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Istanbul Travel Guide

Istanbul History

Istanbul’s history dates back to prehistory. At Fikirtepe mound on the Anatolian side, were found some artifacts and remains dating from 5500-3500 BC from the Chalcolithic period that demonstrates it.

Istanbul’s origin as a settlement has many legends to explain its foundation. The best known, explains that the city was founded by the Thracian king Bizas who came from the Aegean and left their city Megara and began to look for a new homeland. According to the legend Byzas was looking for a new place where to settle and consulted the oracle in the Apollo temple in the famous town of Delphi before to initiate the trip, and the oracle advised Byzas to settle opposite the “land of the blind”. The migrants searched for such a land for a long time. When they came to the headland of present-day Istanbul, they were delighted with the fertile lands and the advantages offered by the natural harbor, the Golden Horn, and decided to settle there. Byzas gave the name of Byzantinium to the new land.

The city of Byzantium existed as an independent state, but suffered many attacks and succumbed under Persian’s power. The city was dominated by the Persians in 513 B.C., followed by the Spartans, then the Athenians. Subsequently fell under the rule of the Macedonians. The city which then was attacked by the Galatians gained an autonomous status during the Pax Romana era during which time it was adorned and expanded with structures towards the western direction. The acropolis of the city stood where Topkapi Palace stands today. It had a well-protected harbor, still used today, in the Golden Horn. A fortified city wall starting here surrounded the city and reached the Sea of Marmara.

During the Roman Empire, Byzantium was an important seaport and a center of trade, however, it decided siding with Pescennius Niger against Septimius Severus during a struggle for the throne in 191 AD and after a siege that lasted two years, it was conquered by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. The same emperor later rebuilt the city and quickly regained its previous prosperity.

By the 3th century AD the Roman Empire became too unwieldy to govern from Rome and was subdivided, and a new capital was created in Byzantium. Following the defeat of Andrinople, Licinius, persued by his rival Constantine I, took refuge in Byzantium where he was vanquished in 324 and which ended the civil war between the Roman Co-Emperors. Constantine I the Great, as the unique ruler of the Roman Empire, began to build more city walls, numerous temples, governments, palaces, baths and a hippodrome. During this period Byzantium took the name of Nova Roma (New Rome).

At 330 AD the city became the capital of the Byzantine Empire (a Greek instead of a Roman empire) and the symbol of Christianity and took the name of Constantinopolis. The successors of Constantine the Great continued to improve and beautify the city by building new avenues, aqueducts, monuments and edifices. The first churches in the city were also built after the time of Constantine.

Following the death of Theodosius I in 395, The Roman Empire was divided into two between his sons, Honorius who received the Western Roman Empire, and Arcadius who received the Eastern Empire. In 476, Rome fell into the hands of the Barbarians and Constantinople remained the sole capital of the Empire. The Eastern Empire, which was administered from the capital, Istanbul survived for over 1,000 years afterwards.

In 1204 the Fourth Crusade was launched and the armies invaded the city and for many years all the churches, monasteries and monuments in the city were robbed of their treasures. By 1400s Constantinopolis and the Byzantine Empire were in decadence times due the constants intrigue, dethroning and murder. With the Turks as the greater threat for the Empire, the Byzantine Empire fells under the Ottoman Empire in 1453 after a siege of 43 days. The city was captured by Sultan Mehmet, the Conqueror and promptly made the new Capital of the Ottoman Empire, increased the population of the city by bringing in immigrants from different regions of the country, and started to reconstruct the deserted and wrecked city within short period. A century later, Turkish art had left its mark on the city, and domes and minarets dominated the skyline.

In the 16th century, when the Ottoman Sultans assumed the office of Caliphate, (chief civil and religious authority of Islam) Istanbul became the center of the Islamic world as well. The city was totally reconstructed and acquired a magical ambiance under the sultans.

During the Ottoman Empire Istanbul as the capital of the empire adorned with extraordinary buildings and a sign of this is The Imperial Topkapi Palace that stands on the site of the old acropolis commands with an extraordinarily beautiful view of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, and numerous palaces were built in a very short time.

The Ottoman Empire declined for its internal and external fights and was accelerated by the Balkan Wars which began in 1912, followed by World War I.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk assumed the Presidency of the republic in Asia, the Capital of Turkey was changed to Ankara. In the 1950s, Istanbul underwent great structural change, as new roads and factories were constructed throughout the city. Wide modern boulevards, avenues and public squares were built in Istanbul, sometimes at the expense of the demolition of many historical buildings.

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