Istanbul’s Sultanhamet District…a Storybook Spanning Centuries

Sultanahmet Park, with the Blue Mosque in the background.
Sultanahmet Park, facing the Hagia Sophia

Another reason why I really wanted to see Istanbul, was because of its story. The history of Istanbul is quite dramatic, with episodes of pomp and tragedy. One could make an analogy with that of a lady, starting from her infancy, to the excitement of her adolescent years, to a heartbreak from a betrayal, to a royal marraige, to her eventual rise as a matured woman. If Istanbul was a lady, she would have been a nice subject of a Shakesperean drama.

The city was born as Byzantium during the Greek antiquity, founded by migrants from Chalcedon, who were looking for a port city better situated than theirs. They found the spot at the confluence of the the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus to be ideal (the same spot where the old city center is now), and settled there. It became a prosperous trading port as years went by. Due perhaps to its importance in commerce, it got caught up in the Pelopponesian wars of the ancient Greeks. Like a young girl who grew up to be an attractive adolescent, it gained a lot of suitors. It was first colonized by Sparta, and then it was captured by Athens, before it eventually ended up in the hands of the rising Roman Empire.

Under the hands of the Emperors of Rome, it attained even more progress, becoming the wealthiest Roman city in the east. And then in the 4th Century AD, the then Emperor Constantine decided to split the empire into two administrative divisions. The western half would be goverened from Rome, and the eastern half, from Byzantium, which he renamed “Constantinople”. Finally, the girl is now a lady. The city shined with all the glamour of a debutant. She was the new darling of the empire, the new co-capital city, the “Nova Roma” or New Rome.

By the 5th century AD the Western Roman Empire was already walking on eggshells. They had made one too many enemies among the tribes of northern Europe, until Rome itself eventually fell to the Goths, plunging Western Europe to the dark ages. In the Eastern half though, it was still bright and sunny. The Eastern Roman Empire, under the leadership of Constantinople, countinued to flourish for almost a millenia after Rome was temporarily erased from the map. With Rome gone, Constantinople carried the banner of the empire on its own, eventually adding a more “easterly” flavor to it. The lingua franca of the empire for example, shifted from Latin to Greek, the langauge of the Aegean region. Some historians now refer to this Greek “version” of the empire as the Byzantine Empire, based on the capital city’s original name (though the inhabitants continued to call themselves as Romans). Until the 13th century AD, Constantinople was the most advanced city in Europe, the beacon of civilization.

It was all and well, until heartbreak struck. Somewhere along the way, the Christians lost control of the holy land of Jerusalem (which used to be part of the Roman, and Byzantine Empire) due to numerous wars that broke out in the middle east. It fell to the Persians, and then to a succession of middle eastern dynasties. By the 13th century, a resurgent western Europe, now almost entirely Christianized, wanted to take it back, with prodding from the Pope. The kingdoms of Europe sent soldiers into crusades to take it back. Some of these crusades met their objective, but some went horribly wrong. The Fourth Crusade lost all their money even before they could leave the shores of Europe. They could not even pay for transport across the Mediterranean. The crusaders resorted to milking everything that moved, even other Christians, for money. They eventually ended up in the gates of Constantinople, a fellow Christian state and the largest Christian city at that time, and demanded financial backing. When they could not get what they wanted, the Fourth Crusade invaded the city and pillaged everything that could be sold, including the precious items in Christian Orthodox churches like the Hagia Sophia. Constantinople did not expect their fellow Christians to stab them in the back, and did not prepare to fight a war, so they were quickly overwhelmed. The Fourth Crusade never reached the holy land, and was eventually excommunicated by the pope, but the leaders of the crusade stayed behind in Constantinople and turned it into their kingdom. The Byzantines eventually got their capital city back after several decades and several battles against the invaders, but like a lover traumatized by a hideous betrayal, she was never the same afterwards.

By the time the Byzantines got Constantinople back, it was already broke. The ripples from the incindent, and the decades of mismanagement under the crusaders, broke the economy of the empire, from which it would not recover. A succession of emperors tried to bring the glory back, but in vain. By the 15th Century the rising Ottomans were poised to cross Asia into Europe, and the Byzantine empire, protector of Christianity in the Near East, could no longer muster the resources to stop them. Like Rome a millenia ago, Constantinople fell, this time to the Ottomans, marking the end of the last remnant of the Roman Empire. The repercussions of her collapse are felt even today, where Christianity has been reduced to a minority in Asia Minor. A tragic irony, where a crusade launched to protect Christianity in the east, doomed it instead. It was not until 8 centuries later, in year 2004, when Pope John Paul II, on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, apologized to the Orthodox Patriarch of Constatinople for the pillage of the Fourth Crusade.

Mehmed the Conqueror, the Ottoman Sultan, was awe struck by his beautiful conquest. He preserved it, and turned it into his new capital, much like a conquering prince seeing a beautiful potential bride. Like a lady now wed to a royal, Constantinople, now nicknamed “Instanbul” by the Ottomans, would carry on with beauty, in her new role as the capital city of the Ottoman Empire.

It is quite a long story, but all of this millenia worth of history can be seen in area less than a single square kilomete, in an area now known as the Sultanahmet district, in the old city of Istanbul. Here, all the relevant landmarks are within walking distance. There’s the old Roman Hippodrome, which is now the present day Sultanahmet Square. Beside it stands the Blue Mosque, and the Sultanhamet Archeological Park, both of which stand on what used to be the Roman Imperial Palace. Parts of the palace’s ruins, pieces of the tragedy that befell Constantinople, can still be seen in the park. There’s the underground “Basilica Cistern”, a water reservoir built by the Roman empire, providing the city with one of the the world’s most advanced water distribution systems, during its heyday – a reminder of the technological superiority the city used to enjoy. And then of course there’s the crown jewel, the Hagia Sophia (pronounced “aya sofya”) or “Church of the Holy Wisdom” in modern English, the grand cathedral built upon Constantinople’s crowning as a co-capital of the Roman empire. Sacked by the crusaders and turned into a mosque by the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia now lives another life as a museum, a sentinel and witness, to the twists and turns of the city’s history.

The Hagia Sophia

The Blue Mosque

At the courtyard of the Blue Mosque

The Basilica Cistern

The columns of the underground reservoir

*We were in Instanbul in November 2017.


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