History of Istanbul


The area of modern-day Istanbul has been populated since prehistoric times. Many ancient and unfortunately forgotten communities have made their temporary homes here, certainly because of this area’s fertility and strategic positioning on the Bosphorus Sea.

The first ones to settle here permanently, however, were the Greeks. They arrived here in the 7th century BC after an explorer named Byzas was informed about this location by a Delphic Oracle – or so the legend holds. The Greeks built their colony mostly on the site of today’s Old City, and even in those days fishing was a primary means of livelihood, and probably a nice pastime (but undoubtedly the fish burgers came later). The Greeks named the city Byzantion after its founder.

The area of present-day Galata, on the north banks of the Golden Horn, were less-developed in those days, and the gently rolling hills on this side were used mostly for agricultural activities and husbandry. Some historians even think that the name Galata is derived from “galaktos,” the Greek word for milk.

It was also the Greek-speaking settlers of the area who also started calling the region on this side of the river “Pera,” which is derived from the phrase “Peran en Sykais,” meaning “Fig fields on the other side.” The word Pera is still in common use today as a name to describe this general region of the hills north of the Golden Horn. The settlement of Byzantion became known widely, probably for its pristine location, strategic trading value, and spacious (not to say beautiful) harbour space. This remains true today – If you don’t believe it, go take walk down the hill from the hostel and see for yourself! Several neighbouring groups assailed the colony during its lifespan, but it went it went unconquered for about 200 years.

It was the Romans, of course, who finally took control of the region around the 5th century BC, and made it part of the Roman Empire in 64 BC, and renamed the city Byzantium. The Roman control of the settlement marks the beginning of the second major historical era for the city. An important name to remember is Emperor Constantine the Great. He was the ingenious, vehemently religious, and martial emperor who once had a vision of a cross in the sky, rallied a bunch of barbarian tribes together for military support, and then reconsolidated the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE. He quickly named Byzantium the new capital of the empire, and just as soon adopted Christianity as the state religion. It was under his rule that the city became known was Constantinople, and the seeds of one major religion were firmly planted here, which came to drastically alter the character of the city ever since. He also built the Great Palace of Constantinople, which today rests underneath large squadrons of the Old City. Perhaps under the Starbucks, but likely to remain forever unexcavated.

Wandering around modern-day Istanbul, you can still notice some of the legacies of the Roman era. Aside fantasizing about the splendour of the Great Palace, for instance, you can go reflect upon the remnants of the Hippodrome: a massive stadium built during the 3rd century, reduced by a long and turbulent history to a scattering of arches, obelisks, and fountains. You can also check out the Basilica Cistern, an ancient engineering masterpiece, and the prime water storage unit of the city for many years (and, according to some, prime real estate for a disco), now sleeping underneath a popular city square. The Roman Empire began collapsing in the 5th century, and when the empire was split in two it was the Eastern half – which historians also refer to as Byzantium – that retained its capital at Constantinople. Thus, another major empire began to form its nucleus around this city.

Another name to keep in mind is Emperor Justinian. The succeeding 6th century can best be thought of as the century dominated by this man. Under his rule the new empire flourished, grew rich in art and capital, and expanded nearly to the size of the old Roman Empire. If you wish to muse about the splendour of this era, take a walk across the bridge and take a look at the Hagia Sofia, which was first constructed under Justinian’s reign as a hallmark of the glory of Christendom. In spite of the schism with the Western Roman Empire, various religious disagreements over the years, and perpetual assaults from neighbouring groups (including the Turks), the Byzantine Empire retained its dominance over its regions for many centuries. At the heart of it all, Constantinople remained an intellectually and artistically flourishing city even as the Middle Ages took their toll on the rest of Europe.

The next major event to know is the fascinating and devastating Forth Crusade. For years already, the crusaders from the West had been venturing past Constantinople with the intent of taking over the Holy Land. But it was during the Forth Crusade, which lasted between the years 1202 and 1204, that the crusaders decided to stay here long-term. Historians argue over the means and motives of the crusaders, but by the accounts of most Byzantines at the time, the crusaders had diamonds in their eyes as they viciously besieged and pillaged Constantinople, and pilfered magnificent buildings including the Hagia Sofia. The crusaders also set up a new Norman ruler, and briefly founded what came to be known as the Latin Empire – the short-lived but historically fascinating third empire to lay claim to the city of Constantinople.

Byzantines regained their former capital by the end of the 13th century, relying greatly on troops and resources of an allied Italian city state called Genoa. In return for the much-needed assistance, the Byzantine Emperor gave to the Genoese the strategic trading region north of the Gold Horn. The area that was still variously known as Galata and Pera. The Genoese were a nation renowned for their entrepreneurship, and they quickly founded a flourishing trading colony here, an area that they officially named Pera. It became an affluent and bustling port, and was now on its way to becoming a vital district of the city of Constantinople.

It was also the Genoese who in 1348 built the iconic Galata Tower a means of surveying and defending their colony. At the time it was the tallest building in Constantinople, and in many historical paintings of the city it is easy to spot that distinguished conical structure. Even now it’s a popular spot for foreigners looking for a panoramic view of the area. Try climbing it for yourself, and see if you can imagine the soft billowing of Genoese sails in the sea below. Despite the Genoese investments, however, the Byzantine Empire was weakened by various civil wars, outside threats, and internal disputes. Over the succeeding years, the empire’s area diminished as various regions broke away or were lost to neighbouring invaders. The most important of these invaders, of course, were then Ottomans.

To the Byzantines, the Ottomans had for many years been seen as a mysterious but determined Muslim civilization that had emerged from the East and proceeded Westward with speed and vehemence, posing a serious threat to the dying empire’s eastern frontier. In actuality, the Ottomans emerged as their own state in 1299 and had progressively come to take over large parts of Anatolia and the surrounding areas. The Ottomans were indeed a martial nation (for an example, think about the Janissaries, a unit of highly-specialized and efficient soldiers who played an integral part of the Ottoman empire’s military over the course of its entire lifespan), but the new state’s successes could also be attributed to its policies of tolerance, and it’s acceptance of the diverse peoples and religions that it came to include.

By the late 14th century, the Ottoman state had expanded to include areas both East and West of Constantinople. The diminished empire had effectively become a singular outpost, and it was that outpost that would become a battle of unprecedented proportions. Take a deep breath! In 1453, after several decades of on-and-off campaigns, the Ottomans were determined to envelope and conquer Constantinople, and by now they had all the resources they needed. Some history books set the numbers as around 200,000 Ottoman soldiers against under 5,000 Byzantines. Needless to say, the city was once again wrecked thoroughly – this time by a plethora of ships, moving towers, and the largest cannons ever constructed – and soon the city was claimed by the Ottoman state. Thus, the forth empire had begun to form itself around Constantinople. This point also marks the beginning of a long history of Islam in the area, a history that remains dynamic to this day. A good name to remember is Sultan Mehmet II, the Turkish Ottoman ruler who led the siege and capture of Constantinople. He is also famous, incidentally, for rebuilding and repopulating the city after it’s destruction. He saw the construction of both the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. Take a visit to these Old City monuments if you want to get a taste of pronounced character of the Ottoman era (just remember to bring money and determination, because Ottoman buying and bartering customs survive to this day, too.) Mehmet also exhibited relative tolerance to his subjects, and invited groups of Muslims, Christians, and Jews into the city from the surrounding regions, transforming Constantinople into a thoroughly cosmopolitan place.

The next great Ottoman ruler to know is Suleyman I – known better in Turkish as Kanuni (“law maker”) and in English by the the extravagant sobriquet Suleyman the Magnificent. This man, who lived up to both titles, ruled the empire throughout much of the 16th century. The Ottoman Empire reached its greatest extent during his reign, and it was a time of exceptional cultural and artistic flourishing within Constantinople, sometimes being referred to as the “Golden Age” of the Ottoman Empire. Laws and legislature were written and enforced like never before: taxations, tenure, and criminal code became fixed societal gears, and remained that way for centuries. Art, music, poetry, and especially architecture, were additional fascinations of Suleyman’s reign. Something should be said especially about the triumph of architecture during this time, the fruits of which remain some of the best preserved artifacts for understanding the splendour and productivity of these times. The man named Mimar Sinan, born in the late 15th century, was the mastermind behind many of these structures, and is now unanimously recognized as the greatest architect of the Ottoman empire, on par with European contemporaries like Michelangelo. It was Sinan, for example, who designed the ornate Suleymainye Mosque, which remains today the largest mosque in Istanbul.

Something should also be said about the 16th century’s unprecedented interest in bridges. Today’s Galata Bridge may not be much to look at, but its historical ancestors are something of a marvel. Try to imagine the advantages of being able to cross the Golden Horn with as much ease as you would today. The Romans had apparently attempted the feat, as we can deduce from a few scattered ruins, and the Ottoman conquerors found an ad hoc solution by lining up their warships end-to-end between Sultanahmet and Galata. In the 16th century, however, a permanent solution became a primary concern, but – as typical of the times – ornateness never ceased to be impertinent. In fact, it was none other than Leonardo Da Vinci who was commissioned by the Ottoman sultan to design the bridge, which was to be called the Golden Horn Bridge and, had it been built, would have been the largest and most technologcically-advanced bridge in the world. It was, however, disregarded by the sultan as too complex for contemporary building methods. Still, bridge construction boomed elsewhere in Constantinople: one entire side of Topkapi Palace, for instance, is upheld by a series of bridges. The next major era started in the late 17th century, and is often called the “Sultanate of Women,” because of the long succession of female rulers during those years due to the dearth of adult male heirs. These women were members of the Imperial Harem – the section of the royal house reserved for females, such as mothers, sisters, slaves, and concubines – which had long demonstrated an important social and political sway, but it was only during the 17th century that they truly dominated he state apparatus. However, it was also now that empire and Constantinople itself saw various phases of rattling and revolt. Economic problems, for example, caused by the growing trans-Atlantic trade shifting emphasis away from old Silk Road routes, snowballed into larger problems for the Ottomans. Familial in-fighting, numerous lost wars, revolting by the Janissary corps, assassinations, and cases of corruption, all contributed to a diseased and paranoid state.

In spite of the economic declines, however, it was at the start of this century that the state commissioned the construction of the world-renowned Blue Mosque, which is to this day considered one of he most splendid religious buildings in the world. It was after it’s construction that the magnificent Old City panorama began to take on the dramatic character it has today. Viewing now these numerous architectural wonders from the high-point on Galata side, you will quickly see what we mean. The 18th century started with the so-called “Tulip Period,” a phrase which, in case you are wondering, refers to brief period in which imperial pleasure took precedence over pragmatic affairs. This is best symbolized by the many tulip-rich gardens that sprung up around royal palaces during these years. It was also during this period that, because of the sultan’s fancy for Western ideas, the Ottomans were introduced many Western fashions that were hitherto unknown. The city of Constantinople was swinging its doors wide open to European culture. The Orient Express, for example, which connected stations all the way from London and Paris to Constantinople, was pioneered in the 1880s, eventually reaching its highest-profile in the 1930s. Although known best for its connotations with Western bourgeoise and patricians, the popularity of this line can be seen as symbolizing both deep curiosity and intense East-West exchanges that saturated Constantinople at this time. The Pera Palas Hotel, the upscale and chandelier-riddled hotel opened to accommodate wealthy arrivals on the Orient Express, can still be visited, ogled over, and of course stayed at. It can be found just off of Istiklal Avenue.

There was also a increasing Western influence over the architecture of Constantinople around this time. The many European embassies (now consulates) punctuating Istiklal Avenue date from this period, as do the many Neoclassical, Baroque, or Rococo style buildings permeating today’s district of Beyoglu. Even the underground Tünel on the north side of the Golden Horn was inaugurated in 1875, making it the second oldest subterranean railroad in the world. What followed over the years was an influx of attitudes and ideas into the Ottoman capital. The 19th century became a time of immense modernization and reformation campaigns. The government was reorganized to downplay military and religious influence, and legislatures was rewritten to cut down on official corruption. A group of young educated men called the Young Turks led a non-violent revolution in 1908 in a push for Parliamentary government. However, these years were also years of lost wars, lost territories, and a weakening Ottoman state. This culminated, finally, in the Ottoman defeat during the First World War, and occupation of Constantinople – now more and more commonly referred to as Istanbul – by British and French soldiers. The most ubiquitous figure in modern Turkish history is Mustafa Kemal Pasa, more commonly know as Atatürk, who was both a renowned hero of the First World War, and the first man in modern history to rally together dreams of true Turkish nationhood. It is a name and a face you will most certainly encounter as you explore modern Istanbul. Every modern lira note, for instance, bares Atatürk’s profile on one side. It was Atatürk who led his followers to victory in the Turkish War of Independence, effectively reclaiming many territories lost during the Great War. Most importantly, it was Atatürk who cemented many of the ideas and issues that would come to define modern Turkey. That is, he initiated wide-sweeping secularization campaigns (meaning the separation of religion and politics), he granted suffrage and political rights to women, he brought in Western ideas and dress styles (by outlawing the fez, for instance), and last but not least he moved the capital of the new country from Istanbul to Ankara. The republic of modern-day Turkey was as declared in 1923, and reforms continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was also in 1928 that the city had officially become known as Istanbul, a name with a long but uncertain history of usage by various Greek and Turkish speaking populations over the centuries. It may be derived from a Greek phrase meaning “to the city,” due to its status as the only sizeable city in the region, but whatever the case, the official change in name can be seen as a watermark for the city’s transition into the modern era (as well as account for heaps of lost mail.) Something important must be said about the ethnic and demographic developments that took place in Turkey over the course of the 20th century, especially because they help explain the make up of the population and many of the attitudes and ideas of today. The areas of modern day Turkey, as in countless other places in the world, have at times been a hot pot of nationalistic or ethnic animosity. Many conflicts flared up around the time of the newly-declared republic – the most profiled of which involved Armenian and Greek populations.

Ethnic troubles involving the Armenian populations had by the 19th century led to a pattern of exodus from the country, and reports of genocide in some regions of the country by the early 20th century. Brutal territorial wars between Turkey and Armenia in 1920, and between Turkey and Greece between 1919 and 1922, were only the climaxes of long running tensions between certain populations. What followed in 1923 was a horrid series of “population exchanges,” in which enormous populations of Orthodox Greeks living in Turkey were forcibly uprooted and resettled in Greece, and enormous populations of Muslim Turks living in Greece were resettled in Turkey. Despite these decades of mass disruption, for historical reasons – such as the Greek populations long-standing settlement there – Istanbul remained singularly remained exempt from the state-operated population exchanges. Willing emigration, however, continued in droves for many years. The 1950s saw the greatest explosion of violence centred around questions of ethnicity in Istanbul in recent times. The areas of Taksim and greater Beyoglu in particular were the site of large-scale anti-Greek riots in 1955, an event which came to be known as the “Istanbul pogrom.” The riots resulted in vast property destruction, and perhaps a dozen murders. In spite of these tragedies over the course of the century problems over the course of the century, however, Istanbul retains the highest Greek and Armenian populations concentrations in Turkey. There are perhaps 60,000 Armenians living in Istanbul today. The Greek population has declined enormously over the years, and is now estimated to be around 2,000. As a whole, the 20th century then can be summed up as a phase of modernization, infrastructure development, on-and-off political turmoil, and the emergence of the cosmopolitan metropole you see today. The campaigns to construct and expand the trams, roads, and bridges that had begun in the late 19th century had reached new peaks in the 1940s. The Bosphorus Bridge which connects the European and Asian sides of the city was completed in the 1973, and the current Galata Bridge was – after a series of predecessors – finally erected in 1994. These and other bridges, aside from being practical, also symbolize binding threads between some long-separated parts of the city, and the formation of a more unified Istanbul.

The now-famous Taksim Square, which is down at the far end of Istiklal Avenue, dates from the 1940s, and is now the most popular site in Istanbul for festivals, parades, or public demonstrations. From the 1970s onward as well, the population of Istanbul began to increase dramatically and steadily, as people from all around Turkey and from neighbouring countries came here to find work. The city itself now holds over 13 million residents. Naturally, the city’s outward borders have expanded as new factories and residential areas were formed, and the city now has a land mass of over 5000 square kilometres.

Istanbul continues to be one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and has become one of Europe’s most popular destination for travellers of all sorts.