Tale of Seven Hills: A Brief History of Istanbul


Istanbul has a history of about 3,000 years. Throughout history, this city has been known by different names: Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul. In 638 BC, the King Byzas came to the Sarayburnu region. The migrating Greek colony had settled here. The founder of the city, Byzas, gave it the name Byzantium. During the time of the Roman Empire (324 AD), Emperor Constantine wanted to move to a region where he had thought it would be more efficient and safer. That’s why he chose Byzantium. He ordered that a Roman city be built here, and in about 6 years, the city was in place, repleted with Roman-style buildings, surrounded by protective walls. The buildings include Hippodrome, the Great Palace, and the Constantine Forum.

The Roman Empire was divided in 395 BC for various reasons. Byzantium, which we now know as Istanbul, was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Then its name was changed to Constantinopolis. The Eastern Roman kings introduced themselves as Caesar in history. The Byzantium name was also used to label the people living there. Then the empire was known as the Byzantine Empire. Many historical buildings were built at that time. In 1453, the Ottoman State conquered Constantinople, but the name of the city still did not change for some time yet.

When the city was captured by the Ottomans Turks, buildings that were destroyed during occupations and wars were restored. Mehmet the Conqueror, in particular, had ordered restoration of Hagia Sophia, because many items like oil lamps, sacred relics, material belongings of saints, silver, gold, crosses, and mosaics had been plundered. However, when we look at history, we can say that Hagia Sophia was the fastest-built cathedral, despite its architectural inadequacies, many collapses, the legacy of plundering, and all of the other negative conditions relative to this place. It lost its “the greatest” title when a greater one was built in 520 in Seville, Spain. However, Hagia Sophia challenges time for the last 15 centuries, and continues to reflect the history of Istanbul. 

Brown tabby cat sleeping on the floor inside Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya).

Then, Mehmet the Conqueror ordered that a palace be built for him in this city. This is the Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet. The ancient ruins of Byzantion are actually under this palace. Many columns in the palace were decorated with Roman and Byzantine architecture. Today, it is used as the Topkapi Palace Museum. Specialty clothes and other garments of the Ottoman Dynasty were hidden in chests here from back to the 1400s. Now, they are exhibited in this museum. The greatest examples of Ottoman jeweler processing are also exhibited to the public in the museum. Solid gold candlesticks, Ottoman daggers, and jewels, including the Kaşıkçı Elması, known as the world’s greatest diamond, are exhibited here. There are also important sacred relics for Muslims in a section of the museum. One of these is Hz. Muhammad’s cardigan.

Tale of Seven Hills

The Topkapi Palace Museum

This area, where many buildings and monuments have been built across the many empires over time, has remained within the walls of the citadel in Ottoman period. There are Sarayburnu (Topkapı), Çemberlitaş (Nuruosmaniye), Süleymaniye (Beyazıt), Yavuz Selim Mosque, Edirnekapı, Fatih Külliyesi, and Kocamustafapaşa on the hill, which itself was inside the city walls and only as of late influenced by modern architecture. Sarayburnu was the first region founded by King Byzas. The city is surrounded by the sea and is on a high hill. Because of that, the King chose this as a good settlement. Mehmet the Conqueror discovered the value of this place and ordered a palace be built here. Cemberlitas Hill is also about 35 to 40 meters above sea level. Süleymaniye Complex is on the top of Süleymaniye Hill. All of this magnificence wows people who travel via the seaway. Fatih Mosque name comes from Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih Sultan Mehmet). In the old days, Havariyyun Church of Rome was built here. It has been replaced by a complex.

Istanbul history

İstanbul Golden Horn

Yavuz Sultan Selim Hill is built on a steep slope and in front of the Golden Horn. Kariye Camii and Fener Greek Patriarchate are also located in this area. Another hill, which is also known by the name of Mihrimah Sultan, the daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent, is 70 meters high above the sea. Territorial waters can be observed clearly from here. The last hill is in the Kocamustafapaşa district. The hill where the Haseki Külliyesi is located, about 60 meters high, had played host to the Arkadius Forum and Column during the Roman period. The hills on which all of these structures were built were preferred for their strategic locations. At that time, special regions had been used as settlements to protect from war and occupation. Present-day Istanbul is developing more modern construction now.