From Constantinople to Istanbul: a place of contact between different cultures and religions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish)

The Byzantine Empire is the heir to the Roman Empire and appears as a major Mediterranean power in the middle ages. Constantinople is the capital of this vast Orthodox Christian empire. But from the 12th century, Constantinople is on the decline, it is threatened on several occasions by successive invaders. The Ottoman Turks represent the greatest threat and finally, in 1453, eventually they seize this prestigious capital. Mehmed II, Ottoman sultan, wants to Constantinople, centre cultural major, the new capital of Islam: it will bear the name of Istanbul.

Problem : How the capital of the Byzantine Empire became the capital of Islam? How is the Ottoman Empire a direct competitor to the will of European domination?

I – Constantinople in the 15th century: Capital of the Byzantine Empire

Constantinople is an outstanding strategic position; it is the terrestrial crossroads of Asia and Europe, and the maritime crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. She is the mistress of the Bosphorus, allowing it to be naturally well protected and to control the Straits. Its port, housed in the Golden Horn, is a hub of trade between East and West. Constantinople is protected by a system of fortifications that allowed it for a long time to prevent naval attacks.

A – Constantinople is the heir to the Roman Empire

In 330 Emperor Constantine, on the former site of Byzantium, decided to build a new city: Constantinople, which was to be a new Rome. It became the capital of the Byzantine Empire. On the map, you can see several places and buildings inherited from Rome:

1 Forum of the Ox, the Taurus forum, forum of Constantine: these are large public squares to the commercial and political activities.
2. The hippodrome: entertainment venue (chariot races) who could hold 10,000 spectators.
3. The imperial palace: since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Imperial function is maintained without interruption in the Byzantine Empire. The Emperor carries the title of basileus and the purple is the badge of its sovereignty.
4. You can also see the Acropolis (Greek reference), it should be noted that the inhabitants are of Greek culture. In the Byzantine Empire, the Greek language will supplant the Latin language of the Romans.

B – Signs of a Christian empire

Many churches tell us about this Orthodox Christian Empire. The origin of the power of the Emperor is indeed religious. It is crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Church of Hagia Sophia. He is the representative of God on Earth, i.e. the lieutenant of God. The Empire is a theocracy. In 1054, it is the great schism within Christianity. This schism (separation) opposed the Catholic Church (from the Greek ‘universal’) which recognizes the authority of the Pope, the Orthodox Church (Greek: ‘faith’) which recognizes the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

This separation occurs for reasons of rivalries between the Pope and the Patriarch, and for reasons of differences in religious practice. The Schism will become definitive following the pillaging of Constantinople by the Catholic Crusaders in 1204. The separation continues until today.

II – A capital with many difficulties

A – Financial, economic and social difficulties since the 12th century.

What are the origins of the Italian merchants settled in Constantinople?

The Emperor, in the 11th century, was granted the Venetians, and the 12th century, the Genoese and the Pisans, to warehouses in the city. The Genoese in Galata district are becoming increasingly important in the internal affairs of Constantinople. They have a substantial fleet, control much of the trade and strongly influence the different Byzantine emperors.

B – A city under threat

First by the Crusaders in 1204: the city suffered a looting causing the first fall of the Empire. The Byzantine Empire is re-established in the 14th century but is very weak: Constantinople had 42 000 inhabitants and whole neighbourhoods are abandoned.

The biggest threat comes from the Turks: it is a native of High Asia (until the edge of the Urals and the Caspian Sea). In the 10th century, the Turks converted to Islam in the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks settled in Asia minor (present Turkey) gradually threatening the Byzantine Empire. They settle in Europe around Constantinople, in 1354.

Constantinople has therefore been the capital of a prestigious empire, but in the 15th century, its decline is irreversible.

III – Istanbul, capital of the ottoman Empire

A. The fall of Constantinople: 1453

Before the multiple difficulties in the Byzantine Empire, the fall of Constantinople becomes inevitable, the city does not only control a tiny territory. Constantinople has for his defence to 7,000 Greek soldiers and a small contingent of Genoese: 700 soldiers. Against them the Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror is head of 160,000 men. Basileus Constantine XI was thought to be protected by powerful fortifications, but it was not counting on the power of the Turkish artillery. Mehmed II has 50 large bombards (first guns) and, for several weeks, his army launches relentlessly stones and bullets. Sea, the town is encircled by the Turkish fleet. After 55 days of siege, Tuesday, may 29, 1453, Constantinople was taken by the Turks. The fighting made between 2 000 and 3 000 deaths which Constantine XI death weapons in hand.

A few points on the Muslim religion:

For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) received from God (Allah) revelation that complements those transmitted by other prophets like Jesus. Islam means ‘submission to God’ and is based on the divine message in the Quran «recitation») which proclaims the five pillars of Islam: one God and his Prophet Muhammad, the five daily prayers, alms, annual fasting (Ramadan) and the pilgrimage to Mecca. In a few decades, Muslims submit to Islam throughout the South of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It is an extremely rich and refined civilization (urban civilization, major economic, intellectual, and religious centres). The mosque is in the heart of the Muslim civilization: it is the place of gathering of the faithful. At the bottom of the prayer hall, there is the mihrab, which is a niche indicating the direction of Mecca.

2 –The new capital, a cosmopolitan city with cultural diversity

Political and economic Center: Mehmed II made Istanbul the new capital of the Ottoman Empire instead of Adrianople. It therefore decided to repopulate the town with forced displacement of Turks coming from other regions of the Empire and allowing the Christians to return. But it is mostly from 1457, this city became a real capital, with the end of the construction of his palace: the Topkapi Palace. The Bazaar also built by Mehmed II contributes to the richness of the city: she finds a role of major economic centre of the Mediterranean basin. At the end of the 15th century, it has 60,000 inhabitants and continues to grow to reach more than 400 000 inhabitants in the 16th century.

The Topkapi Palace (pronounced: topkapeu), the name of the door by which the Ottomans entered the conquered city, was particularly important. The Palace called the Serail, or the door is roughly the figure of a triangle. The buildings are arranged around 4 courses. They each have their function. It is a majestic book, which amazed foreign visitors from Western Europe. The Ottoman Empire indeed fascinated Europeans

A mosaic of cultures: the repopulation of the city has led to various populations to live together and to live in harmony. Yet the districts are divided according to religions: Turkish Domination in the old city (Istanbul): administrative, commercial and religious centre with many mosques, but also of the Jewish neighbourhoods with synagogues (a part of expelled Jews from Spain in the 15th century moved to Istanbul and Thessaloniki). Genoa area at Galata (North of the Golden Horn) with a few Greeks, and some rare mosques. On the Hill of Pera (North Galata) settled foreigners and European ambassadors. Üsküdar (shore is Istanbul in Asia), it is the venue of the merchants, with the presence of Turks, Iranians and Armenians.

One can speak of a true cosmopolitan city, far more elsewhere than in ancient Constantinople. You see, in addition to islam, the two other monotheistic religions are tolerated: these non-Turkish people have the right to practice their religion provided that they pay a tax. The various sultans who will succeed will demonstrate tolerance.

There are also French traders since Francis Ist has signed with the Sultan the capitulations that allow freedom of trade and traffic to the French throughout the Empire.

An embellished City: Istanbul becomes the largest cultural centre of islam: artists, writers, poets, historians, are everywhere and they are encouraged by the various sultans. This is particularly true in the 16th century, which can be described as ‘golden age’ of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman II as sultan. Many mosques, buildings, public fountains, the gardens were then built to make this capital a refined city.

C – The great mosque of Soliman bears witness to this wealth

A very famous architect built this so-called Süleymaniye Mosque between 1550 and 1557: Sinan. It is considered to be the most beautiful mosque of Istanbul. Sinan was surrounded by the greatest artists of the time and has mobilized thousands of workers to this vast. The silhouette resembles that of Sophia (large cupolas, domes…), but it is actually a huge complex including a Koranic school, a hospital, a public bath (hammam), colleges, and shops. This monument is therefore not only a religious function. In constructing such a building, Suleiman wanted to show the power of his Empire.

It can be said that the capture of Constantinople in 1453 occurred in extreme violence, but tolerance of the sultans who will succeed will that Istanbul will become for all European passengers a high place cultural, economic and political. The Turks, too, took part in the discovery of the world, including by organizing trips in the Indian Ocean. If they are interested in the discovery of America by Europeans, they were not able compete in this area.

D – The capture of Constantinople by the Turks has it resulted in many changes?

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was a theocracy headed by an Orthodox Christian basileus. This Empire from the 12th century is facing many challenges economic, political and military. Constantinople ceases to decline to no longer count as 42000 people in the 15th century.

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks led by sultan Mehmed II, seized the city after a 55-day siege. Mehmed II transformed the city and in fact its capital policy: Istanbul. He and his successors, while imposing their religion, islam, proved very tolerant towards other religions. They embellish Istanbul built a royal palace: Topkapi, mosques, fountains. Istanbul became a cosmopolitan city (400,000 inhabitants), a large economic and cultural capital. It amazes travellers, as in the 16th century under Suleiman II, the great mosque of Suleiman built by Sinan, reinforces this idea of greatness.

We can therefore say that if Constantinople declined in the fifteenth century, the Turks were able to revitalize this town.