Istanbul is one of the few remaining cities in the world that provide a glimpse into the ancient world. The city, once known as Constantinople, was founded around the year 330. While control of the city has changed hands, and parts of it have been destroyed and rebuilt, the city itself has existed into the modern world. The city has been the capital of two empires; first the Byzantine Empire, and later the Ottoman Empire. Today it is the capital city of Turkey, the bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

Constantinople was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 324 AD. The city of Byzantium already existed, but was consolidated into the new city. The city was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for the duration of its existence, and proved to be a very difficult city to attack. The Byzantine Empire was among the most powerful of its time, spanning over a thousand years, during most of which it remained very powerful. The Byzantine currency even became a sort of “gold standard” among currencies across the world. The empire was so powerful people worldwide had the most confidence in their currency.

However the Byzantines, like every great empire, had their downfall. The decline of the empire truly began with the Fourth Crusade, where Crusaders destroyed large parts of the city, and eventually control of much of the city was ceded to Venice. Eventually the city was taken back by the Byzantines, but shortly after it fell to the Ottoman Empire.

Under the Ottomans, Constantinople was transformed to the center of an Islamic Empire. Mosques were constructed, as well as a home for the leader of the empire, known as the Sultan.The Sultan was not only the political leader of the Ottomans, he was a religious leader for the community as well. Ottoman government was intertwined with Islam throughout its existence. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire stretched across many modern day nations, even far into Europe and Africa. The empire lasted long enough to fight in World War 1, siding with the central powers. This coincided with the Young Turk Revolution, and that combined with the Ottoman defeat in the war lead to the formation of the modern Turkish Republic. The first President of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established the Republic of Turkey after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and began the shift to a more secular government. This included the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, and the shifting of powers to the Grand National Assembly.

Throughout the short history of the modern Turkish Republic, there has been a constant struggle between secularism and islamism.The secular military, legally backed by the constitutional court, has conducted several military coups, each time restoring the government to its secular roots. The current ruling party of Turkey, the AKP, and their leader and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been moving the country more towards the islamist side. This has been unique in the sense that the AKP has tremendous popular support, so much so that the constitutional court backed off an attempt to ban the party in 2008. In the summer of 2016, a faction of the government attempted a military coup, that initially appeared as though it might be successful. A news organization was able to get in contact with President Erdoğan, who called upon the people to resist the coup. His pleas were heard, as thousands of demonstrators came out in support of the president, and the coup was defeated.

The storied history of what is now Turkey has included many great empires, and has greatly influenced our world today. From Byzantine and Ottoman Constantinople, to modern day Istanbul, the world has been watching, and will continue to do so through the turbulent times ahead.

9 thoughts on “Istanbul

  1. Damon Devani

    My research into the European Union and accompanying influences has been with regards to Russia’s intertwined role in the regional politics. The current Russian and Turkish populations are at somewhat of a parallel in that they are both the product of political overhaul in recent years. Turkish coups appear to be a relatively regular event by international standards. Furthermore, there is the struggle between secularism and Islamism as you described. This is somewhat akin to Russia’s struggle between it’s communist roots and current semi-presidential system. This is especially prominent as the recent failed Turkish coup and fall of the Soviets has taken place within most of the respective population’s lifespans. These are national identity schisms that are ongoing and at the forefront of their international stances.

    1. Jenna Schwerdtle

      I really enjoyed your entry about Istanbul. You highlighted the city’s history and it’s impact in shaping a nation in a very compelling way.

      I think it’s particularly interesting how influential a country’s past can be. While most people are constantly focused on the present, it’s issues, and how to fix them, many don’t think too much about the past and what made the country what it is.

      For the past semester I have been focusing on a country that is just as rich in history: Yemen. Yemen is also a Muslim country, however, their future is left up in the air due to the many hardships the country is facing.

      A particular point of your entry that really got me thinking was when you started discussing the Sultan. “The Sultan was not only the political leader of the Ottomans, he was a religious leader for the community as well.” This really got my attention because within my Yemen class we talked a lot about how Islam doesn’t really have a political leader. In other religions the community usually has a head figure to look to for guidance, such as the Catholic faith and the Pope. I think that this aspect of Islam, is a very important one. When reading the Koran it is easy to take it very literally. While any religious text is going to be interpreted differently, I definitely feel that the Koran is written in a way that is suppose to be very clear. Perhaps if the Islamic faith had a universal person of guidance, the Koran wouldn’t be left up to such interpretation.

      A great part of why Muslims as a whole have such negative thoughts associated with them is due to the extremist. These people are interpreting the faith and the Koran in a much different, extreme, and literal way than the Islamic community as a whole. Due to extremists people automatically put all Muslims into the same category without even truly understanding the religion, or the general situation. Because of this, there is now a strong, heavy, and very unfair divide between Muslims and a majority of the world. I have to wonder if having a universal religious leader would impact Islam’s reputation in a position or negative way.

      I personally, didn’t know a great deal about Sultans so it was very interesting to hear that they acted as a guide for the Islamic Faith. However, I do wonder, did or do any other countries have Sultans and why are religious leaders so scarce in the Islamic faith? It is definitely something I want to do more research on.

      It is definitely interesting to think how a country’s past as brought them to their present and how it may even affect their future for generations to come. Religion is, without doubt, an extremely influential pillar to any community. The divide between the secular and the sacred will, perhaps, always exist. It is the people’s responsibility to ensure that the divide is one that doesn’t become too deep or controlling.

  2. Travis Spinelli

    It is truly the ancient cities and realms of thought which teach us about the world we live in. The questions we must ask are not only how do the appear today?, but also how did they appear in the past?, how did they change?, and how did these changes reflect the culture of the city? Istanbul is an extremely old city that can rival most only the best known cities of the world, and like most has had both a glorious and tragic past. It is also akin to some countries which have lived for long periods of time and gone through many reforms. One of these countries is China the topic of the Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors class I am in. In this class we learn of the long history that China has had and the reforms it has undertaken in the past 200 years. Like Istanbul it has fought with itself on becoming more secularized and whether religion was truly apart of its identity and culture. It has also had to rebuild and restructure its world depending on where power lied. It is only in the past 80 years or so that China has rebuilt into bustling cities with “modern” skylines.
    But not everything transforms drastically and sometimes old ideas of thought give as much insight into the past as the histories of cities. My project was on China’s Five Element Theory which is even older than Istanbul and has been used in many different ways. The theories basic ideas like the structure and location of Istanbul are relatively the same. However, like the culture of Istanbul and even the title of the city so too have the title of this theory and its application throughout culture changed. The Five Element Theory is truly known as “Wu Xing” which actually means “Five Phases”. It was through translation that the name was changed like how Constantinople became Istanbul through conquest by another party. And like how Istanbul went from a Christian city to an Islamic city, the Five Element Theory has gone from being used in medicine to astrology to history to everyday language. It has even been secularized because though it has roots in a religious system, it is often discussed today especially outside of China in a discussion separated from religion.
    There are some underlying questions in all of this discussion like: What does it mean for a city, country, or school of thought to change? and How does this impact the societies around them?

  3. Robert Sedic

    You mention how the city changed owners and cultures multiple times over its lifespan and it made me think of a connection to my own research about the countries that formerly made up Yugoslavia. All the countries are in the same small geographic area of the Balkans but have a multitude of different cultures, for instance Bosnia is actually influenced greatly by the Ottoman Empire and has a large Muslim population because of it. These individual national identities were left aside to form Yugoslavia but remained under the surface for decades waiting to come back. Eventually Yugoslavia dissolved and the individual ancient cultures returned, surviving despite wars and passage of time just as the spirit of Constantinople survived its long and storied past. It is fascinating how a place can undergo so many changes and yet still be the same.

  4. Noah Roulat

    What you say about the ancient city of Constantinople reminds me of the similarly old but slightly less famous (maybe because it does not have a famous song about its history) the city of Amman. There was a community of ancient people living in the area longer than 12,000 years ago, and since then the area has been inhabited by a multitude of groups. Some of these groups include the Greeks, Romans, and the Ammonites. However, a difference between Constantinople and Amman is the struggle between secularism and Islamism. Jordan is an almost unanimously Muslim country and there is not too much unrest or dispute about that. It seems like this is clearly not the case as you explained that there have been coups to restore the secularism. Jordan’s government has also been remarkably stable for a monarchy in the 21st century.

  5. Christopher Keating

    I really like this post. Istanbul is one of the few remaining cities in the world that provide a glimpse into the ancient world, I agree with that it really is a beautiful city. Interesting how it used to be named Constantinople. There is so much political change that has occurred to this city and parts of it have been destroyed and rebuilt, the city itself has existed into the modern world. The city has been the capital of two empires; first the Byzantine Empire, and later the Ottoman Empire. Today it is the capital city of Turkey, the bridge between Europe and the Middle East. All of these points that you bring up are very important. To me Istanbul is the city of history, it has seen so much, new leaders destruction and now a land trading bridge.

  6. Danielle Adams

    There are so few places that are truly a glimpse into what the world used to be like. For my class Life in the Amazon, my final is on Machu Picchu. This is one of the few places in South America that offers a view into what the world used to be like in that particular region. The Incas also had their downfall through war, although theirs was based upon the Spanish wanting to conquer the New World. I find it interesting that even though both of these cities are ancient, we know many more solid facts about Istanbul. Nothing was written down about Machu Picchu by the Incas and it wasn’t rediscovered after their downfall until four centuries later; everything we know about the usage of the city is all guesses.

  7. Joshua Greaves

    Ancient locations are wonderful for both their historic and aesthetic value. They are even better if they are still lived in, as they adapt to an extent for their changing populace but retain many of their old world qualities. I find the history of Istanbul to be intriguing; it has undergone a lot of changes in the span of its multi-millennium wide history. From the scientific advancements, to the increased connectivity of the world, and the changing of cultural hands and governments. As you explained in your entry, this city of legend has been of the great strategic and economic importance (as you made clear with your details on the “gold standard” held by the Byzantine currency in multiple areas throughout the world) throughout the ages and continues to be in a state of imbalance and constant susceptibility to change. The explanation of the presence of Islam in Istanbul, the immense Istanbul-holding military history, and the reasons for the fighting helped establish an idea of the identity of those inhabiting Istanbul throughout the ages and today. Today being a time of continued potential upheaval of the government and frequent unrest throughout the surrounding regions and political movements (peaceful or otherwise) flooding the city. Istanbul is simply a city that cannot stay still. Then again, I suppose a city that old has to be able to adapt and change to survive, even if it is not always peaceful. It is truly a shame that many people only know about Istanbul due to the They Might Be Giants song by the same name.

    Your topic connects surprisingly well with a location I have been learning about the past few months. The southernmost country on the Arabian Peninsula, and current mass tragedy human rights issue of nation-ending proportions, Yemen. Yemen has cities of comparable age to Istanbul, one of which, called Sana’a, also spans multiple millennia and is often referenced mythologically to have been founded by Noah, the figure of biblical fame. The architecture is made of mudbrick yet stands at sky-scraper heights. Even by today’s standards, that is an impressive feat. With a population of about two million by last count, and some of the tallest buildings in the region, it is often nicknamed the Manhattan of the Middle-East. The narrow backstreets and ancient era architecture reveal its true age, but unfortunately, like Istanbul it suffers constant uncertainty. With the ongoing conflict and starvation occurring in Yemen today, it is possible Sana’a a city as old as time, may be in danger of near elimination.

    With Yemen in mind, your last couple of sentences ring loudly. “The storied history of what is now Turkey has included many great empires, and has greatly influenced our world today. From Byzantine and Ottoman Constantinople, to modern day Istanbul, the world has been watching, and will continue to do so through the turbulent times ahead.” It is true that Turkey has deeply affected the world, and I wonder with Yemen being so close… how deeply their predecessors were influenced by the people who used to inhabit where Turkey is now. I also wonder if cultural history as old as what exists in Sana’a or Istanbul can ever hope to be safe from the destructive reach of modern war.

  8. Adela Rios

    The history of Constantinople’s transformation into Istanbul is quite amazing, and it makes me wonder about its similarities to Amman, the capital city of Jordan. A lot of the history seems to weigh on its status as a transforming metropolis from its time as a Byzantine stronghold to being the center of an Islamic empire to eventually its current struggle between secularism and Islamism. From my analysis of the sounds of Amman (as well as further research into the city), there are some crossovers mostly in regards to the struggle of secularism and Islamism. Though with around 93% of Jordan’s population being Muslim, and hearing a loud broadcast of the call to prayer in my artifact, it feels as if Amman is leaning towards being more Islamist than secular. It feels like this kind of divide hasn’t been much trouble in Jordan itself, but in Turkey, there’s a push back from secular-minded and Islamist-minded parties attempting to implement their own vision for the country.


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