The Essential History of Istanbul, from Byzantium to Today

Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire

It’s hard to condense the history of Instanbul into a few dozen paragraphs. I am though going to try.

Napolean once said that if “only one state existed on Earth, Istanbul would be its capital.” 1 In a sense, this has been true in the past. The city today known as Istanbul was in fact the capital of two of the most powerful states that the world has ever known, namely that of the Byzantine Empire and later on the Ottoman Empire. Being at the crossing point of Europe and Asia, it has always been seen as a gateway to the East (or West, depending on which continent you’re on).

A City called Byzantium

There were people living in the area that makes up Istanbul over 8500 years ago. Archaeologists have found Neolithic burial sites dating back to at least 6500 BCE in the Yenikapi district of Istanbul. Other Bronze Age finds have been found in the Sultanahmet area as well. There were probably other peoples who crossed through the region, but for all practical purposes, the history of Istanbul really starts with Greek colonists. Since the middle 8th century BCE, Greek merchants sailed east from the Aegean Sea and through the Hellespont, the Sea of Marmara and Bosphorus up to the Black Sea, where many of them eventually settled and founded colonies.

Greek colonies along the Black Sea

As the Greek colonies grew in size, wealth and importance, it became necessary to protect the trade routes between them and the Greek mainland. Thus the Bosphorus, the narrow twenty-two-mile strait that connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and formed the main trade artery, at least for ships, became extremely important. What better way to control this vital trade route than to build a city there. This was probably the most likely reason for the establishment of the city of Byzantium.

The first settlement, Chalcedon, (in the present-day Istanbul suburb of Kadiköy) was built on the Asian side of the Bosphorus by settlers from the town of Megara, just west of Athens. Approximately 20 years later, a man named Byzas went to the famous Oracle of Delphi and asked what would be the best place to build a city. The priestess at the Oracle cryptically told him to build the city “opposite the
land of the blind.” 2 Not knowing what the heck she was talking about, Byzas roamed around the Greek lands until he came to Chalcedon. Upon visiting the city, he thought it strange that no one had up until then occupied the strategic peninsula on the European side of the strait across from Chalcedon. It was there that Byzas had is “aha!” moment. To him, the people of Chalcedon had been blind to not figure out that right across the strait was a site far much better suited to build a great city. It was there that Byzas laid the first foundations of the city that would bear his name, Byzantium.

Byzantium did indeed possess characteristics that Chalcedon did not. The city was founded on a hill at the very tip of a peninsula which gave it a commanding view of the Bosphorus. In peacetime, Byzantium’s deep harbor was a safe haven for Greek merchant vessels or warships and provided defense during times of war.

The Persians and the Macedonians

It wasn’t long before the great powers of the day took notice of such a strategically located city. The first were the Persians whose own empire was expanding rapidly westward from their homeland in today’s Iran. The Achaemenid king Darius I of Persia toko over Byzantium in the late 6th century BCE and used it as a base for launching campaigns against Scythian tribes who were harassing his empire from the areas along the Black Sea. Darius ordered a bridge of boats to be created across the Bosphorus to aid his troops in crossing the strait as well as to protect his supply lines. In the first historically recorded invasion of Europe from Asia, Darius and the Persian forces were able to reach the Danube and successfully halt Scythian attacks on the empire.

The Greeks however weren’t too happy with Persians rummaging through their lands, let alone conquering their city-states. In the beginning of the 5th century BCE, the Greek city-states in Asia minor revolted and were aided by the city-state of Athens on the Greek mainland. Darius sought to punish Athens and the other city-states and further invaded mainland Greece but was defeated at the historic battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. His son and successor Xerxes also pushed into Greece but he too was decisively defeated at Salamis in 480 BCE and again at Plataea a year later. After that the Persians more or less abandoned their ambition to conquer the Greek mainland and venture further into Europe. Just a few years later in 478 BCE, the Spartans under the famed general Pausanias captured the city of Byzantium, putting it back into the hands of Greek rulers.

Despite no longer being under Persian rule, Byzantium was not at peace as internal Greek rivalries, especially between Athens and Sparta, overshadowed those with Persia. Eventually the city became part of the Delian League led by Athens and, due to its prosperity by controlling trade between Greece and the colonies on the Black Sea, provided a hefty tribute. Perhaps because this and other grievances with Athens, Byzantium left the Delian league and created an alliance with Sparta. This cut off grain and other supplies to the Delian League and facilitated Sparta’s eventual victory over the Athenians in the great Peloponnesian War. The city’s allegiance to Sparta did not last long and they eventually went back to becoming part of the Delian League before becoming independent in 356 BCE.

Independence, like its allegiance to outside powers, was short-lived for Byzantium. West of Byzantium, the Macedonians become the dominant power and forcibly brought most of the city-states of the Greek mainland into their fold. Their king, Philip II, besieged Byzantium but was not able to conquer it. Several years later Philip’s son and successor, Alexander, also desired Byzantium. However, knowing that it would take quite some time as well as a lot of men, both which he wanted to focus on defeating the Persian Empire, Alexander bypassed the city and crossed the Hellespont into Asia. After his first major victory against the Persian army at Granicus, the citizens of Byzantium recognized Alexander as their overlord and surrendered the city to him without a fight. Alexander in turn allowed the city to more or less remain independent and carry on as before, which was a smart move on his part considering that he needed the Bosphorus to remain open as a channel for supplies from Europe while he was in Asia.

Byzantium under the Romans

Though Alexander had created an empire stretching from Libya all the way to India, the largest that the world had ever known until that time, it proved to be difficult for him to hold it firmly together. Shortly after his death in June of 323 BCE, Alexander’s empire was divided up amongst his generals with Byzantium going to Antigonos. Shortly thereafter the city was captured by the city-state of Rhodes before falling into the orbit of Rome. Byzantium was able to negotiate a treaty and remain independent, but by 79 AD, what was formerly the Roman Republic had transformed into the Roman Empire, and Byzantium was forced to succumb to the Roman Emperor who would not tolerate its independent status. In 193, a civil war broke out as to who would become next Roman Emperor. Of the two contestants, Byzantium backed Pescennius Niger against Septimius Severus. This turned out to be a fatal mistake as Septimius won the conflict and punished the citizens of Byzantium for supporting his enemies by razing the city to the ground and murdering the vast majority of the population. A few years later though he relented sacking such a strategically important city and ordered it to be rebuilt. Severus renamed the city Antoninia and what was Byzantium started coming back to life.

What happened in 284 AD changed the course of both the city and history forever. The Roman Emperor of the time, Diocletian, was having a hard time ruling over the entire Roman Empire. After all, it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Mesopotamia and occupied an area of 2.75 million square kilometers. He decided to divide the Roman state into two parts, an Empire of the West and an Empire of the East, each with its own emperor, called Augustus, both of which would also have their own proteges who would become their successors, called Caesars (think of the Caesars as vice emperors). Though not emperors themselves, the Caesars held considerable power of their own within the empire. Diocletian had hoped that these four individuals, together known as the Tetrarchy, would be able rule the empire more effectively.

Though well-intentioned, Diocletian’s vision proved to be unfeasible and by 311, there were actually four rulers, each with their own armies, claiming to be the sole emperor. One of these was Constantine. Constantine quickly rose to power and in 324 and defeated the Emperor of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, Licinius, near the town of Chrysopolis, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. However, as Constantine gazed across the strait, he saw Byzantium and was amazed at how it seemed to be the perfect location for an empire that encompassed both the east and west. Not only this, but it was relatively close to his power base. Being the new and uncontested emperor, he decided to make it his capital city.

Through strategically located, the city was a far cry from the grandeur of Rome. In 326, Constantine began an impressive building campaign where he expanded the city limits closer to what they are today as well as built new buildings for the public and a grand new palace for himself. He also brought valuable objects and art from Rome and placed then in the newly renovated city.  Finally in May of 330, Emperor Constantine held a grand celebration in what is today the Hippodrome and renamed the city Byzantium Nova Roma, meaning “Byzantium the New Rome.” However, people soon began calling the city by another name, Constantinopolis or Constantinople, the “City of Constantine.”

Icon of the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea

The Byzantine Empire

Though Byzas, the legendary founder of Byzantium in the 7th century BCE, believed that his city on the Bosphorus would be special, he probably never could have imagined just how special or important. Constantine, who transformed the city into the new imperial Roman capital, was indeed an amazing personage in history. He is also known for taking early Christianity, which had been persecuted harshly throughout the Roman Empire, and not only tolerated it but in some ways actually promoted it through through various edicts.  He also was a supporter of the First Council of Nicaea. Later in 392, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I took things further by banning all pagan religions and decreeing Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire.  After Theodosius passed away, the Roman Empire was divided between his two sons with Honorius ruling the western part from Rome and Arcadius the east from Byzantium (which was now universally known as Constantinople). While the western part of the empire suffered tremendously at the hands of invading Vandal and Goth tribes, the eastern half was relatively prosperous.

In 413, the Emperor Theodosius II expanded the walls of Constantinople to accommodate for the city’s mushrooming population. He also started other public works projects including laying the foundations of the church that was to become the famous Aya Sofya, now one of the most marvelous and recognizable churches and human structures in the world.

In 476, calamity struck the western part of the Roman Empire as the Goths conquered and pillaged Rome. Though it had been on the wane, this catastrophic event effectively ended the once great city’s reign as political and cultural center of the empire, making Constantinople the sole of capital of what was an increasingly shrinking Roman realm. This also curbed Latin influence and made Greek language and culture more distinctive aspects of the empire. From around this time forward, at least in the eastern lands, the empire became known as the Byzantine Empire.

The next Byzantine emperor of note was Justinian I, who ruled from 527–565. His reign was a period in which relations between Rome and Constantinople became more strained. Part of this was political, but much of it was also religious in terms of which city was the true center of Christendom. At the same time, the Sassanians, the rulers of the Persian lands to the east, were also at war with the Byzantines and had gained the upper hand by 531, forcing the Byzantine Empire to pay a hefty tribute in return for peace.

532 though saw events that could have destroyed the Byzantine Empire from within. Mob violence that became known as the “Nika riots” occurred in the streets of the capital between the supporters of various political factions. In order to keep the peace, Justinian ordered that the leaders of the rioters be executed. This however caused the rioters to become even more violent and they soon turned their anger on the emperor himself. Justinian though was lucky enough to have one of his best generals, the talented Belisarius, in the capital at that time. He was able to restore order to Constantinople, but not after nearly 30,000 of the rioters were killed in the process.

With all of the damage that had occurred during the unrest, Justinian decided that this would be a good time to renovate parts of the capital and go on a building spree. One of these massive building projects was the renovation and expansion of the Hagia Sophia, or the Church of the Holy Wisdom.  Other building projects included the Church of Sergius and Bacchus (Küçük Aya Sofya), the Hagia Irini (Aya Irene) and the Basilica Cistern. In addition, Justinian’s general Belisarius conquered and regained much of the western parts of the empire including parts of Italy, Spain and parts of North Africa. The refurbished Constantinople was now at the head of a newly revived Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately, this did not last as the empire soon began to crumble from outside as well as from within.

After the death of Justinian, the Byzantine Empire was under constant attack from its neighbors. These included the Slavs, Avars, Serbs, Bulgars and especially the Persian Sassanians, who were the other superpower of the day. In fact, from the years 610–641 the Byzantine empire lost so much territory to the Sassanians, including Egypt, Syria, Palestine and most of Anatolia that at one point, the Persians occupied the city of Chalcedon, across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. The emperor Theodosius I though led an army against the Sassanians and defeated them so decisively that they never posed a real threat to the capital again. However, the Byzantines soon faced an enemy that left a more lasting and permanent impact than the Sassanians, namely the Arabs, who were out conquering the world in the name of the new religion of Islam. By 674, Arab armies were knocking on the doors of Constantinople and held siege to the city for decades until 718 when they were beaten back and left altogether.

Territory of the Byzantine Empire at various periods in history – map courtesy of Wikipedia

Increased Divisions between Rome and Constantinople

Though the threat of the Muslims had subsided for the time being, internal squabbles continued to plague the Byzantine Empire and the Christian church from within. Though the Byzantines gained some territory back from the Bulgars, they were having increasing conflicts with the Church in Rome over who was the rightful leader of the Christian world. Finally in 1054 things came to a head when the “Great Schism” between what became the Orthodox Church (led by the Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Roman Catholic Church (headed by the Pope in Rome) took place. The Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople from the faith, essentially calling him a heretic who should be removed from office. This though was of little consequence. After all, the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople were much more powerful than the Pope in Rome and the remnants of what was the Roman Empire in the west, and in reality the Pope had no authority or support in Byzantium to carry out such edicts. The two churches have remained separated up until this day.

The Crusades, Turks and the Decline of the Byzantine Empire

With the Arabs and the Bulgars pacified for the time being, the next great military threat to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire came from the Turkic tribes sweeping from Central Asia and onto the Anatolian plateau. Many of these tribes had relatively recently converted Islam and by the ninth and tenth centuries had become the most powerful Islamic armies in the world. In 1071 a Turkic tribe known as the Seljuks (a.k.a. the Selçuks) defeated the army of the Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes at Manzikert in southeastern Turkey. The Seljuks spread westward and captured much of Anatolia and established their capital in the city of Konya. Though territory changed hands between the two, the land that the Byzantine Empire held effectively shrunk to less than a quarter of what it had been a few centuries before. Hence, it was becoming less an empire and more of a Greek state.

The Seljuks were relatively content to stay in Anatolia and did not press forward to Constantinople. The real destruction to Constantinople, so great that the city never recovered from it was actually done at the hands of fellow Christians. In 1175 during what became known as the Second Crusade, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa instigated the Seljuk Turks attack the Byzantine Empire. In what in 1176 became the battle of Myriokephalo, the Seljuks annihilated the Byzantine forces and weaken the empire to the point that many of its territories either rose up in open revolt or simply seceded, especially in the Balkan areas.

Other European powers, especially those under the Roman Catholic Church (the “Latins”), took advantage of the Byzantine’s weakness and seized parts of the crumbling empire for themselves. In 1185 the Normans sacked Salonica, the second most important city within the empire.  In 1187, they took Edirne, just 300 km to the west of Constantinople.

The worst was still yet to come during what was known as the Fourth Crusade, when Constantinople itself was overrun and ravaged by the Latins. Timothy E. Gregory, in his book A History of Byzantium, best describes best how the events leading up to this catastrophic event occurred:

In the events that led to the “diversion” of the Fourth Crusade, the personalities of Pope Innocent III and the Venetian Doge, Enrico Dandalo, were paramount, but it is unreasonable to say that the whole thing was a plot, previously thought out. Certainly, all the elements were in place for an attack on Byzantium, and many westerners, especially the Normans and some of the Venetians, had openly talked about the conquest of Constantinople. Mutual hostility, greed, and the weakness of Byzantium were the main factors behind the events, but specific circumstances brought about the actual conquest of Constantinople.

Innocent III proclaimed the Fourth Crusade in 1202, and the Crusaders, under the leadership of Boniface of Montferrat, assembled in Venice, from which they were to sail to Egypt. The Crusaders, however, did not have the funds to pay the Venetians for transport, so an agreement was made, whereby the Crusaders were to stop at Zara, on the Dalmatian coast, which had rebelled from Venice and gone over to the Hungarians; the Crusaders were to assist the Venetians in securing control of the city once again. This was the first diversion of the crusade, and, although the inhabitants of Zara hung crosses on the walls, the city was taken (in 1202). In the meantime, Alexios Angelos, the son of the deposed Isaac II, traveled to the West, seeking aid first from Innocent III and then from Philip of Swabia, the successor of Henry VI of Germany and brother-in law of the Byzantine prince. Young Alexios made lavish offers to the Crusaders (including a promise to acknowledge the supremacy of the papacy) if they would help him to regain his rightful throne in Constantinople. The Crusaders accepted this proposal, and Alexios joined the Crusade in 1203. Upon the arrival of the Crusaders outside Constantinople, Alexios III fled the city, and Isaac II and his son Alexios IV were proclaimed as emperors.

Alexios attempted to fulfill the terms of his arrangement with the Crusaders, by collecting money and making arrangements to submit to the papacy, but it quickly became clear that neither he nor the weakened empire had the resources to meet these responsibilities. The people of Constantinople became restive, and in January of 1204 a riot broke out in Constantinople, led in part by Alexios Doukas (known as Mourtzouflos), who advocated resistance to the Crusaders. Alexios IV was killed and his father died shortly thereafter in prison. Alexios V Doukas became emperor and began to strengthen the walls and to carry out raids against the Crusaders. Naturally enough this caused the Crusaders to plan an open attack against Constantinople, in this case not to install a pliable puppet emperor, but to take the city for themselves. In March of 1204 they draw up a treaty (the so-called Partitio Romaniae) that provided a detailed plan for the division of the empire among the Crusaders and the establishment of a Latin Empire. The forces of Alexios V were able to defeat the first Crusader attack on 9 April 1204, but on 12 April the Crusaders broke into the Golden Horn and attacked the weaker sea walls along the northern side of the city. Despite significant resistance, the Crusaders forced an entry, and Alexios V fled the city. There followed a savage sack of Constantinople, which was still at the time one of the richest cities of the world, and innumerable treasures, books, and works of art were wantonly destroyed. In the carnage many of the manuscripts, Christian relics, and sculptures that had been assembled by the emperors, from the time of Constantine the Great onward, were destroyed, or in some few cases, transported back to the West, primarily to Venice. 3

There were many motivations for this, one being the religious schism that had occurred a few centuries before but also the seemingly different political realities for the two groups. On one hand, the Latins didn’t understand why the Byzantines were reluctant to aid them in their Crusade to capture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Byzantines though were being pragmatic. After all, their territories were the ones that bordered the Muslim lands of the East, not those of the fragmented Holy Roman Empire that the Latins represented. Though territorially the Byzantine Empire was crumbling, Constantinople itself was still a very wealthy city that the greedy Venetian backers of the Crusades most certainly coveted. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the sacking of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders was a most significant blow to the Byzantine Empire and one that they never recovered from.

Latin Crusaders sacking Constantinople

Though Constantinople was sacked, the Byzantine Empire was not yet dead. The Byzantines established a new capital at Nicaea and in 1261 under their Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos, took back Constantinople. Palaeologos was re-crowned Emperor of the Byzantine Empire in the famous Hagia Sophia and, though much smaller than in the past, the Byzantine Empire was reconstituted with Constantinople as its capital city once again.

With the Latins kicked out and their appetite for the Crusades and eastern ventures sapped by numerous defeats and stalemates with the Muslims, the Byzantines only formidable enemies were the Turkic tribes on its borders. Even these, especially the Seljuks, were occupied with fighting off the Mongols who were advancing from the East. With few enemies to fight, the Byzantine Empire and the city of Constantinople went through a sort of renaissance of their own. Byzantine art flourished again and the city became more and more prosperous with each passing year.

The Ottomans and the conquest of Constantinople

With Seljuk power on the wane, a new Turkic tribe burst onto the scene and began grabbing up land in eastern Anatolia. This tribe became known as the Ottomans, a name derived from their leader, Osman and his followers who were called Osmanli. Osman passed away in 1324 and was succeeded by his son, Orhan. Orhan wasted no time in conquering the neighboring areas and in 1326 captured the city of Bursa, just south of Constantinople. He made the city his capital and proclaimed himself sultan. After this, he captured Nicaea, the city that had been the temporary Byzantine capital when Constantinople was being occupied by the the Latins and also a historically signifiant place for early Christianity. Later Ottoman sultans bypassed Constantinople and invaded the Greek mainland and parts of the Balkans, grabbing up land and cities there. This was significant because it was the first time in centuries that a Muslim force was able to occupy land in continental Europe (the last time being Spain by the Moors, and they at the time were losing territory to the Spanish rulers of Castile and Aragorn).

By the 1440s, the Ottoman armies of the young Sultan Mehmat II were laying siege to Constantinople as well as kingdoms in what is today Romania and Serbia. His ultimate goal however was to breach the city walls of Constantinople and make the city his own. To aid with this, Mehmet built Rumeli Hisari, a great fortress just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople as well as rebuilt the older Anadolu Hisari, another fortress originally built by his great-grandfather Beyazit I (a.k.a. Beyazid I). With both of these fortresses, Mehmet and his army were able to control the Bosphorus.

Despite this, the Byzantines held their ground and closed off the mouth of the Golden Horn with a heavy chains to prevent Ottoman ships from attacking the city walls from the north.  Mehmet however was relentless and had his men travel at night on rollers to the other side of the Golden Horn to a place now called Kasimpaşa. The Byzantines were caught by surprise and were unable to prevent Mehmet’s forces from taking the entire Golden Horn. Taking the land outside of Constantinople was one thing, but breaching its walls was something else.

Mehmet II overlooking the Bosphorus with Constantinople in his sight

Mehmet’s men desperately tried to knock down the walls of Constantinople with their cannons but to no avail. The Byzantines were able to fix any damage to the walls by nightfall. At this point the story becomes very interesting. There was a Hungarian cannon maker named Urban (a.k.a. Orban) who had come to help the Byzantine Emperor defend Constantinople for the sake of Christendom. Unfortunately, the Byzantine Emperor was short on cash and could not pay Urban what he wanted for his services. Dismayed, Urban went to Mehmet offered to make him the most enormous cannon ever. Mehmet, who did have money, accepted. The cannon was built and ultimately brought down the western walls of Constantinople. On May 28, 1453, Mehmet’s forces pummeled and knocked down Constantinople’s walls with their new device. By the next evening, the Turks were in control of the entire city. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, fought on until the end but it was of no use. The Byzantine Empire, one of the mightiest empires that lasted for over a millennium, ceased to exist.

Painting of Istanbul

After the capturing Constantinople, sultan Mehmet became known as “Mehmet the Conquerer.” He however saw himself not just as a conquerer but also a liberator and patron of the arts. Seeing himself as the successor to great emperors such as Constantine and Justinian, the 21-year-old conqueror at once began to rebuild and repopulate the city. He built many new buildings, restored old ones and had the Hagia Sofia converted to a mosque. Mehmet was also relatively tolerant and allowed the Greeks who had fled the city to return and resettle there. He also guaranteed the safety and freedom of worship for Christians, Jews as well as Muslims. To this day, the office of the Patriarch of Constantinople is still in Istanbul.

Mehmet’s successors continued his building programs and expanded the city. They constructed numerous public works buildings, mosques, palaces and even sporting arenas. The city reached its zenith under the sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, who commissioned the architect Mimar Sinan to build wonders such as the Süleymaniye mosque, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. Istanbul soon became known as “the Paris of the East.”

Sultan Mehmet II entering Constantinople

After Süleyman the Magnificent’s reign, the Ottoman empire slowly started to decline, losing territory and decaying from within. The end though came after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was defeated alongside Germany and the other Central Powers. The Allies, most notably Great Britain and France, carved up the remaining areas of the Ottoman state into mandates (Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, etc.). In the Turkish homeland and Anatolia, a civil war broke out with Mustafa Kemal, a former soldier in the Ottoman empire, taking control and declaring Turkey a Republic. Kemal adopted the tile of Atatürk, meaning father of the Turks. The Ottoman Empire was officially disbanded and the new government moved the capital of the new Turkish state from Istanbul to Ankara.

Istanbul Today

Though losing its status as one of the most important capital cities of the world (both of the Byzantines and the Ottomans), Istanbul still is Turkey’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. It also receives the most visitors of any other place in Turkey and is considered one of the most chic cities in all of Europe.

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