Strait through Two Continents

by Rosemarie John on December 21, 2012


As the tour bus weaned its way around the streets of Istanbul picking up tourists from other hotels, the grandeur of this ancient city slowly reveals itself. You are passing by monuments, mosques, minarets, churches, pebble paved streets, trams, people hurrying about and you are trying to absorb everything in. You gasp sometimes in wonder, you frown sometimes at traffic, you may have questions on your mind but you never look away from the window. What you don’t know yet is that you are under a magical spell cast by this exotic land.

The tour guide is doing her bit but your eyes are alive your ears are dead. The bus stopped and we are asked to get down. The chill of the winter breeze hits your face, you see boats and you are herded off to board one. You want to grumble but you stop suddenly for in front of you flows the majestic Bosphorus.

The straits are hypnotic we don’t understand why. On one bank is the European side and you can see the continent of Asia on the other side. You don’t need to be a history or geographic buff to appreciate this fact. You climb in dreamily, you find a spot on the boat and you gaze in awe as the journey begins.

The Bosphorus, separating Europe and Asia was and still is one of the most important maritime routes in the world. Straddled by the city of Constantinople or Istanbul as it is known today, the Bosphorus Straits lies between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and has always been of great commercial and strategic importance. Today, apart from the hundreds of tankers that sail by and ferries that transport local folk from one continent to the other, tourist from all over the world flock to the strait for a ride on its waters.

Home to some of the most beautiful structures that boasts tranquil waterside gardens, mosques and landing jetties, the Bosphorus is considered the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation. The Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardenelles Strait to the south-west collectively form the Turkish Straits. The Bosphorus however plays a significant role in its location as it connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara which is in turn connected by the Dardenelles to the Aegean Sea and finally empties itself into the Mediterranean Sea.

A Brief History

Even though navigating the Bosphorus is a treacherous affair, with some places within the straits to be only 645m wide, its strategic significance was one of the factors in Roman Emperor Constantine’s decision to establish there, his new capital, Constantinople in 330AD.

The fresh capital of the Eastern Roman Empire situated along the banks of the Bosphorus was protected on one side by unpredictable currents proving the city impregnable to attack for over a thousand years. But as nothing lasts forever, the city soon fell to the emerging Ottoman Empire in May 1453.

After 623 years of Ottoman rule, World War I and the founding of the Republic of Turkey, the Bosphorus Strait remained a topic of controversy with the demilitarizing and remilitarizing of the straits in 1920 and 1923 respectively. From then on, the newest regime treats the strait as an international shipping lane, while Turkey retained rights to restrict the naval traffic of non-Black Sea nations.

In more recent years, the Turkish Straits have become particularly important for the oil industry. Each year, some 10,000 vessels carrying 150 million tonnes of oil and petroleum products use the waterways, the only maritime outlet for Black Sea countries shipping oil and other commodities.

Notable Landmarks

Sailing the Bosphorus is a must on any visit to Istanbul. You can either take a cruise by heading over to the docks on your own or enjoy a worry free planned excursion through a pre-arranged tour. Whichever option you take on, the ride is truly panoramic. Lined with scenic buildings, parks and religious structures, the banks of the Bosphorus are rich in history and culture.

Dolmabahçe Mosque

Dolmabahce Mosque

Completed in 1855 by architect Garabet Balyan, the Dolmabahçe Mosque is located in the south side of the beautiful Dolmabahçe Palace. Constructed in Baroque style, the mosque has two fluted minarets similar to Corinthian column heads with a single balcony and a single dome resting on a square floor.  The Dolmabahçe Mosque’s original construction was initiated by Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan, the mother of Sultan Abdülmecid (1823-1861). Upon her death, its construction was continued by her son.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

One of Istanbul’s most impressive sights, the Dolmabahçe palace is made up of three parts; the Mabeyn-i Hümâyûn (or Selamlık, the quarters reserved for the men), Muayede Salonu (the ceremonial hall) and the Harem-i Hümâyûn (the residential apartments of the family of the Sultan). The palace has an area of 45,000 m2 (11.2 acres) and contains 285 rooms, 6 baths (hamams) and 68 bathrooms.

Commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecit I in 1842 and completed in 1853, the palace was used for both official matters as well as a residence. After the abolishment of the Sultanate, the palace became the presidential residence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk until his death in 1938. It has remained a museum since. The world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria hangs in the center hall whose 120-foot ceilings are supported by 56 columns. The chandelier has 750 lamps and weighs 4.5 tonnes.

The Four Seasons Hotel

The Four Seasons

This was a former 19th-century Ottoman summer palace called Atik Pasha that was transformed into a hotel in 2008. It occupies a total of 48,000 square metres and has 145 guest rooms and 25 suites. Atik Pasha’s impressive, symmetrical façade faces the Bosphorus. At night, the frontage is lit by flaming torches – a spectacular welcome for those arriving for dinner via the hotel’s private waterfront dock.

Çırağan Palace

Ciragan Palace

Çırağan Palace is a former Ottoman palace that stands today as a five-star hotel of the Kempinski Hotels chain.  Located on the shore of the Bosphorus, the Sultan’s Suite billed at USD15, 332 per night is listed as number 14 on the World’s 15 most expensive hotel suites compiled by CNN Go in 2012. The palace is made of marble and spans an area of more than 80,000 square meters. After a devastating fire, the palace was renovated again during the first quarter of 2007, now resembling the authentic baroque structure.

Ortaköy Mosque

Ortakoy Mosque

Standing under the western corner of the Bosphorus Bridge, the Ortaköy Mosque also known as the Büyük Mecidiye Camiicouldn’t be more breath-taking. Unfortunately, it is currently undergoing restoration until 2013. Commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid (1839-1861), the baroque style mosque was constructed and completed by architect Nigoğos Balyan in 1853. The mosque is composed of a Harim (sanctum sanctorum), a Hünkar Kasrı (sultan’s summer palace) and has two minarets with a single sherefe (minaret balcony) each.


Remeli Fortress

Rumelihisarı is a fortress that sits on a hill in the Sariyer district of Istanbul.  The fortress was built under Mehmet the Conqueror in preparation for his siege on Constantinople. Located on the narrowest point of the Bosphorus, it served to effectively cut off the city from outside assistance. Rumelihisarı translates to “Fortress on the Land of the Romans”. The well maintained fortress has three main towers, 13 small watchtowers and a leafy central amphitheatre. After the fall of Constantinople, the fortress served as a customs checkpoint until newer fortresses were built closer to the Black Sea.

Our Turkish experience began when our tour guide picked us up from out hotel in Istanbul. We spent several days in this amazing country mesmerized by its history, culture, food, art and its people. We were greatly saddened when we had to leave its shores and promised to come back again for more. The articles that would follow are memories that would last us for a lifetime.

The Bosphorus flows through the heart of Istanbul, dividing Asia and Europe making Turkey the only country that lies on two continents. It is seeped with rich history, tales of conquerors, inspired poets and writers over many generations, vibrant culture and a centre for two of the world major religions. It will continue to inspire current and future generations for many more aeons to come.

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