On ISTANBUL – A mini-series – Part 1 | by Ayse OVUR*
Istanbul* is the only metropolis with territories both in Europe and Asia in the world. The metropolitan city has inhabitants for thousands of years, has been the capital of two different empires more than 1500 years.
Today, even though it is not the official capital of Turkey; it is accepted as a cultural capital of the Republic of Turkey. Throughout history, many different religions, languages, and cultures were able to coexist within its borders. Tourists visiting Istanbul may encounter churches, synagogues, and mosques next to each other.
If we were to take a look at the history of this unique historical metropolitan city, we would find a surprising data. Archaeologists who studied the history of Istanbul have found the traces of human settlement layers dating back thousands of years.
In the archeological excavations made until now around the vicinity of Küçükçekmece Lake, which is located on the European Side, the findings from 300 thousand years ago were discovered. Not only here but also in its vicinity, which is located on the Asian Side, different prehistoric settlement layers were seen.
The last surprise of Istanbul has surfaced in the excavations for subway construction made during the summer. In the summer of 2017, the excavations made for the subway construction in Besiktas, which can be considered as the center of Istanbul, the grave findings dating back to the Neolithic period (about 4000 BC) were discovered. The archaeological excavation in this ancient residential area, which was discovered incidentally still continues. Thanks to this work, some significant information regarding the history of Istanbul is expected to be revealed.
In 2004, again during a subway construction, important historical artifacts were discovered in Yenikapi, which is a coastal district. When the experts did not confine themselves during the excavation process to the layer of
Eastern Roman Empire and started to move further downwards to the lower layers, in which, they reached a great surprise that the outcome of it, made the archeologists and the excavators’ very happy.
They discovered hundreds of footprints belong to the earliest people of Istanbul of eight thousand years ago! The footprints found as a result of Yenikapi excavations, which caused subway constructions to stop for a long time, were moved from the area that they were found to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
If we want to look at today’s Istanbul after a brief look to its prehistoric settlements, we have to consider 7th century BC. Because today’s Istanbul was founded in 700 BC in a small area in Sarayburnu, where Topkapi Palace is also located whereas, according to scientific studies. This area is quite convenient for fishing and growing agricultural products because it is a cape slightly higher than sea level while being surrounded by the sea on three sides. It is also suitable for observing the vessel traffic.
Then, who found the Istanbul that we are living on now?
There are zestful myths about the foundation of the city, however, the most well-known of them is of King Byzas. According to the myth, King Byzas had consulted the Oracles in order to found a new city for himself after he left his hometown, Megara, Greece. The Oracles had recommended him the rich a land right across to “the Country of the Blinds.” The king had not been able to grasp the meaning of this prophecy, yet he had set off a journey.
When Byzas and his followers had arrived in Khalkedon located in Asia, then they had realized that the land opposite to them (Sarayburnu) is extremely suitable for settlement as Oracles explained. Khalkedon, which is today’s Kadikoy had been named as “the Country of the Blinds” due to the fact that they were not able to recognize the importance of the fertile land which is right in front of them.
The historical metropolitan city, which was first established in Sarayburnu as a small settlement called as Byzantion, was able to expand its borders thanks to its strategical location. Despite the attacks of different societies from the West and the East at times, it has been able to survive as an independent city for a long time. Thanks to its strategical location, which was able to have a rich economy, the Byzantium was included in the territories of Roman Empire, which then had helped enormously increased its power and its scope of authority that, it was subjected to a fast Latinization policy. Its name was changed into Byzantium which is Latin.
When the Roman Empire divided into two as The Eastern and Western Roman Empire, it was assigned as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in 395 AD. This event was a huge milestone for Istanbul. It has existed as a capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for 1058 years until 1453. With their engineering capabilities, Eastern Romans wanted to transform their famous capitals into a majestic and habitable city. First of all, the
fortification walls were expanded and reinforced. Hippodrome and Great Palace was constructed. With its unique churches, market areas, public buildings, obelisks, towers, cisterns, city doors, a glorious city that enriched every day were built.
Inarguably, the most magnificent architectural structures built is Hagia Sophia, the big church, of which construction completed in 537 AD. The Hagia Sophia, which is kept under constant protection by being converted into a museum today is the third church that is built in the same place over the others. In its construction, the columns and marble coming from many different regions from Syria to Ephesus were used. Although it is known that in the 13th century during the fourth crusade, it was looted and plundered, its survival was ensured in different periods with renovations.
In 1453, Ottoman Empire took the city from The Eastern Roman Empire, a.k.a Byzantine Empire that has influenced the Ottomans to a great extent with its cultural heritage. Many cultural elements such as the Organization of Ottoman Palace, architectural artifacts, titles of Sultans, cuisine, musical works, feeding wild animals in the Palace, the practice of bear dancing in the streets have survived after 1453.
The Istanbul in Byzantine period is the last heir of the Classical Greek and Roman Empires according to many scientists.
To be continued in the second chapter…
[*] On the name of Istanbul: Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453 when Fatih Sultan Mehmet was padishah (ruler). After the conquest the official name never chanced and Ottoman Empire called that city “Konstantiniyye”. But sometimes community used “Stanpolis“, “Dersaadet“, “Asitane“, “Darülhilafe” and “Makarrı Saltanat” names too. Although commonly used name was Konstantiniyye.
After 1923 when Turkish Republic was found , they used the name Konstantiniyye for seven years. On March 28,1930 with enactment of Turk Post Law, Turkish government announced that the official name of the city became “Istanbul“. Konstantinopolis and Konstantiniyye names are officially rejected. Government did not except letters which has the names.
According to President of the Hagia Sophia Museum Prof. Dr. Haluk Dursun, the origin of the word is “Istanbul” is “Stinpolis“ from Greek and it means “to the city”.
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[*] About Ayse Ovur: She was born in Istanbul in 1971. Graduated from Istanbul University Classical Archeology Department. She has a M.A degree at Ancient History. She attented many archeological projects such as Troia, Assos and Phokaia.
Her first novel, “SAHRA 1911” was published in Istanbul in September 2017.