Home History

The Cities of Istanbul Before 1453


One of the most beautiful cities created, Istanbul. For eight thousand years there has been life on its land. Love, romance, peace, birth. Hatred, revenge, grudge, war, defeat. Northerns, Southerns, Westerners, Easterners. Making has been in Istanbul for eight thousand years. The libertinism of Zeus, the jealousy of his wife. His lover’s escape from the Bosphorus, and hiding in the Golden Horn. Then the Chalcedon. Land of the Blind. “How can you build a city in Kadıköy, when you have the beauty of Istanbul before you?” History has always remembered them with this wrong decision. Yet when the people of Kadıköy watch the sunset over the peninsula perhaps it’s the others that were wrong.

Then comes the time for the city to become the capital. The year is 330. It’s called Constantinople. First the capital of Rome, then of Byzantine. And for about a thousand years, the world’s brightest and richest city. Istanbul, a coy loved one. The lovers who’d like to own it are in line. It tells its name differently to each one. Some know it as Nova Rome. Some as Konstantiniyye. Some call it Byzantion, and some Asitane. Time passes by. The name devolve. Stories are told, legends are passed. It’s love that lasts.

Actually, the history of this city, well, let’s not call it a city. As a residential area, we’re talking about a history of 200 thousand years based on those caves in Yarımburgaz. But life on the historic peninsula is thought to be of 8000 years. When you look at Istanbul, we used to think the history of Istanbul began in the 7th century, BC. You know, Byzantion. Some Greek communes come and settle here and build the first Byzantion city. That’s what we thought. But since the Yenikapı excavations, it’s said to date back 8000 years. A couple of rowing oars found there are very interesting. They look like spoons but bigger, like a dipper. About 50-60 centimeters in size.


The fact that two pieces of wood are 8500 years old and some boat was rowed there with them, what could be more exciting? What’s under Istanbul is more exciting than what’s above. In the known history, written history that is it has the advantages of being a big city, easy to reach, comfortable with a warm climate surrounded by historically important agricultural lands thus with ample food and manpower. The most important cities of the world have always been built around waterlines. There’s a river in Paris, one in London, all major European cities have rivers. And Istanbul has Bosphorus. It has no river yet it has embraced a waterline like the Bosphorus that carries the wildest waters of the world.

One of the most vital elements of Istanbul is the geography. What does geography mean? It means Istanbul being an enormous harbor city. Forget all those buildings. When you view from the top, it’s impossible not to notice that even today the Golden Horn is a magnificent harbor. What is called Kalamış Bay today was the main harbor of Chalcedon and the Phoenicians settled there. It was a Phoenicia colony. It means before Byzantine they were a colony there.

Because behind it are Büyük Çamlıca and Küçük Çamlıca. There are five waters of 1, 2 or 3 degrees. The first Megara colony settled where we today know as Kadıköy. It was called Chalcedon. Contrary to popular belief Chalcedon does not mean Land of the Blind. But at least we know why it was called so.

The place called Land of The Blind is Chalcedon, or Chalcedonia, the Kadıköy of today. It was called Land of The Blind, because “When there’s a historical peninsula like Sarayburnu, why did they go there?”, “There must be something wrong with their eyes”. We believe Byzas was unfair to us, the people of Kadıköy. Because it is him who was blind. The reason for that is this. The people of Kadıköy, or the Magara settlers before us show how beautiful it was on the other side. That is why they settled here, to view it all the time, we say. We have also pointed out in many articles that the people of Kadıköy know about sunsets the best. Because the sun sets over the peninsula.

Kadıköy İstanbul

The Megarans, it means the ones living in Sarayburnu called this the Land of the Blind. Yet what did the dwellers here in the Land of The Blind call the other side? They saw its beauty and called it Dreamland. So they too had acknowledged the beauty of Istanbul but had preferred this part to settle. About 30 years later, the second wave of Megarans came and settled in what is today known as Sarayburnu.

After settling, they built a wall and then three or four more to construct a safe, big city. So when we say Istanbul is the city of contradictions, this is the Land of The Blind, but according to the people of the Land of The Blind, the other side is Dreamland. Because of King Byzas, the city’s name gradually became Byzantion.

There is a mythical story about the legendary personality of King Byzas. Let us tell that too, that should be entertaining. As you know, Zeus in one of the major gods in Greek pagan culture. In fact, he’s the king of the gods. Yet despite these godly attributes, Zeus was also a womanizer. He was not content with goddesses, he was also after beautiful female humans too.

Zeus, the greatest god of the archaic age, the father of gods was living happily with his wife Hera, but a nymph came between them and Zeus cheated on his wife. He has a jealous wife named Hera. When she learns about this, she wants to kill Io, harm Zeus. So Zeus has to send the girl away. He changes her into a heifer and tells her to run from the Asian side to the European side, to the Silahtarağa region of Eyüp. He changes her into a heifer. She has wings, she can fly. Legendary stuff. How can a heifer fly? That’s a young cow.

But could that stop Hera? She sends a gadfly to the cow. The gadfly keeps biting the poor animal everywhere. So she throws herself into the water. Which water? Of course, into Bosphorus. That’s where the name of the Bosphorus comes from. Bosphorus, meaning the heifer passage. The place where the heifer has passed through. The poor Io still cannot get rid of it. She comes to the hills of the Golden Horn and gives birth to Zeus’ daughter Keroessa. So Io’s daughter from Zeus is named Keroessa. To wrap the story, the Golden Horn is the daughter of the Bosphorus. Keroessa’s full name is Khrysokeras. It means the Golden Horn.

Keroessa is born and raised by fairies, goddesses, etc. But this time another troublesome god, Poseidon falls after her. From Poseidon she gives life to Byzas. So Byzas takes his place in history as a demigod king. The Golden Horn is actually not the Golden Horn that the sun shone on. Here gold symbolizes abundance. That abundance is bonito, bluefish. Due to natural circumstances, the currents the huge schools of fish from the Maiden’s Tower suddenly changed course 90 degrees and instead of the Marmara, they went to the Golden Horn. There were so many fish in the Golden Horn that you wouldn’t even need a rod, you could just pick them by hand and fill your basket.

It’s like a dream, an utopia. A whole different universe. Because of this abundance of fish this name was given and has come to this day. The biggest advantage of building a city in Sarayburnu was defense, it was very important in those days. The second was economy. Why? Because there were many fish and fishing here. Not like today, it was incredible. All kinds of fish, an unbelievable source of money. The third, of course, was customs. When we say customs, it means the old “Dumrul the Mad” deal actual racketeering. Later in the legal parlance it became something else: customs.

For all these reasons, building a city in Sarayburnu was very advantageous. That is why King Byzas, his comrades and people, whomever they came and built a city here. In the place we call Sultanahmet Square today there used to be a hippodrome in those days. The green and the blue. People revolted and gathered there. They were protesting, calling the Emperor to resign. So Justinien made a decision and gathered his elite killer legions. Just like the official special forces of today. Those legions entered the hippodrome and murdered 30 thousand people, women and children too. But the revolters had caused damage to the city as well.

Hagia Sophia

There was Hagia Sophia, but this was the second Hagia Sophia. It was burned. After the revolt, Justinien has the third Hagia Sophia built, the one that’s the symbol of the city. The Hagia Sophia of today is of vital importance. Because it was the largest temple in the world. And a Turkish historian said about this situation, “I travelled to the five continents. I tried to see all the major buildings. It’s impossible to see them all, naturally. A lifetime would not be enough. But I should say that the Hagia Sophia, built 1500 years ago, is one of the brightest architectural works in history.

When it is completed, Justinien looks at it and mutters, “O Solomon,” he says, “I’ve surpassed you“. It’s Solomon the Prophet or King Solomon, the one who first built the Jewish temple. He says “O Solomon, I’ve surpassed you” because the ceiling is 32,5 meters in diameter and that’s incredible. It was surpassed only centuries later by the St. Pietro Cathedral in Rome, or the Duomo Cathedral in Milan or the St. Paul Cathedral in London. Even Sinan the Architect could not do it, although he really wanted to. Selimiye Mosque was smaller in comparison, so was Süleymaniye Mosque.

Mosques in Istanbul

With the adoption of Christianity, Constantinople sort of became the capital of Christians. It was considered a holy city where Christians were at peace. Due to the religion, religious buildings became common. Hagia Sophia, The Hippodrome and other churches that have survived to this day were built. In terms of communities, there were Latins and Venetians in Galata. And some Armenians. Such was the society then. It became a city which constantly caused problems and conflicts between the Catholics and the Orthodox.

Istanbul had a music, culture and architecture before the conquest too, of course some of which we can still see today. At least in the field of architecture. The magnificent Hagia Sophia is right before our eyes. Which was the model for civil architecture and mosque architecture later on. Those giant domes, particularly the artistic approach incarnated in Sinan the Architect’s personality. We can easily say that the basic incentive for those was Hagia Sophia.

Galata Tower

Istanbul has various names. Konstantiniyye in its Arabic form, Constantinople in ancient Greek form. Stampol. Sometimes beautifully attributed to be Islambol but it has nothing to do with it, although it’s a very nice trope. Stamp. You know the old stamp pads. You’ll remember, they were used for signets. Polis means city, stamp is a word expressing certainty. So Stamppolis means “This is the city”. Istinpolin means: To the city, towards the greatest city. As if all roads lead there. Such an expression was used.

Like “If you mean a city, this is it.” Towards the city. Later it becomes Istinpolin, Asitanepolin, Estombol and Istanbul. On his visit to Istanbul long before the conquest, walking among the people, Ibn Battuta noticed them saying “Estombol” in an informal way. Formally it was Constantinople. In the palace, etc. But the people called it Estombol. And everybody said Romayoi. “Hey Romayoi!” meaning Roman. A Byzantine name. It was all Roman because they were Romans.

Because Byzantine was a middle culture, a bridge. These lands are known as the land of the Greeks. A smaller scale Rome. Rome was a huge empire which spread everywhere, and later the Ottomans took it, it changed hands. That’s why wherever they went, they preserved in their capital all the forces under their control, and their extensions to be used as catalysts. Considering the city of that era, the existence of the palace district and Galata, known today as Genoa-Venice district should make us believe that besides its natural beauty it was also a very archaic city. Yet this archaic city, the archaic state of Constantinople was probably more modern than European cities by comparison.

Istanbul was built on the 11th of May, 330. That’s the official date. Built on the 11th of May, 330 by Constantine The Great this city existed for 1123 years under the name Constantinople. There is only an interruption of 57 years at the beginning of the 13th century, in 1204. In that period, the capital of the empire became Nicaea because of the Latin-Catholic invasion.

In 1204, Istanbul was invaded by the Crusaders. A horde of people gathered in Europe left as if they were going to Jerusalem and invaded Istanbul. They sieged, they surrounded, it was 1204. After that there was a Latin Empire in Istanbul for about 50 years and Byzantine rule was interrupted. In fact, the Byzantine treasures in Istanbul were then taken, smuggled to Italy. They’re now in Italian museums. They still have the treasures of Istanbul on display in Italian museums.

A very vital and interesting detail that often eludes the public’s notice are the sarcophagi of the Roman emperors. Because there was a Latin invasion between 1204 and 1261, which was 200 years before the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. During this Latin invasion, the Catholic Christians of Europe on the way to Jerusalem for the 4th Crusade came here to destroy the Orthodox Rome and stayed for 57 years.

With bitter grudge, they destroyed the Roman emperors’ sarcophagi in the crypt of the Apostle Havarium Church, the most important of which was Constantine. They also destroyed all the graves in the Comnenus crypts in the church-mosque called Gül Mosque, located between Ayvansaray and Unkapanı today. They threw the bones away. Only the empty sarcophagi were left.

Istanbul was built as a capital. In the words of Ahmet Hamdi Bey, a capital is a capital forever. So this place is no stranger to being a capital. Except the last 80 or 90 years, it has always been a capital. That’s what defines it. And Constantine The Great comes here and says,

The Roman Empire has become so large, Rome must no longer be the capital. We must head East, we must be the Empire of both the East and the West. So we must have a capital that can rule both, somewhere in the middle, close to everywhere. Close to Egypt, to Britain, to Spain, to Persia, a capital in the middle.” he says.

And he makes Byzantion or Antonina the capital of Rome, calling it Neo-Rome, later to become Constantinople. Not of Eastern Rome, that is much later. This is very important. Often people think this city was the capital of Eastern Rome. No, it was the capital of Rome. And many valuable gems magnificent statues from all over the Empire, many valuable statues of gods and goddess taken from temples are brought here. Major craftsmen too. So a capital is built. The capital of Rome.

Constantine symbolizes a new capital, new empire and new religion. New religion because the pagan religion was coming to an end and a new religion was starting. Christianity. To honor this, he erects the pillar we call Çemberlitas today. It’s called Constantine’s Pillar. Originally it was 57 meters tall and was built by the stones and marbles taken from the Apollo Temple. At the top was a statue of Apollo, but with Constantine’s face. He had a crown on his head, with seven rays of light coming out.

Constantinople became the capital and the palace was here Blakhernai in Ayvansaray, and the Palatium Magnum in Sultanahmet. This was the centre, all administration was here, the Patriarch too. Like the Ottoman Empire. Where were the states they conquered? For instance, they reached as far as Spain. North Africa, up to the inner regions of Iran. Iraq, Mesopotamia and all the way to the Caucasia was under the Roman rule. But it was still Rome. It’s better to call it the co-capital of Western Rome.

Eastern Rome did not exist yet, that would be later. Therefore the high character of Rome in Istanbul in architecture, traditions and social life has reflected on these cities as well. In some Turkish movies, a newcomer to Istanbul passes through Haydarpaşa station. People of the countryside see the sea here for the first time, see the grandeur of the big city. It’s a magical city. That’s Istanbul. A gateway for everyone, especially the Europeans even before it was conquered by the Ottomans. Not to the East, but to the unknown, to exotic lands, to riches, to plundering. Or to excitement and adventure.

Haydarpaşa railway station
Haydarpaşa railway station

When we get an aerial view what do we see topographically? We see that Istanbul is a bridge. What’s a bridge? A place where people and hordes pass. A mixed up place. Like a country or a city in Central Europe. It has no chance of being closed. Comers, goers and settlers. It has always been so. They have come, they have gone and they have settled. We can even speak of sieges dating as far back as the Umayyads and even Vikings coming here over the Black Sea. Even the Argonauts have a story of passing through these coasts. So we can say the Istanbul before Constantinople was already suitable to be the capital of a great empire.

Istanbul is a key. It’s not a passage, it’s a gate to pave the way to new passages, new horizons, new worlds, new riches and forces. Whoever holds the key to this gate has the force. That is why for Byzantine Istanbul was far more than being a Byzantine city, it was the gateway of Europe. Everyone held the key. On this matter, perhaps some historians does not think in the same way as each other.

For instance, another Turkish historian said about this situation, “I don’t hold the notion that Istanbul is a bridge between the East and the West. Istanbul is not a bridge. It’s a value in itself. The combination of the East and the West. This was not just for the Ottomans. Byzantine had already shown this to us with the two-headed eagle. One looks to the East, the other at the West.

Istanbul was always important as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Before the conquest, the Eastern Roman Empire which was now called the Empire was already diminished to Istanbul only, to what was inside the walls of the city. Before that period, what was the Muslims’ view of Istanbul? That’s a whole different angle. Being a city promised by the Prophet Muhammad since the period of His companions sieged many times by Muslims who wanted the honor. They never succeeded, but that’s another matter. There’s a time for everything. A determined time.

First, we should consider the Byzantine-Ottoman relations. That does not mean closing one door and opening another. There’s no definite separation. Beginning with the Turks’ coming to Anatolia, we see multi-sided relations between Byzantine and the coming nations. Many of them were Turks. But some of them were with Byzantine, collaborating with them. They became the armies of Byzantine. On the other hand there were Greeks in the Ottoman armies as well. Other nations too. So there is no definite separation.

There was an Ottoman district in Venice in the era of the Venice Republic and although they were at war with Venice at the time, the Ottomans built a Venetian district too. The Governor of Genoa and Venice built it around the Beyoglu of today. There was also a Turkish district in the Byzantine era, around Eyup Sultan, where Muslims and Turks lived right beside Jews. That cosmopolite structure is like the currents of an ocean.

Ocean currents are caused by the water having different temperatures and different minerals. Dolphins, bonito, scombrus. Even these names were their heritage. Palamudie is what we call palamut. Scombrus is what we call uskumru. Skutarion is Üsküdar. Pentikion is Pendik. Kartalimen is Kartal. Istinpolin is Istanbul. Ksamatia is Samatya.

Music is a thing of geography. So Turkish art music had Byzantine influences as well as Turkish and Islamic influences. This definitely means bringing the cultural heritage. We can honestly say that if someone who likes Turkish art music, listens to Byzantine music, he’ll fell the same things he did at first. It’s a very familiar feeling.

In that sense, we cannot say that 1453 was a breaking point or that from then on, the city was purely Ottoman or it used to be purely Byzantine before that. We are talking about a period of passage. Beyond all that, there’s an issue handled in depth by historians, in terms of literature and culture. Many institutions of Byzantine were taken over by the Ottomans they were changed, evolved but never lost their ties in essence.

So many aspects of the Byzantine has continued in the Ottomans, daily life can be included in this. They continued. Looking through the point of the 20th century we see life as if it consists of separate parts. Yet essentially life is a continuity. A Turkish historian said, “Once I delved into the underworld of Istanbul while I was making a documentary. Searching the sewers and the underwater I came across something interesting.

From the Gedikpaşa region of today, through an underground sewer entrance I entered the underworld of Istanbul. Making my way crawling, I found myself in Mahmutpaşa. Very strangely, although it was snowing outside inside it was 30 degrees hot. Three lines of water, built in the Roman era. A system for hygiene, for water treatment or carrying the sewage water outside the city that instead of destroying, the Ottomans solidified by a pipe system using the same material and left us still intact.

A cat looking around

A city that has preserved its architecture so well, starting with the Land of the Blind reaching through Byzantine to the present day and never losing, never wasting and amazing cultural heritage has kept a spiritual climate, even today. First of all, we should not consider Istanbul in the modern sense from Silivri to Gebze from Şile to Marmara. That was not Istanbul. What was meant by Istanbul was the triangle area of Yedikule, Ayvansaray and Sarayburnu. The Suriçi region, that is. It was so in the past too.

Petrus Gyllius has compared it to an eagle with spread wings, its head turned to the north. Such is the shape of Istanbul from atop. So Topkapı Palace is the head, the first hill, Sarayburnu, its eye is Hagia Sophia, its body is the whole Istanbul peninsula and its wings are Ayvansaray, Balat and Fener in the north and Yedikule, Samatya district in the south. Galata had long since been a separate city and a judicial district. Üsküdar as well. The old texts refer to it as the city of Üsküdar but refer to Kadıköy as the village of Kadıköy. So Kadıköy is still a village. Not in the sense that it’s underdeveloped, but to imply that it is outside Istanbul.

Today, everyone in Istanbul refers to the other side of the city as “the other side”. Those in Rumelia refer to the Anatolian side and those on the Anatolian side refer to Rumelia as the other side. Yet there’s no other side in Istanbul. It’s surrounded by the sea on three sides and land on one side. So Istanbul consists of Marmara, the Golden Horn, Ayvansaray, Edirnekapı, Topkapı and Yedikule line. And the seven hills of Istanbul are inside those walls. Geographically, it’s a place to be really studied that requires a real strategy before making a move.

Let’s take a look at Alexander The Great, the Roman Empire. Go back further and let’s take a look at the Greek period. The two straits, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Let’s take a look at the Trojan war. The Trojan war was not about Paris kidnapping Helen. It was about the Greek city states, stuck in a small region against the exotic, incredible beauty and riches of the East taking Troy.

Upon the conquest of Istanbul, Mehmed the Conqueror or in other words Mehmed II, went to Troy for the first time and said, “I won the rematch“. So Troy on one side of the Bosphorus, Constantinople on the other side. It was like the center of the world.

Before the conquest it had already been losing power as a city state. It was very weak, surrounded entirely by Turks, the Anatolian side was controlled by Turks, the other side, the Rumelian side also. They were a small city state stuck in between paying fees to the Ottomans. They were trying to survive by paying fees. Istanbul was discovered, taken, conquered. A Greek is frying fish in the pan.

They tell him, “Istanbul has fallen“. “No,” he says. “What you say is so ridiculous that just like these fish won’t come alive and move Istanbul can’t be taken from Byzantine“. Then when he learns that indeed it has fallen, the fish come alive. Where are those fish now? They are still jumping in the Balıklı (Fish) Greek Church. Every corner of the city is a legend, every corner is a story. Every corner has a poem.

In the centuries from King Byzas to Justinien a city was built. A dream city with temples, statues, squares, palaces and treasures. Every newcomer added to its magic. But it was time for the city to change hands. A nation started from the East on horses. One night, the shadow of danger became a halo light and covered the dome of the Hagia Sophia. Those who beheld rushed to their houses in fear. The sons of Osman, they called them. They were chasing a dream. An age was coming to an end, a new page was opening. Constantinople was becoming Istanbul…


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here