Travels in Istanbul: Museums

There are so many museums in Istanbul that it might take a year to visit them all, so two weeks was not going to be nearly enough time to see them. We already visited two palaces, many mosques and bazaars, two Princes’ islands, took two boat tours (and a multiple boat taxis), but did make time to see a few museums and one Ottoman fortress too.

Our first was a visit to the Deniz Müzesi, or Naval Museum, which is right behind Dolmabahçe Palace. Naval museums are not usually my thing (but as I think about it, how many had I ever had the opportunity to visit?), but this one was awesome. Reasonably priced, and packed full of things to see (at least ten full length boats used by Sultans and their attendants). Jesse and I had a great time, and spent a couple hours here, and is highly recommended. Below is the outside and immediate entrance to the museum.

Some of the Sultan’s boats; check out the upholstery and the detail on the wood carvings of each.

There was also a full set of uniforms worn by the Ottoman then Turkish navy throughout the years (and Jesse).

Something else I found cool were multiple certificate awards given to the Ottoman Empire for different naval achievements from the Chicago World’s Fair back in 1893. There were certificates for “Naval Uniforms, Treatise on Mathematical Naval Subjects, and my favorite: Torpedoes.

Immediately after we stopped in The Palace Collections Museum, which, sorry to say, was a big disappointment. It is between the Deniz Museum and Dolmabahçe Palace; but the entrance is seemingly guarded by armed guards and fenced off (there is a small, break in a fence to enter) with unfriendly, yet watchful, staff. The museum is in one long room, and they have some cool pieces; ceramic heaters artfully designed were the highlight for us; but sadly, they did not allow pictures. In the back of the museum there is a warehouse full of unused furniture, candelabras, and other pieces from the various Sultans’ palaces, like peaking into the storeroom of a big box furniture store. I would not recommend a stop here.

Mosque inside the Rumeli Fortress

The Rumeli Hisarı, or Rumeli Fortress, is in the Bebek neighborhood, on the north-European side. It was constructed by the Ottomans in 1452, only taking four months (!) to complete. It is located at the narrowest point of the Bosporus channel, and was key in the Ottomans conquest of Constantinople.

The Fortress is under major renovations, but it is a nice place to walk, and explore; the views are spectacular from its highest, accessible, point. There is also a small mosque with a stone theater around it. As of June 2022, we could not climb any of the towers or ramparts, so that was a bit disappointing, but, all in all, was worth visiting.

Spectacular view from the top of Rumeli Fortress

Nearby the Fortress is the Asiyan Museum, which is the former home of the famous Turkish poet and statesman Tevfik Fikret. Asiyan means “bird’s nest” in Turkish. It is a walk up a steep street, then stone steps, so be prepared. I suggest taking a rest at one of the benches that overlook the Bosporus to cool off before entering the home.

The house is nice inside, situated on two floors and the basement. There is a green garden with stone paths, as well as the tomb of Fikret as well. It is peaceful, and there are benches to sit on and look out onto the Bosporus. It was a nice stop, but if you have limited time in the area, I would skip it. They also do not allow photographs inside. There is a park dedicated to the poet closer to street level, and that is a nice place for a respite.

A statue of Tevfik Fikret sitting in the garden

My favorite Museum was the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, located in Sultanahmet Square. Easy to access, it is often overlooked as many visit the square for the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Egyptian obelisks (which are right in front of the museum). Upon entering one can see some of the remains of the original Hippodrome that stood where Sultanhamet Square is now (and other pieces of the walls are protected in the Square as well). Once inside the museum, there is a diorama on how the ancient writers wrote copies of the Quran, as well as examples of the stands that are used to hold the Quran while reading, usually incorporating mother-of-pearl into the exquisite stands.

Another exhibit was about the Hammam, or Turkish Baths (which Jesse and I were lucky enough to get to enjoy in Antalya). Below are examples of the slippers worn and a fancy water pitcher used.

We also were introduced to the Karagöz shadow theater, which is based on a person named Karagöz. He, along with his friend Hacivat, were killed by the Sultan for making workers laugh too much and thus they did not finish building the mosque in Bursa in time. A local made leather figures of both men, and put them on a white screen and acted out humorous scenes to try and console the Sultan, who regretted killing the two. From then on, artists created shadow puppets of different characters to entertain Turks for hundreds of years. There is a video, with English subtitles, showing an artist putting on a Karagöz show. Here are a few of the characters.

In the museum, on the second floor, there are rooms dedicated to each period of Ottoman history, dating back more than 1,500 years. There are many beautiful copies of the Quran, as well as other artifacts and many large rugs hanging on the walls. Below are a few of my favorite pieces.

Ancient copies of the Quran:

There are also relics of the Prophet Muhammed, strands of his beard and other items. But my favorite part to see were the doors to the Grand Mosque of Cizre, dating back to the 12th century. Cizre is located on the Tigris River, and fell into decline during Ottoman rule. in 1969, one of the door knockers, which are made of two connecting Dragons, was stolen and remains in a museum in Copenhagen. The other is still attached to the doors seen below.

The museum has a large courtyard with shaded tables and a cafe; a perfect place to rest before venturing back out into the busyness of the square.

On the left you can see a tall, green leafed tree, that does not look different than most trees. But that one is 200+ years old, and is hollow, missing its interior; you can see in the picture below:

The last museum I visited by myself, and it is conveniently located very close to the tram line, in the western part of the city; about a half-hour ride from Sultanhamet square, but definitely worth a visit: the Panorama 1543 Museum.

There are pictures and descriptions (and summaries in English), all centered around Mehmed the Conqueror’s conquest of Constantinople in the year 1453 for the Ottomans. But the real star of the show, and what everyone comes to see, is the panoramic dome of the battle. Painted on the walls of the dome are scenes from the conquest; Mehmed is (always) found on a white horse; there are soldiers attacking the walls, more soldiers behind them; and in front of the painting are cannons, arrows, and other battle scene parts, set upon an earthen ring; visitors get to the stand in the middle and listen to explosions and the battle drums and other sounds from the battle. It is an immersive experience, and provides excellent pictures, like these below.

In case my description above and pictures did not convey the setup of the panorama, here is a model the museum has on display to help.

There was also a copy of a painting made to show how Mehmed’s army actually moved there fleet over land, which must have amazed and surprised the citizens and rulers of Constantinople.

The museum also has a gift shop with very reasonably priced items. It was a fun experience and one that all history lovers should check out when in Istanbul. On top of that, some of the original city walls, the ones that were conquered, are just a short walk away from the museum. I had to go check them out after I left the museum, and took the opportunity to climb on them as well (it was a good thing I was by myself as Jesse would not have approved).

There are many more historical sites, museums, fortresses, palaces and other cultural places to visit in Istanbul I wanted to see, but they will have to wait for next time!

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

%d bloggers like this: