Heybeliada, Princes’ Islands, Istanbul

Heybeliada means saddlebag island due to its shape.

The Princes’ Islands, often known more simply as The Islands (adalar), are a group of 4 large and 5 tiny islands situated in the Sea of Marmara about an hour’s ferry ride from downtown Istanbul.

Map showing the location of Princes' Islands

My son and I caught the public ferry from Kabataş bound for Princes’ Islands and the fare was just a few Turkish Lira.

One of the many ferries criss-crossing Istanbuls' waterways.

The boat ride was great, like a poor man’s cruise, taking in fantastic views of the Bosphorus and Istanbul’s skyline while breathing in fresh ocean air, spoilt only by the occasional whiff of the ferry’s toxic diesel exhaust. At least nobody was allowed to smoke on the open upper deck which made a nice change in this tobacco-addicted city.

They came round with tea and those bagel-shaped Turkish breads which are covered in sesame seeds, just to keep us going during the 55 minute trip.

Monster cruise liner at Istanbul

We decided to get off at Heybeliada, the second largest of the Princes’ Islands, because it was the first stop and we only had half a day to spare.

The most notable thing about these islands is that they are traffic free. Motor vehicles are banned, except for fire engines and other service vehicles. The only methods of transport are horse drawn carriages, which operate as taxis, or bicycles.

Transport on Heybeli Island

To be honest we did not find a huge amount to do on Heybeliada. There is a strip of restaurants and cafés lining the waterfront and, parallel to that another street with some shops and then the residential area begins. After a pleasant seafood lunch, we strolled through the back lanes, lined with wooden houses, and made our way up to the top of the nearest hill which was covered in pine trees.

Heybeliada has many 19th century wooden houses, some in better condition than others.

From the top of the hill there are good views across to the Kadiköy district of Istanbul over on the mainland.

View towards Kadikoy from Heybeliada.

Heybeliada has a very peaceful feel to it and it is easy to imagine how, for Istanbulites, the island would make a welcome weekend getaway and escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. The island only has a few thousand year-round residents but during the summer, and especially at weekends, the population swells to over 10,000.

For foreign tourists though, with limited time and so many amazing things to see in Turkey, it is not surprising that the Princes’ Islands are not high on the list of must-see attractions.

On the way back to Kabataş, the ferry passed close to Maiden’s Tower, enabling me to take this pic. It was a nice day out and sitting on the ferry gave my son a break from my relentless walking tours around Istanbul (but he still had to climb a hill!).

Maiden's Tower

Life Inside the Harem at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Entrance to the harem is through the arched door on the left.

The Topkapi Palace Museum Harem Apartments are among the top tourist attractions at Topkapi Palace.

For almost 400 years (1465-1856), Topkapi was used as the primary residence for the Ottoman Sultans and the harem was where the Sultan and his family lived and had their private apartments.

No entry to the unemasculated

Entry beyond the gate to the harem was prohibited except to the Sultan, the queen mother, the Sultan’s consorts,concubines and favourites, the princes and the eunuchs guarding the harem.

Eunuch's quarters

Now, for 15 Turkish Lira, tourists can take a peek inside. It is a labyrinth of passageways, courtyards, ornate rooms, canopied seating areas, finely decorated tiles, exquisite calligraphy and exotic lattice screens from behind which women could see what was going on unobserved.

Sunny courtyard in the harem.

The Privy Chamber of Sultan Murad III, built in 1578, is particularly sumptuous with its gilded canopy and walls lined with the finest Ottoman tile art.

Privy Chamber of Sultan Murad III

While the architecture is lovely, I feel it would have been nice for the museum to provide a little more information about what life was like in the harem and display paintings and photos of some of the people who lived there. Or maybe even employ a few actors and actresses to lounge around on their ottomans (excuse the pun), idly fanning themselves with peacock feather while their bodyguards look on. But I suppose you just can’t find the eunuchs these days!

In the absence of this information I have had to conduct a little of my own research:

Orientalist Artists’ Images of Harems

Topkapi Palace Harem

Most people’s impressions of an Ottoman harem would have been influenced by Hollywood or by fanciful paintings by Orientalist artists like John Frederick Lewis or Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Nouy, who probably never stepped foot in a harem, or certainly never when semi-clad women were present.

Birds in the harem

The reality may have been somewhat different. In Philip Mansel’s fascinating book, Sultans in Splendour, he explains that in the Ottoman harem, women were divided into kadines (consorts), iqbals (favourites) and guezdes (those ‘noticed’ for a moment).

Lady of the Harem 1867

It is not known which category this lady of the harem fell into. (Perhaps she was employed by the Sultan’s mother for her skills as a backgammon opponent).

When this photo was taken in 1867, the Sultan had already relocated from Topkapi to the sprawling European style Dolmabahçe Palace.

By the year 1900 it was estimated there were still some 400-500 female slaves in the royal courts at Dolmabahçe, Yildiz and other residences.


Circassian Women

Circassian BeautyCircassian Beauty by Léon-François Comerre (French artist, 1850-1916)Circassian Woman

The majority of the female inmates in the harem were from Circassia, an area whose women were prized by the Ottoman Sultans for their beauty, elegance and spirit.

Where is, or was, Circassia? As this historical map shows, it was in the troubled north Caucasus region neighbouring Russian republics like Abkhazia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ossetia which are often in the news for the wrong reasons.

Circassia (part of which is now renamed Krasnodar Krai) will certainly be in the news next year as its major city, Sochi, is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

North Caucasus 1767-1783


In 1903 there were 194 serving or retired eunuchs at the Ottoman Court.

Eunuchs at the Harem by Lecomte du Nouy

Typically they were seized in Sudan and castrated before sale. They were often sent to the Sultan as gifts by provincial governors in the Ottoman empire such as the Sherif of Mecca.

The Chief Eunuch managed the administration of the harem and as such was a powerful official.

Valide Sultan

The Manicure

The mother of the reigning Sultan (often a Circassian herself) was known as the Valide Sultan and was the most important woman in the empire. It was she who got to chose which harem girls to present to the Sultan thus giving her plenty of power.

Sultan Mehmed V

Having a couple of hundred concubines to call upon might sound like a dream come true for most men but for the Sultan, it must have been somewhat spoilt by having his Mum in charge.

There is a three-tiered fountain in the Sultan’s privy chambers which may have been installed so that the sound of running water would prevent his mother from eavesdropping from behind lattice screens as he whispered sweet nothings into the ear of his iqbal.

Being a Sultan was not all it was cracked up to be!

Still, if he tired of his concubines, he could always turn to his dwarves for entertainment. They were retained at the Ottoman court to crack jokes and serve at table right up until the fall of the empire.

The Sultan's Dwarf.

Sirkeci Railway Station, Istanbul

Istanbul’s historic Sirkeci railway station (also known as Istanbul Gar) was officially opened on 3 November 1890.

sirkeci railway station concourseThe main entrance to Sirkeci Station, currently undergoing restoration.

Suburban trains at Sirkeci stationOrient Express Restaurant at Sirkeci station

The station was designed by a German architect August Jachmund who incorporated oriental elements into his blueprint.

Old postcard of Sirkeci Station

The station is located in the Sirkeci district in the heart of the old part of the city on the European side of the Bosphorus. In order for the railway line to reach Sirkeci, the railway line runs along the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara and the Sultan allowed a stretch of track to be built through the gardens skirting his Topkapi Palace. There used to be a large beer garden and outdoor restaurants in front of the station on terraces leading down to the sea but now a petrol station and a busy highway block direct access to the waterfront.

The terminal connects Turkey to the rest of the European rail network as well as being the terminus for various suburban and local routes. However, if you want the train to Ankara or all points east you need to cross to the Asian shore of the Bosphorus and catch a train from Haydarpaşa, Istanbul’s other main station.

Sirkeci is a fairly quiet station these days but still has a popular restaurant, the Orient Express. During the 1950’s and 60’s the restaurant was the favourite haunt for journalists, writers and intellectuals but nowadays is more likely to be filled with tourists trying to imagine how this place must have been during the golden age of rail travel.

Orient Express

Orient Express PosterVintage Orient Express Poster

Talking of the Orient Express, Sirkeci was, and still is occasionally, the terminus for the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express.

The first Orient Express left Paris on 4 October 1883 bound for Istanbul (the old Sirkeci station) via Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Ulm, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Rousse and Varna. The journey covered 3094km and took 80 hours. This service stopped running in 1977.

Confusingly, there is another luxury train service with a similar name, the Venice Simplon Orient Express which runs mainly between Calais and Venice but does do periodic side trips to Istanbul by a more southerly route than the original.

This route map might help to clarify (or perhaps not!).

Orient Express route map

This train of course was the setting for one of Agatha Christie’s most famous Poirot novels, Murder on the Orient Express.

Screen shot from a Murder on the Orient Express game

In the book, Poirot was staying at the Tokatlian Hotel in Constantinople before catching the Orient Express back to London. That hotel burnt down in 1954.

While writing  Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie stayed at another nearby hotel, the Pera Palace.


Hotel TokatlianPera Palace Hotel in 2013

The Pera Palace’s Orient Bar is said to have been a popular hangout for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway (is there any famous bar in the world where Hemingway did not drink?). My parents and sister stayed at the Pera Palace back in the early 1970’s while they were driving back to England from Pakistan. I considered staying there on my recent trip to Istanbul but following the hotel’s multi-million dollar refit and acquisition by Dubai’s upmarket Jumeirah Group, it is sadly beyond the Thrifty Traveller’s usual budget.

Railway Museum

Steam Train Picture at Railway Museum, Sirkeci

Next to the waiting room at Sirkeci station is a small railway museum which is open from Tuesday to Saturday and is free admission.

Its exhibits include crockery and cutlery used on the Orient Express, the driver’s cab of an electric train, a rather modest Hornby model train layout, the station master’s desk and chair, an Austrian tile stove dating from 1890 used for heating the waiting room, signage and other ‘railwayana’.

Model train at Sirkeci Railway Museum8027 electric multiple unit train driver's cab at Sirkeci Railway Museum

Model railway, numberplates and signs at Sirkeci Railway MuseumStation master's chair and desk at Sirkeci Railway Museum

International Train Travel from Turkey

Sirkeci station has a ticket counter for international trains. It is still possible to retrace the route of the Orient Express on regular trains. The first leg of the journey might be Istanbul – Bucharest. Ticket prices range from €38.30 for 2nd class to €112.10 for 1st Class including a sleeping car supplement. If you wanted to go all the way to Paris it would probably be cheaper to purchase an Interail Global Pass Card.

For the more adventurous traveller, how about travelling from Istanbul (Haydarpaşa station) to Teheran by train? The 58 hour journey costs just €33 1st class.

For more details on fares and timetables you can refer to the official Turkish State Railways website.

Tile Stove at Sirkeci Railway Museum

1890 Tile Stove at Sirkeci Railway Museum

Ottoman Bank Museum, Istanbul

Vintage Postcard of Constantinople Bazaars

Istanbul has some great museums such as Topkapi Palace Museum, Hagia Sophia Museum, Basilica Cistern and Kariye Museum.

One of the lesser known museums is the Ottoman Bank Museum, where my son and I were almost the only visitors. This museum may not have broad appeal but I found it fascinating.

Ottoman Bank

It is located on Bankalar Caddesi (Bank Street) in the Karakoy district of the city, in a grand building constructed in 1890 which served as the head office of Ottoman Bank until 1999.

SALT Galata

The building is now the home of SALT, an independent not-for-profit cultural institution founded by Garanti Bank, which took over the remaining operations of Ottoman Bank in 2001.

The Ottoman Bank Museum is in the basement of this fine building, in and around the bank’s former vaults and strong rooms.

Entrance to the museum is free of charge.


Brief History of Ottoman Bank

The Crimean War (in which the Ottoman Empire fought on the side of the British and French against the Russians) helped persuade the Ottomans of the military and economic importance of railways. Construction of a railway network became a priority but required finance from abroad. British capitalists, who were keen to be involved in the railway construction projects, found it difficult to cooperate with the government in the absence of a state bank and an effective monetary system in the Ottoman Empire.

To address this issue, Sultan Abdulmecid issued a Reform Edict in 1856 stating that:

Institutions such as banks will be established in order to correct the coinage system of My Sublime State and to give credit to its financial affairs.

Two British entrepreneurs, Stephen Sleigh and Peter Pasquali, had been planning to establish a British Bank of the Levant but they turned their attention instead to Turkey. They were instrumental in getting the Ottoman Bank off the ground.  After obtaining a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria, Ottoman Bank opened for business on 13 June 1856 with capital of £500,000.

Ottoman Bank was a private British commercial bank with modest resources and had to content itself with a handful of branches initially rather than fulfil the role of state bank which is what the Ottomans really wanted.

The Ottoman Empire saw the importance of establishing a state bank for its financial stability. A number of foreign and local groups were vying for such a concession but all were rejected in favour of the Ottoman Bank. However the Ottoman government was unwilling to hand over all the powers of a state (central) bank to an institution which was wholly in British hands and they insisted that its capital base be opened up to French investors.

On 4 February 1863, the bank, with its expanded capital provided by British and French shareholders, was elevated to the status of state bank and renamed Imperial Ottoman Bank (or more frequently Banque Impériale Ottomane since French was the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean at that time and the language used in the bank’s internal operations).

With its new status, the bank took on more merchant banking activities such as financing railways and public works, including Beirut Port and the Beirut-Damascus railway line.

Imperial Ottoman Bank share certificate

The bank moved its head office to this building in 1892. The illustration below shows how the bank’s gold reserves, amounting to 1 1/2 million liras and weighing 13 tons, were transported.

Moving Ottoman Bank's gold reserves

In 1896 the building was attacked by a group of armed Armenians who threatened to blow up the bank. The then governor, Sir Edgar Vincent, escaped through a skylight and alerted the authorities. The attackers eventually gave up their weapons in return for safe passage to France on Sir Edgar’s private yacht.

When the Ottomans entered WWI on the side of the Germans, the Imperial Ottoman Bank was seen as being on the enemy’s side. Its British and French management were forced to leave and the bank’s operations were crippled for the duration of the war. Even after the allied victory, things were never really the same again although the bank was allowed to continue acting as state bank until 1931 when the Central Bank was established.

The name changed back to Ottoman Bank in 1924 and from 1933 onwards it reverted to being purely a commercial bank. The bank sold most of its overseas operations in 1969 to National & Grindlays Bank. In 1996 Ottoman Bank was sold to Dogus Group and it is now part of Garanti Bank.

The Museum

After reading about the history of the bank, visitors to the museum get to go inside some of the strong rooms which still have their original vault doors, safe cabinets and old ledger books. The safes were made by Chatwood’s of London, Manchester, Leeds and Bolton according to the inscription on the lock mechanism.

One of Ottoman Bank's record rooms 

One safe contains a considerable number of rather soiled-looking banknotes which are folded into quarters. Ottoman Bank was a banknote issuer.

Cash in Treasury

In another strong room some old staff records have been put on display including full length photographs and some ‘feuilles de personnel’.

Mrs. Hanss Anna, Ottoman Bank employee

This employee’s name was Mrs. Anna Hanss, working at the Smyrne (Izmir) branch.

She was born on 26 July 1871.

She was a widow.

She was Catholic.

Her nationality was stated as ‘Serbo Yougo Slave’.

Staff record, Ottoman Bank

A breakdown of employees by nationality and religion/ethnicity as at 1906 demonstrates the cosmopolitan nature of the Ottoman Empire which was spread over a wide area of south-east Europe and the Middle East. The bank’s recruitment policy appears to have been skewed against Muslims who made up a disproportionately small number of employees and were engaged mainly in lowly paid non-clerical jobs.

Headcount breakdowns Ottoman Bank 1906

Also on display are a few examples of correspondence with customers such as this beautifully handwritten letter in copperplate style, a skill which appears to be as dead as the Ottoman Empire. (The writing may be beautiful but is not easy to read for the modern eye.) And what a nice telegraphic address that customer had – ‘Victor-Constantinople’!

Correspondence at Ottoman Bank Museum

Overall, a very interesting museum for an ex-banker like me though I’m not sure my son was that impressed.

Banknote carpet at Ottoman Bank Museum

Istanbul’s Domes and Minarets

Rustem Pasha Mosque (foreground) with Suleymaniye Mosque behind.

Istanbul is well known for its magnificent mosques. Their domes and minarets dominate the skyline of the old parts of the city and quite a few of them allow non-Muslim visitors to take a look inside and admire their intricately decorated walls and ceilings.

Here are four of the most popular ones:

Blue Mosque (built 1609 –1616)

The Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque is probably the most famous landmark in Istanbul.

Blue Mosque at 7am

Here is the exquisite interior.

Main dome of the Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

This building is much older having started out life as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in 537. It served as a mosque from 1453 until 1931, since when it has been a museum. It is a very popular tourist destination and queues can extend right round the block at peak times. Rather than queuing, pop down a side entrance to the garden of the Hagia Sophia where the tombs of former Ottoman rulers and their close relatives are located. There are three large mausoleums and one small mausoleum with elaborately decorated interiors. There are no crowds here and entrance is free unlike the main museum.

Sultan Selim II mausoleumOttoman tombs

Dome at the royal mausoleumsDome at the Royal Mausoleum

Rustem Paşa Mosque (built 1561-1563)

Rustem Pasha Mosque

This small mosque is built above the vaulted shops of the Straw Weavers’ Market, not far from the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar.

Dome interior at Rustem Pasha

The mosque is named after the Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha who was son-in-law to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (Grand Vizier has to be my favourite job title!) The mosque is famous for its blue iznik decorative tiles.

Iznik Tiles at Rustem Pasha Mosque

Suleymaniye Mosque (built 1550-1557)

Main Entrance to Suleymaniye Mosque

This mosque, named after Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, is considered by many to be the greatest mosque in Istanbul and its hilltop position ensures that it is visible from all parts of the city. It was extensively refurbished in 1956.

Inner Courtyard at Suleymaniye Mosque

Main dome interior of Suleymaniye Mosque

Stained glass windows at Suleymaniye Mosque

Istanbul – The Assassin’s Creed Trail

Scene from Assassin's Creed Revelations

When I asked my son if he would like to stop over in Istanbul for a few days on our way back to Malaysia from England, he was very enthusiastic about the idea.

It turns out that Istanbul (or rather, Constantinople, as it was then) is the setting for one of his favourite Play Station games, Assassin’s Creed Revelations. He thought it would be fun to visit some of the actual locations where the game’s action is supposed to take place.

I have watched him play Assassin’s Creed. I can’t pretend to understand what it is all about. It seems to involve a lot of aimless walking and running, scaling impossibly sheer walls, perching on lofty eyries and jumping from enormous heights to land safely in conveniently placed carts of straw. Oh, and quite a few acts of random murder!

While I am not qualified to comment on the game play, I am impressed with the artwork and the game’s designers have done a fantastic job at meticulously recreating the streetscapes of Renaissance era Constantinople, from which period many of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks still survive.

We managed to find many of the locations portrayed in the game (compare the Assassin’s screenshots on the left with our photos on the right) :

Little Hagia Sophia MosqueLittle Hagia Sophia Mosque

Kucuk Ayasofya Mosque (or Little Hagia Sophia Mosque) was built in 527 as a church, the Church of Sergius and Bacchus, for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was converted into a mosque in 1505, just 6 years before Assassin’s Creed Revelations is supposed to be set.


There are two obelisks in what used to be the hippodrome, built during Roman times for chariot racing.

Topkapi PalaceTopkapi Palace

This looks like Disneyland but is actually the entrance to Topkapi Palace which was home to the Ottoman Sultans for 380 years. In the game, Master Assassin Ezio has to sneak in here without being noticed by the guards. I was tempted to do the same to avoid the exorbitant TL40 entrance fee!

Entrance to the harem.P5270404

The tower is built above the entrance to the harem section of Topkapi Palace. Although Assassin’s Creed is an 18+ game,  Ezio has no access to the harem. Modern day tourists however can get in for an additional 15 Turkish Lira.

Fountain at Topkapi PalaceFountain at Topkapi Palace

Could this be the same fountain?

Fountain of Sultan Ahmed IIIFountain of Sultan Ahmed III

Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III.

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya, 360-532)Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya, 360-532)

The Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. This mosque, like its little sister, began life as a church. Its minarets, mihrab and madrasah were added by Mehmet II The Conqueror. The building has served as a museum since 1935.

Grand BazaarGrand Bazaar

The Master Assassin goes to the Grand Bazaar to meet with Piri Reis, a famous cartographer, and collect bombs from him. Nowadays there is a Piri Reis shop at Ataturk Airport. There are no assassins in the Grand Bazaar these days but only the strongest willed of tourists can pass through its 18 gates, 65 streets, 21 caravanserais and 4000 shops with their wallets intact.

Galata TowerGalata Tower

Ezio likes to climb the outside of Galata Tower and perch on top of the spire for a bird’s eye view of the city. Modern tourists have to go up by lift and pass through a night club/restaurant before reaching the panoramic viewing deck.

Assassin's eye view from Galata Tower.

This is a modern day Assassin’s eye view over the Golden Horn taken from the top of Galata Tower.

Constantinople CityscapeIstanbul Cityscape

More views of Galata Tower.

Maiden's TowerMaiden's Tower

The Maiden’s Tower is situated on a small island on the Bosphorus, guarding the approaches to the city. As long ago as 410BC, iron chains were stretched between the island and Sarayburnu to prevent vessels from passing without permission. Today the tower is used as a restaurant.

I think my son enjoyed his Assassin’s Creed tour of Istanbul. Next destination Boston, USA for Assassin’s Creed III.