Istanbul

Short history

Istanbul’s history begins as Byzantium, a Greek colony established in the 7th century BCE. Its strategic location ensured its evolution into a significant city, later renamed Constantinople in 330 CE by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who made it the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. This era saw the city become epicenter of Christian culture and Byzantine architecture, epitomized by the construction of the Hagia Sophia.

The course of city’s history changed in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Mehmed II, captured Constantinople, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire. Renamed Istanbul, it rose as the heart of the Ottoman Empire, embracing Islamic culture and witnessing the construction of iconic structures such as the Blue Mosque.

In the 20th century, Istanbul navigated the transition from the capital of the Ottoman Empire to an integral part of the secular Republic of Turkey, established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923

Throughout its history, Istanbul has continually acted as a bridge between East and West, shaping its cultural identity that endures into the 21st century.

Geography

Istanbul, straddling the Bosphorus Strait, occupies both Europe and Asia, making it the world’s only transcontinental city. The city’s topography varies, with hills surrounding the Golden Horn, an estuary that divides European Istanbul, contributing to its beauty.

The climate in Istanbul is a mix of Mediterranean and humid subtropical, with hot, humid summers and mild, wet winters. The hottest month is typically July, with average temperatures reaching around 28°C (82°F), while January is the coldest month, seeing averages as low as 6°C (43°F). This type of climate supports a variety of flora and fauna and adds to the city’s appeal, providing different weather patterns throughout the year.

Each neighborhood ha a different vibe and architectural style. From the historic peninsula of Old Istanbul, to the modern skyscrapers in Levent and Maslak, Istanbul’s urban tissue is a mosaic of the ages, representing centuries of cultural and architectural evolution.

Population

Istanbul has an estimated population of over 15 million residents, making it the largest city in Turkey and also one of the most populous cities globally. The demographic composition of Istanbul is a reflection of its history. Predominantly, the population consists of ethnic Turks, but considerable communities of Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, and other ethnic minorities enrich the city’s culture. This diversity is a result of Istanbul’s historic role as a crossroads between continents and cultures.

Religion plays a central role in the societal framework, with Islam being the predominant faith, mirrored in the cityscape dotted with mosques. However, the religious environment also includes Christianity, especially Ortodox, and Judaism, contributing to Istanbul’s identity. Similarly, while Turkish is the official language, the linguistic diversity includes Kurdish, Arabic, and other languages spoken by minority groups. 

Main sights

  • Hagia Sophia: Once a cathedral, later a mosque, and now a museum, this iconic building exemplifies Byzantine architecture and is renowned for its massive dome and beautiful mosaics.
  • Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque): Known for its blue tiles that adorn its interior walls, this functioning mosque is a legacy of the Ottoman architecture and an active place of worship.
  • Topkapi Palace: The primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years, this palace is a complex of various courtyards, chambers, and a rich collection of artifacts, including the Prophet Muhammad’s cloak and sword.
  • Grand Bazaar: One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with a labyrinth of streets filled with shops selling jewelry, ceramics, spices, textiles, and more.
  • Galata Tower: Providing panoramic views of Istanbul, this medieval stone tower is a symbol of Genoese heritage in the city and a favorite spot for both tourists and locals.
  • Basilica Cistern: An ancient underground water system constructed in the 6th century, famous for its architectural beauty and the Medusa head columns.
  • Bosphorus Strait: A cruise on the Bosphorus is a great experience to understand the city’s unique position straddling two continents.

Food

  • Kebab: A renowned Turkish dish, kebabs in Istanbul come in many styles, including the famous Adana and Urfa kebabs, made from minced meat seasoned with spices and grilled over an open flame.
  • Baklava: A sweet, rich pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. It’s a staple dessert in Istanbul, presenting the city’s mastery of Middle Eastern influenced sweets.
  • Mezze: These small appetizers are perfect for sharing and, ranging from hummus and eggplant salads to stuffed grape leaves.
  • Lahmacun: Often dubbed as Turkish pizza, lahmacun is a thin piece of dough topped with minced meat, vegetables, and herbs, then baked. It’s a popular street food.
  • Simit: This circular bread, coated in sesame seeds, is Istanbul’s answer to the bagel. It’s a common snack found throughout the city, enjoyed plain, or as an accompaniment to tea or cheese.
  • Turkish Delight: Known locally as Lokum, this confectionery treat is made from starch and sugar, often flavored with rosewater, lemon, or mastic. It’s a symbol of Turkish hospitality and a must-try sweet treat.

Fun facts

  • Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents: Europe and Asia.
  • Ancient and modern: The Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, has been in operation since 1461.
  • The Blue Mosque is known for having six minarets, a unique feature at the time it was built, causing controversy as the same number of minarets was only found in the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca.
  • Istanbul was the European Capital of Culture in 2010, highlighting its mix of historic and contemporary arts and culture.
  • The city’s historical peninsula, encompassing landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • Istanbul bridges not only continents but also cuisines, offering a culinary fusion of Balkan, Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Mediterranean influences.