1. A historical fact about Istanbul is that it was founded on Seven Hills. An interesting fact that ties up with this is that in most local songs you hear a reference to Istanbul's seven hills.
2. A well-known, yet an important fact is that Istanbul serves the role of a bridge between two continents: Europe and Asia.
3. Istanbul is surrounded by Sea all around with the Bosphorus cutting it through. With so much water around, you may have thought that the climate would be mild year round. However, snowfall is actually common in Istanbul. The average annual snowfall is sometimes 18 inches.
4. This year (2010) Istanbul is one of three European Cities of Culture.
5. A weird fact is that Istanbul has been capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire; yet it isn't the capital city of modern Turkey. Ankara is the capital city of Turkey.
6. Grand Bazaar is as its name also suggests quite "grand". It is the biggest old covered bazaar in the world, with over 3.000 shops.
7. A very interesting fact about Istanbul is that Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel "Murder on the Orient Express" at Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul.
8. Going into sacred places, such as the mosques, one would have to remove their shoes.
9. Istanbul is as large as Belgium itself with almost the same population number -could be even more crowded...
10. A fun fact about Istanbul is that every one living in this city complains about one another, the traffic, the way things get done; but yet they would not go out of here to live in another city.
11. "Istanbul'un taşı toprağı altındır. / Istanbul's soil and stone are golden." This is an interesting phrase from the mid 50s that has brought many people out from their villages into Istanbul.
12. There are lots of street animals in Istanbul -not so common a trait in Europe and the US.
Depending on the background of its rulers, the city has been called by different names over the centuries. Byzantium, Constantinople and Stamboul are among the most commonly used and known names. In 1930, the city finally received its official name Istanbul, which is also how it is called today.
A settlement on Sarayburnu was established around 655 BC. The legend has it that it was founded by a Byzas from Megara, who stumbled upon this piece of land while he was sailing northeast on the Aegean Sea. Triangular in shape, with water on two sides, the land was a ready-made fortress. To the north, this peninsula later to be named the "Golden Horn" (Haliç in Turkish) formed a natural deep-water harbor. The site offered easy access to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Black Sea, and lay at the crossroads of mainland transit routes crossing Europe and Asia. The small colony's name and founding was attributed to this sailor by the name of Byzas, hence the name Byzantium.
The Persians eagerly took control of the city in 550 BC, followed by the Spartans, then the Athenians. The Byzantines developed a series of shrewd alliances and were able to keep their predatory neighbors at bay. King Philip of Macedon tested the walls and will of Byzantium for an entire year from 340-341 BC.
In 196 AD, the Byzantines backed the wrong side in the imperial Roman power struggle. After a prolonged siege, Septimius Severus had Byzantium's walls torn down, the city put to the torch, and much of the population put to death. He then rebuilt the city on a grander scale with new temples, a colonnaded avenue, and bigger, better walls enclosing an area almost twice the size of the previous city. However, nothing of Severus' city remains today.
Early in the first century AD, the Roman Empire became too unwieldy to govern from Rome, and was thus subdivided, one section's capital being Byzantium. Power struggles among the new governors of the territories of the Roman Empire led to Byzantium becoming a perpetual battleground. In AD 324, Constantine, governor of Byzantium, defeated his counterpart Licinius and set about changing the course of history. He promoted Christianity and shifted the capital from Rome to Byzantium. In AD 330, Constantine inaugurated his new seat of power as Nova Roma.
Constantine soon renamed Nova Roma Constantinople and the new emperor was keen on development. He was aware that changing the capital of the city in a sudden whim would have been costly for his imperial power, and thus he followed a gradual route. The shift and rebuilding of the city took more than six years, and the planning of the new capital was made distinctively different from its old counterpart, Rome. For instance, the new capital did not have all the dignities of Rome and the city had a proconsul rather than an urban prefect. As part of the reconstruction of the city, Constantine commissioned the church of Haghia Eirene (the first Christian cathedral) and rebuilt the city walls. The center square, which Constantine named Augustaeum, known as the Aya Sofya square in modern time -also where the Hagia Sophia Mosque now stands, was also set out in this period. On the south of this great square, Constantine built his Great Palace (Büyük Saray) and nearby he laid out the Hippodrome for chariot races. These are some of the greatest and most historical landmarks that still remain to this day and they constitute only a very small part of Constantine's work. Despite little evidence of Constantine's great works, it is for sure that he laid the foundations for an empire that was to endure for over 1,000 years.
The beginning of the Empire were not auspicious. On Constantine's death in 337 AD, achievement and stability ended. His sons quarreled over the succession, and the Byzantine Empire was divided into eastern and western segments.
Theodosius II (408-450), an Eastern Roman Emperor, reinforced the city walls and erected the massive Egyptian Obelisk, pilfered during a campaign in Luxor. Constantinople began to move towards a new era of greatness, reaching its apex during the era of Justinian (527-565), an era of great successes in war, legal reforms and public developments.
Justinian's reign was indeed marked by great confidence, and the empire expanded to include most of the Mediterranean coast, including Italy. He embarked on a program of reconstruction, building more than 40 churches and immense water cisterns like Yerebatan Sarayı. The crowning glory was a new cathedral, Santa Sophia. Also, during Justinian's reign, the Hippodrome adopted an increasing political significance. As a resemblance of the old traditions of Rome, the Hippodrome became a place where people gathered to show by acclamation their approval of disapproval of the new emperor when he was crowned. These gatherings coupled with a variety of parties and riots before chariot races; and became a serious political tension. During one of the riots, known as the riot of 'Nika', Constantine's basilica St. Sophia, which lay to the north of Augustaeum was consumed totally. Justinian commissioned a new St. Sophia to be built. This time the church would be directly connected to the palace, so that the imperial family would not have to cross through the streets to attend ceremonies and services. The dedication of this new Orthodox Cathedral took place on 26th of December, 537. Justinian also replaced the Church of Holy Apostles built by Constantine with a new church made of five domes and beautiful mosaic ornaments. This church was demolished after the conquest of the city by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II to make room for his tomb.
Between 565 and 717, the city could only strive for survival. It was threatened both from the northwest and the south, from the Balkans and from the Persians. The religion of Islam also seized power in those years and conquered the eastern provinces of the Empire. This was followed by a centuries long Byzantine-Arab wars, during which the city had to endure several sieges. The walls of the city were fortified in the 730s by Leo III.
Byzantine fortunes were restored during the reign of Basil II (976-1025), who expanded the empire into Armenia and Georgia. Basil's most significant contribution to history came in 989 AD when his daughter Anna married Vladimir (Prince of Kiev), and the pagan prince converted to Orthodox Christianity.
At the hands of the Ducas and Comneni families, Constantinople became the most decadent city in the world, filled with intermarriage, intrigue, dethronings and murder. The empire now relied on wealth and diplomacy as opposed to military force. With the Seljuk Turks as the greater threat, Byzantium was forced to enlist the aid of Latin armies. The Seljuk Turks continued to expel more threat on the Empire by forming small states along the borders of Constantinople. Soon, the stronger state overwhelmed all the smaller ones and renamed itself as the State of Osman, after its chief officer and founder Osman Bey.
State of Osman soon became bigger to become the Ottoman Empire and by 1394 Constantinople had become a Byzantine island in an Ottoman sea. The city was confronted by the Turkish army at its walls many times before Mehmet II conquered it in 1453. Soon after becoming the Ottoman sultan in 1452, Mehmet II constructed the fortress of Rumeli Hisarı on the European shore of the Bosphorus just north of the city. The fortress was constructed in order to siege the city when the appropriate time came.
The conquest of the city in 1453, established the Ottomans as a preeminent Empire in Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean. After this incident, the Empire entered a period of great expansion, expanding its borders deep into Europe and North Africa.
Inside the city, Mehmet the Conqueror encouraged craftsmen and artisans from Bursa and Edirne to move to his new city and build Topkapı Palace. Soon the new capital was well-endowed with mosques, hamams and the beginnings of what would develop into the Grand Bazaar.
After Mehmet's death in 1481, his elder son Beyazıt II won succession. Beyazıt's son Selim (known as "Selim the Grim" for his habit of having his grand viziers executed) succeeded him. During Selim's eight-year reign he presided over significant military victories, adding Syria and Egypt to the imperial portfolio. He quelled a Portuguese threat to Mecca and was rewarded with the keys to the Holy City, the sacred relics of the Prophet, and the title of Caliph, or "Champion of Islam."
Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) ruled an empire that covered the spread of North Africa, stretched east to India, and rolled from the Caucasus through Anatolia and the Balkans, to Budapest and most of modern-day Hungary. Modern history tells that this era was the apex of an Ottoman era of glamor and wealth. Under both Selim and Süleyman's reign, the Empire became a dominant naval power in the Mediterranean Sea. The successful Ottoman Admiral Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha became famous in these times.
Istanbul became synonymous with grandeur under Süleyman. He married Roxelana and commissioned a promising young architect, Mimar Sinan, to construct the Haseki Hürrem Mosque complex as a birthday present. This was Sinan's first major commission in Istanbul, launching a glorious career which spanned 50 years, during which time left his indelible mark on the city and indeed on most major cities of the Ottoman Empire.
Süleyman was succeeded by Selim, beginning an era that saw weak sultans manipulated by their wives and mothers between whom there were often violent struggles for power.
In 1683 the Ottomans failed to recapture Vienna. This marked the beginning of a series of backward steps for the Ottomans. The Janissaries (once the sultan's finest troops) were out of control, threatening the sultan and killing ministers, and plagues were recurrent.
When Selim III took the throne in 1789 he had a lot on his plate: disobedient guards, ongoing and long-lasting outbreaks of disease, economic decline, military defeats, moribund culture and a restless populace. The Janissaries were finally crushed in 1826 by Sultan Mahmut II (1808-39). He implemented much-needed reforms and local government was introduced to Istanbul for the first time, together with the city's first police and fire services. Quarantine and plague hospitals were also established.
Abdülmecit (1839-61) continued his father's reform programs, namely the "Tanzimat" (Reorganization) reforms, resulting in what was to be a last blossoming of the Ottoman Empire. The sultan embraced this new era by moving out of Topkapı Palace into the imperial palace at Dolmabahçe. The Tanzimat reforms meant to start the effective modernization of Turkey in 1839 by imposing religious equality, liberty and security for all of the Sultan's citizens. Unfortunately, the reforms were not sufficient enough by themselves to halt the various nationalistic surges around the Empire, especially in the Balkan area. Beginning with Serbian and Danubian Principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia all declared their unilateral independence. They were followed by Bulgaria's virtual independence, following the Russian-Ottoman War of 1877-78. In the same year, Cyprus was rented to the British in exchange for a record of favors that the British granted to the Ottoman Empire in the Congress of Berlin. The British also occupied the Ottoman territory Egypt in 1882 under the pretext of bringing in order; and officially annexed both Egypt and Cyprus in 1914 during the course of World War I.
In the interim, Armenians, who had been granted their own constitution and national assembly during the Tanzimat reforms, started to press for more rights and charges following the Russian-Ottoman War of 1877-78 -and in tandem with the general nationalistic movement of that era. A number of Armenian uprisings and nationalistic movements took place in the following years in various cities of Anatolia. Increasing tension and instability caused the Ottoman governors to react in not-so-humanized ways. Between 1894-96 100,000 to 300,000 people were killed in what is known as the Hamidian Massacre.
In 1908, the Second Constitutional Era started, which is marked by the works of Young Turks and the politics of the Committee of Union and Progress. This era is also called as the Era of Dissolution, in which the Empire continued to lose more land, including Libya and more of the Balkans as far as its historic capital Edirne.
The Ottomans entered the First World War through the incident known as "Goeben and Breslau", when they provided refuge for two German ships that were fleeing the British fleet. Through the course of WWI, the Empire consistently lost more land. The partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, referred to as the "sick, old man" by the British, became solidified by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.
Beyond debate is Atatürk's status as one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century and a military commander of unrivaled genius. A true reformist, Atatürk changed the face of the country. Elected in 1923 as the Republic of Turkey's first president, he installed a modified Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic script Turkish previously employed, and he even moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara. Atatürk's new Turkish constitution did away with Islamic law, and instead imposed secular laws largely based on the Italian justice system. After his death in 1938, chaos ruled. Democracy was reinstated in the 1960s but there was still no real consensus on which direction to take: East, West or Soviet-style? In 1980, there was a huge army takeover. A wave of terror ensued, resulting in over 100,000 arrests, and this dark period in Turkey's history has become the subject of a great number of Turkish books and films over the years.
Atatürk's popularity is still at an unbelievable high in Turkey -- there are statues of him on nearly every block of the city, and his representations of his likeness abound in public buildings and private homes alike. His face is also imprinted on every denomination of Turkish lira -- bills and coins. Though his face itself may seem to be the most lasting impression he has left on Turkey, in fact it is his secular policies and laws that are still being studied and fought over today. There is an ongoing and significant struggle between secular and non-secular factions in Turkey. Indecisive elections in 1995 resulted in an unpopular center-right Islamic coalition. Fueled by decades of hatred for the country's secular institutions, they set about destroying everything they couldn't control, bringing the economy to the brink of collapse. In the interest of avoiding another army coup, a more stable multi-party coalition was formed.
A long-awaited metro system, promising relief from traffic congestion, is up and running. Istanbul's yearly GDP recently surpassed those of other major world cities such as Berlin, Delhi, Singapore, Vienna, Munich, Stockholm, Cairo, Bangkok and Johannesburg, among others. The mood in Istanbul at the moment is one of much optimism and hope.