During the ice age, the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea were mere freshwater lakes, separated by two valleys now known as the Bosphorus and Dardanelle straits. Around 6000 B.C., with the melting of the ice caps, the sea rose up to overflow its banks; discoveries in prehistoric settlements in the Kadiköy, Fikirtepe, and Pendik districts of Istanbul include organic remains of life that could survive in both fresh and salt water. Prehistoric settlements were also discovered under the Hippodrome, at the Hagia Irene and Archaeology Museum; and more recently at Yenikapi, Üsküdar, and Sirkeci, during the excavations of the stations to serve the future Marmaray Rail. The discoveries at Yenikapi alone, which date to the 4th century B.C., have unceremoniously reset the clock on Istanbul's ancient history.

Early Greek Settlements

The earliest settlements in the region we now call Istanbul were founded by migrants from the Greek town of Megara around 660 B.C. The earliest historical reference we have of this time is of the Persian King Darius's conquest of the city in 512 B.C. -- at that time, the "city" amounted to settlements in Calchedon (modern Kadiköy) and on the "promontory" -- probably the hill that is now Sultanahmet.


In the latter half of the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great swept through the settlements on the Bosphorus in his campaign against the Persians to annex all of Anatolia under Macedonian/Greco rule. Almost 2 centuries after his death, around 146 B.C., the city on the straits came under Roman domination.

New Rome

Under Roman rule, the city's early fortunes ebbed and flowed. When Septimus Severus (A.D. 197-211) encountered resistance to his self-proclamation as emperor of Rome, he simply razed the city to its foundations. It was during the rebuilding following these events that the Hippodrome and Obelisk were constructed. Under Severus's son, Caracalla, the city was known as Antonia or Antoniana. Emperor Valerian (A.D. 253-260) was confronted with raids by the Goths, while Diocletian (A.D. 284-350) instituted a doomed system of governmental reform, dividing the empire into two administrative units. It was a system destined to collapse into civil war; but the long-term effect was a more theological schism, as Christianity grew and took hold throughout the Empire. In the wake of Diocletian reform, Constantine (A.D. 324-337) emerged to establish his capital over that of previous Roman emperors, rebuilding the city to equal if not surpass the splendor of Rome. Six years later, in A.D. 330, its architectural eminence realized and with a sizeable population of around 200,000, the city was baptized "New Rome." The city was renamed Constantinopolis (or Constantinople) in honor of the emperor.


Constantinople: City of the World's Desire

By the time Constantine had established imperial Roman power in Constantinople, his acceptance of Christianity was complete, having publicly espoused the faith in the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, which mandated the tolerance of Christianity within the Roman Empire. Under Theodosius, paganism was outlawed and Christianity, by this time already widespread, was made the official religion of the state. By Theodosius's death in A.D. 395, the eastern and western provinces had grown apart ideologically, and the Roman Empire was divided in two. When Rome fell in A.D. 476, Constantinople emerged the dominant capital of the empire. But although predominantly Greek and Christian in culture, citizens of what we will now call Byzantium considered themselves Roman, and the leadership maintained a thoroughly Roman administration.

The reign of Emperor Justinian and his Queen Theodora (A.D. 527-565) inaugurated a period of great prosperity. Justinian's construction of the majestic Ayasofya (Church of Holy Wisdom) established Constantinople as the spiritual center of Christendom. Justinian commissioned new buildings and conducted restorations all across the empire -- an undertaking so vast that it thrust the empire into economic crisis after his death.


Around the end of the 9th century A.D., a rivalry emerged between the Orthodox Church and the Papacy over the veneration of icons. The worship of idols was first condemned by Emperor Leo III in A.D. 726 and then reiterated by successive emperors. In 1054, over this and other theological disagreements, the pope severed any ties that had united Byzantium with the West.

Distracted by religious and bureaucratic disputes, the Byzantines were unprepared for the arrival of nomadic Turkish warrior tribes raiding the empire's lands in the east. In response, Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus turned to the Christians of western Europe for aid against the increasing threat of the Turks. And the first Crusade was launched.

The Selçuk Turks triumphed over the second Crusade in 1147, eventually setting up the Sultanate of Rum at Konya and achieving significant cultural growth and territorial expansion. In 1204 and allied with Venetian merchants who had an eye on the riches of the East, the Crusaders sacked and plundered Constantinople in the fourth Crusade, creating the Latin Empire of Constantinople and widening the schism between the churches of the East and West. Driven from Constantinople, the Byzantine court established a small empire in exile at Nicaea, creating a balance of power with the flourishing Selçuk Sultanate of Rum.


Michael VIII Palaeologus, ruler of the empire in exile, succeeded in reclaiming the city of Constantinople in 1261. Though their territory was drastically reduced, subsequent Byzantine emperors repeatedly tried to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic churches against the threat of invading Turks. This proved futile, and in 1453, Mehmet II, leading an army of Ottoman Turks, circumvented the Byzantine defenses of the Golden Horn by having his fleet carried, ship by ship (by means of a brilliantly engineered "movable path") over land, behind the Byzantine navy. After centuries of decline and decay, the Byzantine Empire had come to an end.

Ottoman Istanbul

With his victory over Constantinople, Mehmet II acquired the title of fatih, or conqueror, and named his new capital Istanbul, probably after having heard the Greeks say "eis ten polin" (to the city). He immediately began reconstruction, converting churches into mosques and repopulating the city with artisans, merchants, and farmers from all over the empire. The importance of sea power was not lost on Mehmet, who established control over the Black Sea and managed to capture some of rival Venice's islands in the Aegean. The city's importance as a naval and trading center was confirmed and Istanbul quickly became an international city with a mixture of cultures as Christians, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews all were welcomed by the sultan. After all, these diverse peoples brought with them a wealth of knowledge -- and new tax revenues.


The long reign of Mehmet II's great grandson, Süleyman the Lawgiver (aka "The Magnificent"), was the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, distinguished by military successes, administrative organization, economic prosperity, social order, and cultural greatness. Both the city and the empire flourished under his direction; the population grew, road and caravansary networks were extended, trade prospered, and his military machine enjoyed success after success.

The Tulip Period -- While wandering Topkapi Palace, or even the Grand Bazaar, you will see spindly tulips in designs on everything from Iznik tile to silk scarves. The early 18th century in Ottoman history is known as Lâle Devri, or the Tulip Period. The word "tulip" is actually derived from the Ottoman Turkish word for gauze (tülbend), which was used to wrap turbans. The Tulip Period is not only associated with a flowering of the arts but also with court society's collective obsession with the flower. Tulips, which are native to central Asia, became the dominant decorative motif, filled the gardens of the Ottoman elite, and were the source of endless festivals.

It was actually through the Ottomans that the tulip first came to western Europe. In the 16th century, a Dutch ambassador to the Ottoman Empire returned home with a few bulbs and touched off a fad that has forever since associated Holland with the tulip. By 1637, Holland had developed a sophisticated tulip bulb market, in which batches of bulbs were worth more than the average Dutchman's yearly income.


Ottoman Administrative Structure -- The Ottoman ruling class was organized into five Imperial Institutions: the military; the scribes, or "men of the pen"; the ulema, Muslim leaders educated in theology and law assigned the task of religious leadership, education, and justice; and the Inner and Outer Palace Services who took care of the general day-to-day administration of the palace and care of the sultan.

Through territorial conquest, the sultan was provided with a steady supply of the best and most promising boys to serve as slaves and loyal subjects. This "recruitment" was called the devsirme (literally, collection). Candidates between the ages of 8 and 15 were selected and sent to Istanbul, where they were converted to Islam and educated in the palace school. The finest of the devsirme were chosen for continued education and placement in high palace positions, while the majority of the trainees entered into the elite military corps of Janissaries. By 1700 the Janissaries (yeniçeri; literally "new troops") had swelled to over 100,000 from 12,000 during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, ultimately becoming more powerful than the government they served and inciting frequent rebellions.

The Turkish aristocracy, comprised of Muslims, Turks, Arabs, and Iranians, shared the rank of askerî, with the newer devsirme class of Christian converts making up the ruling class.


The Ottoman Decline

Several factors, both foreign and domestic, contributed to the progressive deterioration of the Ottoman Empire over the subsequent 2 1/2 centuries. Although Süleyman left a legacy of territories on three continents, he also left behind a scheming widow -- Roxelana, the Circassian-born concubine he took as his wife and trusted advisor. Roxelana manipulated her husband, his sons, and the court with sometimes fatal results. She orchestrated events culminating in the murder of Süleyman's favorite sons, Mustafa and Beyazit, thus clearing the path of ascension for her utterly incompetent son, Selim II. Nicknamed Selim the Sot, he preferred the pursuits of physical pleasure to governing the empire.

The later abandonment of the traditional practice of fratricide contributed to the weakening of the system as well. Rather than kill off all potential heirs and risk the endangerment of the line, sultans, beginning with Mehmet III in 1595, adopted the practice of imprisoning their sons and heirs. Isolated from daily life and inexperienced in the ways of the government or military, they either went crazy or emerged completely unprepared for the demands of leadership.


Meanwhile, with the abandonment of the policy of celibacy in the Janissary Corps, sons of Janissaries -- who were born free Muslims -- began to enroll. By the mid-17th century the Janissary Corps had grown to 200,000, squeezing the state for the payroll to support the increase in numbers. The purchasing of office also undermined the merit system, and although the palace school continued to function, the devsirme was abandoned. During times of peace, the corps got restless and turned to corruption and mischief. Sultans, beginning with Osman II in 1622, recognized the threat of a too-powerful military, and made sometimes failed attempts at reining them in. Eventually, the internal deterioration of the Corps was inevitable, as was the weakening of Ottoman military might.

With the government decentralized, corrupt, and morally hollow, the Ottomans were unable to deal effectively with internal or external threats or to absorb the economic pressures of a Europe in Renaissance. Vasco da Gama's circumnavigation of Africa opened up new sea trade routes to the east; thus merchants no longer paid levies for passage through Ottoman territory. Meanwhile, a Western Industrial Revolution produced cheaper goods that flooded the Ottoman market. Silver and gold mined in the Americas drove up prices, the cost of living rose, and peasants abandoned their villages, which had disastrous effects on agricultural production.

The gradual decline was arrested later that century with the reign of Murat IV and his grand vizier, Köprülü. With them the gazi spirit was reignited, inspiring decades of new campaigns toward further expansion. Köprülü was so effective that the position of grand vizier was handed down to his son and his grandson, Kara Mustafa; this was the first dynasty associated with the post.


The 18th century was, for the most part, characterized by wars with Austria and Russia, who were pushing into Muslim territory in an attempt to become a Black Sea power. The desire for territorial and economic dominance, along with the trafficking of loyalties, would characterize the Russian-Turkish conflict well into the 20th century.

Reform Attempts

It was obvious to Selim III that reform was needed. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, he created a new corps, the nizam-i jedid ("the new order"), on Western models, even adopting European-style uniforms. The Janissaries revolted against what they saw as a loss of power and privilege, and in a conciliatory gesture that cost him the throne, Selim dissolved the nizam-i jedid in 1807. In the next few years, the Janissaries executed many of the reformers as well as Selim's successor, Mustafa IV; Mahmud II was spared only because he was the sole surviving Ottoman prince. Proceeding with caution, Mahmud's first action was to deal with the anarchy that had taken root in the provinces, but as nationalist uprisings in Serbia, Greece, Algeria, and Romania saw the empire eroding at its borders, it was clear that the Janissaries were of little use in the defense of the empire. This allowed Mahmud to gain enough support to finally have the corps destroyed.


Finally rid of the Janissaries' influence, Mahmud II, followed by his successor, Abdülmecid, was able to embark on significant modernization that would last for 40 years. The period of Tanzimat (literally, "reordering") was ushered in, aimed at strengthening the power of the government while encouraging an economic and social structure similar to that of Europe.

Influential during this period was the arrival of telegraph lines into Istanbul in 1855, facilitating a literary renaissance that would develop into an incubator for new (dissident) nationalistic ideas. Supporters of this radical approach were called "New Ottomans," whose objectives of preserving territory and limiting autocratic rule would be attainable through the adoption of a constitution. The reforms, however, failed to alleviate a worsening financial crisis brought on by a flood of foreign products, ending in a Franco-English monopoly on tobacco, salt, alcohol, silk, and other essentials. Loans to foreign banks were bankrupting the empire to the point where it was known derisively as "the Sick Man of Europe." The empire was demoralized, having gone from imperial power to political pawn in less than 300 years.

Abdülhamid II succeeded in temporarily reinvigorating the failing empire, but it was too little too late. In 1875 he was confronted with a rebellion by a Russian-backed Pan-Slavic movement in the Balkans. Battered and driven back almost to Istanbul, the Ottomans were forced to sign the disastrous Treaty of San Stefano, in which much of the Ottomans' European territory was lost. The Ottoman territorial hemorrhaging continued: Tunisia was lost to the French in 1881, Egypt to the British in 1882, and East Rumalia to Bulgaria in 1885.


In an attempt to create a sense of solidarity among the disparate and budding nationalist groups around the empire, Abdülhamid II turned to Islam. But the tidal wave of nationalism was relentless. Succumbing to external and internal pressures, he reluctantly instituted the first written constitution establishing a parliamentary system modeled on those in the West. For the first time in the history of the empire, absolute Ottoman rule had been relinquished, but as a condition to accepting the document, Abdülhamid insisted on retaining the right as final arbiter on unresolved issues. When the opposition became too outspoken in 1877, he simply neglected to reconvene the parliament and ruled autocratically and in an almost constant state of paranoia for the next 30 years.

In the late 1880s a movement called the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), made up primarily of military officers and rebels in Macedonia, was organized in the name of "Liberty, Justice, Equality, and Fraternity." These Young Turks, led by a triumvirate dominated by Enver Pasa, orchestrated a successful nonviolent coup d'état in 1908 designed to reinstate the constitution. Abdülhamid was deposed and his brother Mehmed V was released from prison as token head of state.

World War I


Although the Turks favored neutrality in the conflict germinating between the Central Powers of Germany and Austria and the allied countries of England, France, and Russia, Enver Pasa, who declared himself war minister in 1914, favored cooperation with the Germans.

In the summer of 1914, Enver Pasa signed a secret peace treaty with the Germans promising naval assistance in the face of Russian aggression in the Black Sea. Two months later, the Ottoman Empire was dragged into a war. With the Arab revolts in the east and the Russians on the northern border, the Turks were surrounded by hostile forces. Atatürk's legendary defense of Gallipoli in 1915 succeeded in saving the Straits, and therefore Istanbul, from invasion. But Turkish forces were no match for Allied tanks, automatic weapons, and airplanes; and on October 30, 1918, the Turks, represented by the CUP government, agreed to an armistice with England and France.

The Treaty of Sèvres was signed on August 20, 1920, by the government of Mehmet VI. Under the treaty, the Ottomans relinquished all European territories except for a small area around Istanbul. Armenia and Kurdistan gained autonomy, Greece was assigned the administration of the region around Izmir, and French and Italian troops were left to occupy portions of the rest of Anatolia. Control of Turkish finances was taken over by the Allies. But the treaty was to be short-lived.


Turkish Statehood

Spurred on by defeat and foreign occupation, nationalists established pockets of resistance called "Defense of Rights" groups. Atatürk, who was already an active nationalist having taken part in the CUP overthrow of 1909, began organizing various nationalist factions, with the twin goals of recognition of a national movement and the liberation of Anatolia from foreign occupation.

In the fall of 1919, when the Greek army got land greedy, arriving as far as the Sakarya River (about 81km/50 miles west of Ankara), Turkish troops led by Ismet Pasa (General) beat them back to Izmir; and in several decisive victories, Atatürk succeeded in driving the Greek troops completely off the peninsula. This last victory in the war for independence earned Kemal recognition by foreign governments as de facto leader of the Turks. The Soviet Union was the first power to sign a treaty with the nationalists in 1920, establishing set boundaries between the two countries. France and Britain soon followed suit. Kemal had succeeded in retaking possession of Istanbul, the Straits, and Thrace, and the Treaty of Sèvres was essentially null and void. In a bold move that was to be the beginning of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk declared the sultanate abolished and sent Ismet Pasa as sole representative of Turkey in the drafting of the Treaty of Lausanne. Sultan Mehmet VI was allegedly smuggled to Malta on a British ship where he remained in exile, putting the final nail in the coffin of the Sick Man and ending 6 centuries of an empire. The role of caliph was given to his cousin Abdülmecid, heir to a defunct Ottoman dynasty.


Success at Lausanne was immediately followed by the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey and the election of Atatürk as president.

World War II Through the Cold War

The Soviet Union's relentless lust for unfettered access to the Bosphorus Straits made it a continuous threat to Turkish national security, while Hitler's appetite for the Balkans boded badly for Turkey as well. Still, Turkey managed to maintain its neutrality at least until February 1945, when a declaration of war on Germany became a prerequisite for admittance into the San Francisco Conference (the precursor to the United Nations, of which Turkey was one of the original 51 members).


Nevertheless, war took its toll on the Turkish economy while pressure mounted over the state's increasingly authoritarian rule. Responding to spreading dissension, then-President Inönü yielded to his critics and authorized multiparty activity. By the election of May 1950, the Democratic Party had attracted enough of the displaced minorities to win a sweeping majority, appealing to private business owners, Islamic reactionaries, and the struggling rural population. In a move to appease their Islamic supporters, the Democratic Party approved the reinstatement of religious instruction as an optional educational program and reversed Atatürk's decree requiring Turkish as the language of the call to prayer.

Despite a brief period of progress in the early 1950s, Turkey's economy took a nose dive. To finance its poorly managed reforms, the government was forced to take out foreign loans, and Turks began seeking employment beyond their borders. Meanwhile, in a move to return to a one-party system, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes began undermining opposition by banning political meetings, invoking censorship, and creating a special Democratic Party to "investigate political activity," a sufficiently vague mandate for random arrests. Although Menderes maintained a high degree of popularity, the military elite and the foreign-educated intelligentsia began to sow the seeds of rebellion. In response, Menderes imposed martial law. Within a week, students were demonstrating in the streets and cadets from the military academy were staging protests. On May 27, 1960, in a nonviolent coup d'état, the armed forces -- as self-appointed guardian of Atatürk's Republican legacy -- arrested both the president and Prime Minister Menderes. Menderes was hanged on charges of treason, along with hundreds of members of the Democratic Party (DP). The Committee of National Unity, composed of high-level military officials who had participated in the coup, dissolved the Democratic Party government and took over. President Inönü, 37 years after his first appointment as prime minister, assumed the position again, along with the task of creating a new constitution and constructing the Second Republic. A year and a half later, the military handed over control of the state to civilian rule but maintained a watchful eye on the government in the ensuing years.

In spite of the new structure, confidence in the system plummeted, as did the value of the Turkish lira, resulting in unemployment, poverty, hunger, and ultimately social repression. The situation deteriorated so much that in 1971, in what became known as the "coup by memorandum," Süleyman Demirel was forced by the military to resign from his position as prime minister.


The 1970s were a reactionary time in Turkey, much as the 1960s were in the United States, with Marxist and Leninist doctrines clogging impressionable minds. It wasn't long before antigovernment organizations turned to violence in order to further their cause. The left-wing Turkish People's Liberation Army resorted to political assassinations, kidnappings, and fantastic bank robberies, while the Grey Wolves, the terrorist arm of the Islamic-minded National Salvation Party, made standing in an Istanbul bus line a potentially fatal activity. By mid-1979 the death toll attributed to terrorist violence had reached 20 a day. The military again stepped in. Led by army Chief of Staff General Kenan Evren, the military was greeted with relief by the general population as well as by concerned members of NATO. Two years later, just as they did after previous coups, the military restored civilian government.

The Turn of the 21st Century

Although Turkey has been vigilant in guarding its secularism, it has not been without a constant struggle. An increasingly corrupt government was bound to provoke resistance, and a return to traditionalism gave credibility to Islamic activity. Educational and welfare programs made possible through endowments from Saudi Arabia gave rise to religious fanaticism, reinforced in the wake of the 1979 revolution in Iran. By 1995, with pro-Islamic sentiment on the rise, the Islamic partisans, having formed the Welfare Party, had gained enough votes in the parliamentary elections to get their leader, Necmettin Erbakan, appointed to serve alternating years as prime minister with the current, majority party prime minister.


Erbakan's participation as the first Islamic leader in the history of the Turkish Republic was an outright affront to the 1982 constitution's prohibiting of "even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political, and legal order of the state on religious tenets." Erbakan was widely criticized and was later forced to resign while the Welfare Party was accused of being antisecular and banned in 1998. The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP in Turkish), formed in August 2001, took over where the Welfare Party left off, claiming a new, moderate stance and a willingness to work within the secular system. The AKP was propelled into power in 2002 with more than 34% of the vote, in no small part as a result of the ineptitude of the government in power to handle the 1999 earthquake, which claimed the lives of over 20,000. The vote was also seen as a backlash against institutional corruption as well as dissatisfaction with the crumbling Turkish economy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, has been at the helm since 2003, and at least for the earlier years, Turks have been more than satisfied with his performance. In 2004, the AKP received an unprecedented 44% of the vote. But that spread took a hit with the loss of representation in the local elections of March 2009, so the longevity of the AKP remains to be seen.

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