Today I toured the oldest part of the city of Istanbul and learned a lot about its history. Istanbul is a city that has been at the literal crossroads of the world, and the rise and fall of many empires, which has caused it to undergo several name changes through the centuries.
Though Istanbul may have been inhabited as early as 3000 BCE, it was not a city until Greek colonists arrived in the area in the seventh century BCE. These colonists were led by King Byzas and settled there because of the strategic location along the Bosporus Strait. King Byzas named the city Byzantium after himself.
Byzantium became a part of the Roman Empire in the 300s. During this time, the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, rebuilt the entire city. His goal was to make it stand out by building monuments similar to those found in Rome. In 330, Constantine declared the city as the capital of the entire Roman Empire and renamed it Constantinople. The city grew to be one of the largest and wealthiest in the world.
After the death of the emperor Theodosius I in 395, however, enormous upheaval took place in the empire as his sons permanently divided it. Following the division, Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine Empire in the 400s.
As part of the Byzantine Empire, the city became distinctly Greek, as opposed to its former identity in the Roman Empire. Because Constantinople was at the center of two continents, it became a center of commerce, culture, and diplomacy and grew considerably. In 532, the anti-government Nika Revolt broke out and destroyed much of the city. It was after this destruction that many of the most famous monuments in the old quarter of the city (called Sultanahmet) were built, including the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). It became the center of the Greek Orthodox church in the same way Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome was considered the center of the Roman Catholic church.
Although Constantinople significantly prospered during decades following its becoming a part of the Byzantine Empire, the factors leading to its success also made it a target for conquering. For hundreds of years, troops from all over the Middle East attacked the city. For a time it was even controlled by members of the Fourth Crusade after the city was desecrated in 1204. Subsequently, Constantinople became the center of the Catholic Latin Empire.
As competition persisted between the Catholic Latin Empire and the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was caught in the middle and began to significantly decay. It went financially bankrupt, the population declined, and it became vulnerable to further attacks as defense posts around the city crumbled. In 1261, in the midst of this turmoil, the Empire of Nicaea recaptured Constantinople, and it was returned to the Byzantine Empire. Around the same time, the Ottoman Turks began conquering the cities surrounding Constantinople, effectively cutting it off from many of its neighboring cities.
After being considerably weakened, Constantinople was officially conquered by the Ottomans, led by Sultan Mehmed II on May 29, 1453, after a 53-day siege. During the siege, the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, died while defending his city. Almost immediately, Constantinople was declared to be the capital of the Ottoman Empire and its name was changed to Istanbul.
Upon taking control of the city, Sultan Mehmed sought to rejuvenate Istanbul. He created the Grand Bazaar (one of the largest covered marketplaces in the world) and brought back fleeing Catholic and Greek Orthodox residents. In addition to these residents, he brought in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families to establish a mixed populace. He reached out in peace and reconciliation to provide a place for multiple religions to co-exist and prosper. Sultan Mehmed also began the building of architectural monuments, schools, hospitals, public baths, and grand imperial mosques.
From 1520 to 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent controlled the Ottoman Empire, and there were many artistic and architectural achievements that made the city a major cultural, political, and commercial center. By the mid-1500s, its population had grown to almost 1 million inhabitants. The Ottoman Empire ruled Istanbul until it was defeated and occupied by the Allies in World War I.
Following World War I, the Turkish War of Independence took place, and Istanbul became a part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Istanbul was not the capital city of the new republic, and during the early years of its formation, Istanbul was overlooked; investment went into the new, centrally located capital, Ankara. In the 1940s and 1950s, though, Istanbul reemerged. New public squares, boulevards, and avenues were constructed—and many of the city’s historic buildings were demolished.
In the 1970s, Istanbul’s population rapidly increased, causing the city to expand into the nearby villages and forests, eventually creating a major world metropolis as it had been for centuries prior.
It was amazing to walk the streets of Sultanahmet Square and take in historic sites built by both emperors and sultans, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim leaders. All these sites have seen so much change and transformation, but they remain and are still used and valued by diverse cultures today. I think there’s a lesson to be learned, which I’ll explore in tomorrow’s notes : tomorrow is a travel day to Cape Town.