first urban settlement. This is where, according to legend, Byzas of Megara established a colony in 657. The hill now occupied by the Topkapi palace then served as the city's acropolis.
Throughout its long history, Istanbul's has never been an ordinary city. When it became the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire and renamed Constantinople, a marble shaft called the Milion was erected to mark the spot as the center of the world -the world's "ground zero" as it were, the point from which all roads radiated and all distances were measured. Although the world's center has long since shifted, the remains of the Milion still stand on a corner opposite the Ayasofya museum on Divanyolu -a thoroughfare that follows the same route as the Romans' Mese street.
During Byzantine times, the Sultanahmet district was where all the city's most important structures were built: the imperial palaces were located here; so was the Hippodrome, the center of Byzantine social life, and of course Haghia Sophia, the empire's greatest church.
Even after the Turkish conquest of Istanbul by Mehmed II in 1453, this district continued to be the heart of the city and of an empire and the Ottomans added to its treasures by constructing their palaces, mosques, and baths here. The Hippodrome remained and though its name was changed to Atmeydani (a literal Turkish translation of the Greek "hippodromos") its traditional Roman and Byzantine functions were not, for it continued to be a venue for sports and entertainment.
After this brief introduction, let's take a quick walk around this celebrated plaza starting with the most magnificent work from the Byzantine period.