The city of Istanbul had three different names throughout history. In the past, it was known as Byzantium as a Greek colony. After the Roman emperors settled in the city, its name became Constantinople. Ottomans continued using “Konstantiniyye”, Turkish version for Constantinople, for years. The name Istanbul has become the official name of the city since very recently. In this article, you can find facts about the history of Istanbul.
Short History of Istanbul with Facts
Istanbul is one of the most important tourist destinations in the world today. Buildings such as the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Galata Tower are the most popular tourist attractions in the city. However, each of these structures was built in a different period of the city.
Since there are many different layers in the history of Istanbul, it can be difficult to distinguish the cultural background of the buildings. For example, the Hippodrome was built in the Roman period, the Hagia Sophia in the Byzantine period, and the Topkapi Palace in the Ottoman period.
However, the Greek, Roman and Turkish cultures that are at the heart of Istanbul are not independent from each other. It is a fact that the buildings in the city are affected by each other’s architectural features. Now, I would like to explain the facts about the history of Istanbul in its simplest form, so that these things make a better sense.
The history of Istanbul started as an Ancient Greek city and its name was Byzantium. Known as Constantinople during the Roman and Byzantine periods, the city eventually became Istanbul. Now I want to tell you briefly about the story of these three cities.
1. Ancient Greek Byzantium
In order talk about the foundation of Istanbul as an Ancient Greek city-state with the name of Byzantium (or Byzantion), we need to go back to 660 BC. Our story begins when a king named Byzas decided to emigrate from the city of Megara in Greece and seek the advice of an oracle at Temple Apollo, like anybody did those days.
The oracle advised him to head to the East and build his city “opposite the City of the Blind”. Of course, neither Byzas nor his company understood anything at all. While following the mysterious directions of the oracle, they would find the most suitable place themselves.
Arrival To The Bosphorus
As a result of their journey from Greece to the East, they arrived at a fortified point known as Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point) today. This is where the Historical Peninsula of Istanbul meets the Bosphorus in the East.
While Byzas and his staff were enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Bosphorus on this hill, they spotted a settlement on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, which is known as Kadikoy today. Those people were nobody else but the Greek colony that emigrated before them.
City Of The Blind: Chalcedon
Byzas and his staff thought Chalcedons were the blind people mentioned by the oracle, as they didn’t see this great location and chose Asian side. Therefore, Byzas decided to settle opposite to Chalcedon. The city began to be named as Byzantium after its founder Byzas.
2. The Roman Constantinople
In the 4th century, a long period of civil war occurred in Rome. Constantine, one of the four emperors under Tetrarchy, managed to eliminate all his rivals and become the sole ruler.
According to Constantine, the capital, Rome, was now far from its former strategic importance. For this reason, Emperor Constantine, in search of a new capital, chose Byzantium, an old Greek site.
Constantinople, the new Roman capital, began to be built on seven hills. The name of the city was dedicated to its new founder. The city walls were enlarged and equipped with Roman buildings.
Foundation of Constantinople
The foundation of Constantinople took 6 years. The Hippodrome, Forum of Constantine, Great Palace, and the Church of the Holy Apostles were the first monumental Roman buildings of the city.
Completed after 6 years of construction, New Rome was introduced to the public with a ceremony by Emperor Constantine. Roman senators flocked to the city. The city population increased rapidly and became the most important city of late antiquity.
Division of Roman Empire
However, after Constantine’s death, Rome entered a period of great turmoil. Emperor Valens died on the battlefield and a government crisis ensued. Ascended to the throne in such a crisis, Theodosius the Great put Rome back on track.
During the Theodosius I period, Constantinople gained importance as the Roman capital. However, due to the emperor’s untimely death, Roman Empire was divided in two. Thus, while Rome became the capital of the Western Empire, Constantinople officially became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
3. The Byzantine Constantinople
In this period of history, Western Rome lost its strategic importance and was dragged into chaos by barbarian attacks. Eastern Rome, on the contrary, was on the rise. The Byzantine Empire and its capital, Constantinople, was at the very center of Eastern Mediterranean trade and promised a prosperous future.
The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, only 81 years after the division, due to the barbarian invasion and the old capital Rome was seized by the Goths.
Eastern Roman Empire aka Byzantine Empire
The Eastern Rome had lost its sister and it was left alone on the stage of history. The kings of the Eastern Roman Empire conceived themselves as Cesar, while the common folks identified themselves as Romans. The reason why this civilization is known in modern history as Byzantine Empire is because the modern day historians derived it from the city’s first name “Byzantium”.
Byzantium Under Justinian’s Rule
Byzantine Empire had a Ancient Greek culture and Roman administrative organization. These two powerful codes, one cultural and the other administrative, had been the driving force of Byzantium for centuries. The peak point of the Empire was the era of the Emperor Justinian who built Hagia Sophia.
Thanks to the great conquests of Justinian in the West, The Byzantine Empire’s borders almost reached the level of the ancient Roman Empire. However, his successors were unable to protect these borders due to various reasons.
After Justinian, the empire entered into a centuries-long struggle in the east, first with the Persians and then with the Arabs. On the western front, she fought first the Goths and then the Bulgarians.
The Bubonic Plague and The Great Schism
However, epidemics and theological conflicts consumed Byzantium more than wars. The bubonic plague had halved the population of Constantinople, the world’s most populous city at that time.
While the Orthodox and Monophysite strife was already eating away at the empire, the Western and Eastern churches were separated from each other in the Great Schism (1054), as a result of the ongoing conflicts with Rome.
Fourth Crusade and Sack of Constantinople
The Byzantine Empire has encountered many enemies throughout its millennium history. Among them were Attila the Hun, Avars, Persians, Arabs and Bulgarians. However, the struggle with the Turks marked the last period of Byzantium. Seljuk Turks from Asia won the Battle of Manzikert (1071) and entered Anatolia, the heart of Byzantium.
The Seljuk Empire’s capture of Asia Minor triggered the crusades. Previously, these campaigns enabled Byzantium to reclaim its lost lands. The Byzantines recaptured most of Anatolia from the Turks. However, the Fourth Crusade targeted Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire. During the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the 1000-year-old Roman capital was destroyed.
Constantinople, the most populous and prosperous city in the world during the Late Antiquity and Middle Ages, had lost everything. Although the Byzantines took the city back from the invaders, it was not possible to return to the old days.
The Fall of Constantinople
The Byzantine Empire had entered a period of decline. The Turkish principalities that emerged after the collapse of the Seljuk Turks captured Byzantium piece by piece. The most powerful of these was the Ottoman chiefdom.
The Ottoman State grew into an empire and besieged Constantinople from all sides. Now the fall of Constantinople was only a matter of time. As a result, on May 29, 1453, Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans.
4. The Ottoman Konstantiniyye
Constantinople was a gem that many civilizations wanted to seize for centuries. Sultan Mehmed II declared this place as the capital of the Ottoman Empire under the name of Konstantiniyye.
However, the buildings in the ancient Byzantine capital were not in good condition. The main reason for this was the looting and destruction that took place during the 57-year Sack of Constantinople (1204-1261). Many of the monumental buildings were in ruins during the decline of Byzantium.
Hagia Sophia: From a Church to a Mosque
The Sultan ordered the immediate restoration of Hagia Sophia and its conversion to a mosque. Then, he began the construction of a palace for himself. This newly built palace was Topkapi Palace, which is a museum today. The hill on which Topkapi Palace was built was also the place where the history of Istanbul began. That is the hill where Byzas founded the Ancient Greek site Byzantium.
The Rise of the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire enjoyed a great period of rise from 1453 to 1700, so much so that, the Empire’s borders extended to three continents and she became the biggest and the most powerful state of her time.
The name of the city wasn’t changed immediately. It was called Konstantiniyye (meaning Constantinople) for ages. It should be noted that the Ottomans also used names such as Dersaadet (City of Happiness) or Payitaht (Royal City) to describe the city.
From Stanpoli to Istanbul
Although the origin of the name Istanbul is still controversial, the strongest claim is that it’s from the Ancient Greek period. In ancient Byzantium, the name of the city center was Stanpoli. This name is believed to have evolved and became Istanbul.
5. The Modern Istanbul
Immediately after the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the Ottoman Empire entered a process of decline that would last for over two centuries. Some Ottoman rulers made reforms to reverse the decline. Modernization and westernization efforts in the Ottoman Empire peaked especially in the 19th century. This period marked the history of Istanbul. Because there was a great change in architecture.
Dolmabahce Palace and Beylerbeyi Palace were built in this period reflect architectural styles such as Neo-Classical and Baroque. Architectural change was followed by military reforms. However, all these efforts could not stop the economic collapse of the empire.
The Fall of Ottoman Empire
Since the Ottoman Empire fell back in terms of technology, she lost more people and more equities to preserve her lands. In 19th century, the Empire entered a process of fall in terms of economy and World War I (1914-1918) consumed the already exhausted Empire completely.
War of Independence
During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire allied with the German and Austro-Hungarian empires and was defeated. After WWI, all lands were occupied by allied forces. In such an environment, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk shined as a leader. Ataturk, who had showed his military genius in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, started the war of independence.
The Foundation of Modern Turkey
As a result of the struggle of the four-year period between 1919 and 1923, Anatolia was freed from the invaders and the Republic of Turkey was founded. Turkey Grand National Assembly was established in Ankara during the war. For this reason, Ankara became capital city. Turkey declared its independence in 1923 as a secular and democratic republic. Istanbul was no longer the capital, but still the most important city of Modern Turkey.
In this article, I tried to convey facts about the history of Istanbul, one of the most important capitals of the world. Of course, there are many aspects of the story that are missing. However, it is difficult to fit the story of a city with such a deep history in a single article.
If you want to go deeper into the history of Istanbul, you can read the Byzantine Constantinople article, starting from the Roman period. After the Roman and Byzantine periods, you can find the rest of the story in the article called Ottoman Istanbul.
I can suggest two more articles that approach both the Roman (and Byzantine) and Ottoman periods of Istanbul from different perspectives. The first of these is the Byzantine churches in Istanbul and the other is the Ottoman mosques in Istanbul.
History of Istanbul with Facts by Serhat Engul
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