Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople and ancient Byzantium, is the largest city and principal seaport of Turkey. It was the capital of both the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
The old walled city of Istanbul stands on a triangular peninsula between Europe and Asia. For more than 2000 years Istanbul has stood between conflicting surges of culture, religion and imperial power, sometimes as a bridge and sometimes as a barrier. During most of this time Istanbul was one of the most coveted cities in the world.
Its first name comes from the Megara king, Byzas, who, in 657 BCE established a colony named Byzantium, the Greek name for a city. In 196 CE, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, attacked and conquered the town for opposing him in a civil war and renamed it Augusta Antonina, after his son. In 330 CE Constantine declared the city as his capital and named it New Rome, coinage was stamped Byzantium until he ordered it be substituted with Constantinople. The Greeks referred to trips there as “eis ten polin”, meaning “into the city” at the end of the 1st millennium. By the 13th century this Greek phrase had become a commonly used name for the city, Istinpolin. When the Ottoman Empire, under the rule of Sultan Mehmed II, took over rule of the city in 1453, it was renamed “Islambol” meaning city of Islam. Over time these 2 names joined to form Istanbul. The Turkish Post Office officially changed the name in 1930, however, the city continued to bear the millenary name of Constantinople.
The old city contains about 9 square miles (23 square km), but the present municipal boundaries stretch a great deal beyond. The original peninsular city has seven hills, requisite for Constantine’s “New Rome.” Six are crests of a long ridge above the Golden Horn; the other is a solitary eminence in the southwest corner. Around their slopes many of the mosques and other historic landmarks built over time that were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
The waters surrounding the peninsula are called “the three seas”: they are the Golden Horn, the Bosporus, and the Sea of Marmara. The Golden Horn is a deep drowned valley about 4.5 miles (7 km) long. Early inhabitants saw it as being shaped like a deer horn, but modern Turks call it the Haliç (“Canal”). The Bosporus (İstanbul Boğazı) is the channel connecting the Black Sea (Karadeniz) to the Mediterranean (Akdeniz) by way of the Sea of Marmara (Marmara Denizi) and the straits of the Dardanelles. The narrow Golden Horn separates old Istanbul (Stamboul) to the south from the “new” city of Beyoğlu to the north; the broader Bosporus divides European Istanbul from the city’s districts on the Asian shore—Üsküdar (ancient Chrysopolis) and Kadıköy (ancient Chalcedon).
Fire, earthquake, riot, and invasion have ravaged Istanbul many times, more than 60 big fires and numerous earthquakes that were large enough to warrant being recorded in history. The traces of these disasters have been replaced with urban development: today wide roadways run through the historic quarters of the old city, and unpaved alleys overhung with old wooden houses coexist with modern high-rise buildings, office parks, and shopping malls.
The Galata and Atatürk bridges cross the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu. Each day before dawn their centre spans are swung open to allow passage to seagoing ships. The shores of the Horn, served by water buses, are a jumble of docks, warehouses, factories, and occasional historical ruins. Ferries to the Asian side of Istanbul leave from under the Galata Bridge. Istanbul has three of the world’s longest suspension bridges: Bosporus I Bridge which was completed in 1973, the Fatih Sultan Mehmed Bridge which was completed 1988, and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge completed in 2016). There are 2 tunnels which run under the Bosporus, one for passenger rail and one for automobile traffic, which were respectively opened in 2013 and 2016.
Beyoğlu, which is considered to be “modern Istanbul,” remains, as it has been since the 10th century, the foreign quarter. Only a few building which were built before the 19th century have been left standing by warfare and fires. Warfare and fires have left standing only a few structures that were built earlier than the 19th century. There is a funicular railway that runs between the Galata waterfront and the Pera Plateau. On the hills above you will find the big hotels and restaurants, the travel bureaus, theatres, the opera house, the consulates, and many Turkish government offices.
From the 10th century onward, Galata was an enclave for foreign traders who enjoyed extraterritorial privileges behind their walls. After the Ottomans took the city in 1453, all foreigners who were not citizens of the empire were restricted to this quarter. Around the various embassy palatial there were compounds that included schools, churches, and hospitals for the various nationalities. Eventually the Galata district became over crowded, meaning that the buildings moved higeher up the slopes to the open country of Pera so that the tide of building moved higher up the slope to the open country of Pera.
The Basilica Cistern, the largest of the ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul.
The closed cisterns, of which there are more than 80 remaining, include one of the most beautiful and mysterious structures of Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern, known in Turkish as the Yerebatan Sarayı (“Underground Palace”) or Yerebatan Sarnıcı (“Underground Cistern”), near Hagia Sophia; its 336 columns rise from the still, black waters to a vaulted roof.
The Golden Gate is a triumphal arch from about 390. It was built into the defenses of Theodosius II, near the junction of the land and sea walls. The marble-clad bases of its two large towers still stand, and three arches decorated with columns stretch between them.
The only well-preserved example of Byzantine palace architecture is the shell of a three-story rectangular building of limestone and brick, laid in patterns and stripes. Dating from about 1300, it is called the Palace of Constantine (Tekfur Sarayı) and is attached to the land walls not far from the Golden Horn.
The largest legacy from the capital of the vanished empire is 25 Byzantine churches. Many of these are still in use—as mosques. The largest of the churches is considered one of the great buildings of the world. This is Hagia Sophia, whose name means “Divine Wisdom.” It’s contemporary and neighbour, St. Irene, was dedicated to “Divine Peace.” Many art historians deem the dome (105 feet [32 metres] in diameter) of Hagia Sophia to be the most beautiful in the world. The church, which shared its clergy with St. Irene, is said to have been built in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. The structure now standing is essentially the 6th-century edifice, although an earthquake tumbled the dome in 559, after which it was rebuilt to a smaller scale and the whole church reinforced from the outside. It was restored again in the mid-14th century. In 1453 it became a mosque with minarets, and a great chandelier was added. In 1935 it was made into a museum. The walls are still hung with Arabic calligraphic disks.
The Galata district is dominated by a the Galata tower that shares its name. The tower was built by the Genoese traders in 1349 as a watchtower and a fortification for their walled enclave.
When the Ottoman Empire took possession of Constantinople, they covered the spines of the seven hills with domes and minarets, changing the character of the city. Like the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines, the new rulers loved the city and spent much of their treasure and energy on its embellishment. The Ottoman dynasty, which lasted from 1300 to 1922, continued to build new important structures almost until the end of their line. The most imposing of their mosques were constructed from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century, and the greatest of the architects all bore the name of Sinan. They were Atik Sinan (the Elder), Sinan of Balıkesir, and Mimar Koca Sinan (Great Architect Sinan). Although the building was deeply influenced by the Persianate traditions of the Seljuq Turks, the style was blended with prevailing Hellenic and Byzantine traditions of the city. Mimar Koca Sinan’s masterpiece—and his burial place—is the Mosque of Süleyman (1550–57), inspired by, but not copied from, Hagia Sophia. It ranks as another of the world’s great buildings. Probably the most popularly known of all the mosques in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, the mosque of Ahmed I (Ottoman sultan from 1603 to 1617), which has six minarets instead of the customary four.
The mosques of the 18th century and later show the effects of importing European architects and craftsmen, who produced Baroque Islamic architecture (such as the Mosque of the Fatih, rebuilt between 1767 and 1771) and even Neoclassical styles, as in the Dolmabahçe Mosque of 1853, now the Naval Museum. Large mosques were usually built with ancillary structures. Among these were Qurʾānic schools (medrese), baths (hamam) for purification, hostels and kitchens for the poor (imaret), and tombs for royalty and distinguished persons.
To the north, toward the Golden Horn and occupying the whole tip of the promontory, is Topkapi Palace, enclosed in a fortified wall. It was begun in 1462 by Sultan Mehmed II and served as the residence of the sultans until the beginning of the 19th century. It was to this palace that foreign ambassadors were accepted, and they were admitted through the Imperial Gate, or Bab-ı Hümayun, mistranslated by Westerners as “Sublime Porte.” The Palace consists mostly of small buildings grouped around three courts. The most significant buildings are the Çinili Köşk (Tiled Pavilion), built in 1472; the Audience Chamber (Arz Odası); the Hırka-i Şerif, a sanctuary containing relics of the Prophet Muhammad; and the elegant Baghdad Kiosk, commemorating the capture of Baghdad in 1638. The Palace houses the sultan’s treasure and has important collections of manuscripts, china, armour, and textiles. After the abandonment of the Old Palace, the sultans built for themselves palaces along the Bosporus, such as the Beylerbeyi Palace (1865), the lavish Dolmabahçe Palace (1853), the Çırağan Palace (built in 1874 and burned in 1910), and the Yıldız Palace, which was the residence of Abdülhamid II, Ottoman sultan from 1876 to 1909.
The Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), founded early in the Ottoman Empire but was often subject to fire and earthquake, had 4,000 shops around two central distributing houses. The district is laid out on a grid plan. It still bustles with life and the pursuit of piasters.
The L-shaped Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)—so called because it is adjacent to the Yeni Valide Mosque complex, the construction of which was financed by taxes from Cairo—was once a dedicated spice market. In later times the shops expanded their wares to include dried fruit, jewellery, linens, and other goods.