“The crossroads of the world. Many generations of men have ruled this city, but they have never subdued her. She always bounces back.” Yusuf Tazim, Assassin’s Creed.
Origin & Name
About as iconic as a city could wish to be, this city has had its name changed three times by three different civilisations. Its story started out as Byzantium, a Greek colony in 657 BC – named after the mythological figure of King Byzas. Eventually it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople in honour of its patron Emperor Constantine in 330 AD. The Ottomans did not officially change its name but over time its Muslims citizens referred to it by another name – which came about as a development from the Greek phrase ‘es tein polin’ (‘in the city’). In fact, it was only officially renamed Istanbul in 1930.
Istanbul has had two significant chapters in its history; respectively serving as the capital of the Eastern Roman (later known as Byzantine) Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
Byzantine Empire (395-1453)
Since Antiquity, the city has benefited from its strategic location straddling Asia and Europe but did not really achieve any real kind of splendor until the Roman Emperor Constantine made it his capital in 330 AD. After the final partition of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire which became known as the Byzantine Empire developed a distinctly Greek identity as opposed to its Roman roots.
A significant event in this period was Emperor Justinian’s rule (527-565 AD). During his reign, the Nika Riot occurred (532 AD) and tore the city up – after which Justinian was able to rebuild the city with many splendid monuments such as the Hagia Sophia.
Constantinople remained a key cosmopolitan city until the Medieval period but was handicapped by warfare and conflict, much of it coming from Islamic powers. Some conflicts came in the shape of sieges (e.g. 674 AD; 860 AD) which had to be fended off. These were defended due to Constantinople’s impressive fortifications as well as technological developments such as “Greek Fire”.
The city was eventually conquered by an unlikely source: members of the Fourth Crusade from Europe. It was a short-lived foray, 1204-1261, but it did retard the progress of the city as loot was rampant. When the Byzantines recaptured it in 1261, they found a city which had gone financially bankrupt with a decreasing population. One of its most visible monuments today, the Galata Tower, was built in 1348 by the Genoese contingent in the city.
Ottoman Empire (1453-1922)
The Byzantines would hold on to the city for almost 200 more years before the surging Ottomans, who had throughout this time been taking over territory on both the Asian and European side of Constantinople, conquered the city in 1453. Mehmet I succeeded where others had failed by dragging his ships inland across the Golden Horn*. He allowed his troops three days of looting, after which he spent the remainder of his reign (1451-1481) rebuilding the lost grandeur of the new Ottoman capital. Sultan Mehmet commissioned the construction of the Grand Bazaar (one of the largest markets in the world), Topkapi Palace and the Fatih mosque.
In 1509 a catastrophe known as the “Lesser Judgement Day” devastated the city – an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed 10,000 people and destroyed more than 1000 houses. But to highlight the peaks and valleys of this city’s history, this dark day was followed by generations of Ottoman Sultans who contributed to Constantinople’s glory by building magnificent mosque’s and monuments. These are scattered throughout the city but are most conspicuous in the Fateh District. The architect Mimar Sinan (1489-1588) was responsible for many of these sites.
Constantinople continued to be a major world city even as the Ottoman Empire’s power began dwindling from the 18th century onward. It eventually became romanticised in the ‘Orientalist‘* imagination of many Western Europeans.
Republic of Turkey (1923 – Present)
Istanbul was briefly occupied by the Allies after World War One when the Ottoman Empire emerged on the losing side. In the aftermath of the Nationalist victory during the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa ‘Ataturk’ Kemal moved the capital of the new-born state to Ankara and thus the newly-named Istanbul suffered. But from the 1940’s onward, Istanbul reclaimed some of its former glory when it gained incentive from immigration and increased commercial activity. Some of this would be at the expense of certain historical sites which were sacrificed as the price for propelling the city’s economic growth.
The city is a product of all the glorious cultures and civilisations that have come in contact with each, whether through trade, conflict or dialogue. This is most evident in its architecture; the Hagia Sophia was a church which was transformed into a mosque. The fact that almost every layer of its history has been allowed to flourish; pagan, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, speaks volume of Istanbul’s confidence as a city to feel pride in every aspects of its heritage. This is refreshing to see in a region of the world which is so rich in history but is struggling to come to terms with it.
* Golden Horn – The channel of water separating Istanbul.
* Orientalist – The European tendency to view Islamic cultures as exotic and uncivilised during the 19th and 20th century.
Did you know?
The old city stands on a peninsula, meaning it is surrounded by water! It has seven hills – the majority of the historical landmarks are situated within this small area.
Check out our YouTube video on Istanbul!
A massive thank you to everyone who sent us photographs of Istanbul! An even bigger thank you to the generosity and skill of the photographers featured in this article:
Aytek Ogreten – Instagram @aytekogreten
Salik Photography – Instagram @salik_photography