A Brief History of Istanbul
The city we know now as Istanbul in Turkey has been known by many names – Byzantium, Constantinople, Istinpolin, New Rome, Queen of Cities, Islamboul, Stamboul, Kostantiniyye, Rum, among others throughout history. Generations of residents of the city have called it by numerous names such as the Abode of Happiness (or Der-i Saadet) and the Pure City (or Belde-i Tayyibe).
The capital of both the Ottoman Empire and before it, the Byzantine Empire (also the Eastern Roman Empire), Istanbul was a ‘The City of the World’s Desire’. The name is based on the non-fiction volume by Philip Mansel and declared as such supposedly by a Byzantine. The city endured countless rulers, wars and conflicts and eventually went to the Ottomans in 1453 under Mehmed the Conqueror. A city truly desired by many throughout its tumultuous history.
Byzantium and Constantinople
Due to its strategic location with the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Strait, the place held importance for ancient Greeks and Romans. It was conquered by the Persians, the Athenians and the Macedonians under Alexander the Great. It eventually passed to the Roman Empire again which ruled Byzantium, as the city as known then, for more than a thousand years as the Eastern Roman Empire.
Eventually, the city was consecrated under Constantine I. He rebuilt the Hagia Sophia and it became the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. He named the city as the ‘New Rome’ and upon his death, it was renamed Constantinople.
Subsequent rulers such as Theodosius and Justinian further strengthened and expanded the empire. New ways of governing were introduced including building protective walls to fortify the city.
Unfortunately, the city got sacked by the Christians who were on their way to the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and lost its former glory. It was occupied by the Latins for more than 50 years after that and even after the Byzantines got it back, the empire’s territories eventually dwindled. The loss of power ultimately led Constantinople to fall against Ottoman Sultan Fatih Mehmed’s ambitions and cannons. For the next 600 years, the city was under Ottoman rule.
After its conquest, Mehmed considered it a continuation of the Roman Empire. He even declared himself the next Caeser (or Kayser-i Rum). Mehmed the Conqueror immediately tried to revive it by expanding the Grand Bazaar and to repopulate the city.
The symbol of the city’s complex history of being ruled by two great empires is the famous Hagia Sophia. Destroyed countless times alongside the destruction of the city itself, the Hagia Sophia today showcases Byzantine architecture, art and mosaics. Its Islamic features were added to the structure when used when it was a mosque. Its cultural culmination represents the city itself, with its minarets outside and mosaics inside; a testament to the mixing of people and cultures, the reign of different sultans and emperors.
Having been a seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia was also used as a Catholic Church. With the Ottomans in power, it was converted to a Mosque. With its massive Byzantine-era dome that was strengthened by Ottoman architecture Sinan, a pulpit and a mihrab by also added.
Together with its huge Ottoman chandeliers and its unique Byzantine mosaics from the era before, it is truly a unique shrine. For almost 90+ years it is operating as a museum. It remains Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction today.
Countless other relics in the form of walls, cisterns, columns and aqueducts from the time of the Romans still survive today. Most famous and the least visible today is probably the Hippodrome of Constantinople, a huge chariot racing and gladiator Roman arena. Only a few columns survive today.
There are a few others: the Basilica Cistern, the Column of Constantine, the Theodosius Cistern and the Valens Aqueducts. The Byzantine-era Maiden’s Tower is another legendary place located on a small islet in the Bosphorus Strait.
The Genoese and the Venetians also left a lasting impression on the city with its Galata Tower. A Genoese colony established for centuries opposite Constantinople even had a fortified citadel. The walls of which are visible today but being eroded with the expansion of the city.
A now decrepit castle, Yoros Castle on the Asian side served as a defensive lookout point for centuries. This is where the Bosphorus mingles with the Black Sea to the north.
For 600 years, the Ottomans ruled from Constantinople. Under their rule, the city and the empire expanded further. At the height of the empire’s power, it didn’t just include Anatolia and Constantinople. It included parts of Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East.
Throughout its history, large palace and mosque complexes, waterfront mansions were constructed by each of the sultans and the nobility. Summer residences by nobility and foreign emissaries were constructed in the city and around the Bosphorus. Numerous mosque complexes were built and are still in operations, such as the world-famous Blue Mosque.
For curious travellers, these architectural, religious and historical sites provide a glimpse into Ottoman-era life. Numerous fortresses on the Bosphorus remain as testaments to history. For example, the Rumeli Fortress in Sarıyer as well the Anadolu Fortress on the opposite side.
Topkapı Palace‘s huge complex is a reminder of the history and culture of the Empire and the impact it had. Under Suleyman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning sultan of the empire, the city thrived. He was also known as the Lawgiver (Kanuni) due to his efforts to formally codify legislation laying out the duties and rights of his subjects. This code was then used for almost 300 years after.
Furthermore, he was a patron of the arts, literature and architecture. The first-ever illustrated history of the Ottoman empire was produced during his time, exalting his reign and bestowing divine legitimacy. Moreover, public works ensured the construction of aqueducts and mosques in the capital. One of which is the grand Suleymaniye Mosque complex built by the Ottoman architect, Sinan.
Later palaces such as Dolmabahçe and Yıldız Palace were built by subsequent sultans on the European side across the Old City. Sultan Abdulmecit moved the entire palace to Dolmabahçe Palace, leaving behind the old palace complex and its traditional architecture and interiors.
A mix of European and traditional Ottoman architecture and styles provide some context for the changing nature of the empire. It’s involvement and subsequent defeat in WWI eventually affected the course of history and still affects the Middle East today.
Ottoman Decline and WWI
The aftermath of WWI saw the capital of the empire occupied for 5 years. The Bosphorus Strait was full of American, English and French battleships and even submarines. The war had ended for other countries in 1919, but it did not for Turkey and Istanbul.
In 1920, Istanbul boasted a population of about 1 million people – a mix of Muslims, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Levantines and foreigners. The city’s districts were divided among ethnic lines, with Pera (now Beyoğlu) serving as the financial hub of the city. Very little survives today due to the war, fires and earthquakes that the city has experienced. The Galata area especially was home to a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic population during this time.
During this time, residents of Istanbul faced immense hardship under the Armistice with rent increases and a huge influx of refugees. Many well-to-do families had to sell their belongings to survive.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was being carved out in the Middle East. Closer still, Turkish revolutionaries were building up political and military resistance. The Allies drew up plans to divide the empire.
After spending six months in Istanbul, an army officer, Mustafa Kemal, left Istanbul for Samsun in May of 1919 to become the face of the Turkish War of Independence. After 3 years of war on all its fronts, the empire disintegrated.
The Turkish War of Independence ensued and ended successfully for the Turkish revolutionaries. After countless lives lost on many sides and on many fronts, the Republic of Turkey was declared. The Allies left Istanbul in 1923.
Ankara, not Istanbul
Ankara became the new capital of a new secular, democratic country led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Istanbul was still called Constantinople even after that.
But in 1930, after the Turkish Postal Service seized services to the city named ‘Constantinople’, Istanbul became official. Soon after, Istanbul was left to rest as the capital of Ankara got most of the attention in early Republican Turkey.
The history of the decline of a 600-year old empire is complex and unfortunate. Given the occupation of the city, the civil war, famine, religious strife and massacre the empire’s inhabitants suffered, it’s not an easy subject for many. It is still debated vehemently today and a long list of scholarly books, even entire careers are dedicated to unearthing it and understanding it. Detailed scholarly works on the Ottoman Empire, the tumultuous years of decline, periods during and after WWI shed light on the city’s various transformations.
Despite its complex history, Istanbul still thrives with its energy. Its the only city situated on two continents, its place in history cannot be diminished. It remains one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world.
For enthusiastic history buffs, Istanbul’s old-world charm is easy to explore in the mix of architecture, cultural and religious sites. Its historic old city is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and the city was declared a ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2010.
The legacy of the mix of cultures and people have produced one of the most amazing cuisines in the world. Mouth-watering desserts, popular street food and the attractiveness of a Turkish-style breakfast keep visitors coming back for more. It is also home to modern universities, art museums, galleries and some of the best restaurants in the world. World-famous Nusr-et aka Salt Bae’s burger and steak joints are popular and so are the football matches of the many sports clubs. The young energetic spirit of its inhabitants who protested the gentrification and urbanization of Taksim’s Gezi Park is another reminder of the city’s endurance.
Apart from academic works, books exploring the history of the area, of the Bosphorus and autobiographical works by Turkish authors provide more insight. Modern Turkish writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak have beautifully captured Istanbul and its inhabitants from past and present in their work.
The allure of the Bosphorus with its seaside promenades, fish restaurants and waterfront mansions dare you to feel the nostalgia of a by-gone era. The modern ferries offer panoramic views that are sure to take your breath away as they carry passengers across two continents in less than 30 minutes.
Tourism plays a huge role in the country’s economy and security and political concerns often affect the numbers. Not immune the many troubles, the country and the city saw a nosedive in tourism numbers from 2015 onwards. After a few years, tourism slowly bounced back in 2018. Despite all this, in the first half of 2019, it welcomed 5.42 million foreign visitors.
Additionally, many foreigners call Istanbul home and continue to settle there for the long-term. Ankara, the country’s capital is next on the list. Other cities with sizable foreign residents are Izmir, the Aegean port city and Antalya, the resort Mediterranean city in the south. Foreigners are either teachers, students or retirees from North America and Europe, for example. Moreover, world-class airports connect it easily to other parts of the world. Modern amenities such as a modern metro system, along with the falling Turkish Lira has made it quite attractive as a tourist and shopping destination.
The effects of the war in Turkey’s neighbouring country of Syria is felt in the city. Syrian refugees and migrants have opened up street food shops in Taksim, for instance. The city is fought over by political parties and its role in Turkish politics is immense, given the sizable population. It has recently changed hands from the ruling party to the opposition in the latest elections, with mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu winning Istanbul.
Today, Istanbul is the artistic, cultural and economic capital of the country and is the most visited cities in the world and deservedly so.