is like an onion. The outer skin that you see first can seem a bit brown and
wrinkled. Pollution and the crush of immigrants from the hinterland in search of
a better living have put unbearable strains on the city in recent years. But
anybody curious enough to look at the surfaces beneath the skin is sure of an
extraordinarily rich experience.
layer of the Istanbul onion can be thought of as a different historical period,
building on a series of layers that takes us back into the mists of time. There
has been a significant settlement for at least thirty centuries on the spot
where now stands the magnificent Topkapı Palace.
Surprisingly, however, the great pre-Christian cultural flowering in Greece
and Persia largely sailed past Istanbul
(or Byzantium as it was then called after Byzas,
a ruler of the seventh century BC).
was a wealthy city from trading and shipping. But it was not until the Roman
Emperor Constantine chose it as his capital in AD324 that the
city, located at one of the most extraordinary strategic crossroads that the
earth has provided, really came into its own. In AD326 Constantine
traced out the limits of his new capital. Mighty defence walls were built in an
arc from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the inlet of water
surrounded for centuries by peaceful gardens but which now divides the old part
of Istanbul in two. Before long the city had become popularly known as Constantinople,
the city of Constantine.
the time, the size of the city envisaged by the emperor was considered to be
preposterously large. But within decades it was already too small to take the
crowds who were flocking to the commercial and political opportunities at the
new centre of the Roman Empire. The unemployed arrivals were well-fed by
state handouts of the produce of the Nile
valley-produce that for centuries filled Byzantine stomachs. (The
modern Turkish word for Egypt is Mısır, which
also means corn.) These layabouts soon found they had little to do but idly plot
and intrigue in a thoroughly Byzantine way
about how to overthrow an emperor or two.
focal points of the city were the Hippodrome
and the Grand Palace. The Hippodrome was a
vast amphitheatre that could seat 100,000 and which hosted chariot races
and all sorts of popular gatherings. Today there is a small corner of the
amphitheatre still standing near the Blue Mosque. The Grand Palace
stretched in a shamble of halls and chambers from the Hippodrome down to the
sea. Little of the palace is left except for a mosaic discovered in 1933.
It is now the centre-piece of the Mosaic Museum.
the next ten centuries the Christian empire of
Byzantium fought off invader after invader. The Persians came
and went so did the Bulgars, the Venetians and the Arabs.
But the city had its ups and downs, and it was only a matter of time before some
invader or other would take it for its great strategic significance. That task
fell to a group of
the Ottomans, or Osmanlis
after their first leader Osman. In the space of 150 years, they
had conquered most of western Anatolia and the Balkans,
establishing capitals first in Bursa and then in Edirne (Adrianople),
progressively weakening the remnants of the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Mehmet
saw an opportunity to lay siege to the city, taking it in 1453
and changing its religious centre-piece, the church of Haghia
Sophia, into a mosque. The Christian capital of the Eastern Roman
Empire became the Muslim capital of a nation that was to create one of the most
splendid empires on earth.
1453 the Ottomans expanded their empire west and south until it reached
its apogee in the middle of the l6th century under its most famous
sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent. At that
time, when Henry VIII was ruling in England and Francis I in
France, the Ottomans' state was the most powerful in the world.
is much more to be seen today of this empire than there is of its predecessor.
Suleyman's chief architect was the great Sinan whose masterpiece is the Suleymaniye
mosque in Beyazit just behind the university. There are over eighty Sinan
buildings still standing in Constantınople.
home of the Ottoman rulers for almost 400 years was the Topkapı
Palace where they framed government policy and where their entourage
of eunuchs, wives, concubines and viziers plotted and schemed in sybaritic
the empire began to shrink almost from the moment that Suleyman died in 1566.
In 1600 it stretched from the gates of Vienna to Baghdad
and then around the southern coast of the Mediterranean as far as
modern-day Algeria. By the l9th century these boundaries had been
nibbled away and the nation had fallen so far behind European economic and
social standards that it was known as the Sick Old Man of Europe. It then set
out on a series of reforms modelled on western European lines, and western
influences began to infiltrate for almost the first time.
the Russian revolution a clutch of Russian princes joined the exotic Istanbul
mix of Levantines, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Ottomans.
Dishes like strogonoff are still popular in some restaurants.
First World War marked the end of the Ottoman era, for the Ottomans had sided
with the Germans, and by 1919 almost all their lands were occupied by the
victorious forces. Out of the chaos of that time emerged a military leader
called Mustafa Kemal. He rallied the Turks of Anatolia and threw out the
occupying forces. He then set about creating á modern secular republic on
the rectangle of land that is Turkey today, a rectangle that is about the
size of France and the United Kingdom put together.
Lale Apa - Publisher