The history of Istanbul dates back to 660 BC Istanbul has been an important transit point between Asia and Europe for centuries and it has been home to various cultures. Istanbul served as the capital for old civilizations such as Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and the Ottomans. Therefore, it has been identified with famous Emperors and Sultans.
In this post, I will try to emphasize the importance of exploring the historical monuments of Istanbul with a private tour guide. Thus, you will realize what you would miss if you visited Istanbul without a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide. Let’s have a look at the legends that have been identified with the city since the days it was founded.
Emperors and Sultans of Istanbul
I will introduce you with the legendary Emperors and Sultans of Istanbul. However, before coming to the Roman period, when the emperors ruled, it is worth mentioning the foundation of Istanbul.
The history of Istanbul dates back to Ancient Greece. According to the legend, Byzas and his company decided to immigrate from Megara and they asked the advice of the oracle at the Temple of Apollo. The oracle advised them to keep going to the East and he instructed them to settle in the city at the end of the road, opposite to the City of the Blind.
Naturally, Byzas and his company didn’t know what to make of that mysterious conversation. However, as they went to the East as the oracle instructed, they arrived at the point known as the Old City today. They looked at the other side from where Topkapi Palace stands today and they noticed the Greek settlers on the Asian side.
The residents of Chalcedon, today’s Kadikoy, were known as “the Blind” in the legend as they failed to notice the breathtaking hill (Seraglio Point) on the other side. Therefore, Byzantium was founded and it was named after its legendary founder, Byzas.
Istanbul was firstly named as Byzantium and Constantinople afterward. No matter what it was called, Istanbul marked its impact during the end of Ancient Age and throughout the Middle Age due to its geographical position. Istanbul used to be a portal city where goods from the Silk Road and Spice Road gathered and distributed to Europe. Therefore, it was the most active city of the world with its population reaching 500,000.
1. Constantine the Great
Byzantium remained as a small Greek city for years. In 300s A.D., however, it witnessed the struggle between two emperors Licinius and Constantine, both of whom were the members of Tetrarchy Rule. Constantine crossed the Strait of Dardanelles to corner his opponent and destroyed Licinius’ army that was in defense at Byzantium.
Licinius was intimidated by Constantine’s forces that were deployed in Europe and he didn’t want to get caught in the middle. Therefore, Licinius planned to escape to Anatolia (Asia Minor) and moved to Chrysopolis (Uskudar) to that end. The battle that broke out here also became the end of the tetrarchy, the system where the power is divided among four people. From that point on, the emperor began to hold power in his hands.
Thus, this war is seen as one of the 10 most important wars in the history of the Roman Empire. The main reason why it is important is that all power came under one ruler after years of chaos. As a result, stability was established and it didn’t take a long time Constantine to prove what a visionary leader he was.
Constantine the Great allowed the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Milan in 313. Christians, who faced torture and mistreatment till then, heaved a sigh of relief. Constantine himself converted to Christianity from paganism and he continued going beyond the routines of the empire.
Even though Rome was the core of the Roman Empire, it lost its former importance. Everyone around Constantine thought he wanted to settle in Nicomedia (Izmit) when he brought forward the idea to move to the Eastern provinces. However, Constantine realized the geographical importance of Byzantium during the Battle of Chyrsopolis against Licinius and he chose Istanbul.
Istanbul is a peninsula and it provided natural protection against the barbaric attacks, the biggest problem of Rome. Istanbul could not be surrounded by any navy before it passed by the Dardanelles from the south and the Bosphorus in Istanbul from the north. And, once the walls were built on the Western side, the only part of the city that was open to attack by land, the city became literally impenetrable.
Thus, Emperor Constantine initiated a vast construction phase in Byzantium. Thousands of architects, engineers, and artists were brought to Istanbul. Amazing buildings were constructed throughout the city and Hagia Eirene, one of the most important churches of the city, was built during this era.
Moreover, the most powerful symbols of Istanbul in the ancient age, Great Palace and Hippodrome, were also built during this period. The great palace that extended from Sultanahmet (nowadays Blue Mosque and its surroundings) to the seaside occupied a huge space. It was so big that there was even a polo pitch inside the palace. And Hippodrome witnessed the most exciting chariot races during the late Ancient and Middle Ages.
The Egyptian Obelisk at the Hippodrome was 1800 years old when it was brought to Istanbul from the Karnak Temple in Egypt. Considering it has been in Istanbul for around 1700 years, it is the oldest monument in Istanbul thanks to its 3500 years of history. There were two teams racing at chariot races at Hippodrome, namely Blues and Greens. Hippodrome had a capacity of 100,000 spectators and these races were big social events.
History of Hagia Sophia
It’s known that it was Constantine’s idea to build Hagia Sophia but it was his son, Constantius II who actually built it.
When the Roman Empire was divided into two, Honorius became the leader of the Western Roman Empire, while Arcadius became the ruler of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The first emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Arcadius, was married to a woman named Eudoxia, originally from a barbaric tribe.
Eudoxia was close to pagan culture due to her roots. Therefore, when she erected a sculpture of a goddess that looked like her in the yard of Hagia Sophia, John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, got mad.
He was called Chrysostom (Golden Mouth) due to his skill at the art of oratory and he slammed the empress during his sermon. Emperor was quick at reacting to the incident and exiled John to a remote corner of Anatolia. A terrible earthquake happened on the same night and a fire broke out at Hagia Sophia. The residents of the city related the incidents to the exile of the archbishop and they believed it was god’s curse. Terrified by the thought, the empress brought John back. However, the first Hagia Sophia already turned into ashes and became history.
Theodosius II came to the throne after Arcadius and he rebuilt Hagia Sophia. It was a magnificent monument and its remnants can still be seen in the yard of Hagia Sophia. So, what happened to the second Hagia Sophia? In order to understand it, we need to mention about Justinian I, the most important emperor of the Byzantine Empire.
Once Hagia Sophia was built in 537, it remained as the biggest church until the 16th century. Emperor Leon VI can be seen kneeling before Jesus in this beautiful mosaic at the entrance of Hagia Sophia. His wife, empress Thefoano’s tomb can be seen at Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
2. Justinian the Great
Roman Empire was worn out due to the centuries-long barbarian attacks and fights for the throne. However, the empire showed some signs of improvement during Emperor Constantine and Theodosius I era, both of whom were crowned as “Great” later. However, the good times didn’t last long and the Roman Empire was divided into two in 395 and the Western Roman Empire was invaded by a barbaric attack.
Justinian the Great came to the throne under such adverse conditions and he ruled the empire for around 38 years. He took Rome back and dominated the Mediterranean region during his reign. He initiated a breathtaking construction period and he built Hagia Sophia, Hagia Irene, the Basilica Cistern, and the Little Hagia Sophia (Church of Sergius and Bacchus) the most important historical monuments of Istanbul today.
Despite his success, he couldn’t gain the favor of the people. He collected a great amount of taxes as he had big dreams and he turned out to be a heavily hated figure among the people of Constantinople. One day, as he was watching the chariot races in his chamber at Hippodrome, the chants of the spectators began to target him. Greens and Blues, two opposite teams, united in their hatred against the emperor and they attacked the palace together.
Justinian I’s famous wife Theodora dissuaded him from escaping to Anatolia (Asia Minor) by ship. Instead, the emperor decided to stay and face the rebels. And he repressed the uprising thanks to the help of Belisarius, the most skilled general in the history of the Byzantine Empire. However, it wasn’t easy at all. Around 30,000 people were slaughtered and the ground of Hippodrome was filled with corpses.
Justinian I had a career that was full of great victories and monuments. After the rebellion, the first thing he had to do was to clear the wreckage. He rebuilt 3rd generation Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, both of which were demolished during the rebellion and they’ve survived till today since then. As you can see clearly, Hagia Sophia is one of the rare monuments that witnessed a lot of incidents during the fairytale-like history of Istanbul.
This mosaic is one of the best preserved historical artifacts you can see in Istanbul. As we know it was made in the 10th century, we can easily conclude that Constantine who lived in the 4th century and Justinian I who lived in the 6th century was still respected despite centuries. Visiting Hagia Sophia alongside a private tour guide will open you the doors of 1500 years of history.
3. Mehmed the Conqueror
The famous walls of Istanbul prevented sieges for years. It was invaded shortly during the 4th Crusade (Latin invasion) and it remained as an impenetrable city during the 1000 year of history of the Byzantine Empire.
In the 15th century, gigantic cannons already began to be produced. Thus, the Ottoman Empire built a huge fortress at the Bosphorus (Rumeli Hisari) and produced such cannons and they managed to enter the city after a long siege.
Rumor has it that when Mehmed the Conqueror entered the city, the first thing he did was to climb on the dome of Hagia Sophia and watch the city. The Great Palace of Roman Emperors already turned into a ruin. Therefore, firstly, he built a temporary palace for himself nearby Grand Bazaar at Beyazit and started building Topkapi Palace afterward.
Topkapi Palace is one of the finest monuments that reflect the classical architecture of the Ottoman Empire. The palace is composed of 4 big yards and it is surrounded by walls. And it offers an enjoyable walking tour in a peaceful area in nature. In order to fully comprehend the history of this palace where 25 Ottoman sultans resided, you are highly recommended to visit Topkapi Palace with a private tour guide.
He designed Topkapi Palace as a palace to train the army for wars, meet foreign delegates, and organize meetings to rule the state. Moreover, an imperial school named Enderun was also in the 3rd yard of the palace. Students who received education here became the highest ranked bureaucrats of the state in the future.
As for Harem and why and how it was moved to Topkapi Palace, we need to have a look at Suleiman the Magnificent era because the famous Grand Seraglio where the sultan’s family and odalisques lived was at the “Old Palace” in Beyazit for long.
4. Suleiman the Magnificent
Suleiman the Magnificent is regarded as the most powerful sultan of the Ottoman Empire that lasted for 624 years. During his era, the borders of the empire extended to three continents and the empire showed a dramatic financial improvement.
Suleiman the Magnificent resided in the palace that his grandfather built but he rebuilt the kitchens of the palace. Moreover, he built the Suleymaniye Mosque, the most spectacular mosque in Istanbul. It was built during the times the Ottoman Empire enjoyed its best years and the most skilled architect of the empire, Mimar Sinan, was behind such masterpieces.
Suleiman revised the whole laws in the Ottoman Empire and he became famous due to his fair and just approach. Therefore, he was named “Lawgiver” by his people. While he is known as Suleiman the Magnificent in the West, he is known as Suleiman the Lawgiver in Asia.
The Harem Rooms of the palace, which was full of odalisques from all around the world, always attracted the Western painters’ attention and it’s mostly depicted as a place for fun. In reality, it was a house where the mother, sisters, and daughters of the sultan lived in addition to odalisques and there was a high level of discipline at the Harem. Even the sultan’s intercourse with women was carried out by the traditional way.
The Grand Harem during Mehmed II’s reign was in the old palace at Beyazit. However, Suleiman the Magnificent’s love for Hurrem Sultan (also known as Roxelana) was the reason why the Harem moved to Topkapi Palace.
Sultan Suleiman ruled the empire during its strongest years and he was an interesting figure as he led a monogamous life. He was also a romantic character who would write letters to his wife at battlefields. In addition to being a sultan, he was a skilled goldsmith and it’s known by few people that he would give the rings he crafted to Hurrem Sultan as a gift.
Emperors and Sultans of Istanbul by Serhat Engul