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Byzantium, Byzantion, Antoniopolis, Nea Roma, Deutera Roma, Constantinopolis, Constantinople, Eistinpolin, Çarigrad, Dersaadet, Deraliyye, Asitane, Islambul and Istanbul. It has been given many names by many people, and those who had always dreamed of going there were very surprised once they finally experienced the real Istanbul. They had difficulty understanding its complex nature and got caught up in the ratrace called survival of the fittest.
The city has been popular and vibrant over many centuries, thanks to its symbolic nature and strategic advantages, ever since it was founded in 658 B.C by Megaran King Byzas. The advantage of being located at the crossing of the most important trade routes, stirred the appetite of the world’s most influential empires. Thracians, Persians, Spartans, Athenians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabians, Russians, Bulgarians and Turks were all standing in line to conquer this city and went to battle for it. Because, as British historian Philip Mansel said, Istanbul is a “city of the world’s desire”.
Istanbul mothered Christianity in its developing years and it became the stronghold of the underdog Christian world resisting imperialism. But not just Christianity found a home here. It was as if the whole world melted together in Istanbul. The big columns of the Hagia Sophia were brought from Troy, Ephesus and Athens. Other big columns came from Babylon and Zeugma for the Süleymaniye Mosque. The relics carrying the mysticism of Hedjaz were also brought to Istanbul. Dikilitaş, the oldest monument of Istanbul, was sculpted in Egypt by Pharaoh Thothmosis’ artisans. The souls of Egypt, Rome, Athens, Crete, Trebizond, Jerusalem, and Babylon all mingled in this city. Over time, people like the architect Sinan, Evliya Çelebi, Süleyman the Magnificent, Patrona Halil, Laleli Baba, Constantine the Great, Theodosius, Romanos Diogenes, Justinianos, Anna Komnena, the rioters who died during the Nika Revolt, the people who were hanged on the Vak-Vak tree, Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, Andre Chenier, Enrico Dandalo, and many more left an indelible mark on Istanbul.
Contantinopolis was founded with the aim to run against Rome, the biggest and most civilized city of the world by its time, in the struggle for power. And Constantinopel won this battle in a short span of time. While Rome was fighting against barbarians along its imperial borders in the West, and having its darkest time ever, Constantinople became a focal point for politics, art, science, culture, religion and commerce. Constantine the Great named it Nea Roma and later Deutera Roma, but it is said the residents of the city insisted on calling it Constantinopolis, meaning Constantine’s city. The fame of Constantinople spreaded all over the world. The story goes that a merchant named Benjamin, visiting Constantinople in the 12th century A.D. said:
All the splendid riches of the world are flowing to and through this city, from every country and region, and its value is beyond our imagination.
The city walls of Constantine, of which construction started in 324 A.D., frustrated its enemies for almost a thousand years, but eventually fell into the clutches of the Christian crusaders in 1204 A.D. The magnificence to which Constantinople had risen over a thousand years, was swept away by the crusaders in a short period of time. The city was destroyed and neglected and didn’t rise to it’s former glory again until finally, the city passed into Turkic hands in 1453 A.D.
Mehmed the Conqueror (1432 – 1481) leading the Islamic Ottoman victors into Constantinople in 1453, is considered the second founder of Istanbul and his ideas and innovations regenerated the city. Mehmed’s main concern with Constantinople had to do with rebuilding the city’s defences and repopulation. Building projects were commenced immediately after the conquest, which included the repair of the walls, construction of the citadel, and building a new palace. His dream was to give a boost to new creation, syntheses and motion, inspired by ancient philosophers, as it is said that he always held Homer’s Iliad in one hand and Al-Ghazali’s Tahafut al-Falasifa in the other.
Later, the chief architect of Istanbul Sinan (1489 – 1588), was called the father of Ottoman architecture, because he gave Constantinopel its Ottoman-Islamic appearance while working for sultans Selim I, Süleyman I, Selim II and Murat III. He was an urban developer and the designer of over 350 structures and all travellers visiting Istanbul agreed that it was the most beautiful city of its time. When Edmondo de Amicis came to Istanbul, he wrote: “Istanbul, is a universal beauty where poets and archaeologists, diplomats and merchants, princess and sailors, northerners and westerners exclamation the same admiration. The whole world believes that this city is the most beautiful place on earth.”
However, any old empires were losing power and territory during the beginning of 20th century and they were taking their capitals down with them. Vienna was separated from its surrendering and became lonely. Paris were tired of wars and confused by political conflicts. St. Petersburg’s name had already been changed. Also Istanbul, although resisting for long, bowed to its fate in the end.
Only, Istanbul didn’t change same way London, Paris, Vienna or other European cities did. In the case of Istanbul, people left, or had to leave, and never came back. When Sultan Abdülaziz’s wrists were cut in 1876, after a coup by the Young Turks, Istanbul’s celebrated multiculturalism, with all ethnicities living side by side in peace, was exterminated and many residents preferred to leave this now unsecure city. Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Frenchs, Persians, Cherkeses, Kurdish, Turkish, Jews left the city, and finally, the Ottoman dynasty was forced to leave its home as well.
Following the birth of the Turkish Republic the new government used all its power to rebuild its newly chosen capital, Ankara, and neglected Istanbul even more, leaving it without a mayor to govern the city. From 1950 onward, nevertheless, there was a huge migration wave from the country side of Central and Eastern Turkey to Istanbul, which almost turned it into a rural village, losing many of its urban features. The new nationalistic spirit, followed by more xenophobic policies, forced many foreigners to leave Istanbul, taking its old cosmopolitan spirit with them. Since then Istanbul impatiently awaits the love and determination of those willing to restore this city to its former glory.
Photo Credits: Konstantinos Kazantzoglou