Many of us have heard the saying “Istanbul was Constantinople” but not all of us know what it means, or the incredible historical significance of the history behind the saying.
On the 570th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople, let’s take a tour of the ancient city, and learn about the history, at the same time.
Walls of Constantinople
The city, once called Byzantium, was already ancient by the time it was declared the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD. Emperor Constantine moved the capital east from Rome, in part to avoid the threat of invasion that continually came from the Germanic tribes. Among other actions to increase the stature of the city, it was renamed Constantinople after the Emperor.
Within a few years, massive walls were built around the city to protect it. And under Emperor Theodosius, the walls were expanded and thickened, and raised to 45 feet high! A second line of walls were constructed, making it impossible for opposing forces to conquer the city.
It wasn’t until the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror came in 1453 with the newly-invented gunpowder and cannon that the walls were breached and the city conquered forever.
Istanbul is strategically located at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, the two continents divided by the Bosphorus Strait. City leaders protected the city with a chain strung across the Golden Horn, the major inlet bordering the city. For hundreds of years, the chain kept invaders from accessing the Strait and accessing the heart of the city.
Even Mehmed was unable to breach the chain, but he did have an innovative, and labor intensive, way to wage naval warfare on the seaside city. His soldiers actually paved a mile-long path and carry their light ships around the Asian side of the strait, so they could launch a surprise naval attack. This was one of many efforts Mehmed employed to wear down the city’s forces over seven weeks and eventually emerge victorius.
Mehmed dreamed of conquering the city from an early age. The military strategist recognized the value of the city’s location between Europe and Asia, right in the middle of territories already conquered by the Ottomans.
When he succeeded at capturing the city, he was only 21! Shortly after taking over the city, he made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. These days, Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, and in Europe, and one of the largest cities in the world!
Mehmed loved his new capital, and was even buried there in the Fatih Mosque, which he had built in the 1470s. Fatih Mosque means Conqueror’s Mosque. It included several libraries dedicated to theology, medicine, law, and science.
The structure suffered significant damage in a 1766 earthquake, and has undergone several renovations in recent years. It is open to both worshipers and visitors alike.
The move to Constantinople also marked a shift from polytheism that marked the earlier Roman era to the monotheism of Christianity. Right away, the emperors began construction on churches. The current Hagia Sophia was built in 532, and was the largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years!
Within days of the city’s conquer, Mehmed began turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a jewel of the city and his Islamic faith. The giant domed structure, with its four minarets, is one of the most recognized, and beautiful, holy sites in the world. These days, the building is a working mosque, but visitors are welcome.
Like many sites in the city, the Hippodrome predated the city’s status as empire capital. A hippodrome was a horse track, and it played an important place in civil society. The hippodrome could entertain 100,000 spectators at its height of popularity.
The Hippodrome was beautifully-adorned, including large horse statues that were taken to Venice, Italy, when Constantinople was sacked in 1204 by the Crusaders.
The place is now a beautiful city plaza called Sultan Ahmet Square, a gathering place filled with historical artifacts thousands of years old. The Turkish government has maintained and restored the site, including showing the path of the original horse track.
Valens Roman Aqueduct
One of the many reminders that the modern city of Istanbul has a long Roman tradition is the aqueduct that brought water to the city from springs nearly 100 miles away for more than 1200 years. The massive stone structures, with the easily-recognizable arched design, still stand, nearly 2000 years after they were initially constructed.
The ancient city water system passes over Ataturk Boulevard in downtown Istanbul, with cars actually driving under the arches. It’s a truly breathtaking juxtaposition of ancient and modern in one of the world’s most historical cities.
If you ever have the chance, be sure to visit Istanbul, which only got its new name in 1930. It’s undoubtedly one of the most amazing, unique, and memorable places in the world. It’s position at the meeting point between Europe and Asia, where east meets west, where Christianity meets Islam, old meets new; it will certainly change you.