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History of Istanbul

From the prehistorical period to the foundation of Byzantion

The first human settlement in Istanbul, the Fikirtepe mound on the Anatolian side, is from the Chalcolithic period, with artifacts dating from 5500-3500 BC. In nearby Kadıköy (Chalcedon), a large port settlement dating from the Phoenicians has been discovered. Cape Moda in Chalcedon was also the first location which the Greek settlers from Megara chose to colonize, in 685 BC, a few years before they colonized Byzantion on the other (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, which was founded by Thracian tribes between the 13th and 11th centuries BC, along with the neighbouring Semistra. Plinius has also mentioned Lygos in his books of history. Only a few walls and substructures belonging to Lygos have survived to our date, near the Seraglio Point (Turkish: Sarayburnu), where the famous Topkapı Palace now stands. During the period of Byzantion, the Acropolis used to stand where Topkapı Palace stands today.

Late Roman period and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire

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 September 18, 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 never officially proclaimed as the new capital of the Roman Empire but it did start to supersede Rome and the other cities by natural means. 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. It was captured and sacked by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and then re-captured by Nicaean forces under the command of Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261. With the fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire, the name of the city was changed to Constantinople and became the sole capital of what historians now call the Byzantine Empire. 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.

Ottoman Empire

On 29 May 1453, Sultan Mehmet 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.

Multi-ethnic way of living

In the final years of the Byzantine Empire the population of Constantinople had reduced 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 cosmoplitan social structure. Most of what remained of the Byzantine population-a mere 30,000 people-was deported.

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 Armenian, 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 Istanbul, as we should now call it, as the cente of the Orthodox patriarchate. The atmosphere was both relaxed and tolerant, as a Jewish rabbi noted in a letter:

...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.

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 interpretors and diplomats for the Ottoman Court. After the conquest of Egypt in 1517, and the Sultan's acceptance of the position of Caliph, Istanbul 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.


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. The city continued to develop a distinct international identity, so much so that by the time the population reached a million in 1900, under 50% of the people were Muslim. 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.

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 streetcars and telephones.

Republic of Turkey

When the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara. The city's name Constantinople had remained, in the form Konstantiniyye, throughout the Ottoman period. Outside the Empire, it was often known as Stambul or Stamboul. There are various other names of Istanbul, used throughout history (Names of Istanbul). With the Turkish Post Codes Law of 1930, it was ordered that from then on only the name "Istanbul" would be used in official documents and letters.

In the early years of the republic, Istanbul was overlooked in favour of the new capital Ankara but, during the 1950s and 1960s, Istanbul underwent great structural change. The city's once numerous and prosperous Greek community, remnants of the city's Greek origins, dwindled in the aftermath of the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom with most Greeks in Turkey leaving their homes for Greece.

In the 1950s the government of Adnan Menderes sought to develop the country as a whole and new roads and factories were constructed throughout the city. Wide modern boulevards and large public squares were built in Istanbul, but some, unfortunately, were at the expense of demolishing many historical buildings.

During the 1970s the population of Istanbul began to increase rapidly as people from Anatolia started migrating to the city in order to find employment in the many new factories that were built in that period. This sudden sharp increase in the population caused a rapid rise in housing development (mostly of poor construction quality and shabby appearance) and many previously outlying villages became engulfed into the greater metropolis of Istanbul. Older Turks who have lived in Istanbul for over 30 or more years can still remember how areas such as large parts of Maltepe, Kartal, Pendik, and others were green fields when they were young. Other areas such as Tuzla were nothing more than sleepy villages.


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