Istanbul is situated in the northwest of the country at the junction of the Golden Horn (a river valley about 7 km long), the Bosphorus (a channel that connects the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) and the Sea of Marmara. The Golden Horn separates the old city of Stamboul from Beyoglu, the new city to the north.
The city’s historical role as a capital of both the Islamic and Christian worlds belies surprisingly humble origins. It is thought to have been founded and named Byzantium by the Greek leader, Byzas, in 657 BC. Although ruled by a succession of Greek and Roman rulers, including Alexander the Great and Vespasian, the city remained insignificant until the third century AD when Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, chose it to be the ‘New Rome’, capital of the Roman empire. Constantine’s decision led to the city trebling in population and to the construction of a number of churches and monuments that are now on the UNESCO world heritage list. The newly named Constantinople became one of the most powerful capitals in the world. It was by all accounts immensely wealthy and beautiful, and was to remain the first city of commerce until rivalled by the Italian maritime states.
Constantinople was at its peak in the sixth century under Justinian I. During his reign the monumental Aya Sofya was constructed. Its interior was for centuries the largest enclosed space in the world. However, the city’s fortunes changed in 542 when a plague wiped out over half the population. Decline was to continue unabated for hundreds of years. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Constantinople was razed by successive crusading armies and marauding tribes. An era of recovery and stability finally began with the occupation of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1452. At the beginning of his rule Constantinople’s population had fallen from an estimated 500,000 under Justinian to just 50,000. Gradually the city began to grow again, and its Christian monuments and buildings were made Islamic, with minarets installed around the Aya Sofya. The Ottoman dynasty restored the prestige of the city they named Istinpolin (which after several permutations became Istanbul). Under Süleyman II (1520–66) it promised once again to be the capital of the western world, but Charles V thwarted the sultan’s imperial ambitions.
After Süleyman’s rule the Ottoman empire and its capital began to lose influence. By the end of the nineteenth century Istanbul was the home of many foreign traders and troops, and this western influence culminated with the introduction of a railway and a regular water supply. In 1908 Istanbul was seized by the Young Turks who toppled the regime of Abdülhamid II. It was blockaded throughout World War I, and in 1918 it was placed under the combined authority of Britain, France and Italy. Subsequent occupation by Greece was ended by the Nationalists under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who chose Ankara as his new capital.
Istanbul remains Turkey’s first city and its largest port. It is the commercial and industrial hub, and produces and processes glass, textiles, flour, tobacco and cement, with income from tourism are increasing. It is served by road, rail and air, with Yesilköy Airport located 17 km to the west of the city. Buses and ferries provide transport within the city. In Oct. 2013 the Marmaray sea tunnel linking two continents and stretching over 76 km was opened across the Bosphorus Strait.
Places of Interest
The Topkapi Palace contains Ottoman relics, as well as an arms museum and an archaeological museum. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art has a world-renowned collection of artefacts, carpets and paintings. The Palais de la Culture is an important centre for theatre, ballet, opera and classical music. Istanbul was one of three cities named the 2010 European Capital of Culture by the European Union.