Istanbul was old when I got there. It was old when the Turks captured the city in 1492. It was even old when the Romans established it as their eastern capital. Some of that long past will become apparent as you take this tour. I, myself, toured Istanbul in the spring of 1996. Though the weather stood at an unusually low 0 Celcius, I greatly enjoyed the city. The food, the people, the low prices, and, of course, the history all contributed. I found the Turks friendly, helpful, and Islamic, but not obsessed with their religion though fiercely nationalistic. Having said this, I know many an American, especially women, who didn't enjoy this city at all. In every case, my questioning to them revealed a simple fact: their entire visit didn't leave the tiny, two-squared tourist center around the Blue Mosque. My own experience showed me that every single hustler, thief, harasser, etc. in the entire country somehow lurked within this very small area. If you can imagine congregating every sharpie in the United States in a very small area, you can imagine that it would be even worse. The simple cure lies in getting outside of those two square blocks. Then, you'll understand the real appeal of Istanbul/Constantinople and only venture into this area with your guard up!
Though history credits the Megarans with the earliest settlements, the fabled city of Troy lies a day's sail or drive from Istanbul. Therefore, the area itself dates back to Minoan times 1500 B.C. The Trojans, as you recall from Homer's The Iliad, spoke Greek and seemed related to the Greeks, i.e. the Minoans and Myceneans, of that time. The Megarans occuppied Istanbul and established a permanent settlement in 650 B.C. as a Greek colony. Thereafter, the city fell under control of the various strong powers in Greece, the Athenians, the Spartans, and, finally, Macedonia under Alexander the Great. Greek rule of the city ended with the conquest of the remaining Greek kingdoms by Rome in 146 B.C. However, this did not end Greek influence. The majority of the city's residents continued to speak Greek even until the conquest of the city by the Turks in 1492. Therefore, one can speak of the later Byzantine Empire as Greek with a Latin overlay.M
The Romans believed the city of Istanbul sat on the site of ancient Troy, supposedly the founding city for Rome. Actually, Troy lies elsewhere, but for this and strategic reasons, the Romans made Byzantium into an important city in their eastern empire. Constantine renamed the city "Constantinople" and elevated it to full equality with Rome as the eastern capital in 330. The Romans added the usual Roman things to the city. They built, monuments, a circus (of course), and the baths that one can still visit and a Hippodrome. The Roman practice of having co-rulers failed in 395 when conflicts between east and west coincided with personal conflicts of emperors. In 395, the Empire split. This split came at a rather inopportune moment. Waves of Germanic barbarians, hungry for land, and fleeing the even more savage barbarians, the Huns, swept into the epmire. The West soon fell. The Easterners, in a good prediction of future Byzantine history, managed to buy off the barbarians in some cases and play them off one against the others. At any rate, the East survived relatively intact. At this point, with Rome ruled by pagan Lombards, and the loss of this Latin influence, one needs to reclassify the "Eastern Roman Empire" as Byzantine.
Perhaps to the surprize of some, the Byzantine Empire surivived and sometimes flourished for another thousands years. At the time of Rome's fall, the nearby plains of Turkey supplied ample food, and its location made trade, and reconquest, easy. The weakness of nearby states allowed the Byzantines to retain most of the Middle East.
Under the Greatest Emperor, Justinian, the Byzantines went even further. They reconquered much of Mediterranean Europe from the Germans whom they often, again, played one against another. Justinian's generals did this, moreover, with armies often far smaller than their opponents'. Roman and Greek military knowledge, in this case, proved the edge against undisciplined German hordes. Justinian built Santa Sophia, one of the great religious monuments. After enduring a rebellion, which burned much of the city, Justinian rebuilt it grander style.
However, in a theme to recur through Byzantine, religious and political differences, along with overextension, reversed the fortunes of the city. The emperors constantly fought with the patriarchs of the Orthodox Church (the equivalent of the Popes). While the church provided an important source of power to the emperors, its leaders could bring about their downfall. Meanwhile, the city fell into two political parties, the Blues and the Greens. This led to endless squabbling, coups, and plotting, leading to the modern adjective "Byzantine," meaning full of intrigue and dishonesty.
The military fortunes of Byzantium declined for several reasons. First, the long war with the Sassanid Persians finally left both so exhausted that the Arabs, newly converted to Islam, swept over the borders of both, destroying the Sassanids and conquering much of the Middle East. At one point, the Arabs invaded Turkey, only to have the Byzantines drive them out. Meanwhile, to the north, Bulgarians caused various problems and wars. For a time, a new more barbarian, Macedonian dynasty, seemed equal to the task. However, another wave of Islamic people, the Seljuk Turks, swept into the Middle East. The emperor marched his troops to the decisive battle of Manzikert, only to meet defeat. The Turks swarmed into modern Turkey, and only the walls of the city itself kept them out. The loss of Anatolia permanently crippled the Empire. In his desperation, the emperor appealed to the Pope for help. This set off the great Crusades. At first, the Crusaders somewhat helped the Empire by warring with the various Islamic Turks and Arabs beyond its borders. Increasingly, though, the Crusaders squabbled with the city's inhabitants, who did not share the same form of Christianity. Finally, in the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople and installed their own, Latin dynasty. Incrediby, even this didn't destroy Constaninople. The grandsons of the emperor established a rival kingdom of Pontus. Eventually, they retook the city. Even another sack by their "allies," the Italians didn't destroy the city. However, towards the end, the one-time Empire of Byzantium consisted of the city proper and not much else. Powerful walls surrounded the city, increasingly thickened as the discovery of artillery made them less of a defense. The Byzantine navy could effectively block the harbor and prevent landward attack. Increasingly, though, the Byzantines used bribery, in various forms, and playing off their enemies to keep out the Seljuk Turks, the Bulgarians, etc. In 1492, this didn't prove enough.
The modern Turks started out in Central Asia. Their language bears ties to others in Russia and, distantly, Japanese and Korean. The Arabs recruited these uncivilized, but ferocious, Turks for their armies, and the tribes soon converted to Islam. The Arabs learned to regret this decision. In Egypt, Turkish slaves established the Malemuke dynasty that ruled Egypt and, at times, parts of the Middle East. In Turkey, various Seljuk tribes, after defeating the Byzantines, set up mini-states that constantly warred against one another. The greatest of these, that of Osman (from which they get the name "Ottoman") gradually achieved ascendancy over the others in Anatolia and appeared primed to take over Byzantium itself. However, the pagan Mongols suddenly appeared out of Asia, issued a challenge to the Ottomon King (who foolishly answered in the most insulting manner) and met on the field of battle. The Mongols proved the stronger and ravaged the Ottomons. However, the Ottomons rebuilt and gradually reconquered all of the lands of present day Turkey, including the piece of Europe it still owns, surrounding Byzantium. The Byzantine tricks of buying off and playing off enemies failed when their opponents became only the single state. In 1492, the Turks prepaired for battle. The final battle deserves its own webpage! The Byzantines used all of their best strategies, and the Turks countered them. The Turks even dragged their navy overland to use it against the Byzantines. The emperor Michael, the last emperor, even died bravely, leading the troops into the charge after praying in the Orthodox church.
History often regards the fall of Constantinople as a great turning point, and contemporary Christians regarded it as a disaster. Certainly, it probably worked for the benefit of the surviving Byzantines, who became part of a polygot, dynamic empire, and no longer isolated remants of a decripit state. The Turks continued their conquests, capturing much of southeastern Europe along with most of the Middle East. For a time, their fleets even seemed primed to turn the Meditteranean into a Turkish lake, only to have the Christians unite and destroy their fleet at Lepanto. Only another Christian triumph at Vienna prevented a general takeover of Europe. Still, Europe or no, Mediterranean lords or lowly, the Turks ruled a vast and interesting empire. By capturing the holy cities, the Emperors could claim the title of Caliph, defenders of the faith, the first such Caliphs since the fall of Baghdad, and the most recent in hundreds of years actually equipped to defend the faithful against their enemies. Having said this, the Turks proved fairly kind to their Christian subjects. They allowed the patriarch to continue leading his church and to run it independently, so long as it did not interfere with the Empire. Many a Christian simply saw the writing on the walls, as they had in other places, and converted. The Ottomans recruited larged numbers of Christian boys to serve in their crack army unit, the Janissaries. The court of the Ottomans formed an interesting assemblage of Byzantine practices, Turkish beliefs, and orthodox Islam. The emperors, for example, kept massive harems, like traditional Asian rulers. Their greatest mosque, the Blue Mosque, purposely used more towers than that of the Great Mosque in Mecca, and yet, it also echoes the Byzantines masterpiece, Santa Sophia. In the various intriques, assassinations, and plots, one can easily a Byzantine heritage. Istanbul, even more than before, became a cultural crossroads. The Ottomans, originally, like the Arabs before them, a small minority in their empires, recruited various people to fill various positions, but especially Persians, Arabs, and Greeks, so that the empire became multi-national. The court remained a center of learning, of all kinds, even during its long decline. Decline it did, almost as soon as it hit its height. The reasons for this could form a book, and does form many. In the long run, Ataturk built modern Turkey into a purposely nationalistic, non-heterogeneous state. For that reason, he needed to transfer the capital away from Istanbul. That would take us into tour two, but right now this is the only Turkish tour.
See the 2000-2001 MUN season history to put these last pictures into perspective.
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