Some cities are mortal, but as long as humanity exists, Istanbul will remain forever.
Tale of a City: ISTANBUL
8000 years ago settlements did not have names. Istanbul’s history goes back to these times. Istanbul is one of the earliest settlements in the world and it has been a home to many different civilizations. Going back from today, here are the different civilizations and periods: Republic of Turkey, Ottoman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Roman Empire, Hellenistic, Archaic and Neolithic periods. As the French naturalist, land surveyor and author Petrus Gyllius states: “All other cities are mortal but I think Istanbul shall be eternal as long as mankind exists”.
In 2004, during the excavation process for the Marmaray Project which passes beneath the Bosphorus, many invaluable artifacts were unearthed in Yenikapı. Some of them dating back to the Neolithic period. Findings of human footprints, tombs, ship ruins, churches, wheat and tools stirred up quite an excitement in the archaeological world. Istanbul’s history was rewritten.
8000 years ago when the Marmara Sea didn’t consist of saltwater and was actually a lake, people who lived here were hunters and gatherers. They built their houses using the wattle and daub method in which a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. They also lived with domesticated animals such as; dogs, sheep, goats and pigs.
If you are ready to tour Istanbul, let’s start with the Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn. Istanbul is the only city in the world that is located in two continents and even though the city has many breathtaking spots, Galata Bridge is the best place to embrace the love affair between the city’s history and the sea.
Just like a real Istanbulite, take a break in one of the taverns or cafes under the bridge, order a tea, coffee or rakı and watch the Argonauts sail from Propontis. Today you will see cruise ships but 3000 years ago Argonauts chasing the Golden Fleece docked their sailboats here.
Byzas of Megaria founded the city of Byzantium in 667 BC and he formed colonies in strategic locations. He controlled all ships travelling between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea and held dominion over trade routes connecting Asia and Europe. The city was impregnable because it was surrounded by sea on three sides and protected by walls on the land side.
Byzantium was an important trade center and drunk merchants began enjoying wine and fish even back then. This tradition continued on to become one of the most characteristic features of the city.
In 512 BC Darius conquered the city. Byzantium had fallen to the Persians after 30 years and it later became a part of the Athenian Empire. In 356 BC the city gained its independence after an uprising. In 340 BC when Phillip father to Alexander the Great laid siege to the city, Athenians aided Byzantium. Rumour has it that Byzantine commanders built taverns to motivate their troops. Byzantines fought valiantly and pushed Phillips forces back. However not so long after, Macedonians returned, this time headed by Alexander. Byzantines quickly realized they had no chance against the great conqueror and surrendered the city. After Alexander’s death, Byzantium played a role in disbanding the empire and Rome’s expansion eastward. In 179 BC, an alliance army from Rhoades, Bithynia and Pergamum conquered the city. After a century of conflict, the rivalry between Rome and Pontus ended with Rome’s victory. Rome’s mandate government lasted for 300 years. Under the protection of Pax Romana, this was a period of peace and prosperity.
In 196 AD, Byzantium was besieged by Emperor Septimius Severus’ armies. Severus conquered Byzantium, massacred its people, razed the city and destroyed the walls. Emperor Severus soon realized destroying the city’s defences was a strategic mistake and rebuilt the walls.
Byzantium suffered a big blow from the throne fights in Rome during the early 4th century. In 324 AD, Western Emperor Constantine I defeated Eastern Emperor Licinius. The last battle took place on the hills over the Bosphorus’ Asian side and Roman emperor Constantine’s reign began in 324 AD. The next 1000 years of the Roman Empire began rebuilding. The new borders drawn out by Constantine were five times the size of the borders Septimius Severus had created and reflected the magnificence of the empire. Construction began on city’s defensive walls and architecturally wondrous buildings. Work was completed in less than four years and in May of 330 AD, soon after a ceremony held in the Hippodrome; Constantinople took its place in history as the capital of New Rome. The name ‘Constantinople’ would continue to be one of the names used for the city during the Ottoman reign and changed to Istanbul after the Republic of Turkey was established. One of the landmarks of Istanbul, The Hagia Sophia cathedral was opened by Constantine’s son in 360 AD. The historic structure is one of the rarest jewels in Istanbul’s skyline and is also the third structure to be built in the same spot.
Until Istanbul became the Roman Empire’s capital, Milliarium Aureum located in the city of Rome’s forum was considered to be the starting point. However in 330 AD Constantine I declared Istanbul to be the new capital and called it Nova Roma which shifted the Empire’s center point. Where once all the roads led to Rome, now they were going to lead to Nova Roma, to Istanbul. A monument was erected next to the Hagia Sophia cathedral and the Hippodrome which marked the ‘zero point’ of the world.
As well as becoming the starting point of all Roman roads, The Milion Stone was also considered the prime meridian and was essential for time measurements. However after Eastern Rome converted to Christianity, Hagia Sophia’s dome became the new prime meridian.
Milion Stone’s distance to certain cities is as follows: Buenos Aires 12.258 km, Washington 8.415 km, Vienna 1.498 km, Athens 764 km, Tehran 2.040 km, Rome 1.377 km, London 2.502 km, Paris 2.258 km, Berlin 1.740 km, Mecca 2.407 km, Moscow 1.757 km, Beijing 7.063 km, Tokyo 8.954 km.
After the death of Theodosius I in 395 AD, the empire was divided between his two sons. To the West, Honorius started ruling in Rome and to the East, Arcadius ruled in Constantinople. In the following century the Western empire was invaded by barbarians in 476 AD, which led to Constantinople’s emperor to gain dominion over the remaining land.
During the first half of the 5th century, under Theodosius II old walls were extended towards Thrace and they still stand to this day. Inside the walls were 7 hills in accordance with the mystical beliefs just like in Ancient Rome.
After the fall of Western Rome, serious changes started to take place in Constantinople, because the country was located in a land where the vast majority of the people were speaking Greek. Official language continued to be Latin for a while but the Empire slowly pulled away from the classic traditions of Athens and Rome and adopted a more Greek, Christian identity.
In 527 AD Justinian ascended the throne and ushered in a new era in the city’s history. 5 years after Justinian came into power riots began and they were suppressed very violently. The riots caused massive damage to the city and Constantinople required serious repairs and renovations. After the renovations, Constantinople became one of the most wonderful cities in the world. Under Justinian’ reign, most of the empires lost lands were re-conquered. In 565 AD when Justinian died, Byzantium’s borders stretched from the Gibraltar to East Anatolia. However this golden age didn’t last long. Attacks from foreign and domestic powers, disorder, plagues and public unrest nearly toppled the Empire and it was Heraclius who ruled between 610-641 that saved Byzantium from total collapse and reclaimed lost lands. The city of Constantinople was besieged countless time by the Arabs and the Bulgarians but the city’s strong walls were never breached. In the 11th century the empire controlled all the land spreading from Iran to the Balkans and reached all the way to Italy in the south. In 1071 AD, Byzantium under the rule of Romanos IV was defeated by the Seljuk Turks in the battle of Manzikert and forced to withdraw forever from Anatolia.
While fighting the Turks on the Eastern front, Byzantium was also fighting the Normans in southern Italy. Normans invaded Bari and ended the Byzantine reign in the region. During the first crusades (1097 AD) pressure from Eastern European Latins increased. It was also becoming apparent that the mission of purging the Saracens from the Holy lands was really a front for gaining more land and wealth, the crown jewel being the wondrous city of Constantinople. In 1204 AD, Crusaders in their final assault managed to breach the walls on the shores of the Golden Horn and took the city. They wreaked havoc on the city, pillaging its riches, holy relics and works of art. They brought the most precious items back to Europe with them.
The Maiden’s Tower which is located on the entrance of Bosphorus is one of the city’s most popular landmarks. Athenian commander Alcibiades ordered the construction of a tower on this small island in order to control and collect taxes from all the ships entering the channel. A chain stretching from Sarayburnu to the tower turned this location into a customs dock which controlled ships entering and leaving the Bosphorus. The tower became a very important asset in the city’s defence and tax collecting in the following centuries. The Maiden’s Tower was renovated several times over the years and still stands tall to this day. Today the tower has been converted into a café/restaurant where you can watch the sunset on the Golden Horn while enjoying a nice glass of wine.
Latin kings ruled Constantinople until 1261. Most of Thrace, Macedonia and Morea peninsula were under their dominion but they had lost Anatolia to the Ottomans and Europe to Latins. In the following centuries they were going to lose the remaining land. The Turks had crossed into Europe and were advancing in the Balkans. In early 15th century, the Byzantines were surrounded by the Ottomans and were trapped within the walls they had erected all those centuries ago. They managed to hold the Turks back for another 50 years. Allies from Italy aided the city and they fought until their supplies and strength faded. In 1453, 21 year old Sultan Mehmed II finally conquered the city.
Mehmed the Conqueror allowed his troops to pillage the city which was customary in those times. Shortly after the city’s fall, he ordered the city to be repaired and new works of art to be constructed. The first Ottoman palace was built on what is today the ‘Beyazıt’ square. Few years later, ‘Topkapı’ palace was built on the city’s old acropolis which is situated on the first hill. The Fatih Mosque, which is comparable to the Hagia Sophia was the prime attraction of the city with its public soup kitchen, library, bathhouse, hospital, madrasa and charitable institutions. These architectural wonders would set an example for succeeding sultans and high ranking government officials. The charitable foundations, madrasa and public kitchens would become very important for social life.
After having gone through a long and arduous period, the city’s population had diminished substantially and had to be replenished with Turks from Anatolia and Thrace, Rums and Armenians which started to change the demographic structure of the city. At the end of the 15th century, under Beyazıt II son of Mehmed the Conqueror, most of the Jewish refugees coming from Spain settled in Istanbul. In the 16th century, Istanbul with its dazzling qualities had once again become the capital of a huge empire.
Sultan Mehmed II was given the title ‘Conqueror’ but rather than an Ottoman ruler, the Sultan deemed himself more as the last Emperor of Rome. The tomb of Constantine I lies beneath the Fatih Mosque and Sultan Mehmed II wished to be buried on top of that tomb, which in a way realised his dream of becoming a Roman Emperor.
In the next 100 years after the conquest, Ottoman armies stormed through the Middle East and the Balkans. Midway through the 16th century, Ottoman borders reached Bagdad in the East, Morocco in the West, Egypt in the South and Russia’s southern borders in the North. Ottoman Empire had become as large as the Byzantine Empire under Justinian’s rule.
The Ottoman Empire’s golden age is undoubtedly the 1520-1566 period, under Suleiman the Magnificent’s rule. Sultan Suleiman rode into battle in front of his armies and conquered many lands. He only ever failed to conquer Malta and Vienna. The lands he conquered would outline the empire’s Northern and Western borders. The spoils of war, taxes from conquered lands and tributes added enormous wealth to the empire. Most of this wealth was used to improve public institutions in Istanbul. One of the most important structures built during this period is head architect Sinan’s ‘Süleymaniye’ Mosque and social complex (külliye). Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the landmarks of the city and is located in Eminönü. Looking down from the Galata Tower, the Hagia Sophia is on the left and the Süleymaniye Mosque is in the right, which reminds us that Istanbul was the capital of two great empires.
Midway through the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was still strong and continued to expand but there were subtle signs of a collapse. The empire was losing land to the west, in the Balkans and to the east, in Iran. There was also unrest among the people. The main reason for these was the ‘Harem’ culture cherished by the Orientalists. Sultans were no longer leading campaigns in front of their armies. They were enchanted by the Harem. All the rivalry between sultans’ mothers and favourite concubines, plots and schemes started to have a negative impact on the government. The only exception to this is the period of Murad IV. Murad IV (1623-1640) came to power at the age of 14 and in 1638 he reclaimed Bagdad. He died two years later at the age of 30 which expedited the empire’s collapse.
The Ottoman Empire continued its existence with the massive wealth it had accumulated in its early years. While sultans enjoyed the many delights of the Harem life, the wealth flowing into the capital continued to fund projects of public improvements and charity.
At the beginning of the 18th century, government institutions were being reformed and modernized. However the world was moving towards a new era. At the end of the century, nationalist movements and land losses started to shatter the empire.
On July 28 1914 World War I began and when the dust finally settled four years later the Ottoman Empire was on the losing side. The allies had a humiliating plan to divide and share the empire. The invasion of Istanbul on March 16 1920 would be a turning point in the Turkish National Campaign.
During World War I, Mustafa Kemal achieved incredible victories in Gallipoli against the Entente powers. The Gallipoli campaign changed the history of the world and put Mustafa Kemal in the spotlight as a great commander. In May of 1919, led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) the Turks started the War of Independence and in 1922 they won this war of liberation. Mustafa Kemal’s military prowess and diplomatic skills earned him the respect of many, including his enemies. In 1923 he established the Republic of Turkey and moved the capital to Ankara. Istanbul had been the capital to empires for a thousand years and now it was going to enter a bright new era as the capital of culture and commerce.
During the battle of Gallipoli, the fight against the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) has a special place in history. It is perhaps the most gentlemanly battle in history. After the battle ANZAC soldiers were buried in a special cemetery in Gallipoli. Atatürk’s speech for the fallen Australian and New Zealander soldiers has been turned into an epitaph.
Anzac Day is observed on April 25 of each year and is one of the most important occasions for Australians and New Zealanders. Grandchildren of ANZAC soldiers come to Gallipoli each year to hold a dawn service.
In spite of living a life of war and struggle, Atatürk was actually a pacifist. His famous expression; “Peace at home, peace in the world” wasn’t just meant for Turks, but for all.
Istanbul’s 8000 year old history is filled with empires rising and falling, wars and conflicts, which adds a unique layer of multicultural texture to this ancient city’s character. From Byzas of Megara who founded the city to Atatürk who saved the city, salutations to all who have served Istanbul...
Istanbul is made up of layer from many different cultures. Now go on an adventure to explore the best restaurants, visit its museums and historical buildings and follow the footsteps of history in the streets...