The city joins two continents, linking Europe and Asia, across the Bosphorus, a waterway route from the Black Sea (northeast) to the Sea of Marmara (southwest) flowing eventually to the Mediterranean Sea. The city defines the east meets west, and contains the relics of three empires of antiquity. It is a place of infinite variety: palaces, bazaars, mosques, museums and coffee houses.
Founded near a Mycenean settlement of about the C13 BCE, the archaeological evidence favors the scholarly opinion that an agricultural village merged with a small fishing village in about C11 BCE (about the site where the Topkapi Palace is today). The later city, originally called Byzantium was likely founded in the middle of the 7th century BCE (685 BCE) by Greek Colonists of Argos and Megara. According to the history-legend, Byza went to the oracle of Delphi and was told to “settle opposite the land of the Blind”. Originally they chose a land near Chalcedon (Kadikoy) but later reinterpreted the words to mean the area of the city today. It was apparently named after the founder’s sister Byzantium, the first of a series of names the city took over the centuries.
The Medo-Persian excursion of Darius lead to the taking of this city in 506 BCE, and it was established as the terminal point of a trade route beginning in the Persian Gulf and stretching across the whole of Modern Turkey. Alexander the Great brought the city back under full Greek influence and control, but the city remained more or less autonomous until in came under Roman domination when Emperor Septimus Severus in 196 CE took it. After a tax resistance movement flourished in the city, the Emperor moved in and laid siege, destroying the city, and killing many of the rebellious inhabitants. He refounded the city, building the Hippodrome, the Theatre, and the huge wall enclosed “playground”. He renamed the city “Augusta Antonia” after his son Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (later referred to by the epithet “Caracalla”). This second name lasted from about 200 BCE to 330 CE.
In 330CE Emperor Constantine the Great transferred his capital from Rome to Byzantium (it was also reportedly built on seven hills) and soon afterwards gave the city its third name “Constantinople”. He dedicated the city to the Virgin Mary, founded St. Sophia, the Senate, the Forum Augusteum and the Great Palace. He added the “Serpentine Column” from Delphi to the Hippodrome, and the so called “Burnt Column” was brought from Rome. The importance of the city in Christian History was striking, as one writer notes:
“When he made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, it was only natural he should take his role among the bishops of the church as if he were one of them. The Emperor fixed this into the physical structure of the city by making the church building the center of the city, which is still to be found in many eastern towns and cities. Thus church and state began to operate in a more uniform way in Constantinople,” The New International Dictionary of Church History (p. 256).
Three of the seven “Ecumenical” councils were held in Constantinople (381, 553, 680). A later council was held here in 879. The bishops of Constantinople and Rome competed for the primacy of the Church. Today the Patriarch of Constantinople, even after years of Turkish rule, remains the supreme authority of the Greek Orthodox Church.
A generation later, in 390 CE, Emperor Theodosius I followed the same pattern and brought the obelisk from Egypt to the Hippodrome, where it stands today. After the death of Theodosius I, his sons divided the empire in (395 CE) as Honorius went to Rome and Arcadius remained in Constantinople, now the capital of the eastern empire, now called the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, credited with bringing much stability to the empire and building places like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the C6th CE, was surprised by the popular reaction when he married a circus dancer from Cyprus. The so called “NIKA revolt” was fierce, and Justinian put down the rebellion with a firm hand, reportedly killing some 30,000 city inhabitants in the Hippodrome. The accompanying fire of the revolt burned St. Sophia, but Justinian restored the Church and the city following the unrest. The beautiful Byzantine artistry is best depicted in the design of St. Sophia, which stands to this day. Another byproduct of the revolt was the codification of peasant law, a form that provides the base of many European legal codes to this day.
The city was besieged or sacked a number times including the Arab siege of 655 CE, with others in 672, 717 and 733 CE. The city was the scene of several devastating battles. Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976-1025 CE) brought a Renaissance to the city, until waves of Arab and Bulgar invaders are put down in a brutal mass blinding of captured troops. Basil has their eyes put out and send them home with a few guides that are spared to lead them.
In the fourth crusade in 1204 CE, the Venetian Dandolo laid sections of the city waste and the city never completely recovered. It took some time after the establishment of the Ottoman Empire in 1299 to take Constantinople. Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453, and the city was given its fourth and current name “Istanbul”. Mehmet reportedly used over 100,000 men, and 100 boats in the harbor. The Byzantine defenders had placed iron chains across the Golden Horn, and the Ottomans pulled boats across the land from Dolmabahce to Kasimpasa to bypass the chains. Eventually they stormed and overwhelmed the defenses of the city.
The Ottoman Empire eventually spread throughout the Near East, and reached its zenith in the C16th CE under Sultan Sulieman the Magnificient, who built not only the architectural wonders of Istanbul, but the city walls of Jerusalem that visitors see today. The city remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until just after the period of the First World War in 1923. Istanbul became known, for a time, as the “Paris of the East” and today is a city of more than six million inhabitants, most of whom live on the European side of the Bosphorus. On October 29, 1923, the city of Ankara was declared the capital of the Modern Republic of Turkey.
The Precincts of Istanbul
Istanbul has eight Precincts called "Quarters". The original six Precincts included in "Old Istanbul" are:
Eminonu: Set between bridges south of Golden Horn, it was named after the "un" (flour) grinding place from the Ottoman Period.
Sultanahmet: The famous shopping area with Spice markets.
Kumkapi: The translation of the “Sand Gate”, this was the place of Jews and Gypsies in Ottoman Period, along with the fish markets.
Laleli: From the word meaning tulip, this section reflect the place Mehmet II planted imported tulips near the mosque.
Aksaray: In the C15CE, Mehmet brought in workers to the city from the city of Aksaray, near Konya. They resided in this area.
Fatih: Called the place of the "Conqueror" after Mehmet the Conqueror Mosque C15th (rebuilt C18th); one of the best districts in Ottoman Period for luxury living, now quarter of religiously observant Muslims.
An expansion after the Fourth Crusade (1204 CE):
Taksim: Named "divided equally" this area was a water distribution place from the C18-19th CE.
Galata: After Dandolo’s conquest of the city, some Venician and Genoese Colonists settled here in the harbor area. The landmark of the “Galata Tower” is a Genoese tower. The Genoese fleet eventually established a beachhead in Caesarea Maritima in Israel, and built up Eastern Mediterranean cities from Rhodes to Acco.