Istanbul – The Queen of Cities

The magnificent Hagia Sophia ranked as the world's largest cathedral for a thousand years
The magnificent Hagia Sophia ranked as the world's largest cathedral for a thousand years

by Ray Setterfield

March 28, 1930 — On this day the Turkish city of Constantinople was officially renamed Istanbul. It had been called that unofficially for nearly 500 years but the formal name change did not take place until the modern Turkish Republic was established.

It is thought that the land where Istanbul stands may have been inhabited as early as 3000BCE but became a city after the arrival of Greek colonists in the seventh century BCE. They were led by King Byzas who, thrusting modesty aside, named the new city after himself – Byzantium.

So it remained until 330AD when Roman Emperor Constantine IConstantine the Great – switched the capital of his empire from Rome to Byzantium and called it Nova Roma – New Rome. This eventually gave way to the name Konstantinoupolis, commonly known as Constantinople. It would also become known as the Queen of Cities.

The importance of the city lay in its location on the Bosporus Strait straddling both Europe and Asia. A gateway used by merchants, armies and royalty, it was the only metropolis to stand on more than one continent. Not only did it guard the single entrance into the Black Sea but it also lay alongside a deep inlet – the Golden Horn – that meant attack was possible only from the west.

All these factors were taken into account by Emperor Constantine who spent six years building Constantinople on top of the old Byzantium. Temples and other buildings throughout the Roman Empire were uprooted piece by piece and taken to the new capital.

The Forum of Constantine was built at the centre of it all, named after you-know-who. And next to that, in a colossal monument to vanity, stood the 50-metre tall Column of Constantine topped with a statue of the emperor himself made to look like the god Apollo. The column is said to have lasted more than 700 years before being toppled by strong winds in 1106 AD.

Another remarkable architectural feature of the new city was the Hippodrome where chariot races were held before 80,000 spectators. Monuments adorning the Hippodrome included the Triumphal Quadriga – four bronze horses pulling a chariot. In 1204 these horses were removed and taken to Venice where they were placed on the facade of St Mark's Basilica – a tourist attraction to this day.

Venetian forces arrived in Constantinople after Pope Innocent III called in 1202 for a Fourth Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslim Ayyubid dynasty. French crusaders enlisted financial and naval support from prosperous and powerful Venice.

They were bribed to divert to Constantinople where there had been a power struggle but felt betrayed when the money was not forthcoming and set about sacking and conquering the city.

Ignoring their excommunication by the Pope for their attacks on fellow Christians, they looted, terrorised and vandalised Constantinople for three days. Thousands of civilians were killed, nuns were raped and the bronze horses from the Hippodrome were stolen.

The city went on to recover and prosper until in 1453 Mehmed the Conqueror led an Ottoman Empire army of 200,000 men and a fleet of over 100 ships launched a victorious two-month siege. During the fighting Emperor Constantine XI was among the thousands killed.

It was this event that got the city the new name which it bears to this day, though technically the name wasn’t officially changed until 1930. The fall of Constantinople in 1453, which also marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, is often cited by historians as the time when the Middle Ages ended once and for all.

It transformed the city into an Islamic stronghold, and the Ottoman Empire ruled Istanbul until it was occupied by the Allies in the First World War. After that came the Turkish War of Independence, and Istanbul became a part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

One glorious example of Byzantine architecture that survived the countless battles and sieges in Istanbul’s history is the Hagia Sophia, which has stood for nearly 1,500 years. Built in 537AD as an Orthodox Christian cathedral – the largest in the world – its massive dome was said to be held up by God’s will and nothing else.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 it was turned into a mosque, but later became a popular tourist attraction as a museum and Unesco World Heritage site. Finally, in July 2020, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Hagia Sophia would be converted back into a mosque.

** A novelty song – Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – was recorded in 1953 by Canadian singers The Four Lads on the 500th anniversary of the city’s fall. It earned them a gold record. Other versions were later recorded around the world, including New Zealand, Spain and Australia. Most recently, a rock version by the US band They Might Be Giants became a minor hit in 1990.

Published: March 3, 2021
Updated: March 4, 2021

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