“Istanbul is not Constantinople…” sang a few colleagues when they heard that I was going to Istanbul.
Originally written in 1953 by the Swing group – The Four Lads, and refer simply to the renaming of Constantinople into Istanbul in the 1930s.
I’ve always known it to be Istanbul, and that the name was Constantinople during the Roman and Byzantine era, so you can imagine my surprise when I found out that the city’s name was changed so relatively recently.
1930s does not sound recent, until you consider that this city was first inhabited in the 21st century BCE on the Anatolia (Asian side) and that the forms of a modern city began in 660 BCE, going so far as to become the capital of the Roman Empire, and the capital of the eastern Roman Empire. This historic area is therefore one of the most important historic areas of the Occidental world.
Istanbul is one of the only cities in the world that straddles two continents and melds the culture of two continents. And it is a bridge for most of the world, straddling as it does Europe with Asia, being the gateway to Eurasia and opening up into Africa.
Originally known as Byzantium, the city proper was founded by Greek colonisers in 660 BCE, derived from the King of the settlers -Byzas, and was built around an Acropolis on top of what used to be the site of a Thracian settlement. It was when the Romans took over the Mediterranean with their Empire under Emperor Constantine that Byzantium underwent a rebuild and a name change. By the time Constantine had taken over, Byzantium with its strategic geographical location became the site of a big city.
Constantine had taken over as Emperor after a deadly war with his co-King at Milvian Bridge, where he claimed to have seen the sign of Jesus (the Chi-Rho) that helped him win the war.
He had become a Christian and made the religion the official religion of the Roman Empire under him. Rome as a location was not central enough for the new empire and a new location east was required. As a new emperor, he wanted a new Christian city, and he decided to rebuild Byzantium into a Christian image. He named it New Rome, Nova Roma. The city was constructed over 6 years and in 330 AD, the city of Nova Roma was proclaimed as the new capital of the Empire.
Most people however referred to the city by its nickname, Constantinople – Constantine’s City.
Constantinople grew and grew, and becaming a melting pot for Greek, Roman and Christian culture. Great churches such as the Hagia Irene (532 AD)
Hagia Sophia (537 AD),
entertainment hubs such as the Hippodrome were expanded,
The former Hippodrome, now Sultan Ahmad Square
it was easily one of the richest and most opulent cities in the world. Riches inadvertently tends to lead to softness and overtime Constantinople declined. Its decline paralleled that of the whole Roman Empire. The Roman Empire disintegrated into a much smaller Byzantium Empire and many other smaller Kingdoms in the west, Christianity split between the Latin and the Orthodox Church.
And from a distance, jealous greedy eyes began to lust after its wealth.
The greatest destruction occurred during the Fourth Crusade. A religious holy war was corrupted (as all holy wars are) since the crusaders, instead of liberating Jerusalem from Islam (as was their stated aim), ended up liberated Constantinople from its riches. The churches and structures, everything that expressed richness was pillaged and stolen.
The Christians decimated the city and left after sucking off its wealth, before a short-lived attempt restored the city to Orthodox Christian rule under a vastly weakened Byzantine Empire.
Then came the Ottomans from the south. Beginning from the Selcuk region of Anatolia (near Ephesus), the Ottomans engaged in a strategy of progressively taking over small cities and cutting off Constantinople’s supply lines, eventually marching into the city on 29 May 1453. This was to mark a new period of greatness for Constantinople. Taking over this historical city, was a powerful game-changer for the Ottomans and announced the arrival of this great empire on the world stage.
It began with the construction of an amazing new palace, in the Asian style, the Topkapi Palace (1465 AD).
And a Grand Bazaar (1455 AD).
But beyond architecture, Constantinople became once again the centre of religious tolerance and acceptance. Sultan Mehmed went round encouraging Christians, Jews and Muslims to return to live in the city. Prisoners of War, refugees and deported Greeks were sent to the city to repopulate it.
Constantinople also took on a new image, the Hagia Sophia became a mosque as did many of the churches. New mosques such as the Sultan Ahmad Mosque/Blue Mosque (1609 AD) eventually arose.
As befits a city in a strategic location, Constantinople transformed from a Christian bastion into a hub of Islam, competing at some level with Mecca and Medina for influence in the Muslim world.
The Ottoman Empire grew and grew going as far as Budapest and Vienna. bringing under its control the whole of the Balkans, and an Empire perhaps more diverse in religion and ethnicity than anything Europe and West Asia had seen in recent times.
All things must however come to an end, and the Ottoman Empire declined, its death knell sounding during world war I, when it came out on the side of the Central Powers and lost the war. The Ottoman Sultans’ downfall was not over however, for the loss of the war led to a new war – the Turkish War of Independence.
The Turkish National Movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forced the Ottomans out of Anatolia, and the Allies out of their lands leading to the establishment of the Turkish Republic.
Rather than build on the Ottoman history, Ataturk and his team decided to declare nearby Ankara as the capital of the country instead, to announce a break from the Muslim Ottoman history and declare a secular state. It was during this time as the new republic was established, that the name Constantinople was changed to Istanbul.
Istanbul is today a city of 15 million people, bigger than the size of whole countries (Sweden, Singapore, Denmark, Norway, Finland for example), it is a phenomenal city steeped in history, culture, cuisine, and a complete eye opener.
It’s location at the crossroads of the world was ready made for it to be the capital of the world. Indeed, if all the world was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.
I did not expect such a modern, progressive and dynamic city, my breath was taken away.
Come with me as we spend the next few months uncovering this amazing city.
Cover Image Source