Istanbul – Last Capital of the Roman Empire and Modern Turkish Delight

A look across the Golden Horn from the Old City to the Beyoğlu district in Istanbul, Turkey

At the border between Europe and Asia lies a powerful and historic city that has been hotly contested over the years. Once the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, this was a bastion of culture and power during the times while the Western Roman Empire was stumbling through the dark ages.  Originally founded as Byzantium, the city today known as Istanbul was later renamed as Constantinople upon its selection of the new capital of the Roman Empire. This elevation to the capital of the most powerful empire of the time was just the beginning of the history of this proud and dynamic city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

In all of the travels I have done over the years, I was painfully aware of the fact that I kept sidestepping a visit to Istanbul. I tried to get there on multiple occasions, but the cruel hand of logistics always got in the way. Well, no more…during a lull between a speaking event in Kiev and one in Brussels, I found an opening, a 24 hour layover in Istanbul! This was my chance, and I grabbed it. And wow, what an experience it was…Istanbul was an even more enjoyable experience than I had expected.  But first, to understand modern-day Istanbul you must first understand its historical past.


Relics of Constantinople

The story of Istanbul starts well in the past, around the year 660 BC, when the city of Byzantium was founded by the Greeks. Recognizing its defensible position and ideal location within the Roman empire as a capital, later Roman emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire here and named it Nova Roma, or New Rome in 330 AD. After his death, and as a tribute to him, the city then became known as Constantinople, a title it would keep for nearly 1600 years.  The city remained the capital of the Roman empire, first as official capital of all of the empire itself, and then later as capital of the partitioned Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, after Rome and the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, Constantinople continued on for nearly another 1000 years as the successor to Rome itself.  It is clear that this city has seen its fair share of grandeur.

The Walled Obelisk in the forefround and the Obelisk of Theodosius in the background in the location of the ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople (present day Sultanahmet Mehdani) in Istanbul, Turkey

Over the years, the city grew illustrious, rich, and powerful. Roman emperors built monuments, churches, and massive structures such as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which was adorned with monuments such as the Obelisk of Theodosius, an Ancient Egyptian obelisk originally created around 1450 BC and shipped to Constantinople in the year 357 AD. This obelisk, as well as the Walled Obelisk, a later Byzantine-created obelisk, can be found in present day Sultanahmet Meydani square, the location for the remains of the ancient hippodrome.  It is fascinating to imagine the chariot races flying around these obelisks in ancient times, keeping the Roman population well entertained and providing for diversions from everyday Roman life.

The Obelisk of Thedosius with the minarets of the Sultan Ah in the Ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople (present day Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque in the background in Sultanahmet Mehdani Square in Istanbul, Turkey

The large flourishing population also needed a constant drinking supply, and aqueducts and reservoirs were built to supply that need.  The most famous and ancient of these is currently known as the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı,) and a visit to this amazing subterranean structure is highly recommended.

Ancient Roman Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı) in Istanbul, Turkey

At the back end of the Basilica cistern is the most curious part of the structure…two carved heads of Medusa which have been incorporated into the columns of the cistern…one lying on its side and another upside down. No one is exactly sure why this is the case, but it is known that these statues came from older temple structures.

Upside down head of Medusa in the ancient Roman Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı) in Istanbul, Turkey

Of course, Istanbul’s story does not end with the Romans, one of the most famous and influential events in European history happened here in 1453 AD, the Siege of the city and its eventual capture and settlement by the Ottoman Turks.

That famous siege, which is officially seen as the death knell of the Roman Empire, was in reality, the second time that the city itself was successfully assaulted.  The first time was in the year 1204 during the Venetian funded Fourth Crusade, at a time when the city itself was much more heavily populated and strategic. Indeed, the city itself never fully recovered from the sacking and subsequent occupation during the time of the Latin Empire, a period of time which saw Byzantine influence in world affairs dramatically decline.


Byzantine Walls

To understand why Constantinople was only successfully overcome twice in military history is really a testament to its system of Byzantine Walls, which were massive, multiple and even included novel defense concepts such as a floating chain that blocked ships from entering the harbor of the Golden Horn. Large sections of these walls are still intact, and can be seen in multiple spots around Istanbul, particularly the sea wall itself, but also as part of several land gates.

A look at the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque from the sea walls portion of the Byzantine Walls in Istanbul, Turkey

The walls of the city are some of the most complex ever built, and were extremely effective at keeping out invaders.  The list of sieges the city faced are extensive, and include the following:

List of Sieges of Constantinople

Year Attacker Result
626 Avars, Slavs, and Sassanid Persians Failure
674-678 Arabs – First Siege Failure
717-718 Arabs – Second Siege Failure
813 Bulgars Failure
821 Thomas the Slav (Revolt) Failure
860 Rus’ – First Siege Failure
941 Rus’ – Second Siege Failure
1047 Leo Tornikios (Revolt) Failure
1203 Fourth Crusade – First Siege Failure
1204 Fourth Crusade – Second Siege Success
1235 Nicaeans – First Siege Failure
1260 Nicaeans – Second Siege Failure
1390-1402 Ottoman Turks – Various minor sieges and blockades Failure
1422 Ottoman Turks – First Major Siege Failure
1453 Ottoman Turks – Second Major Siege Success

The fact that the city was besieged so many times yet was only conquered twice is a testament to these massive and complex walls, as well as the city’s defensible position on a peninsula.

Istanbul, Turkey

The Turks kept these walls maintained all the way through the 1870s, and a good portion of them can be viewed today. Taking a look at a map of the historical walls is fascinating, and shows how they encompassed a huge amount of territory.  The final set of walls, built during the reign of Thedosius II, was a massive double-wall project that included a moat and a large number of defensive towers such as the Marble Tower ("Marble Tower" (Mermer Kule), also known as the "Tower of Basil and Constantine" (Pyrgos Basileiou kai Kōnstantinou.)

The Marble Tower (Mermer Kule,) also known as the "Tower of Basil and Constantine" (Pyrgos Basileiou kai Kōnstantinou) of the Byzantine Walls in Istanbul, Turkey

Despite the weakened state of the Byzantine empire, the inhabitants were still able to hold off the Ottomans for two months during the final siege of the city in 1453.  Eventually, even the world’s most extensive and complex wall system was unable to hold the Ottomans out, however, and they conquered the city on 29 May 1453, putting an end to the ancient Roman Empire which had existed for 1500 years (or 2000, depending on if you count the years of the Roman Republic.

This is the part that is truly fascinating to me…the Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, continued until 27 BC, when it became an Empire, then continued uninterrupted until at least 1204, when it was temporarily interrupted by the capture of the city by the Fourth Crusade.  Re-established in 1261, it then continued to exist all the way until 1453, literally just over 2000 years after the founding of the republic. The influence this society had on world affairs is unmistakable, and the imprint of the civilization can still be found all over the modern city of Istanbul.  Even today, the Greeks that remain within Istanbul are known as Rumlars, a term that refers to their self-identity as Roman citizens.

Ruined portion of the Byzantine walls in Istanbul, Turkey

One final note about the capture of the city…with the fall of what was christened ‘Nova Roma’ by Constantine, the world looked for a Third Rome to continue the Roman empire. Several societies conclude that they are indeed the heirs to that title, starting with the Turkish sultans saw themselves as the rightful heirs to the empire itself.  Outside of the city itself, however, many in the Russian Empire began to see Moscow as the Third Rome and the heir to the Roman Empire.

To bolster this argument, advocates point to the fact that the Russian Prince Ivan III ‘The Great’ (Иван III Васильевич) was married to Sophia Palaiologina (Ζωή Παλαιολογίνα / София Фоминична Палеолог,) the niece of the last Byzantine emperor.  She became highly influential in the Russian court, and helped to fuel the dialogue of Moscow as the Third Rome, introducing Byzantine customs and insignia, such as the double-headed eagle. Future Russian rulers were subsequently referred to as Tsar (царь), a Slavic abbreviation of the Latin term Ceasar.  Still today, you can find reference to Moscow and the Russian empire as the ‘Third Rome’ within the popular media and literature in Russia.


Hagia Sophia

The building that fascinated me most about my trip to Istanbul is the former church, mosque, and later desecularized museum known locally as Ayasofya, and historically as Hagia Sophia (Hagia Sofia, Ἁγία Σοφία, Sancta Sophia.)

Rainbow over Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sofia was for nearly 1000 years the largest Church in the world, and its architectural form influenced nearly every church and even many mosques that came after it. It is a glorious building to visit, and what makes it particularly interesting is the mixture between styles represented in the building. Some of the original Christian imagery that was plastered over has been uncovered, while much of the Muslim add-ons remain as well, creating a space that is truly unique.

Inside Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey

One can just imagine the impact that this amazing piece of spiritual architecture would have had on visitors over the years, and indeed the cathedral itself was mentioned many times in accounts of the city by travelers.

For example, the ancient Primary Chronicle (Повѣсть времяньныхъ лѣтъ) of Kievan Rus’ even attributes Kievan Rus’ adoption of Orthodox Christianity to a visit that the Prince’s envoys made to the Cathedral, remarking that they were awed by the sights and sounds of the Cathedral, remarking “…we didn’t know if we were on earth itself, as the impossible beauty we witnessed could not have existed anywhere else in this worldly existence.” (…и не свѣмъı на н҃бѣ ли єсмъı бъıли ли на земли нѣ бо на земли такаго вида ли красотъı такоӕ не дооумѣємъ бо сказати токмо то вѣмъı.)  According to the Chronicle, these envoys had been sent to major religious sites of all of the other religions as well to help the Prince decide what religion for his people to adopt, but were most impressed with Orthodox Christianity because of their visit to the church itself.

If this account is taken at face value, it literally means that the beauty of this building alone was one of the main driving factors which accounted for the Eastern Slavs, including the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians belonging to the Eastern Orthodox faith today, a fascinating fact.

Mosaics on the wall of Inside Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey

Many of the original tile murals depicting Christian scenes have been uncovered since the time when Hagia Sophia was converted into a Museum, and sit alongside some of the Islamic additions to the building, most notably the mihrab, the minbar, and four minarets, as well as the massive wooden circular medallions inscribed with the Arabic names for Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four Islamic caliphs, and Hassan and Hussain, the two grandchildren of Muhammad.

Minbar inside Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey

Even today, one can appreciate the massive size and scale of this complex, and understand why the Ottomans decided to keep it and convert it to a Mosque, rather than build something new in its place.

Inside Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey

A final note…this building was one of the finalists in the “New Seven Wonders of the World” competition and, while it didn’t make the final cut, it is plain to see that this building has had a phenomenal affect on world architecture, and is truly one of the wonders of the world to behold.

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey


Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque

The second most famous building in Istanbul is widely considered to be the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii,) commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tile ornamentation in the interior.  A visit to Istanbul is not complete within a visit to this amazing edifice, designed by Albanian architect Sedefkar Mehmed Agha (Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa.)

View of the interior ceiling of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) in Istanbul, Turkey

The Mosque is unique in that it is one of the few mosques in the world that have more than four minarets, a design choice that was controversial for years, and is still relatively uncommon in Islamic architecture.

View of the six minarets of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) in Istanbul, Turkey

Unlike the desecularized Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a working religious building, so special consideration must be taken into account when visiting.  Women must cover their heads and legs, and everyone must take their shoes off. They do provide for plastic bags to place your shoes in, however, and provide for shawls for covering up as well, making it relatively easy to enter into the mosque and explore.  Do note, however, that the tourist part of the mosque is isolated to one corner of the building, and the remainder of the floor is devoted to those who are there for religious purposes.

Prayers inside the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) in Istanbul, Turkey

It is truly amazing how humans never completely throw away the architecture that came before them…we are always borrowing from cultures that came before us, and the Blue Mosque is no exception to this, having borrowed many architectural elements from Hagia Sophia across the street.

Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) in Istanbul, Turkey

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque was actually built on the spot where the old Byzantine Great Palace of Constantinople was located. Heavily damaged during the sack of the city during the Fourth Crusade, the Palace was torn down by the Ottomans and later replaced with the Mosque and other structures in the area.

Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) in Istanbul, Turkey


Topkapi Palace

The new Ottoman rulers of Constantinople needed a new palace to replace the dilapidated former Byzantine Palace, and decided to build a brand new massive palace on the location of the former acropolis, on Seraglio Point near the mouth of the Golden Horn.

Gate of Salutation (Bâb-üs Selâm) at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

The Topkapi Palace was built to be elaborate, extravagant, and to rival some of the great palaces of the world.  The Ottomans had every intent on transforming the city into a place of great beauty, and were intent on resurrecting Constantinople as one of the premier destinations in the world, a goal which can be reflected within the palace today.

Ornate interior ceiling in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

By the way, you’ll note that I keep referring to the post-Ottoman conquest city as Constantinople.  Contrary to popular belief, the Ottomans did not immediately change the name of the city to Istanbul.  This only took place later on in its history, and only became the official name of the city in 1928.  During the Ottoman times, it was continued to be referred to by its old name.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

A visit to the Topkapi Palace is a fascinating look at the life of the sultans, who ruled over a great an influential empire from these walls for almost 400 years, before they moved the official royal residence to the European style Dolmabahçe Palace.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

The harem area of the palace is especially interesting as well, and gives a peak into the lives of the Sultan’s Imperial Harem, a guarded space that was controlled by the mother of the Sultan himself, known as the Valide Sultan, or Queen Mother.  To have your love life controlled by your mother is a recipe for disaster, if you ask me, but it seemed to work for the Sultans.

Tower of Justice (Adalet Kulesi) inside the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey

The Ottoman empire had a huge effect on world affairs, acting as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and leaving a lasting impression on the Balkans, an impact visible even today, and reflected in some of my recent blog posts on Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, and FYRO Macedonia and an earlier trip I documented on Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bosnia Herzegovina.

Inlaid gold inscription in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey


The Straights of Bosphorus

The strategic position of Istanbul corresponds directly to its location between Europe and Asia, at the strategic straights of Bosphorus (Boğaziçi, Βόσπορος) a narrow waterway that links the Mediterranean Sea with the Black Sea.  The straights are extremely critical in importance, all the way to modern times, as they were viewed as a means to help contain the Soviet Black Sea fleet (Черноморский Флот) which could only gain access to International waters via the narrow straights themselves.

Bophorus Straights as viewed from the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey - Europe is on the left and Asia on the right


The Golden Horn

The Golden Horn (Haliç), or the inlet of the Bosphorus straight that forms a natural harbor that turns the old city of Istanbul into a peninsula.  Strategic and beautiful, the Golden Horn is traversed by several bridges, including the famous Galata Bridge, upon which you can find relaxing restaurants on the lower deck and numerous local fishermen and strolling pedestrians on top.

The Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Turkey

The Golden Horn holds a particularly special meaning for me as a resident of San Francisco, for our famous Golden Gate was indeed named after the Golden Horn itself, with John C. Frémont noting “To this Gate I gave the name of Chrysopylae, or Golden Gate; for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.”

Sunset over the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Turkey


The Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar in Istanbul (Mısır Çarşısı) is an old covered market at the old city side of the Galata Bridge that was originally built in 1660 and has served as a center for the spice trade over the years.

Inside the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) in Istanbul, Turkey

Now, of course, many of the stores within the Spice Bazaar now cater to tourists who are looking to purchase more than just spices, but you can still find numerous spice-only stores, along with other souvenir items, if you are so inclined.

Spice for sale inside the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) in Istanbul, Turkey


Around the Old City

My time in Istanbul was limited to the Old City, and I explored a few additional areas of note, including the Mosque known as the Little Hagia Sophia (Küçuk Ayasofya Camii,) formerly the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a Byzantine church built in the year 536 that likely served as a model for the larger Hagia Sophia church built later.

 Little Hagia Sophia (Küçuk Ayasofya Camii,) formerly the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, in Istanbul, Turkey

I also spent a good deal of time roaming around the streets of the Old City, which take you through quaint neighborhoods, up hilly streets, and through historic bazaars.  I had the opportunity to sample some amazing Ottoman cuisine as well at the Pasazade Restaurant, where the Kayseri Mantisi dish I sampled ended up being quite easily the best pasta style dish I have ever encountered.

Streets of the Old City in Istanbul, Turkey

The waterfront down by the Byzantine walls and along the Bosphorus was also a great place for a morning stroll, particularly since on the morning I visited I was greeted by a beautiful rainbow that stretched across the city.

Lighthouse along the Bosphorus waterfront near the old city of Istanbul, Turkey

One area of the city I only briefly landed in was the district of Galata (modern day Karaköy / Beyoğlu.)  This portion of the city, located immediately across the Golden Horn from the Old City, is the location of the medieval Genoese-built Galata Tower, as well as being a neighborhood well known for its artisans and foreign influences and residents.

View of the Galata Tower in the Galata neighborhood (modern day Karaköy / Beyoğlu) in Istanbul, Turkey

What truly impressed me about Istanbul was how this city truly exemplified its role as an ambassador between East and West, a role that modern day Turkey continued to this day. European and Middle East influences can be found throughout the city, and the city itself has thrived, long after the 2000 year reign of the Roman Republic and Empire.

Self portrait ouside Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) in Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is one of those cities which I feel like I’ve only had a brief but glorious taste of, and I strongly yearn to return to. The people, the culture, the food, and especially the raw history of the place draws me there, and I truly hope to come back again in the near future to this amazing cosmopolitan city on the banks of the Golden Horn.

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