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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 instead sack and occupy the Eastern Orthodox Christian city of Constantinople. The members of the Byzantine dynasty were forced to flee to Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, and although they eventually regained control of Constantinople, in 1261, neither the city nor the Byzantine Empire recovered.

Constantinople in the late Byzantine period was more a collection of villages set among 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 frescoes of the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, we can see the first breath of the Renaissance that would later 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 an empire. The Turks named the new city Konstantiniyye, but in time Constantinople seems to have been shortened to "Stanbul" by the Greeks and Westerners, and to "Istanbul" by the Turks. Another explanation says the name Istanbul is derived from the Greek eis tin polin, meaning "in the city" or "to the city"—for the Byzantines, "The City" was truly one and only.

In 1459 Mehmet II began building a palace on the hill at the tip of land where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. Later sultans embellished and extended the complex until it grew into the fabulous Topkapı Palace. Most of the finest Ottoman buildings in Istanbul, however, date from the time of Süleyman the Magnificent (ruled 1520–66), who led the Ottoman Empire to its highest achievements in art and architecture, literature, and law. Süleyman and his court commissioned the architect Sinan (circa 1491–1588) to design buildings that are now recognized as some of the greatest examples of Islamic architecture in the world, including the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque, the intimate Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque, and the exquisitely tiled Rüstem Paşa Mosque.

Updated: 2014-03-31

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