The City of Three Empires

I finally made it to the legendary city of Istanbul. I have been waiting since I was 10 years old to see this city, and in August, just a few weeks ago, I was there for over two weeks.

The land upon which Istanbul is built has been occupied by humans for at least 5000 years, but the site does not appear to have experienced any significant development until the Greeks founded a colony here in 657 B.C. The Greeks named the site Byzantium, after the king Byzas, who founded the colony. This is considered to be the city’s first name, and it bore it for nearly a millennia. Though the Romans would eventually give the city a new name, the city would remain primarily Greek speaking for the next two thousand years.

Over time, this insignificant town called Byzantium would catch the eye of a Roman Emperor. The Romans had been increasingly struggling to manage their enormous empire from distant Rome; worst of all, most of the Empire’s wealth lay in the Eastern provinces. For these reasons, the Emperor Constantine wanted a more central location than Rome from which to engage in Empire. Constantine eventually decided that the site of Byzantium would become the next Roman capital in 330 A.D. The central location that the city occupied, literally forming the border between the European and Asian half of the Roman Empire, made it the perfect location from which to administer the empire. He would spend lavishly on building up the city as a rival to Rome, and as is the prerogative of emperors, Constantine renamed Byzantium after himself. It would be known as Constantinople, or Constantinopolis, for the next thousand years.

The aqueduct of Constantinople. The longest ever constructed by the Romans, at about 240km long. Aqueducts were monumental achievements in engineering, bringing water over great distances from elevated water sources down to cities using nothing but the power of gravity. Near Rome, one particular aqueduct constructed about 600 years before this one only dropped 10m over a distance of 16.4km. Where needed, the Romans continued their aqueducts through mountains, tunneling into them just as precisely.

As the Western half of the Roman Empire fell to repeated raids and corruption over the next two hundred years, the Eastern half of the Empire remained strong, administered behind the fortress that was Constantinople. The Roman Empire would survive in the east until the 15th century. History remembers this entity as the Byzantine Empire, but they thought of themselves as Romans, pure and simple.

The city spent centuries fending off foreign attacks, by northern barbarians, horse nomads from the Far East, and would even be the victims of crusader treachery. The Byzantines have a fantastic and exciting history: the Emperor had legendary viking body guards named the Varangian Guard; the Empire is largely responsible for the development of Russia; the Byzantine navy and army had flamethrowers that threw a still unknown substance that could not be extinguished by water; and they were fabulously wealthy and literate.

Over time, through corruption and subpar leadership, the Byzantine Empire was whittled down until nothing was left except the city of Constantinople itself. The word “Byzantine” is today understood to mean excessively complicated. In many ways, this statement can shed light on why it might have become impossible to maintain such an empire.

The Blue Mosque from a rooftop. It was a wonderful backdrop to get some writing done on a Bluetooth Keyboard .

However the empire atrophied, in 1453, the Ottoman conqueror, Mehmed II, at 21 years of age, led an army in the siege and capture of the city, using some of the first cannons seen in Europe to batter down Europe’s greatest fortifications. Three sets of massive walls lined one behind another separated by deep moats; an entirely fortified seaside; as well as a chain dragged across the sea at the mouth of Golden Horn to hold back naval invasion into the city ports. These fortifications had held off one thousand years of would be conquerors, but they could not withstand the coming of the age of gunpowder. From this point on, the city would be renamed Istanbul, and would become the Capital of its third empire, the Ottoman Empire.

Interestingly, the name Istanbul might have Greek origins. Though meaning something along the lines of Plenty of Islam, or Find Islam, in Turkish, the local Greeks might have refereed to the city by something sounding quite close to Istanbul, meaning in their language To the City. They would use this name the same way we often refer to our closest city when we live in a suburbs or nearby village. Historians suggest that Mehmed and his entourage might have found inspiration upon hearing the Greek speakers refer to the city this way.

Istanbul at night, from a spot near the Galata Tower.

With Istanbul as its capital, the Ottoman Empire rose to a massive size, stretching from Baghdad to Yemen to Morocco to Hungary. Over time, the empire became stagnant, swamped in bureaucracy and given to poor leadership. History teaches us that this is the fate of all empires. It was dissolved at the end of the First World War, in which the Ottomans fought a heroic and loosing campaign alongside the Germans. Legendary figures, were born in this fighting: people like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Lawrence of Arabia had their stories set in one of the world’s most ancient places. As such, they share their legacies with greats such as Cyrus of the Persians, Alexander of Macedon, Julius Ceasar, and Salahadin. Indeed, the cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse population of Istanbul reminds us that we all do, as human beings.

Though the war was lost, the Turkish nation appears to have found its own identity in the conflict, and in individuals such as their father, Ataturk. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Istanbul has not been the capital of any state, but remains one of the world’s critical arteries. In world trade and Turkish politics, the city retains a loud and stern voice. Today the city is often considered to be the world’s 3rd largest city by population. Yet I found it to be clean, safe, progressive and welcoming. Finally, she and I have been acquainted.

See my Instagram post, with the same featured photo, for more of my pictures of this great city!

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Nicolas Lemay (@nicolas_lemay1) on Aug 18, 2019 at 12:05pm PDT

A market near the Blue Mosque late at night. The city was clean and safe.

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