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History of Istanbul

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History of Istanbul

The History of Istanbul explains the historical development of the modern city of Istanbul.

The settlement was founded by Thracian tribes between the 13th and 11th centuries BC,[1][2] whose earliest known name is Lygos.[3] It was colonised by the Greeks in the 7th century BC. It fell to the Roman Republic in AD 196, and was known as Byzantium until 330, when it was renamed Constantinople and made the new capital of the Roman Empire. During late antiquity, the city rose to be the largest of the western hemisphere, with a population peaking at close to half a million people. Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire. That ended with the Muslim conquest in 1453. Constantinople then became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Population had declined during the medieval period, but as the Ottoman Empire approached its historical peak, the city grew to a population of close to 700,000 in the 16th century, at the time second in size only to Beijing, and outgrown by London only in the course of the 18th century. When the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the capital was moved from Constantinople to Ankara. Since 1930, the native name "Istanbul" has been the sole official name of the city in Turkish and has since replaced the traditional name "Constantinople" in most western languages as well.


  • Prehistory 1
  • Lygos 2
  • Byzantium 3
  • Late Roman period and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire 4
  • Ottoman Empire 5
    • Conquest 5.1
    • Imperial capital 5.2
    • Foundations 5.3
    • Modernization 5.4
  • Republic of Turkey 6
  • See also 7
  • Further reading and references 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


Humans have lived in the area now known as Istanbul since at least the Neolithic. The earliest known settlement dates from 6700 BC, discovered in 2008, during the construction works of the Yenikapı subway station and the Marmaray tunnel at the historic peninsula on the European side.[4][5][6] The first human settlement on the Anatolian side, the Fikirtepe mound, is from the Copper Age period, with artifacts dating from 5500 to 3500 BC.[7] In nearby Kadıköy (Chalcedon) a port settlement dating back to the Phoenicians has been discovered.


The first name of the city was Lygos[8] according to Pliny the Elder, which he mentioned in it his historical accounts. It was founded by Thracian tribes between the 13th and 11th centuries BC, along with the neighbouring fishing village of Semistra,[1] Only a few walls and substructures belonging to Lygos have survived to date, near the Seraglio Point (Turkish: Sarayburnu), where the famous Topkapı Palace now stands. Lygos and Semistra were the only settlements on the European side of Istanbul. On the Asian side there was a Phoenician colony. On the site of Lygos, the later Byzantium was located, thus Lygos is accepted as the city which gave rise to Istanbul.


Byzantion (Βυζάντιον), [9]:352ff Ancient Greek legend refers to a legendary king Bizas as the leader of the Megarean colonists and eponymous founder of the city. Cape Moda in Chalcedon was the first location which the Greek settlers from Megara chose to colonize in 685 BC, prior to colonizing Byzantion on the European side of the Bosphorus under the command of King Byzas in 667 BC. Byzantion was established on the site of an ancient port settlement named Lygos[1] During the period of Byzantion, the Acropolis used to stand where the Topkapı Palace stands today.

After siding with Pescennius Niger against the victorious Septimius Severus the city was besieged by Rome and suffered extensive damage in AD 196. Byzantium was rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and quickly regained its previous prosperity, being temporarily renamed as Augusta Antonina by the emperor, in honor of his son.

Late Roman period and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire

An artist's impression of Constantinople

The location of Byzantium attracted Constantine the Great in 324 after a prophetic dream was said to have identified the location of the city; but the true reason behind this prophecy was probably Constantine's final victory over Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis (Üsküdar) on the Bosphorus, on 18 September 324, which ended the civil war between the Roman Co-Emperors, and brought an end to the final vestiges of the Tetrarchy system, during which Nicomedia (present-day İzmit, 100 km east of Istanbul) was the most senior Roman capital city. Byzantium (now renamed as Nova Roma which eventually became Constantinopolis, i.e. The City of Constantine) was officially proclaimed the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330. Following the death of Theodosius I in 395 and the permanent partition of the Roman Empire between his two sons, Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The combination of imperialism and location would play an important role as the crossing point between two continents (Europe and Asia), and later a magnet for Africa and others as well, in terms of commerce, culture, diplomacy, and strategy. It was the center of the Greek world and for most of the Byzantine period, the largest city in Europe.

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity a few years earlier, in 312, had set the Roman Empire onto Christianization, and in 381, during the reign of Theodosius I, the official state religion of the Roman Empire became Christianity, which turned Constantinople into a thriving religious center.[10] After the end of his reign in 337, Constantine declared his three sons as joint heirs of the Roman Empire in a system of co-emperorship.[11] Unfortunately, the sons couldn’t govern together peacefully and their war raged rivalry split the empire on the north-south line along the Balkan Peninsula. The territory was officially split in 395 when Theodosius I (ruled, 379-395) died leaving his son Arcadius emperor of the eastern half of the empire and his other son Honorius emperor of the western half.[11]

Throughout the fifth century, the western half of the Roman Empire lost most of its power through decline in political, economic and social situations, the last western emperor being deposed by Germanic mercenaries in AD 476; the eastern half, however, was flourishing. According to historians this flourishing Eastern Roman Empire was then classified as the Byzantine Empire to distinguish it from the Roman Empire.[12] This empire was distinctly Greek in culture, and became the centre of Greek Orthodox Christianity after an earlier split with Rome, and was adorned with many magnificent churches, including Hagia Sophia, once the world's largest cathedral. The seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, remains.

The most famous Byzantine emperor was Codex which was completed in 534.[13] However, Justinian’s reign was the greatest influence of the Byzantine Empire.

Starting in the 600’s warfare kept Constantinople’s power flip-flopping between decline and progression. Alliance with Europe slowly began to break away from the Byzantine Empire between the seventh-eighth centuries when the Byzantine and Roman churches disagreed on various subjects. However, the distinguishing gap placed between the two churches involved the use of icons in the church. Icons, being images of Christian holy people such as

External links

  • Boyar, Ebru; Fleet, Kate. A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul (Cambridge University Press, 2010. 376 pp.) online review
  • Derviş, Pelin, Bülent Tanju, and Uğur Tanyeli, eds. Becoming Istanbul: An Encyclopedia (Istanbul: Ofset Yapımevi, 2008)
  • Freely, John. Istanbul: The Imperial City (Penguin, 1998). Popular history
  • Göktürk, Deniz, Levent Soysal, and İpek Türeli, eds. Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? (Routledge, 2010)
  • Kafescioğlu, Çiğdem. Constantinopolis/Istanbul: Cultural Encounter, Imperial Vision, and the Construction of the Ottoman Capital (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009) 295 pp. online review
  • Keyder, Çağlar ed. Istanbul between the global and the local (Rowman & Littlefied Publishers, 1999).
  • Mansel, Philip. Istanbul: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924 (London: John Murray, 1995); Popular history
  • Mills, Amy Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul (University of Georgia Press, 2010) 248 pp. online review

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c Vailhé, S. (1908). "Constantinople". Catholic Encyclopedia 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  2. ^ a b  
  3. ^ Pliny the Elder, book IV, chapter XI:
  4. ^ BBC: "Istanbul's ancient past unearthed" Published on 10 January 2007. Retrieved on 3 March 2010.
  5. ^ Hürriyet: Bu keşif tarihi değiştirir (2 October 2008)
  6. ^ Hürriyet: Photos from the Neolithic site, circa 6500 BC
  7. ^ "Cultural Details of Istanbul". Republic of Turkey, Minister of Culture and Tourism. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  8. ^ ..."On leaving the Dardanelles we come to the Bay of Casthenes, ... and the promontory of the Golden Horn, on which is the town of Byzantium, a free state, formerly called Lygos; it is 711 miles from Durazzo, "
    Pliny the Elder, book IV, chapter XI:
  9. ^ Georgacas, Demetrius John (1947). "The Names of Constantinople". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 78: 347–67.  
  10. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. p. 253
  11. ^ a b Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. p. 248
  12. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. p. 272
  13. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. pp. 273–276
  14. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. p. 291
  15. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. p. 292
  16. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. pp. 313–314
  17. ^ a b c Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. p. 427
  18. ^ a b c d Inalcik, Halil. "The Policy of Mehmed II toward the Greek Population of Istanbul and the Byzantine Buildings of the City." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23, (1969): 229-249
  19. ^ Hatzopoulos, Dionysios. "The Fall of Constantinople." (accessed 2012-05-31). p. 6
  20. ^ a b Eversley, Lord. The Turkish Empire from 1288 to 1914. 3rd ed. Howard Fertig. New York: Howard Fertig Inc., 1924. p. 2
  21. ^ Hatzopoulos, Dionysios. "The Fall of Constantinople." (accessed 2/10/08). p. 7
  22. ^ Hatzopoulos, Dionysios. "The Fall of Constantinople." (accessed 2/10/08). pp. 4–10
  23. ^ Lewis, Bernard. Istanbul and the Civilization if the Ottoman Empire. 1, University of Oklahoma Press, 1963. p. 6
  24. ^ Inalcik, Halil. "The Policy of Mehmed II toward the Greek Population of Istanbul and the Byzantine Buildings of the City." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23, (1969): 229-249. p. 236
  25. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures. 2nd ed. A, To 1500. Mary Dougherty and Denise B. Wydra. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. p. 330
  26. ^ Byzantium 1200: Monastery of Saint George of the Mangana
  27. ^ Byzantium 1200: Monastery of Saint George of the Mangana
  28. ^ Europe's Muslim Capital - History Today


  • Social History of Ottoman Istanbul by Ebru Boyar and Kate Fleet (Cambridge University Press; 2010) 376 pages
  • An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914 by Halil Inalcik and Donald Quataert
  • Between Two Worlds: the Construction of the Ottoman State by Cemal Kafadar
  • Turkey a Modern History by E. J. Zürchner.
  • Europe's Muslim Capital by Philip Mansel in the June 2003 issue of History Today for a reasonable overview.

Further reading and references

See also

Starting from the 1970s, the population of Istanbul began to rapidly increase, as people from Anatolia migrated to the city in order to find employment in the many new factories that were constructed at the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis. This sudden sharp rise in the city's population caused a large demand for housing development, and many previously outlying villages and forests became engulfed into the greater metropolitan area of Istanbul.

In September 1955 many Georgians were also targeted.

In the early years of the republic, Istanbul was overlooked in favour of Ankara, the new capital. However, starting from the late 1940s and early 1950s, Istanbul underwent great structural change, as new public squares (such as Taksim Square), boulevards and avenues were constructed throughout the city; sometimes at the expense of the demolition of many historical buildings.

The city's name İstanbul is a shortened version with a Turkish character of the Medieval Greek phrase "εἰς τὴν Πόλιν" [is tim ˈbolin], meaning "to the city", which had long been in vernacular use by the local population. The international name Constantinople also remained in use until Turkey adapted the Latin alphabet in 1928 and urged other countries to use the city's Turkish name in their languages and their postal service networks.

When the Republic of Turkey was founded under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on 29 October 1923, the capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara. As a consequence, population collapsed, from an estimated 1,125,000 in 1914 to about 500,000 in 1924; but population steadily grew during the later 20th century, the metropolitan population surpassing 10 million in the year 2000.

Ethno-religious groups in Istanbul (1896-1965). A multicultural city in 1896, with a 50,5% Muslim population, turned into a predominantly Muslim one after 1925.

Republic of Turkey

Panoramic view of the city in the 1870s as seen from Galata Tower

The city was modernized from the 1870s onwards with the building of bridges, the creation of a proper water system, the use of electric lights, and the introduction of trams and telephones.

As the years passed the population increased, from about 80,000 at the death of Mehmet, to 300,000 by the eighteenth century, and 400,000 in 1800. The capital of an empire that stretched across Europe, Asia and Africa, it also became an important diplomatic centre, with several foreign embassies. It was only after 1922, following the war between Greece and Turkey that things really began to change. With the establishment of the new Turkish Republic, built on a wave of nationalism, there was a mass exodus of much of the Greek and Armenian population from Istanbul, which had ceased to be the capital. After riots in 1955 the remaining fraction also departed.


Sufi orders which were so widespread in the Islamic world and who had many followers who had actively participated in the conquest of the city came to settle in the capital. During Ottoman times over 100 Tekkes were active in the city alone. Many of these Tekkes survive to this day some in the form of mosques while others as museums such as the Jerrahi Tekke in Fatih, the Sunbul Effendi and Ramazan Effendi Mosque and Turbes also in Fatih, the Galata Mevlevihane in Beyoğlu, the Yahya Effendi Tekke in Beşiktaş, and the Bektashi Tekke in Kadıköy, which now serves Alevi Muslims as a Cem Evi.

Süleyman’s reign was a time of great artistic and architectural achievements. The architect Sinan designed many mosques and other great buildings in the city, while Ottoman arts of ceramics and calligraphy also flourished.

Kostantiniyye from the "Book of Navigation" by Piri Reis, ca. 1525

"Foundations" is vakifs in Turkish. The Grand Bazaar (1455) and Topkapı Palace (1459) were erected in the years following the Turkish conquest. Religious foundations were endowed to fund the building of mosques such as the Fatih (1463) and their associated schools and public baths. The city had to be repopulated by a mixture of force and encouragement.


There was also an Italian community in the area of the Galata Tower. Having surrendered before the fall of the city Mehmet allowed them to preserve an element of self-government. For generations after they supplied interpreters and diplomats for the Ottoman Court. After the conquest of Egypt in 1517, and the Sultan's acceptance of the position of Caliph, Constantinople acquired an additional importance in Muslim eyes. Mosques built by Suleyman the Magnificent and his successors gave the city the unique appearance it still preserves today. The individual communities, though, still lived in self-contained areas, and had little in the way of social interaction, a source of future trouble.

... every one of us lives in peace and freedom. Here the Jew is not compelled to wear the yellow star as a badge of shame as is the case in Germany, where even wealth and great fortune are a curse for the Jew because he therewith arouses jealousy among the Christians and they devise all sorts of slander against him to rob him of his gold.
View of the Seraglio Point from Pera, with the Bosphorus at left, the entrance of the Golden Horn at right, and the Sea of Marmara with the Princes' Islands on the horizon

Mehmet took much personal interest in the creation of his new capital. On his orders the great mosque and the college of Fatih were built on the old burial grounds of the Byzantine Emperors at the Church of the Holy Apostles. Bit by bit the great Christian city was transformed into a great Muslim city. Even so, the city was not to be entirely Muslim, at least not until the late twentieth century. Slavs, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, all of whose diverse skills were needed, were allowed to settle in a city which was to become known as alem penah-refuge of the universe. According to the census of 1477, there were 9,486 houses occupied by Muslims; 3,743 by Greeks; 1,647 by Jews; 267 by Christians from the Crimea, and 31 Gypsies. Mehmet also re-established Constantinople, as it was still called at that time, as the center of the Orthodox patriarchate. The atmosphere was both relaxed and tolerant, as a Jewish rabbi noted in a letter:

Mehmet then sent officers to all his lands to announce that whoever wished should come and take possession in Constantinople, as freehold, of houses and orchards and gardens ... Despite this measure the city was not repopulated. So then the Sultan commanded that from every land families, rich and poor alike, should be brought in by force ... and now the city began to be populous.[28]

In the final years of the Byzantine Empire the population of Constantinople had fallen steadily, throwing the great imperial city into the shadow of its past glory. For Mehmet II conquest was only the first stage; the second was giving the old city an entirely new cosmopolitan social structure. Most of what remained of the Byzantine population - a mere 30,000 persons - was deported. According to the Ashikpashazade, a Turkish chronicle,

Daily life near the Hayratiye Bridge
Panoramic view of the historic peninsula of Istanbul, looking westwards from the southern entrance of the [27] The dome of the Hagia Irene can be seen to the right of the Hagia Sophia.

Suleiman the Magnificent's reign over the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566 was a period of great artistic and architectural achievements. The famous architect Mimar Sinan designed many mosques and other grand buildings in the city, while Ottoman arts of ceramics and calligraphy also flourished. Many tekkes survive to this day; some in the form of mosques while others have become museums such as the Cerrahi Tekke and the Sünbül Efendi and Ramazan Efendi mosques and türbes in Fatih, the Galata Mevlevihanesi in Beyoğlu, the Yahya Efendi tekke in Beşiktaş, and the Bektaşi Tekke in Kadıköy, which now serves Alevi Muslims as a cemevi.

By 1459 the Sultan dedicated a lot of energy to bringing prosperity to Constantinople. In several quarters of the city pious foundations were created; these areas consisted of a theological college, a school (or a Madrasa, usually connected to the mosque[25]), a public kitchen, and a mosque.[18] In the same year Mehmed sent out orders that any Greeks who had left Constantinople as slaves or refugees should be allowed to return. These actions led it to become a once again thriving capital city, now of the Ottoman Empire.[18]

Imperial capital

Finally, Constantinople was under Ottoman rule. Mehmed entered Constantinople through what is now known as the Topkapi Gate, he immediately rode his horse to the Hagia Sophia which he ordered to be sacked. He ordered that an imam meet him there in order to chant the Muslim Creed: "I testify that there is no God but Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah."[23] This turned the Greek cathedral into a Turkish mosque, solidifying Turkish rule in Constantinople. Mehmed's main concern with Constantinople had to do with rebuilding the city's defenses and re-population. Building projects were commenced immediately after the conquest, which included the repair of the walls, construction of the citadel, and building a new palace.[18] Mehmed issued orders across his empire that Muslims, Christians, and Jews should resettle the city; he demanded that five thousand households needed to be deported to Constantinople by September.[24]

Once the fighting started, it went on for forty-eight days. The wall was beginning to collapse when Constantine sent a letter to the pope asking for help. In response the pope sent five ships full of reinforcements, weapons and supplies. Another defense tactic involved Constantine blocking off the port so that the Ottoman army could not get ships into it. Mehmed had his people pave a path from oiled tree branches in order to bring eighty ships overland, and placed them into the gulf behind the enemy ships. The Ottoman ships burnt the Byzantine ones in a naval battle.[21] Since the Byzantine army was still holding on after this defeat the sultan thought it was time to set up his secret weapon, a huge mobile tower. This tower could hold many soldiers who could be at the same level as the walls of the city, making it easier for them to break into Constantinople. The first group of Ottomans who entered the city were killed almost immediately, with the effect that the other Muslims began to retreat. Witnessing this, the sultan encouraged his soldiers. Soon after the sultan's encouragement the Muslims broke the wall in two places and entered the city. In a last attempt to protect it, Constantine attacked the enemy sword raised; however he was defeated and killed.[22]

Mehmed had begun the siege on 6 April 1453. He had hired engineers to build cannons and bombs for the occasion. He also acquired scholars and imams to encourage the soldiers. In accordance with Shariah (Muslim Holy Law), Mehmed gave the Byzantine emperor Constantine Palaeologus (1449–1453) three chances to surrender the city.[18] He guaranteed the safety of the city's residents, with their riches, beliefs and honor. Constantine valiantly refused the offer.[19] After more than a month of fighting, Mehmed's advisors were beginning to lose hope. Against their counsel, Mehmed continued to fight. The night before the final assault, he studied previous attempts to take the city to distinguish potentially successful approaches. On the morning of 29 May 1453 the sultan ordered Adzan (the call to prayer).[20] This was not a regular prayer session for religious reasons but rather a scare tactic: the sight of the entire Ottoman army getting on their knees to pray provided an intimidating display of unity to the Byzantine forces designed to overcome their minds before their bodies.[20]

On 29 May 1453, Sultan Mehmed II "the Conqueror", entered Constantinople after a 53–day siege during which his cannon had torn a huge hole in the Walls of Theodosius II. Istanbul became the third capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Melchior Lorck - The Prospect of Constantinople (16th century)


The city, known alternatively in Ottoman Turkish as Kostantiniyye (قسطنطينيه after the Arabic form al-Qusṭanṭiniyah القسطنطينية) or Istanbul (while its Christian minorities continued to name it Constantinople), was the capital of the Ottoman Empire from its conquest in 1453 until the empire's collapse in 1922.

Ottoman Empire

Near 1204 Constantinople began to decline in power. Because of the failure of the Third Crusade, self-confident western Europeans decided to again try to capture the Holy City of Jerusalem in the Fourth Crusade; but this time their plan was to capture the Byzantine Empire as well. In 1204, western armies captured Constantinople and ransacked the city for treasures.[17] The pope decried the sacking of Constantinople but ordered the crusaders to consolidate their gains in the city for a year. The crusaders chose Baldwin of Flanders to be the new Byzantine Emperor; he along with other princes and the Venetians divided the Empire amongst themselves; they never made it to Jerusalem.[17] This new Latin Empire at Constantinople lasted until 1261, when the Byzantines under the command of Michael VIII Palaeologus recaptured the city and some outlying territory.[17] After this, Constantinople never regained its former glory. Rather than a thriving metropolis, Constantinople transformed into a collection of villages, and became a semi-ghost town with, as Ibn Battuta noted, sown fields within the city walls. The city by 1453 held less than a tenth of its former population.

From around 800s to 1200 Constantinople developed complex relationships with an emerging and later the largest and most advanced state of that time in Europe - Kiev Rus. Constantinople played a significant role in the Kiev Rus development, culture, and politics. Many of the Kiev Princes were married to daughters of the Byzantine Emperors, and because of this connection Eastern Europe became Orthodox, after it was Christianized by Vladimir the Great of Kiev. However these relationships were not always friendly - Constantinople was sacked several times over those 400 years by Kiev Princes, forcing Constantinople to sign an increasingly favorable treaties for Kiev, the texts of which were preserved in the Primary Chronicle and other historical documents (see Rus'-Byzantine Wars). Byzantine constantly played Kiev, Poland, Bulgaria, and other European Nations of that time, against each other.

Their separation caused hatred between the two churches and cooperation between the two was a struggle. [16] The fierce opposition to icons clashed with the pope’s tolerance of images. The papacy was unwilling to permit sacred images and icons to be destroyed and this caused eventual separation.[15]

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