Istanbul is a city of unparalleled social and cultural richness. It is as fascinating and historical as it is dynamic and modern. Serving as the capital of two mighty empires incessantly for sixteen centuries, Eastern Roman or Byzantine and Ottoman, and set squarely between two continents, Istanbul has cultures and traditions that blend East with West and Mediterranean with Anatolian. Each civilization that has made Istanbul its home has left its mark in sublime and splendid ways and the result a city that gives one the feeling of universal history at every step. With a definitely multicultural touch and a vibrant atmosphere rooted deep in the past experience of humanity while facing toward the future, Istanbul is truly as much a crossroads of ideas and cultures today as ever. For how many cities in the world is home to ages old churches, mosques, and synagogues in such a close proximity, showing us the possibility of a community formed of different cultures living in a state of peace and tolerance that stems from a shared human past and belief in the future?
In its south stretches the Marmara Sea and in its north is the Black Sea. Its western part is in Europe and eastern in Asia. The strategic and aesthetic strait that separates the two coasts of Istanbul together with the two continents is the Bosporus which is the first gate from the Black Sea to the Aegean and then onto Mediterranean. Being a port city and having many major trade paths pass through, is what has given ultimate significance to the city for thousands of years. Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents: Asia and Europe. Istanbul, while being the ancient capital of many empires, from Rome to the Ottoman era, it is not the modern capital of Turkey as Ankara is. Istanbul, which used to be known as Constantinople thanks to the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, is built on seven hills to match the Seven Hills of Rome. Under the Ottoman Empire, the city was renowned for having more than 1.400 public toilets. While not the capital, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city with more than 13 million people and 99 per cent of which are Muslim. Tulips, the symbol of Holland, originated in Istanbul and were sent from Istanbul to Netherlands.
The Grand Bazaar is the biggest old covered bazaar in the world, with over 3.000 shops. British author Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel “Murder on the Orient Express” at Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul. Istanbul is surrounded by sea, with the Bosphorus cutting right through it. And yet, snow is common in the city, with the annual average being 18 inches. Istanbul has the same population of 13 million and rising as one of the smallest countries in Europe, Belgium. Originally named the Tower of Christ, the Galata Tower was built in 1.348 at the apex of fortified walls and was used to house prisoners of war, later became an observatory, but now offers a 360 degree viewing gallery of the city. It has been a noted inspiration for authors from Paul Theroux and Ernest Hemingway to Orhan Pamuk and “Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar”. Istanbul was once renowned as the most crowded city in the World in 1502.
Istanbul has the third oldest subway in the world, built in 1875. It’s 573 meters long and located in the Beyoglu district. Istanbul was the European Cultural Capital City in 2010, but has never hosted the Olympics. The old walled city of Istanbul stands on a triangular peninsula between Europe and Asia. Sometimes as a bridge, sometimes as a barrier, Istanbul for more than 2,500 years has stood between conflicting surges of religion, culture, and imperial power. For most of those years it was one of the most coveted cities in the world. The name Byzantium may derive from that of Byzas, leader of the Greeks from the city of Megara who, according to legend, captured the peninsula from pastoral Thracian tribes and built the town about 657 BCE. In 196 CE, having razed the town for opposing him in a civil war, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt it, naming it Augusta Antoninia in honour of his son.
In 330 CE, when Constantine the Great dedicated the city as his capital, he called it New Rome. The coinage, nevertheless, continued to be stamped Byzantium until he ordered the substitution of Constantinopolis. At the end of the 1st millennium, Greek speakers were reported to refer to trips there as eis tēn polin, “into the City,” rather than “to Constantinople.” By the 13th century this Greek phrase had become an appellation for the city: Istinpolin. Through a series of speech permutations over a span of centuries, this name became Istanbul. Until 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 are ranged many of the mosques and other historic landmarks that were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
By long tradition, the waters washing 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 kms) 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). Like the forces of history, the forces of nature impinge upon Istanbul. The great rivers of Russia and middle Europe the Danube, Don, Dnieper, and Dniester make the Black Sea colder and less briny than the Mediterranean. The Black Sea waters thrust southward through the Bosporus, but beneath those the salty warm waters of the Mediterranean push northward as a powerful undercurrent running through the same channel.
The prevailing Northeast Wind, or Poyraz, comes from the Black Sea, giving way at times during the winter to an icy blast from the Balkans known as the Karayel, or “black veil,” capable of freezing the Golden Horn and even the Bosporus. The Lodos, or Southwest Wind, can raise storms on the Sea of Marmara. Fire, earthquake, riot, and invasion have ravaged Istanbul many times, more than 60 conflagrations and numerous earthquakes being important enough to have been recorded in history. The traces of these disasters, though, have been swept away in waves of intensive 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. Portions of the walls of Stamboul remain. The land walls, which isolate the peninsula from the mainland, were breached only once, by cannon of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (the Conqueror) in 1453, at the spot since called Cannon Gate (Top Kapısı).
The walls are 4.5 miles (7 kms) long and consist of a double line of ramparts the inner built in 413, the outer in 447 protected by a moat. The higher inner wall is about 30 feet (9 metres) high and 16 feet (5 metres) thick and is studded with 60 foot (18 metres) towers about 180 feet (55 metres) apart. Of 92 turrets originally raised on the outer wall, 56 are still standing. The sea walls were built in 439 AD. Only short sections of their 30 foot (9 metres) high masonry still remain along the Golden Horn. Intact, these walls had 110 towers and 14 gates. The walls along the Sea of Marmara, which stretch about 5 miles (8 kms) from Seraglio Point, curving around the bottom of the peninsula to join the land walls, had 188 towers; they were, however, only about 20 feet (6 metres) high, because the Marmara currents provided good protection against enemy landings. Most of these walls still stand.
Within the city walls are the seven hills, their summits flattened through the ages but their slopes still steep and toilsome. Geographers number them from the seaward tip of the peninsula, proceeding inland along the Golden Horn, the last hill standing alone where the land walls reach the Sea of Marmara. 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 (Boğaziçi) Bridge (completed in 1973), with a main span of 3,524 feet (1,074 metres); Bosporus II, the Fatih Sultan Mehmed Bridge (1988), 3,576 feet (1,090 metres); and Bosporus III, the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge (2016), 4,620 feet (1,408 metres). Two tunnels under the Bosporus, one for passenger rail and one for automobile traffic, were opened in 2013 and 2016 respectively. The Galata and Atatürk bridges cross the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu.
Nothing remains of the Byzantium that Constantine chose as the site of New Rome, and almost nothing is left of the mighty city he built there. Constantine’s column, the Burnt Column (Çemberlitaş), a shaft of porphyry drums bound by metal laurel leaves, still stands near the Nuruosmaniye mosque complex, but there is no proof that any building in the city dates from his period.
Constantine completed the Hippodrome that Septimius Severus had begun, but it was enlarged and rebuilt by his successors until the 5th century. Only its curved end remains, with three columns along the central Spina—an obelisk removed from Egypt by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a masonry obelisk of Constantine VII (Porphyrogenitus; 905–959 CE), and a Delphic column formed by three entwined serpents (now headless) cast after the Battle of Plataea, when the Greeks defeated the Persians in 479 BCE. Of the myriad columns that decorated Constantinople, there remain standing the base of the column of the emperor Arcadius (reigned 383 408) in the Cerrahpasa quarter; a column of the emperor Marcian (reigned 450–457), known in Turkish as Kıztaşı (Column of the Virgin), in the Fatih quarter; and, in the grounds of the Topkapı Palace, a perfectly preserved Corinthian column thought to be from the reign of another emperor, Claudius II (Gothicus; 268–270).
Spanning the valley between the third and fourth hills is the two-story limestone aqueduct built in 366 by the emperor Valens. Some of the enormous open-water cisterns of the Byzantine era now serve market gardens. 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 defences 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 by Constantine in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. It was enlarged by the emperor Constans and rebuilt after the fire of 415 by the emperor Theodosius II. The church was burned again in the Nika Insurrection of 532 and reconstructed by Justinian. 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 Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus were erected by Justinian between 527 and 536 as a thank-offering. The two soldier saints allegedly appeared to the emperor Anastasias I to intercede for Justinian, who had been condemned to death for conspiracy. The church is built as a domed octagon within a rectangle, with a columned and galleried Byzantine interior. It is also called the Mosque of Küçük Ayasofya (Little Sophia) and can be considered an architectural parent of Justinian’s reconstruction of Hagia Sophia. The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, which was converted into the Kariye Mosque, is near the Adrianople Gate. It was restored in the 11th century and remodelled in the 14th; the building is now a museum renowned for its 14th-century mosaics, marbles, and frescoes. Over the central portal is a head of Christ with the inscription, “The land of the living.” When the church was made a mosque, it acquired the narthex (an enclosed passage between the main entrance and the nave), portico, and minarets.
The Galata district is dominated by a massive 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 Turks 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 Seljuk Turks, the style was blended with prevailing Hellenic and Byzantine traditions of the city.
Mimar Koca Sinan’s masterpiece and his burial place are 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. There are more than 400 fountains in Istanbul. Some simply flow from wall niches, but others, erected as public philanthropies, are pavilions. The most magnificent of these was built by the sultan Ahmed III in 1728, behind the apse of Hagia Sophia. It is square, with marble walls and bronze gratings, a mixture of the Turkish with the Western Rococo style.
To the north of it, toward the Golden Horn and occupying the whole tip of the promontory, is the sultan’s Seraglio (Topkapı Palace), enclosed in a fortified wall. It was begun in 1462 by 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 accredited, and they were admitted through the Imperial Gate, or Bab-ı Hümayun, mistranslated by Westerners as “Sublime Porte.” The Seraglio 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 Seraglio houses the sultan’s treasure and has important collections of manuscripts, china, armour, and textiles. After the abandonment of the Old Seraglio, 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 Turkish regime but 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. Istanbul, like other major cities in the region, attracts an increasing number of migrants from the countryside. These migrants have contributed to the growth of new cultures and traditions that all citizens live in harmony and peace. Istanbul is Turkey’s largest port and the hub of its industry. Textiles, food processing, flour milling, tobacco processing, cement, and glass are the city’s principal manufactures. Tourism and textile are growing sources of income for Istanbul.
There is rail service along the walls of the old city, and Haydar Paşa station, on the Asian side of the city, is the starting point of the Baghdad Railway. Maritime services include many forms of transport, from harbour dinghies and small ferries to international liners. Buses provide internal urban transportation, and the ferries range as far as the Kızıl Adalar (Princes Islands), several hours sailing to the south. Istanbul Airport is close to the city’s centre and provides both overseas and domestic service. The city, which was organized by Constantine as 14 districts in imitation of Rome, is now divided into 27 district municipalities, each of which has a mayor and a district council whose members are elected every five years. District municipalities manage their own budgets and are responsible for local tasks that include handling waste removal and issuing construction permits. Together with 12 district municipalities located outside the city, they make up a metropolitan municipality headed by a mayor of its own and a council composed of the district municipalities’ mayors and a portion of their council members.
While Istanbul has a chlorinated and filtered water supply and a sewage disposal system, these facilities have not kept pace with the city’s rapid expansion. Water supply is not a problem during all seasons of the years. Electric power supplies have been increased to help promote industrial expansion. Most health services are concentrated in the metropolitan municipality. There are more than 200 hospitals, some 60 of which are public. Istanbul University (İstanbul Üniversitesi), founded in 1453, includes faculties of letters, science, law, medicine, and forestry and has facilities in Beyazıt, Avcılar, Çapa, Cerrahpaşa, Bahçeköy, Kadıköy, and Şişli. There is also a technical university on the Galata side of the Horn as well as an Academy of Fine Arts and schools of technology, commerce, and economics. Foreign educational institutions include the American Robert College for boys (founded in 1863) and the American College for girls (founded in 1871), both on the Bosporus.
Most health services are concentrated in the metropolitan municipality. There are more than 230 hospitals, some 60 of which are public. In recent years all public hospitals started to be collected in big center as called “City Hospitals”. Including all clinics, technical infrastructure, know- how and specialists; these city hospitals are the biggest health center in whole Europe and Asia. Istanbul University (İstanbul Üniversitesi), founded in 1453, includes faculties of letters, science, law, medicine, and forestry and has facilities in Beyazıt, Avcılar, Çapa, Cerrahpaşa, Bahçeköy, Kadıköy, and Şişli. There is also a technical university on the Galata side of the Horn as well as an Academy of Fine Arts and schools of technology, commerce, and economics. Foreign educational institutions include the American Robert College for boys (founded in 1863) and the American College for girls (founded in 1871), both on the Bosporus.
The Atatürk Cultural Center, situated in Taksim Square, is an important centre for the arts where opera, ballet, and theatre performances are staged. The municipal theatre operates several playhouses, and there are many theatre companies. A large number of learned societies and research institutes are headquartered in the city, including the Turkish Law Association (Türk Hukuk Kurumu), Turkish Historical Society (Türk Tarih Kurumu), German and French archaeological institutes, and the Turkish Language Institute (Türk Dil Kurumu). There is a nuclear research centre at Küçükçekmece. There are many public and private libraries. The small, specialized Köprülü Library (1677) has books from early Ottoman presses and handwritten works more than 1,000 years old. Many of the city’s mosques, palaces, and monuments, as mentioned earlier, contain museums. Other museums include the Archaeological Museums of Istanbul (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri), the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi), and the Military Museum and Cultural Center (Askeri Müze ve Kültür Sitesi Komutanlığı).
The Hippodrome is now a public garden; there are also numerous other public parks. A unique feature of the city is its market gardens, which are associated with the open cisterns that formed early Constantinople’s water-supply system. The cisterns have been partially built over and are called Çukur Bostan (Hollow Gardens). Football (soccer) is a popular sport, and Istanbul has a number of stadiums, including BJK İnönü, Vefa, Fenerbahçe Şükrü Saraçoğlu, Atatürk Olympic stadium, and Türk Telekom Arena. Florya and Ataköy are popular beaches on the Sea of Marmara. Byzantium was one of the many colonies founded from the end of the 8th century BCE onward along the coasts of the Bosporus and the Black Sea by Greek settlers from the cities of Miletus and Megara. The Persian king Darius I took the settlement in 512 BCE; it slipped from Persian grasp during the Ionian revolt of 496, only to be retaken by the Persians. In 478 and Athenian fleet captured the city, which then became a rich and important member of the Delian League.
As Athenian power waned during the Peloponnesian War, Byzantines acknowledged Spartan overlord ship. Although Alcibiades besieged and retook the city, Sparta reasserted its domination after defeating Athens in 405 BCE. In 343 BCE Byzantium joined the Second Athenian League, throwing off the siege of Philip II of Macedon three years later. The lifting of the siege was attributed to the divine intervention of the goddess Hecate and was commemorated by the striking of coins bearing her star and crescent. Byzantium accepted Macedonian rule under Alexander the Great, regaining independence only with the eclipse of Macedonian might. In the 3rd century BCE the city’s treasury was drained to buy off marauding Gauls. A free city under Rome, it gradually fell under imperial control and briefly lost its freedom under the emperor Vespasian. When in 196 CE it sided with the usurper Pescennius Niger, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus massacred the populace, razed the walls, and annexed the remains to the city of Perinthus (or Heraclea, modern Marmara Ereğlisi), in Turkey.
Subsequently Septimius Severus rebuilt the city on the same spot but on a grander scale. Although sacked again by Gallienus in 268, the city was strong enough two years later to resist a Gothic invasion. In the subsequent civil wars and rebellions that broke out sporadically in the Roman Empire, Byzantium remained untouched until the arrival of the emperor Constantine I—the first Roman ruler to adopt Christianity. Overcoming the army of the rival emperor, Licinius, at nearby Chrysopolis, on Sept. 18, 324, Constantine became head of the whole Roman Empire, east and west. He decided to make Byzantium his capital. Within three weeks of his victory, the foundation rites of New Rome were performed, and the much-enlarged city was officially inaugurated on May 11, 330. It was an act of vast historical portent. Constantinople was to become one of the great world capitals, a font of imperial and religious power, a city of vast wealth and beauty, and the chief city of the Western world. Until the rise of the Italian maritime states, it was the first city in commerce, as well as the chief city of what was until the mid-11th century the strongest and most prestigious power in Europe.
Constantine’s choice of capital had profound effects upon the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. It displaced the power centre of the Roman Empire, moving it eastward, and achieved the first lasting unification of Greece. Culturally, Constantinople fostered a fusion of Oriental and Occidental custom, art, and architecture. The religion was Christian, the organization Roman, and the language and outlook Greek. The concept of the divine right of kings, rulers who were defenders of the faith—as opposed to the king as divine himself—was evolved there. The gold solidus of Constantine retained its value and served as a monetary standard for more than a thousand years. As the centuries passed the Christian empire lasted 1,130 years—Constantinople, seat of empire, was to become as important as the empire itself; in the end, although the territories had virtually shrunk away, the capital endured.
Constantine’s new city walls tripled the size of Byzantium, which now contained imperial buildings, such as the completed Hippodrome begun by Septimius Severus, a huge palace, legislative halls, several imposing churches, and streets decorated with multitudes of statues taken from rival cities. In addition to other attractions of the capital, free bread and citizenship were bestowed on those settlers who would fill the empty reaches beyond the old walls. There was, furthermore, a welcome for Christians, a tolerance of other beliefs, and benevolence toward Jews. Constantinople was also an ecclesiastical centre. In 381 it became the seat of a patriarch who was second only to the bishop of Rome; the patriarch of Constantinople is still the nominal head of the Orthodox Church. Constantine inaugurated the first ecumenical councils; the first six were held in or near Constantinople. In the 5th and 6th centuries emperors were engaged in devising means to keep the Monophysites attached to the realm.
In the 8th and 9th centuries Constantinople was the centre of the battle between iconoclasts and the defenders of icons. The matter was settled by the seventh ecumenical council against the iconoclasts, but not before much blood had been spilled and countless works of art destroyed. The Eastern and Western wings of the church drew further apart, and after centuries of doctrinal disagreement between Rome and Constantinople a schism occurred in the 11th century. The pope originally approved the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and then decried it. Various attempts were made to heal the breach in the face of the Turkish threat to the city, but the divisive forces of suspicion and doctrinal divergence were too strong. By the end of the 4th century, Constantine’s walls had become too confining for the wealthy and populous metropolis. St. John Chrysostom, writing at the end of that century, said many nobles had 10 to 20 houses and owned 1 to 2.000 slaves. Doors were often made of ivory, floors were of mosaic or were covered in costly rugs, and beds and couches were overlaid with precious metals.
The population pressure from within, and the barbarian threat from without, prompted the building of walls farther inland at the hilt of the peninsula. These new walls of the early 5th century, built in the reign of Theodosius II, are those that stand today. In the reign of Justinian I (527–565) medieval Constantinople attained its zenith. At the beginning of this reign the population is estimated to have been about 500,000. In 532 a large part of the city was burned and many of the population killed in the course of the repression of the Nika Insurrection, an uprising of the Hippodrome factions. The rebuilding of the ravaged city gave Justinian the opportunity to engage in a program of magnificent construction, of which many buildings still remain. In 542 the city was struck by a plague that is said to have killed three out of every five inhabitants; the decline of Constantinople dates from this catastrophe. Not only the capital but the whole empire languished, and slow recovery was not visible until the 9th century. During this period the city was frequently besieged—by the Persians and Avars (626), the Arabs (674 to 678 and again from 717 to 718), the Bulgars (813 and 913), the Russians (860, 941, and 1043), and a wandering Turkic people, the Pechenegs (1090–91). All were unsuccessful.
In 1082 the Venetians were allotted quarters in the city itself (there was an earlier cantonment for foreign traders at Galata across the Golden Horn) with special trading privileges. They were later joined by Pisans, Amalfitans, Genoese, and others. These Italian groups soon obtained a stranglehold over the city’s foreign trade—a monopoly that was finally broken by a massacre of Italians. Not for some time were Italian traders permitted once more to settle in Galata. In 1203 the armies of the Fourth Crusade, deflected from their objective in the Holy Land, appeared before Constantinople—ostensibly to restore the legitimate Byzantine emperor, Isaac II. Although the city fell, it remained under its own government for a year. On April 13, 1204, however, the Crusaders burst into the city to sack it. After a general massacre, the pillage went on for years. The Crusading knights installed one of themselves, Baldwin of Flanders, as emperor, and the Venetians—prime instigators of the Crusade—took control of the church. While the Latins divided the rest of the realm among themselves, the Byzantines entrenched themselves across the Bosporus at Nicaea (now İznik) and at Epirus (now north-western Greece). The period of Latin rule (1204 to 1261) was the most disastrous in the history of Constantinople.
Even the bronze statues were melted down for coin; everything of value was taken. Sacred relics were torn from the sanctuaries and dispatched to religious establishments in Western Europe. In 1261 Constantinople was retaken by Michael VIII (Palaeologus), Greek emperor of Nicaea. For the next two centuries the shrunken Byzantine Empire, threatened both from the West and by the rising power of the Ottoman Turks in Asia Minor, led a precarious existence. Some construction was carried out in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, but thereafter the city was in decay, full of ruins and tracts of deserted ground, contrasting with the prosperous condition of Galata across the Golden Horn, which had been granted to the Genoese by the Byzantine ruler Michael VIII. When the Turks crossed into Europe in the mid-14th century, the fate of Constantinople was sealed. The inevitable end was retarded by the defeat of the Turks at the hands of Timur (Tamerlane) in 1402; but in 1422 the Ottoman sultan of Turkey, Murad II, laid siege to Constantinople. This attempt failed, only to be repeated 30 years later. In 1452 another Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, proceeded to blockade the Bosporus by the erection of a strong fortress at its narrowest point; this fortress, called Rumelihisarı, still forms one of the principal landmarks of the straits.
The siege of the city began in April 1453. The Turks had not only overwhelming numerical superiority but also cannon that breached the ancient walls. The Golden Horn was protected by a chain, but the sultan succeeded in hauling his fleet by land from the Bosporus into the Golden Horn. The final assault was made on May 29, and, in spite of the desperate resistance of the inhabitants aided by the Genoese, the city fell. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (Palaeologus), was killed in battle. For three days the city was abandoned to pillage and massacre, after which order was restored by the sultan. When Constantinople was captured, it was almost deserted. Mehmed II began to repeople it by transferring to it populations from other conquered areas such as the Peloponnese, Salonika (modern Thessaloníki), and the Greek islands. By about 1480 the population rose to between 60,000 and 70,000. Hagia Sophia and other Byzantine churches were transformed into mosques.
The Greek patriarchate was retained, but moved to the Church of the Pammakaristos Virgin (Mosque of Fethiye), later to find a permanent home in the Fener (Phanar) quarter. The sultan built the Old Seraglio (Eski Saray), now destroyed, on the site occupied at present by the university, and a little later the Topkapı Palace (Seraglio), which is still in existence; he also built the Eyüp Mosque at the head of the Golden Horn and the Mosque of the Fatih on the site of the Basilica of the Holy Apostles. The capital of the Ottoman Empire was transferred to Constantinople from Adrianople (Edirne) in 1457.
After Mehmed II, Istanbul underwent a long period of peaceful growth, interrupted only by natural disasters—earthquakes, fires, and pestilences. The sultans and their ministers devoted themselves to the building of fountains, mosques, palaces, and charitable foundations so that the aspect of the city was soon completely transformed. The most brilliant period of Turkish construction coincides with the reign of the Ottoman ruler Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–66). The next major change in the history of Istanbul occurred at the beginning of the 19th century, when dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire was approaching. This period is known as the era of internal reforms (Tanzimat). The reforms were accompanied by serious disturbances, such as the massacre of the Janissaries in the Hippodrome (1826).
With the triumph of the progressive Ottoman sultan Mahmud II over the conservative opposition, the Westernization of Istanbul started apace. There was an ever-growing influx of European visitors who, since the 1830s, could reach Istanbul by steamship. The first bridge across the Golden Horn was built in 1838. In 1839 the Ottoman sultan Abdülmecid I issued a charter guaranteeing to all his subjects, whatever their religion, the security of their lives and fortunes. The process of Westernization was further accelerated by the Crimean War (1853–56) and the quartering of British and French troops in Istanbul. The latter part of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century were marked by the introduction of various public services: the European railroad extending to Istanbul was begun in the early 1870s. The underground tunnel joining Galata to Pera was completed in 1873; a regular water supply for Istanbul and the settlements on the European side of the Bosporus was brought from Lake Terkos on the Black Sea coast (29 miles [47 km] from the city) by the French company, La Compagnie des Eaux, after 1885; electric lighting was introduced in 1912 and electric street cars and telephones in 1913 and 1914. An adequate sewerage system had to wait until 1925 and later.
In the first quarter of the 20th century there were various disruptions marking the death of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of modern Turkey. In 1908 the city was occupied by the army of the Young Turks who deposed the hated sultan Abdülhamid II. During the Balkan Wars (1912–13) Istanbul was nearly captured by the Bulgarians. Throughout World War I the city was under blockade. After the conclusion of the Armistice (1918) it was placed under British, French, and Italian occupation that lasted until 1923. The Greco-Turkish War in Asia Minor, as well as the Russian Revolution, brought thousands of refugees to Istanbul. With the victory of the Nationalists under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the sultanate was abolished, and the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI, fled from Istanbul (1922). After the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, Istanbul was evacuated by the Allies (Oct. 2, 1923), and Ankara was chosen as the capital of Turkey (Oct. 13, 1923). On October 29 the Turkish Republic was proclaimed. Because of Turkey’s neutrality during most of World War II, Istanbul suffered no damage, although a German invasion was feared after the Balkans had been conquered by the Axis.
In the period following World War II, the size and population of Istanbul increased dramatically as vast numbers of rural residents moved to the city in search of employment. This nearly 10-fold increase in the city’s population during the second half of the 20th century placed enormous strains on Istanbul’s infrastructure and in a pattern typical of large Middle Eastern cities, overcrowding, pollution, and insufficient city services became major social problems. Likewise, in a region prone to violent seismic activity, the proliferation of substandard and unregistered construction contributed greatly to high death tolls during earthquakes; in August 1999 a tremor centred near Istanbul killed more than 15,000 people. These developments took place against the backdrop of a city whose profile was being rapidly altered by an explosion in the use of automobiles. Large tracts of the city were demolished or cleared to make way for modern highways, which further contributed to urban sprawl, and by the close of the century major projects had been undertaken to connect the Asian and European sides of the city by road and rail.