Ask someone today about the best city in the world, and you’ll get a real mixed bag of responses. “Tokyo – it’s so massive” “Paris – it’s so romantic” “New York – it’s so famous” “The City of London – it’s so poorly defined, autonomous and confusing”. But ask anyone from between the years of 330AD and 1600AD – that’s 1300 years, for God’s sake – and I promise you you’d only get one answer: “Constantinople” Well, OK, more like one answer with a thousand different names: “Constantinopolis” “Byzantion” “Qostantiniyye” “Istanbul” and that’s just the people who actually lived there. My point is that there’s never been a place that’s been as important to world history for as long as that metropolis on the Bosphorous, never been a city that’s seen quite as much variety, influence, prestige and…well, life. It was the last bastion of the Roman Empire; it was the last house of the last Caliph. It was the centre of a xenophobic and violent Empire, it was the centre of culture and trade and tolerance for the best part of two millennia. It spans two continents and 6,500 square miles. This is the story of Istanbul.
I know I always seem to start these by saying that “there have been people in [place] longer than there’s been [thing] in [place where thing has been for a long time]”, but there’s no better way of describing Istanbul’s early history than saying that there have been people in Istanbul longer than there has been a freaking RIVER in Istanbul. Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Istanbul survived it all by using the tried-and-tested technique of “If we don’t do anything notable, maybe nobody will notice us”. It was as good a mantra as any, but not nearly interesting enough for the first group of invaders to roll in, the Ancient Greeks. Their mantra was more “Live fast, die young, invent western civilisation, but go down in history as gay philosophers” and they brought with them their shiny new invention: The City.
The Greeks weren’t really a civilisation as much as an alliance – a collection of independent city states who only pretended to be one country to scare off the Persians – and that seemed to suit Byzantion (the first incarnation of Istanbul) quite well. It could be the wild northern colony to the sunshine-and-democracy southern Greeks, famed for its rapey kings and impressive citadel. It allied with the southerners when it needed to, became independent when it needed to, and slowly became an important city. But even then, no-one would have guessed how great it would eventually become to its next invaders. The Romans were so powerful by the time they got to Greece that Byzantion’s response to a Roman request for subjugation was along the lines of “Yeah, go on then, it’s not like we wanted a thriving metropolis anyway”. The next 400 years saw the Roman Empire rise and fall around them – something about a system where poison is easily accessible and marriage councillors are not made imperial politics chaotic and ever-changing – as its central position in the empire made it a trading hub for the whole Mediterranean. It was then, in 330AD, that it was thrust into the centre of Roman politics. It was then that a Roman Emperor finally calmed the chaos that had filled his nation and, in a rush of reforms that did everything from punish traitors to change the Empire’s official religion to Christianity, he had decided to make Byzantion his capital. The Emperor’s name was Constantine the Great. He was the man who put the Constantine into Constantinople.
Roman luck seemed to get worse after Constantine but the newly-Christened Constantinople’s didn’t. A schism with the Pope left Christianity in turmoil but created a new form of the religion with its base in Constantinople – the Orthodoxy. The fall of the Western Roman Empire allowed “Barbarians” to take control of everything from Britain to Lombardy, but the Empire’s survival in the East (which was now being called Byzantium, much to the annoyance of the people who lived there – as you might expect, the people who lived there just called it the Roman Empire) left Constantinople with a flood of refugees, salvaged texts, military equipment. The Eastern Roman Empire was powerful, huge and…I can tell already that you’re bracing yourself for a fall. I know this bit, you’re thinking, the Roman Empire falls and the Dark Ages engulfs Europe. So tough luck. No dark ages in Greece, no Saxons and Vikings (OK, some vikings, but not the normal sort), no poverty and illiteracy in Constantine’s neighborhood. No, the Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453.
While you’re pondering the weird fact that Henry VIII almost coincided with the Ancient Romans, I should probably explain that the ERE wasn’t exactly Ancient roman by that point. They spoke Medieval Greek, they were completely and devoutly Christian and they had past 500 years getting progressively smaller and more backward. Less togas, more goats. Less Caesar, more salad. By 1453, in fact, the Roman Empire was nothing more than Constantinople itself, having been eaten away by some Muslims, originally from Turkmenistan, who were calling themselves the Turkmen or Turks. The city took a long, long time to fall – it had become pretty much the centre of all European trade, not to mention the most prestigious stop on the Silk Road, a transcontinental trade route that did more for European wealth than Adam Smith, Christopher Columbus and the EU put together. But when it did, it went straight from one empire to another – straight into the hands of the Ottoman Turks who would go on to conquer the entire Middle East and give their rulers over the ridiculous nicknames like “Suleiman the Magnificent” “Mehmed the Affable” and, my personal favourite, “Abdulmecid the Advocate of Reorganization”. The city began to be known by its Turkish name, Qostantinyye, but in true local style everyone referred to it by another name. This time, it became Istanbul.
Istanbul grew massively under the Ottomans because…well, everywhere did, because the world was inventing medicines and better ways to produce food and tactics to avoid going to war every five minutes because your brother wants the a go on the throne. But with that Istanbul began to fall behind – the Ottoman empire’s weird system of government (probably worth a Holistic History entry in itself) didn’t value the future, the progress that cities like London and Brussels and New York saw in the Industrial Revolution. The Ottoman Empire’s decision to side with the Axis Powers in World War One (“Allies…Axis…no, Allies definitely sounds more evil, right Sultan?”) was the last straw for the Empire and left the city in the unstable hands of republican Turkey. Turkey quickly brushed itself off, became a minor 20th century power and even made friends with some of the countries that they used to own, but the glory days of Istanbul were long gone. It was no longer the international city and, to quote the Jimmy Kennedy/They Might Be Giants song that the title was taken from, it became “nobody’s business but the Turks”.