Straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s strategic location has made it a cultural crossroads beyond compare. Its geographical position alone seems to have made it destined to be the capital of a mighty empire. In fact it was the epicentre of two great but very different empires, the Byzantine and Ottoman, for some 1,700 years. Yet even before it ascended the imperial throne it shone as a dynamic vibrant city for almost a thousand years, from the moment it was first founded as the Greek town of Byzantium.
It’s hard not to speak in superlatives when describing this epic cradle of civilisation. No other city in the world has been besieged so many times, so greatly was it coveted by peoples outside its walls. No other city on earth sits astride two continents. Not just age old, for centuries it was the most multicultural city in Europe, on whose streets more than a dozen languages were spoken, from Italian to Persian, Greek to Arabic. Above all it was a city made for trade, built for business.
“Jews, Turks and Christians several Tenets hold.
Yet, all one GOD acknowledge, that is, GOLD”
Letters Historical and Critical from a Gentleman in Constantinople to his Friend in London, 1730
Established on a triangular spit of land (the area today dominated by the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya), the original town was surrounded by water on three sides. This was no shy retiring little colony, but a confident centre of commerce designed to govern one of the most significant waterways in the world, the Bosphorus. Control of this narrow channel connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, ensured political clout, a constant stream of innovative ideas, and of course money, in the shape of traffic and taxes.
Sailing on the Bosphorus today affords a perfect opportunity to look at the city as sailors would have seen it centuries ago, its seven hills bejewelled with the most splendid mosques. Daily boat trips stop at a number of points along its length, like Anadolu Kavagi almost at the entrance to the Black Sea. Here you can leave the ferry, eat at one of the fish restaurants by the shore, and wander up to the ruined castle for breathtaking views and a leap of imagination back to the time when Jason was sailing below in search of the Golden Fleece.
Nowadays oil tankers jostle with passenger ferries on the waters of the Bosphorus, but their numbers are but a tiny fraction of the ships that used to flock to Constantinople. In Ottoman days fifteen thousand small boats worked in the harbour, obscuring its very waters. Frenetic it may have been but disorganised it certainly wasn’t. When it came to money, the city was a strict and disciplined governess. In the Golden Horn, the capital’s sheltered and superb deep water harbour, boats moored directly by the shore to unload, and their cargoes were carefully inspected by a waiting army of customs officials that calculated their payable duty.
When the Byzantine Empire and the shattered city of Constantinople finally fell to Mehmet the Conqueror and his Ottoman army in 1453, shockwaves reverberated throughout Western Europe and the whole Christian world. Yet Mehmet was a visionary. Just as Constantine had done over a millennium earlier, refounding Byzantium as his new capital, a new Rome, Mehmet was determined to restore the city’s fortunes and place it on an even higher pedestal.
He issued a rallying call for people of all races and religions to come and live and work in the city. It was an open door policy based on tolerance and freedom designed to invite skills, creativity, and energy. As a 15th century pasha advised the Sultan, trade would set Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire on the road to success:
“Look with favour on the merchants in the land; always care for them; let no one harass them… for through their trading the land becomes prosperous and by their wares cheapness abound in the world; through them the excellent fame of the Sultan is carried to surrounding lands and by them the wealth within the land is increased.”
Within a few decades a whole host of foreign firms had stepped over the welcome mat and set up shop. Armenians flourished as jewellers, craftsmen, and traders. Jews became successful perfumers, blacksmiths, and bankers. Italians were busy importing silk, paper, and glass. Even the English were invited to the party when in 1579 the Sultan Murad III wrote to Elizabeth I welcoming English merchants to come and operate in his free trade empire.
Many of these businesses operated out of the covered bazaar built by Mehmet the Conqueror, which still stands at the very heart of the Grand bazaar in Istanbul. You can still sense something of the sights, smells, and sounds of what old Constantinople must have been like if you take some time to explore this labyrinthine city within a city. Down the slope to the Spice Bazaar the lanes are crammed with tiny shops and workshops full of artisans banging out their respective trades. They give a small hint of the cornucopia of goods that once came to the imperial capital, from every corner of the globe.
For centuries the Ottoman Empire was the middleman of the world, its famed merchants uniting three continents – Europe, Africa, and Asia, as far east as China. The bounty of the world didn’t arrive only by sea. All roads led to Constantinople. Caravans of camels and mules up to 2,000 strong arrived every month converging from all points of the horizon – Poland to Arabia, France to Persia.
Constantinople had been a magnet for both goods and people long before the Turks arrived. A regular stopping place for Christian pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem, once the Byzantine emperor Justinian built the Haghia Sophia in the 6th century, the capital itself became a site of pilgrimage and a top tourist destination. The Haghia Sophia wasn’t any old place of worship, it was the greatest church in Christendom for almost a thousand years. Converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror, today it stands as a breathtaking museum open to people of all faiths.
All around the Aya Sofya are solid reminders of the city’s longevity and its glorious past. A few hundred metres to the north is Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman sultans lived and governed in opulent splendour. A few hundred metres to the south is the Blue Mosque, whose slender minarets define the city’s skyline. Beside that is the old Roman hippodrome, garnished with an Egyptian obelisk. Walking around Istanbul it’s hard to imagine another city that can rival it as an open air museum.
Yet this is no ghost town, no dyed in the wool city trading on old memories. Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, its renaming as Istanbul and its demotion from capital city, the old city is once again on the rise. Although Ankara is now the political capital of Turkey, situated at the country’s geographic heart, Istanbul dwarves it in population, and also in vibrancy. Adorned with some of the finest architectural and artistic wonders in the world, and with an extraordinary historic legacy on every street corner, Istanbul remains Turkey’s real social, artistic, and commercial hub, brimming with vitality and activity. Growing at an exponential rate, from 3 million in 1970 to a behemoth with some 11 million inhabitants today, the city continues to be the ultimate cultural crossroads. Its lure and pull are stronger than ever – for a great many people its streets still appear paved with gold.