With its obviously strategic location – from a military, mercantile and religious standpoint – the area that is now Istanbul has proved a tempting target for every would-be conqueror in the region. Few resisted temptation. Fewer still succeeded in winning the prize.
Although the beginning of Istanbul is often dated to 667 BCE, when a Greek colony called Byzantion was established, trade and warfare had thrived in the strategic region of the Bosphorus for more than 1,000 years prior. Byzantion itself was often controlled by others, including Lydians (560-546 BCE), Persians (546-478), Athenians (478-411), Macedonians, led by Alexander the Great (334-281) and, eventually the Romans, who named the region Byzantium, starting in 64 BCE.
Byzantine Empire: The Roman emperor Constantine I (or Constantine the Great) did two things that set the direction of Byzantium (and Istanbul) for the next 1,000 years. First, in 324 CE he moved the capital of the Roman empire to Istanbul, known officially at the time as "New Rome" but more widely as Constantinople. Second, while he had previously made Christianity a tolerated religion of the empire, he established Christianity as the accepted and predominate religion of Byzantium. In 325, it was Constantine who convened the First Council of Nicaea to resolve disputes among the various Christian factions of the day and create one accepted version of the faith. Constantinople became the center of Christendom.
By the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire (as the surviving eastern part of the Roman empire later came to be called) reached its height under the Emperor Justinian (527-565), controlling Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece, the Balkans, and parts of Italy, Spain, Egypt and North Africa. It was under Justinian that the Christianity's largest church, the Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia) was built. The sprawling Great Palace (site of today's Mosaics Museum) covered much of what is now the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul and led to the Hippodrome, a massive stadium that once seated 100,000 spectators. The city was protected not only by water on three sides, but by massive walls built along the west.
Over succeeding centuries, the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople had their ups and downs in terms of trade and warfare, but in general the city remained a wealthy center of trade, scholarship and the arts at a time when the rest of Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages of ignorance and illiteracy. Some of the magnificent art of the period survives today in the Mosaics Museum, the Aya Sophia and the Church of St. Savior in Chora.
Ottoman Empire: During its latter centuries, parts of the Byzantine Empire were being whittled away by the Seljuk Turks and later Ottoman Turks until Constantinople was essentially reduced to a city-state isolated within the nascent Ottoman Empire. Finally, in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481), known as Mehmet the Conqueror, captured Constantinople. While Christians and Jews were tolerated, Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) became a Muslim city and the capital of the expanding Ottoman Empire. The Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia), Christianity's largest church, was converted into the Ayasofya Mosque. Other magnificent mosques were built, as was the sumptuous Topkapı Palace. Istanbul remained a center of trade, learning, art and culture. For a century after the conquest, the empire continued to expand, reaching its zenith under Sultan Süleyman (Solomon) I, known as Süleyman the Magnificent, who reigned from 1520 to 1566. At the time, the empire extended from Hungary to the Persian Gulf and from Algiers in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. During Süleyman's reign, the prolific Ottoman architect, Mirmar Sinan (1489-1588) built hundreds of mosques, palaces, bridges and other structures throughout the empire, including the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque.
The sultans led a life of ease and luxury. Many never aspired for anything more and power often fell to their viziers, their mothers (the "valide sultan") or the Janissaries, the elite palace guard who sometimes overthrew the sultan himself. The sultan's palaces (Topkapı from 1465 to 1853, and Dolmabahçe from 1853 until 1922) were designed to provide the sultan and his family with every attainable creature comfort. The Harem, the part of the palace restricted to the sultan, his family and concubines, at one time contained 1,000 concubines, who were essentially servants and most of whom never had any intimate contact with the sultan himself.
As decadence increased within challenges mounted from without and, like all empires, the Ottoman Empire went into a spiral of decline and eventual collapse. Although some reforms were enacted – the often rebellious Janissaries were abolished (massacred) in the "Auspicious Event" of 1826 and a constitution was declared in 1876 (though quickly suspended), the Ottomans continued to lose territory in a series of wars with Russia, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. The final straw came with the Ottoman alliance with Germany during World War I. As the alliance was defeated, British, French and Greek troops occupied Istanbul and Anatolia.
The Republic: The present borders of Turkey, and its form of government as a secular republic, began to take shape in the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal Paşa (1881-1938), who later took the name Atatürk ("Father of the Turks"). Atatürk drove out the foreign occupiers, abolished the sultanate in 1922, and declared a secular republic in 1923. He also replaced the traditional Arabic alphabet with a Roman one, gave women greater social and political rights, encouraged modern western dress, moved the capital from Istanbul to the more centrally located Ankara and became the first president of the republic.
Turkey stayed out of World War II (though entered on the side of the Allies in February 1945 as a ceremonial gesture) and became a charter member of the United Nations in 1945. It joined NATO in 1952. Although Turkey has been a multi-party democracy since 1945, government has not always been smooth. Military coups overthrew the government in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.
Istanbul Today: The Turkish economy was liberalized in the 1980s and though there have been ups and downs, in general Istanbul has become a modern, developed city with all the amenities. Nevertheless, despite the modernity, Istanbul boasts some of world's premier historical sites from the Byzantine and Ottoman years. The city draws hoards of tourists from around the world and deservedly so. There is much to see. Some of the most notable sites are detailed on other pages: the Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia), Topkapı Palace, the spectacular imperial mosques and the over-the-top Dolmabahçe Palace.
But while the famous historical landmarks are certainly worth seeing, I highly recommend that visitors leave some time to just wander through the city's wonderful streets and markets. The districts of Beyoğlu, Ortaköy and Taksim are lively areas of shops, restaurants and night clubs and great places to stroll and people watch.
The photos from Istanbul come from two separate visits. I first visited in 1998 for a few days as a side trip on my way to Africa. I visited again in May 2005, this time for a solid week just in the city. Istanbul is such a wonderful city – and offers so much to see and do – even a week proved too short. It is one of my favorite cities in the world and I hope to have the opportunity to return again and again.