History of Istanbul
Pre- Byzantine Period
The signs of first communal settlements in Istanbul and its surroundings
date back to long years ago. While the first traces extend back to 6th
century B.C., it was discovered by research that some communities have
lived in both Anatolian and European side of Istanbul. These first habitants
had first lived as nomads and semi-nomads. Then they adopted a communal
way of life based on fishing agriculture and cattle breeding. Especially
in researches in Fikirtepe, it was found out that back in 6000 B.C. animals
such as dogs, goats, cattle and pigs were domesticated and the habitants
took up fishing. In advent of 3000 B.C., there is an intense settlement
activity starting in Istanbul. This period enable the arising of small
governed city units. Reserarches reveal that today's Sultanahmet square
and its surroundings had been center to a major settlement.
Colonialists coming from the city of Megara in central Greece and from
the Aegean city of Miletos in 7 B.C. started the history of Byzantion.
Built on a peninsula, Byzantium was blessed with food from the sea, had
a safe harbor at the entrance of the Golden Horn and an acropolis that
was easily defensible. Its location on the sea trade routes and the fertile
lands was available for agriculture that caused it to flourish within
a short period of time.
The city was a stage to some attacks during 4. and 5.centuries. The attacking
forces were particularly Goths and and Vizigoths. In 440, Hun Emperor
Atilla attacked the city. Tributiries were paid to Huns until year 450.
However, in spite of all these, Constantinopolis maintained its significance
in this period. The population of the city exceeded that of Rome in 5.
century, with the communities brought from Thrace.
In 476, Ostrogoths dethroned Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus and
handed the Empire to the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Zenon. Therefore,
Western Roman Empire became a part of the past. But at the same time,
Constantinopolis became the only capital of Roman Empire.
Eastern Roman Empire had turned into Byzantine Empire and Constantinopolis
was no more a Roman city and became a peculiarly eastern Orthodox city.
The middle of 6th century became the beginning of a new rising period
for Byzantine Empire, and therefore, for Istanbul as well. In the period
of Emperor Justinian, who was a religious and educated person in contrast
to his even illiterate predecessor, the city gained a vision of a proper
Orthodox Christian capital. St. Sophia, which was damaged previously,
was built in its present form in that period.
The plaque epidemic which spread in the city in year 543, killed almost
half of the inhabitants of the city. The city had undergone constant catastrophes.
Nevertheless, the structure built particularly by Emperor I. Justinian
equipped Istanbul with a resistance against every kind of war and disaster.
By 200 B.C., it had become difficult for the imperial capital Rome to
rule over the vast area that made up the Roman Empire, reaching from Spain
to Mesopotamia. A new administrative center was needed, especially in
order to get a firm hold on the eastern part of the empire.
Beginning in 146 B.C., Byzantion, which was situated at the crossroads
of the trade routes, became the administrative center of the Eastern Roman
Empire and became known as Nea Roma. As the capital city of the eastern
part of the empire, Nea Roma assumed an important role in world politics
and culture. In keeping with this new status, new construction was started.
Harbors and waterways were reconstructed. In the hippodrome at the center
of the city, the emperor and nearly the entire population would gather
to watch wild animal races and athletic events and enjoy feasts and celebrations.
After Emperor Constantine took the throne, the city was renamed Constantinopolis
(May 11, 330)
The Byzantines, whose capital was regarded as an extension of Rome, expressed
more and more the desire to direct themselves toward the heritage of Greek
antiquity. The buildings of this period were ornamented with art works
in the style of antiquity. The most destructive blow hit the city during
the Latin invasions. The invaders did great damage to the city. Homes
and religious buildings were subject to arson and looting. After the invasions
ended, the city started reconstruction work in the year 1261, though it
could not be restored to its former glory.
Its population, formerly 500,000, had decreased to 50,000. Production
of all types diminished and the people suffered from hunger. A 1000-year-old
page of history was coming to an end and the city was preparing itself
for a rebirth.
Ottoman Empire Era
In the year 1453, the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (Sultan Mehmet
the Conqueror) conquered the city. First of all, the oldest buildings
and the formerly magnificent but dilapidated city walls were restored.
On the ruins of the Byzantine foundations, the buildings of the basic
institutions of the Ottomans were built. The great water system with its
huge cisterns was repaired and rendered functioning. The city had developed
its Ottoman identity, resembling its present character
With the addition of the buildings of the famous architect (mimar) Sinan,
the city had again become the capital of a great empire. Together with
the remaining population after the conquest, people coming from all over
the empire, from all kinds of ethnic origins and religions, created a
colorful mixture. In Istanbul - the new Constantinopolis - the cultural
variety brought in by the immigrants enriched the cultural texture of
the city. The Bedesten where the merchants were settled and where the
craftsmen were found, turned into centers that enabled this harbor city
to develop trade with the outside world. Huge markets were built, further
supporting trade. During the period of the height of Ottoman imperial
power, the city was covered all over with tulips, in what is known as
the "Tulip Era." In the 19th century, efforts modernization
were undertaken. Istanbul entered the 20th century worn out and burdened
by its history as the capital city of three great empires. At that time,
the Ottomans were just about to end their imperial period of 630 years.
After the First World War, Ottoman Empire was defeated with its allies.
After Mondros Armistice was signed, the navy fleet of 55 ships anchored
in the banks of Haydarpasa Port in November 13, 1918 and therefore the
invasion of Istanbul began.
The Parliamental Assembly which was annulled in 1918, convened again in
January 12, 1920 and ratified Misak-i Milli (National Contract) on January
28. On March 4, 1920, the invasion of Istanbul was approved at London
Conference. In March 4, postal administration office was invaded. And
in the night of March 15, the action of general invasion was triggered.
In the morning, a large number of soldiers were launched to Istanbul and
important parts of the city were taken under control. In late morning,
the city was completely invaded. In the afternoon English soldiers raided
the Parliament Assembly building. And in April 11, Parliament Assembly
was closed. And about 150 politicians were exiled to Malta. In this period,
some secret organizations were formed in Istanbul and started activating
for freedom. Patrolling Society, Mim Group and National Defense organization
were the most influential secret organizations in Istanbul in that period.
They organized demonstrations and carried out activities like handover
of arms, soldiers and munitions and exchanging secret information.
In October 9, 1920, Turkish soldiers entered Izmir boundaries led by supreme
national leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This event started the independence
process for Istanbul. With Mudanya Agreement signed in October 11, it
was agreed that the invading parties leave Thrace gradually. Turkish Grand
National Assembly which convened in Ankara declared the dynasty be abolished
in November 1, 1922. Therefore, even though Istanbul maintained being
the legal capital until October 1923, it was no longer the actual capital.
On November 16 Sultan Vahdettin left Istanbul.
In November 4, 1923, Istanbul was completely free of invading forces.
Therefore, the second invasion of Istanbul by Europeans after Latin invasion
After World War I, resistance movements became active during the Allied
occupation of Istanbul, an occupation that lasted for nearly five years.
When the resistance movement in Anatolia finally gained success, the last
of the foreign soldiers left the city on October 5, 1923. On October 6,
the Turkish army entered the city heralding the message of a new government
led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader of the Turkish independence war,
and his colleagues had made a decision in the new National Assembly that
Istanbul would turn over its function as capital of the new nation to
While the efforts for westernization were shifted to Ankara particularly
in cultural, political, economical, architectural, ideological respects,
Istanbul was seriously neglected. And Istanbul, in its history of over
two thousand years, started to be governed from the outside for the first
time. Much less resources than it produced were allocated to the city,
which continued to be the economical and commercial center.
Under republican rule, much new construction activity took place in Istanbul,
starting with the building of family houses in the 1930s.
In 1950s, more than 7300 buildings were torn down and the road system
reorganized. This caused historic changes in the fabric of the city.
When the ferry boats became insufficient to serve the increasing flow
of traffic across the Bosphorus between the Asian and the European sides
of the city in the 1970's, the first suspension bridge was built. Istanbul
had assumed an eminent role in the nation's cultural life as well as the
economy. Immigrants from the rural areas hit the road with the motto "even
the soil and the stones in Istanbul are made of gold," leading to
much unplanned and devastating construction. On the one hand, there are
slums built over night and on the other, huge shopping centers and giant
industrial structures. Such is the world metropolis of republican Istanbul,
ever changing and developing in all of its aspects.