Uniquely among the world’s cities, Istanbul stands astride two continents, Europe and Asia. As if its spectacular geographical location were not enough, it can also boast of being the only city to have played capital to consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, a role that has shaped the region’s history for more than 2500 years and bequeathed to Istanbul a staggering wealth of attractions; these range from the masterpiece Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) to the formidable city walls, and the domes and minarets of the Ottoman mosques and palaces that dominate the city skyline. Although no longer its capital, the city remains the vibrant economic, cultural and intellectual heart of modern Turkey, a bustling, go-ahead city where east really does meet west.
In conservative districts such as Fatih, bearded men sporting skullcaps and baggy shalwar-style trousers devoutly heed the call to prayer, while women wouldn’t dream of leaving the house with their heads uncovered. Yet across the water, the tidal wave of humanity sweeping down İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) includes young Turkish men and women in designer jeans and trainers who have rarely ever been to a mosque. In business districts such as Şişli, commuters arrive via the metro to work in high-rise office blocks, shop in state-of-the-art malls, and at weekends can be out clubbing until 6am.
Whether yours is the Istanbul of the Blue Mosque and the Topkapı Palace, or the Beyoğlu nightclubs and swish rooftop cocktail bars, the city takes time to get to know. Three to four days is enough to see the major historical sights in Sultanahmet and take a ferry trip on the Bosphorus. But plan on staying a week, or even two, if you want to fully explore the backstreets of the old city and the outlying suburbs and islands.
In 2008, while digging the Yenikapı metro station, archeologists uncovered a Neolithic settlement dating back to circa 6500 BC. In popular tradition, however, the city was founded in the seventh century BC by Byzas, from Megara in Greece – hence the original name of Byzantium. Over the next thousand years, Byzantium became an important centre of trade and commerce, though not until the early fourth century AD did it reach the zenith of its wealth, power and prestige. For more than 350 years, it had been part of the Roman province of Asia. On Diocletian’s retirement in 305, Licinius and Constantine fought for control of the empire. Constantine finally defeated his rival on the hills above Chrysopolis (Üsküdar) and chose Byzantium as the site for the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 BC. The hilly promontory, commanding the Bosphorus and easily defensible on its landward side, was a superb choice. It was also well placed for access to the troublesome frontiers of both Europe and the Persian Empire.
In 395, the division of the Roman Empire between the two sons of Theodosius I left what was now named Constantinople as capital of the eastern part of the empire. It rapidly developed its own distinctive character, dissociating itself from Rome and adopting the Greek language and Christianity. Long and successful government was interrupted briefly, in Justinian’s reign, by the Nika riots in 532. Half a century later, however, the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire had begun, as waves of Persians, Avars and Slavs attacked from the east and north. The empire was overrun by Arab invaders in the seventh and eighth centuries, and by Bulgars in the ninth and tenth. Only the city walls saved Constantinople, and even these could not keep out the Crusaders, who breached the sea walls in 1204 and sacked the city.
As the Byzantine Empire declined, the Ottoman Empire expanded. The Ottomans established first Bursa, then Edirne, as their capital, and Ottoman territory effectively surrounded the city long before it was taken. In 1453, Mehmet II (the Conqueror) – also known as Fatih Sultan Mehmet – besieged the city, which fell after seven weeks. Following the capture and subsequent pillage, Mehmet II began to rebuild the city, starting with a new palace and continuing with the Mosque of the Conqueror (Fatih Camii) and many smaller complexes. Tolerant of other religions, Mehmet actively encouraged Greek and Armenian Christians to take up residence in the city. His successor Beyazıt II continued this policy, settling Jewish refugees from Spain into the city in an attempt to improve the economy.
In the century following the Conquest, the victory was reinforced by the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–66), “the Lawgiver” and greatest of all Ottoman leaders. His attempted conquest of Europe was only thwarted at the gates of Vienna, and the wealth gained in his military conquests funded the work of Mimar Sinan, the finest Ottoman architect.
A century after the death of Süleyman, the empire began to show signs of decay. Territorial losses abroad combined with corruption at home, which insinuated its way into the very heart of the empire, Topkapı Palace itself. Newly crowned sultans emerged, often insane, from the institution known as the Cage, while others spent time in the harem rather than on the battlefield, consorting with women who increasingly became involved in grand-scale political intrigue.
As Ottoman territory was lost to the West, succeeding sultans became interested in Western institutional models. A short-lived parliament of 1876 was dissolved after a year by Abdülhamit II, but the forces of reform led to his deposition in 1909. The end of World War I saw Istanbul occupied by Allied troops as the victors procrastinated over how best to manage the rump of the once-great empire. After the War of Independence, Atatürk’s declaration of the Republic in 1923 and the creation of a new capital in Ankara effectively solved the problem.
The population of Greater Istanbul has increased twelvefold since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, and stands today at around 15 million. This rapid urban growth has left the city with more than its fair share of problems, from horrendous traffic congestion to housing and water shortages and rising crime rates. A UNESCO threat to revoke the city’s “World Heritage” status and place it on the “In Danger” list focused the minds of the government and local authorities on preserving the city’s glorious heritage, and Istanbul emerged from its year as a European Capital of Culture in 2010 with great credit.
Much else has been done to improve the infrastructure of one of the world’s leading cities. A government-backed housing scheme offers quality, affordable housing to low-income families in order, eventually, to replace the shanty-dwellings that have long ringed the suburbs. The European and Asian sides of the city were linked by a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus in late 2013, and the metro systems either side of the Golden Horn joined by a (controversial) bridge early in 2014. The Horn itself, once heavily polluted, has been cleaned up, and both anglers and cormorants can now be seen successfully fishing in its waters.