For millennia Istanbul has sat at the crossroads of civilizations, religions, empires, trade routes, and vital sea lanes. The city, as such, is a reflection of this in its history, its culture and cuisine, and also in the people themselves who at a glance could fit in in the Balkans, Russia, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, or even southern Europe. Sitting astride the Bosporus, a sliver of water dividing two continents, Istanbul is located on one of the most beautiful settings for any city on the planet.
As a nation Turkey today also occupies a middle ground politically between Europe and the Middle East. Istanbul is its only major European city. The ancient walled city that was built by its Greco-Christian inhabitants 1500 years ago is the site of most of the city’s historical and cultural treasures. The city was known then as Constantinople, named for the Roman Emperor Constantine who moved the capital of the Eastern Empire to the city in 324 C.E./A.D, and converted to Christianity on his deathbed in 337 C.E./A.D. Interestingly, as a young man Constantine learned politics at the court of Diocletian, the Roman emperor who founded Split in Croatia, as I mentioned in another blog. Constantinople became the seat of the subsequent Byzantine Empire after Rome fell to the barbarians in 476 C.E./A.D.
This culturally rich and vibrant empire lasted for one thousand years and stretched from the Adriatic and the Balkans to the eastern Black Sea region, and from the Levant to northern Africa. It was eventually vanquished in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks, a nomadic Muslim tribe from Anatolia that eventually conquered most of the former Byzantine territories. In a nod to their forebears, in the final days of the empire, Byzantine citizens, though ethnically Greek, still called themselves ‘Romans.’
The Ottomans themselves became a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse, and fairly tolerant (by 15th Century standards) political entity. Though their attempts to gain more territory at the expense of Central Europe met with a concerted response from a coalition of allied European states that went on for centuries (including the Venetian Empire, the Genoese, the Hapsburg Empire, Tsarist Russia, and various other states).
Meanwhile, the Ottomans made Constantinople the seat of their empire and built numerous edifices and monuments alongside the architectural treasures left behind and bequeathed by the Byzantine Empire in the new city renamed Istanbul. Today one of the world’s great wonders is the Byzantine church known as Hagia Sophia. The Ottomans converted it into a mosque and call it Aya Sophia, but the soaring domes, the glorious icons and the brilliant frescoes that existed under its Christian incarnation can still be viewed today. It has been in continuous use since the 6th Century C.E./A.D. The Blue Mosque, built in the 17th century, sits nearby and interestingly its architectural style mirrors that of Aya Sophia, originally a Christian construct.
History confronts you at every turn in Istanbul, which adds so much allure to the city in its already breathtakingly beautiful locale.