The city that is discovered as you experience it, and loved as discovered…
‘If the world were a single state, Istanbul would have been its capital.’
The capital of empires… The city that dominated continents… The cradle of civilisation… The meeting point of cultures and civilisations… These are some of the thousands of phrases that describe Istanbul. Yet neither words nor any amount of reading or listening are sufficient to truly describe and become familiar with the city. Only when you walk along its historic streets, when you see with your own eyes the architectural masterpieces of Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in their original setting, when you enjoy the panoramic vistas of its unique location, and when you start to explore its mystical beauties – only then will you begin to discover, and to fall in love with Istanbul…
Istanbul is the most developed and largest city of Turkey, and the latest discoveries indicate that the history of human habitation goes back 400,000 years ago. The Megarians settled and founded the city of Byzantium that later lent its name to the Byzantine Empire. However, the first settlers in the region established their city Chalcedon (Kadıköy), on ‘the land of blind people’ which was strategically less important. And the Megarians, led by an Oracle, became aware of the beauty of Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), and they established their city there on the opposite side of the Chalcedon.
Today the historical peninsula is the most beautiful part of Istanbul, and is strategically well placed. The city is surrounded by a seascape peppered with distant islands, and this, together with the Golden Horn (Haliç), the estuary that thrusts into the land along the peninsula, make Istanbul a unique place – and, throughout its long history, a city that many desired to conquer. But the desire to possess the city cannot be explained only by its strategic position or unsurpassed beauty; it has a different attraction, a mystical magnetism that drew states, empires and great conquerors towards it. This attraction led to a long history of conflict, conquest and occupation between those determined to maintain their hold on the city and those who strove to capture it.
For more than 1,500 years Istanbul was the capital of two empires, first the Byzantine and later the Ottoman. It was beautified accordingly with magnificent monuments and became a metropolis where diverse cultures, nations and religions mingle. Those cultures, nations and religions are the small pieces that form the mosaic of Istanbul. Perhaps some of those little pieces do not mean much to you, but as an ensemble they make up the unique majesty of Istanbul.
The Royal Purple Years of Istanbul:
The Period of the Byzantine Empire
Royal purple is the colour of the Byzantine imperial family. The Byzantine emperors called themselves ‘the Royal Purple Blooded’; they were born in purple-decorated rooms, they wore purple mantles when they were enthroned, and they were buried in purple sarcophagi; so their whole lives were identified with purple.
The purple years of Istanbul may be considered to have started in 330 when Emperor Constantine declared the city the capital of his empire. Until 1453, when it was conquered by the Ottomans, the city had served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. During the sovereignty of Byzantine Empire it was adorned with several works of art to become the most magnificent city of the world, even in those years when the Byzantines themselves were enfeebled.
When the Roman Empire needed a base to stage its campaigns towards the East, there was not much need to explore further afield: Istanbul’s unique location and strategic position made it the best choice. The capital was first called ‘New Rome’, and indeed the city is quite similar to Rome. Both cities were based on seven hills; the original settlement area of Istanbul was surrounded on three sides by the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, while Rome was surrounded by the River Tiber; the layout of both cities looks like a scalene triangle. Perhaps those features were influential in choosing the location of ‘New Rome’. However, physical similarities were not deemed enough, and so every resource of the empire was drawn up to enhance the magnificence of the new city.
Byzantium was in fact a continuation of Rome, and the Byzantines called themselves ‘Romans’ even until the day their empire came to an end. Yet there was a significant difference between the Byzantines and their ancestors: Christianity. In Byzantium, Roman temples were replaced with churches. Displaying unique examples of Byzantine painting and architecture, these buildings were scattered across the historical peninsula as well as in other parts of Istanbul. Some of the most important Byzantine masterpieces in Istanbul are public buildings such as the hippodrome, water cisterns, palaces, thoroughfares and public squares and the city walls.
The identity of Istanbul that began to be formed by the Byzantines was further shaped during the period of Ottoman Empire.
The Most Valuable Heritage of the Ottoman Empire
The reason why Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities of the world stems from the fact that its natural beauty has been enhanced by human endeavour. The most important building activities started in the Byzantine Period, and the city was then embellished further during the Ottoman Period.
Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror declared Istanbul the capital of Ottoman Empire after he conquered the city in 1453. Over the next 450 years the city was adorned with superb Ottoman works of art. Building activities after the conquest gained apace during the reign of Sultan Bayezid II, with the finest works built by Mimar Sinan, the Chief Royal Architect. This world famous architect put his signature on the silhouette of Istanbul with several masterpieces. Ofcourse, he was fortunate to live through the most glorious period of Ottoman history, a coincidence that played a major role in his work. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent generously put the riches of the empire at the disposal of Sinan in order to enable him to beautify Istanbul. Sinan responded to his generosity by adorning Istanbul with buildings that still evoke admiration in visitors thanks to his superlative talent and skill. Sinan’s apprentices and disciples continued this work after him, so that Istanbul, from being the most prominent city of the Byzantine Empire, gained a new identity with mosques, caravanserais, public bathhouses and tombs and became a city to admire.
The Ottomans wisely tolerated religions other than Islam, and dedicated many places of worship to Christian and Jewish communities so r that these peoples could practise their religion in peace of mind.
Because of this tolerant outlook, mosques, churches and synagogues stood and still stand side by side. This is the physical evidence of the fact that Istanbul was the symbol of tolerance and fraternity of religions.