For thousands of years, Istanbul was one of the most coveted cities in the entire world. Powerful empires fought for control of it, and it was invaded more than 60 times. It was a city that everyone wanted, and it was all because of its location.
Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits on two continents. The eastern half of the city is located in Asia, and the western half is in Europe. It is ideally situated for trade between the two continents, and it has easy access to the sea.
The Black Sea borders the city to the north, and the Sea of Marmara (the northeast extension of the Mediterranean Sea) borders it to the south. The Bosporus Strait (sometimes spelled Bosphorus), a very narrow waterway, separates the eastern and western parts of Istanbul. Ships cannot travel from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea without passing through the strait.
In the 7th century B.C., the ancient Greeks established a settlement called Byzantion (later called Byzantium) along the Golden Horn, a natural harbor that leads to the Bosporus Strait. The Bosporus quickly became one of the most important trade routes in the ancient world, and the Greek settlement flourished. Byzantion was constantly invaded because of its desirable location, and it eventually became part of the vast Roman Empire. In A.D. 330, Emperor Constantine made the city the new Roman capital and renamed it Constantinople. It was located on the western side of the Bosporus where the land forms a horn-shaped peninsula. Massive walls and towers were built around the peninsula to protect the city from naval attacks, and walls were also built to protect the city from land invasions. The walls are considered to be one of the most complex and elaborate fortification systems ever built. The Romans also strung a giant chain across the entrance to the Golden Horn to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbor.
In addition to fortifying the city against attack, Constantine built palaces, monuments, and churches. He commissioned great works of art and also made Christianity the official religion of his empire. The city prospered under Roman rule and was able to withstand repeated enemy attacks. Despite their military success in Constantinople, the Roman Empire collapsed after Rome fell to barbarian invaders in the 5th century. The Romans maintained control of Constantinople and renamed their empire the Byzantium Empire. The city remained rich and powerful and was a center of learning, art, culture, and architecture.
In the centuries that followed,
Constantinople was repeatedly attacked by Middle Eastern invaders. It fell into economic and military decline and was captured by armies of the Christian Crusades in 1204. The Byzantine Empire regained control in 1261, but the city had been plundered and left in ruins. It never fully recovered and was very vulnerable when it was attacked by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Turks were able to breach the city's defensive walls by firing 1200-pound cannonballs at them. They evaded the chain that was stretched across the Golden Horn by rolling their ships across land on oiled logs. After a 54-day siege, they captured the city and began their almost 500-year rule.
The Ottoman rule was a time of artistic and architectural achievement, and Constantinople was restored to its former glory. Although people of many faiths populated the city, the Ottomans were Muslim and constructed many mosques throughout Constantinople. It wasn't until after World War I that they lost control of their prized city. They fought on the side of the Germans (the losing side) during the war, and they lost much of their vast empire when the war ended. Constantinople was occupied by the French and British after the war, and in 1922, the renamed city of Istanbul became part of the newly-created Republic of Turkey.
Today, Istanbul is a modern city that retains many elements of its past. Two-thirds of the population lives on the European side of the city where commerce and tourism thrive. Ancient palaces, churches, mosques, fortresses, and fortification walls remain standing throughout Istanbul, and they are popular tourist attractions.
The European side of Istanbul is also home to world-class museums, which house historically-significant artifacts and works of art. The Asian side of the city is much quieter and is home to many residential neighborhoods.
Istanbul remains one of the world's great cultural and architectural centers as well as a place where European and Asian cultures meet, It also continues to be a major center of commerce, and 36 percent of Turkey's exports and 40 percent of its imports pass through the city. The significance of the Bosporus Strait has not lessened over the years, and it is the primary hub for transport of oil to Europe from Russia and western Asia. It is one of the world's most active shipping lanes, and the traffic is so heavy that it must be managed by a control tower.
Although it has been many years since the Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans ruled the city, reminders of their dynasties are everywhere. All it takes is one visit to this beautiful city to understand why it was worth fighting for.
* Istanbul was located along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that linked China with Europe.
* In order to restore Constantinople to its former glory, the Ottomans forced subjects from every corner of their empire to move to the city.
Caption: Istanbul has long been coveted for its easy access to the sea.
Caption: Above: The Aqueduct of Valens was built by Emperor Valens in the late 4th century and is one of the most important landmarks in the city. Right: This mosaic has survived from the Byzantine era.
Caption: Street performers fill the air with music
Caption: This image depicts the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Christine Graf is a frequent contributor to FACES.