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Istanbul Was Once Constantinople

A Brief History of Istanbul, Turkey

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Istanbul, Turkey

The sun sets over Hagia Sophia mosque November 23, 2003 in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Updated May 19, 2014
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and is among the 25 largest urban areas in the world. It is located on the Bosporus Strait and covers the entire area of the Golden Horn - a natural harbor. Because of its size, Istanbul extends into both Europe and Asia. The city is the world’s only metropolis to extend into more than one continent.

The city of Istanbul is important to geography because it has a long history that spans the rise and fall of the world's most famous empires. Due to its participation in these empires, Istanbul has also undergone various name changes throughout its lengthy history.

History of Istanbul

Byzantium

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 7th 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.

The Roman Empire (330-395 CE)

Following its development by the Greeks, Byzantium became a part of the Roman Empire in the 300s. During this time, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great undertook a construction project to rebuild the entire city. His goal was to make it stand out and give the city 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 Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire (395-1204 and 1261-1453 CE)

After Constantinople was named the capital of the Roman Empire the city grew and prospered. After the death of the emperor Theodosius I in 395, however, enormous upheaval took place in the empire as his sons permanently divided the empire. 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, diplomacy, and grew considerably. In 532, though, the anti-government Nika Revolt broke out among the city’s population and destroyed it. After the revolt however, the Constantinople was rebuilt and many of its most outstanding monuments were constructed- one of which was the Haghia Sophia as Constantinople became the center of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Latin Empire (1204-1261)

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 it 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.

The Ottoman Empire (1453-1922)

After being considerably weakened by constant invasions and being cut off from its neighbors by the Ottoman Turks, 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 named as 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), 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. 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 it a major cultural, political, and commercial center. By the mid-1500s, the city’s population also grew to almost 1 million inhabitants. The Ottoman Empire ruled Istanbul until it was defeated and occupied by the allies in World War I.

The Republic of Turkey (1923-today)

Following its occupation by the allies in 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 and investment went into the new centrally located capital Ankara. In the 1940s and 1950s though, Istanbul re-emerged new public squares, boulevards, and avenues were constructed. Because of the construction though, 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.

Istanbul Today

Istanbul's many historical areas were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985. In addition, because of its status as a world rising power, its history, importance to culture in both Europe and the world, Istanbul has been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2010 by the European Union.

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