Istanbul Feature

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Istanbul: History in Architecture

Byzantium was already 1,000 years old when, in AD 326, Emperor Constantine the Great began to rebuild it as the new capital of the Roman Empire. On May 11, 330, the city was officially renamed "New Rome," though it soon became known as Constantinople, the city of Constantine. Constantine's successors expanded the city and gave it new walls, aqueducts, and churches.

Under the emperor Justinian (ruled 527-65) Constantine's capital reached its apogee, with the construction of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom (known as Aya Sofya in Turkish) on the site of a church originally built for Constantine. This awe-inspiring architectural wonder still dominates Istanbul's skyline. Constantinople became the largest, wealthiest metropolis the Western world had ever seen.

The Byzantine Empire began to decline toward the end of the 11th century and a devastating blow came in 1204, when the western Europeans of the Fourth Crusade, who were supposed to be on their way to recapture Jerusalem, decided that instead of going another thousand miles to fight a load of Muslims, they'd sack and occupy Constantinople, forcing members of the Byzantine dynasty to flee to Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. The Byzantines eventually regained control, but neither the city nor the Byzantine Empire recovered.

Constantinople was more of a collection of villages set amongst ruins than a city. Byzantine artists set to work, however, to restore and redecorate the damaged churches, and in their work in the mosaics and frescos of the church of the Holy Savior in Chora, we can see the first breath of the renaissance that would be carried west to Italy by artists and intellectuals fleeing the arrival of the Turks.

The Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, known as Fatih (the Conqueror), conquered the much-diminished Constantinople in 1453, rebuilt it, and made the city once again the capital of a great empire. The Turks officially named the new city as Konstantiniyye, but in time ConSTANtinoPLe was shortened to "Stanbul" by the Greeks and westerners, and to "Istanbul," by the Turks.

In 1468 Mehmet II began building a palace on the hill at the tip of the city where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. Later sultans embellished and extended the building until it grew into the fabulous Topkapı Sarayı. Most of the finest Ottoman buildings in Istanbul, however, date from the time of Süleyman the Magnificent (ruled 1520–1566), who led the Ottoman Empire to its highest achievements in art and architecture, literature, and law. Süleyman and his court commissioned the brilliant architect Sinan (1489–1587) to design buildings that are now recognized as some of the greatest examples of Islamic architecture in the world, including such mosques as the magnificent Süleymaniye, the intimate Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, and the exquisitely tiled Rüstem Paşa. The monuments built by these titans, or in their honor, dominate and define the city of Istanbul and lead you into the arms of the past at every turn.

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