Two centers that stand out with the historical-cultural background of the Mediterranean Basin civilizations are Rome and Istanbul. However, there are some features that make Istanbul different from Rome: While great states have been ruled from continental capitals since ancient times, Istanbul has preserved its privilege of being the only empire capital intertwined with the sea for centuries. So, do you know who found Istanbul?
Istanbul was founded in 667 BC. It is estimated that it was first established in today’s Sarayburnu, an area smaller than Topkapı Palace (approximately 10 km2). King Byzas of Megara founded Istanbul. Although the city is engaged in fishing and agriculture, it has become one of the most important trade centers in the region in a short time. Historians have found traces that it was ruled by democracy after the 5th century BC. The name Byzantion was used until it was included in the Roman Empire in AD 196.
Foundation and Brief History of Istanbul
Istanbul has had three different names throughout its history: Byzantion as a Greek colony, Constantinople as a Roman city, and Istanbul since the late Ottoman period. For many years, the Ottomans did not mind using the name Konstantiniyye, which is the Turkish version of Constantinople. Istanbul, shortly after 330 when it became the Roman capital, became the world’s most populous commercial city and has preserved its place for centuries. Faced with a disaster like the Latin Invasion in 1204, the city fell into decline. However, it became the capital of an emerging empire during the Ottoman period.
- Ancient Greek Period
To talk about the founding date of Istanbul, we need to go back to the 600s BC, that is, the Ancient Greek period. Our story begins with the king named Byzas, who decided to emigrate from the ancient Greek city of Megara and consulted the oracle of the Temple of Apollo, as was customary at that time. The priest advises them to go east and settle in front of the Land of the Blind. Of course, Byzas and his companions do not understand anything at first.
At the end of their journey from Greece to the East, they come to the fortified position we know today as Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point). This is the nose of the Istanbul Historic Peninsula that intersects with the Bosphorus in the east. Overlooking the beautiful view of the Bosphorus from this hill, Byzas and his staff see a settlement on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in a place known today as Kadıköy. Those on the opposite shore are none other than the Greek colony that came there a few years ago. Since they did not choose the strategic point where Byzas stood, although they came first, it is concluded that the people of Chalcedon (Kadıköy) are prophetic blind people. The newly established city becomes known as Byzantion, after its founder Byzas.
Byzantion has existed for many years as a free city-state. Although it was under the protection of the Persians for a short period, it will exist for about 800 years. In 195 AD, a Roman emperor named Septimus Severus besieged the city and took it. Septimus entered Byzantion in rage and devastated it. The reason is that Byzantion supported Pescennius Niger, his rival in the fight for the throne. However, the emperor soon realizes his mistake. It is impossible not to notice the unique location of Istanbul. He reconstructs the city and builds the first known Hippodrome Square (for horse-drawn races) and Roman structures. After Septimus left the city, the Romans did not attach much importance to Byzantion for many years. Meanwhile, the name of the city, which was under Roman influence, became Byzantium with Latin influence.
- Roman Empire Period
In order for Byzantium to be seen again on the stage of history, it will be necessary to wait until the time of Emperor Constantine’s struggle for the throne (AD 324). Because a war broke out between Constantine and Licinius, emperors of the Tetrarchy Period (quadruple rule), to become the sole leader (See: Chrysopolis War). We think that Constantine understood the importance of Istanbul in this war. He noticed that this peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, provided a perfect defense and that the Golden Horn to its north functioned as a stagnant harbor. When solid walls were built on the western wing, which was the only side open to attack from the land, the city was almost impassable.
After Constantine (Constantine the Great) seized power alone, he decided to move the center of his empire to the safer eastern provinces. In the discovery he made for this purpose, he chose Byzantium because of his excellent position. This decision was met with great surprise in Rome. Because Byzantium was definitely not one of the most important cities of the empire at that time. However, Constantine showed his vision at this point and predicted that Istanbul would be an important crossroads in the future.
He orders his architects to overhaul the city throughout and build a majestic Roman city on seven hills. Within six years, the walls of the city were expanded six floors and various Roman structures were built. Among them are structures such as the Hippodrome, the Grand Palace, and the Constantine Forum. The city opens in 330 under the name Nova Roma (New Rome). Emperor Constantine made the city co-capital of the Empire with Rome and gave it his own name. However, the Roman Empire was divided into two with the death of Emperor Theodosius the Great in 395.
- Byzantine Empire Period
When the Roman Empire splits in two, the city of Constantinople remains the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire, on the other hand, collapsed only 81 years after this separation, that is, in 476, due to the barbarian invasion, and the ancient capital Rome fell into the hands of the Goths. Eastern Rome lost its twin brother in the history scene and was left alone. The kings of Eastern Rome perceived themselves as Caesar and the people as Romans. The reason why this civilization is called the Byzantine Empire in today’s history books is the name given by modern-time historians by deriving from the city’s first name (Byzantium).
Eastern Rome (i.e. Byzantium) had a deep-rooted Greek culture and Roman administrative structure. That’s why it lived for so many years. The peak of imperial history was the reign of Emperor Justinian, who built Hagia Sophia. Justinian’s great conquests in the west brought Byzantium almost to the Roman borders before the division. But the emperors that followed could not keep these borders for various reasons.
Byzantium was defeated by the Great Seljuk State, the first Turks from the East (See: Battle of Malazgirt), and lost a lot of lands. They recaptured some of the lands in the First Crusades but were occupied by the Crusaders themselves during the IV Crusade. After the Latin invasion of 1204-1261, Byzantium entered a 200-year period of collapse and could not recover again. Finally, in 1453, the Ottomans captured Constantinople, the last fortress of Byzantium, and made the city, which was in collapse, an imperial center again.
- Ottoman Empire Period
Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who was the first Ottoman Sultan to enter the city, was a very well-educated statesman. Since he knew Byzantine history well, he wanted to see Hagia Sophia first. Since the city was not repaired in the late Byzantine period, its old buildings were not in very good condition. For this reason, it is rumored that Sultan Mehmet, who could not find the splendor he expected, was very sad. The Sultan recommends that Hagia Sophia be urgently restored and converted into a mosque. Then he starts the business of building a palace for himself. This palace is the Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet today. The palace is built on the ancient ruins of the ancient Greek city Byzantion. The elegant columns of various sizes in the palace are taken from the ancient city.
The Ottoman Empire enters a long period of ascension that will last from 1453 to 1700. So much so that the lands of the Empire spread over three continents and became the largest and most powerful state of its time. The name of the city did not change immediately, it was called Constantinople for centuries. Fatih Sultan Mehmet also used the title of Roman Emperor (Kayser-i Rum) for political reasons and was justifiably proud of having conquered the capital of Eastern Rome.
It was a natural process for Istanbul’s name to emerge and it developed in folk language. The names of many cities in Anatolia today remind them of their ancient times. Thus, Istanbul became the capital of an empire for the third time since its foundation. That is why the famous Istanbul historian Stefanos Yerasimos named his book on the history of Istanbul as the Capital of Empires. In addition, as the precious historians said, the decisions taken at the Divan-ı Humayun, located in the second courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, affected world politics.
- Period of the Republic of Turkey
With the Karlowitz Treaty signed in 1699, the Ottoman Empire goes into a decline that will last for more than two centuries. Some Sultans want to make reforms and regulate the army, social life, laws and bring them to the developing European level, but their efforts are insufficient. Since the Ottoman Empire fell behind technologically during this period, more and more people and equity were lost in order to preserve their lands. In the 1800s, it entered a period of economic collapse, and the struggle in World War I consumed the tired empire completely.
We all know from the history books or the history of revolution lessons. While Istanbul was under the occupation of the enemy, the national struggle was carried out by the TBMM established in Ankara and was organized by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his comrades in arms. With the victory of the War of Independence and Ankara becoming the capital, Istanbul lost its feature of being the capital for the first time after 1600 years. However, Istanbul has not lost anything of its social, cultural, and geopolitical importance.
The Ottoman left a great cultural and artistic legacy, especially to the city of Istanbul. The most imposing and beautiful examples of these are the Blue Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and Dolmabahçe Palace. In addition to these, countless Palaces, Pavilions, Turkish Baths, Mosques, Madrasas, and Tombs add beauty to the beauty of Istanbul.
Important Eras of the History of Istanbul
Nobody can stay indifferent to Istanbul. It has been a unique city throughout history with its 7 hills, the sea passing through it, and the Golden Horn which is a natural harbor. The history of Istanbul is also rich in the splendor of the city. Its story is impressive since its founding legends: Byzas, who set out from Megara in Greece, wants to establish a new city. He goes to the Delphi oracle about the location. The prophet says that he will establish his city against “Land of the Blind”. While Byzas was walking around in a confused manner, looking at Khalkedon (Kadıköy) from today’s Sarayburnu, he said, “Why did these blind people set up their city in that barren place when this beautiful place was standing?. And of course, the words of Delphi oracle came to his mind. He found where to establish Istanbul.
The name, “Istanbul” was not given to the city by the Ottomans as it can be thought. It is way older. It is mentioned as a human name in the work called Fütuh’üş-Şam in the 9th century. Constantine, who replaces the city, completes and names it. In the 10th century book Tenbih it is referred to as Istinbolin. There is much other information about the name of Istanbul, some of which conflict with each other. In addition, Istanbul has been called by dozens of names such as Byzantion, Constantinople, Konstantiniyye, Darülhilafe, Dersaadet for thousands of years.
The historical backdrop of Istanbul goes back 300,000 years ago. It is thought that Neolithic and Chalcolithic people lived around Küçükçekmece Lake. Near Dudullu, tools of Lower Paleolithic Age were found, and near Ağaçlı, tools of the Middle Paleolithic Age and Upper Paleolithic Age were discovered. In 2008, during the Marmaray tube passage excavations, the remains belonging to the Polished Stone Age (6500 BC), the Copper Age (5500-3500 BC) in the excavations made in Fikirtepe were found.
Byzantion was founded in 667 BC, when King Byzas, whose legend we told above, ruled. When the Roman Empire dominated the city, Septimius Severus named the city his son Augusta Antonina for a short time. During the rule of Emperor Constantine I, the city has been proclaimed the capital of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the name of the city, which was changed to Nova Roma, is adopted. And in 337, with the death of Emperor Constantine I, it was turned into Constantinople.
It is between the years 324 – 1453. During this period, Istanbul turned into the managerial focus of eastern Rome. In this period; With a new architectural structure, the city has expanded and developed in every aspect. Notwithstanding a 100,000-man hippodrome (Sultanahmet Square), water facilities and ports were built. Constantine, who founded Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest cathedral, in 360; Thus, it changed the religion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and the first break with the West, which believed in the Pagan Roman religion, was in this period.
When Western Rome collapsed in 476, most of the Romans in the Western Roman Empire immigrated here. The plague epidemic in 543 killed half the population. Emperor Justinian I rebuilds the city from the beginning. Istanbul, which was attacked many times, was plundered and turned into rubble in 1204 during the 4th Crusade. The Latin era ends in 1261. Byzantine, which gradually shrank after this period, began to be surrounded by the Ottoman Empire after 1391.
The triumph of Istanbul occurred on May 29, 1453. This date, in fact, characterizes the finish of the Middle Ages. Istanbul developed rapidly during the Ottoman period. Hundreds of palaces, bazaars, mosques, schools, and baths were opened, and within 50 years Istanbul has become one of the largest cities in the world where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live in harmony. It has become a modern city with many innovations such as a bridge over the Golden Horn, a tunnel to Karaköy, railways, sea transportation in the city, the establishment of municipal organizations and hospitals.
The 2500-year capital period of Istanbul ends on October 29, 1923, with the Republic. However, from this date on, it will take firm steps towards becoming the most populous, economically, and culturally active city in the world. The share of young population in Turkey’s modernization falling more than enough space adventure Istanbul, a city that today has become integrated with many areas of the world. It is the first metropolis that comes to mind when it comes to a qualified workforce, culture, and entertainment tourism. Today, Istanbul has a total of 39 districts. 25 of these districts are on the European Side and 14 of them are on the Anatolian Side. It is one of the largest metropolises in the world in terms of economy and population with a population of 14,160,467.
The Establishment of Istanbul: Constantinus I
The city of Byzantion, which was established as a Greek colonial settlement in Sarayburnu in the 7th century BC, was connected to the Roman Empire in the 2nd century BC. However, the fate of this small Roman city changed completely when it was chosen by the Roman Emperor Constantine I (324-337) as the new capital of the empire in 330; Known as Constantinople after its founder, the city became the center of the Late Antique world. Constantinople is a capital that was founded not by a natural development process, but by conscious choice and will.
Known as Constantinople after its founder, the city became the center of the Late Antique world. This event is a turning point in the history of the city of Istanbul, which is today a world megalopolis. The city, which was the capital of the Roman Empire for 1123 years, which will be called Byzantine by modern historians after this date, was the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 470 years from 1453 to 1923. If this small Roman city at the entrance of the Bosphorus had not been the capital of these two great empires of the Mediterranean, it would not have developed in the process and become one of today’s important world cities. Roman Emperor Diocletianus (225-305) noticed the difficulties of ruling the empire from Rome as early as in the 3rd century and created a quadruple government called “Tetrarchism” by virtually separating the empire into east and west.
According to this, there would be an emperor (Augustus) in the west and east, and these emperors would rule the empire together by taking a Caesar as their side. In the first Tetrarch, the Augustus of the East was Diocletian and the Augustus of the West was Maximian; Diocletian took Galerius with them as Caesar, and Maximian took Constantius with them. Diocletian built a palace in Nicomedia (Izmit) as Augustus of the East and ruled the empire from here to a large extent. Tetrarch sculptures showing four rulers together as a sign of the rule of the Tetrarchy were made and erected in important cities. In Byzantion, this statue was standing in the square between today’s Laleli-Vezneciler.
Made of porphyry marble, this statue was built in 1204 by IV, which captured Constantinople. It was kidnapped by the Crusader Armies. The statue is today located in San Marco square in Venice. Two Augustus and two Caesars depicted as embracing each other represent the unity of the Tetrarch. Constantine I, also known as “Constantine the Great”, was born on February 27, 272 in the province of Illyricum (northwestern Balkans) as the son of Constantius, an emperor guard. Constantius was later included in the Tetrarch, as Caesar, next to Maximian, who was Augustus of the West. Constantius ensured that his son received a good education, and the young Constantinus learned Latin, Greek, and Philosophy. He spent his youth with the tetrarchs of the East, Diocletian and Galerius, at the request of his father, participated in expeditions with them, traveled all the way to Egypt, gained military experience.
The young Constantine was mainly brought up in Diocletian’s palace in Nicomedia. In 305, when two Augustus, Diocletian and Maximian left the tetrarchy, their Caesars, Galerius, and Constantius, took their place. After Constantius, the Augustus of the West, died in England in 306, his son Constantinus was declared Augustus by the army units there, but he was not accepted to study until 308. On October 28, 312, Constantine defeated Maxentius, with whom he shared power, at the Milvio Bridge near Rome, becoming the sole ruler of Western Rome. The final showdown to dominate the entire Roman Empire would pass between Constantinus and Augustus of the East, Licinius: Constantinus, who defeated Licinius in Chrysopolis (Üsküdar) on the opposite shore of Byzantion on September 18, 324, He became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, which now covered the entire Mediterranean region.
After this victory, Constantinus came to the city of Byzantion on the opposite shore and decided to make this city the new capital of the empire. Between the years 324-330, Byzantion was rebuilt from the beginning, modeled after the Roman city, with extensive and intensive development activities. Finally, on May 11, 330, the new capital (Nea Roma) was blessed with ceremonies and announced to the world. The ceremonies starting from the Hippodrome continued until the Constantine Forum (Çemberlitaş). After this date, the city was called Constantinople after its founder. Since 330, the Roman Empire has been a state with two capitals: Roman city in the west and Constantinople in the east.
However, the emperor Constantinus was spending most of his time in his new capital, Constantinople. Constantinople was founded as a ‘world capital’ from the very beginning. Because the civilized world of Late Antiquity consisted of the Mediterranean basin and this world was ruled by the Roman Empire. So it meant the capital of the Roman Empire and the capital of the world. The city was designed in accordance with this vision, almost reconstructed from the beginning, and the outline of this first design has survived until today.
Legends about the Establishment of Istanbul
When one says the founding legend of Istanbul, several different legends come to mind. It is up to history lovers and history buffs to believe or not to believe these stories, which make history beautiful and fun.
- Legend of King Byzas
The legend of King Byzas of Megara is the closest to the truth and accepted by historians. It is also the best-known legend. It is also said that King Byzas was the son of Poseidon, the God of the Sea, one of the most important characters of Greek Mythology. I will discuss the information about King Byzas in another article. According to the legend, King Byzas, who lived in the Megara city-state of Greece, had to leave the Greek peninsula for various reasons or was given the task of establishing a new colony. He asks the oracle of the Delphi temple where he should establish his new city. The answer he received from the prophet was “Opposite the land of the blind”.
Byzas of Megara, with his people, crosses the Bosphorus and reaches Khalkedon, which is today’s Kadıköy. Here he notices the perfect position of Sarayburnu. This peninsula, surrounded by water on 3 sides, has a perfect natural protection area. Moreover, it is obvious that it is suitable for agriculture and fishing due to its water basin. On top of that, he says, “The land of the blind mentioned by the Oracle must be here.” He passes to Sarayburnu saying “Those who establish a city here with such a good position can only be blind” and lays the foundations of one of the oldest cities in the world. This new city is referred to by the people by the name of its king: Byzantion. In some sources, it is also referred to as Byzantium.
- Legend of the Prophet Solomon
The legend of the Prophet Solomon dates back chronologically. According to the legend, 1600 years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the prophet Solomon, son of David, ruled the world. Big Saydun, who was a king living on Ferenduz Island, did not pay allegiance to Prophet Solomon. Upon Saydun’s rebellion; The Prophet Solomon, the Sultan of people, jinn, animals, and all his plants, marched on Saydun with his army. While King Saydun, who was defeated in the war, died there; Her daughter Aline, the most beautiful woman on earth, was married to Solomon.
When the Sultan, who has come to the Greek peninsula, asks his unhappy wife why he is always crying, he gets an unexpected answer: His new wife Aline asks him to build a palace there and allow him to spend the rest of his life praying for his father. He also fulfills this request of Aline in Athens and comes to Sarayburnu, which was known as the Hünkar Garden at that time, and liked it very much. When admired by the air, water, and view, he built a large palace here and prayed for the protection of these places until doomsday. Prophet Solomon, who got his name written in the founding date of Istanbul in this way, goes back to Athens, according to a rumor, where he sees Aline worshiping his father, not praying for his father, and kills him and goes to Jerusalem.
- The Legend of Yanko
Madyanoğlu Yanko Legend is another story. In an age when the time was not yet written, there lived a ruler born of the Mare: Yanko. This ruler, who was called Madyanoğlu because he was born from a mare, was very fond of pleasure and entertainment. The ruler, who fell asleep after a fun, woke up and found himself in a place with the most beautiful view, water, air, and sky: Sarayburnu! When the subjects of Madyanoğlu Yanko, who decided to stay here (old Istanbul) until he got bored and tired, informed him that they never wanted to leave this place, the great ruler instructs the establishment of a city here and he starts the work first by building a magnificent palace. In this way, the establishment and development of Istanbul begin.