Friday, December 21, 2012

Ten Cities 5) Istanbul

Cambridge, December 21, 2012

During its long history, Istanbul had several names: Byzantium, Nova Roma (briefly) and Constantinople.  And at every turn, the city expanded creating new walls to defend its enlarged territory.

The Greek city of Byzantium covered the very tip of Istanbul's historic peninsula.  Its walls surrounded the hill or plateau that later became the site of Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace.  Towards the end of the 2nd century, the Roman Emperor  Septimus Severus took over Byzantium and demolished its walls, only to rebuild a new wall almost half a kilometer to the west and running trough a second hill (the later site of Constantine's Forum.)  In 330 Constantine the Great renamed the city Nova Roma, made it the capital of the Roman Empire and began the construction of a new wall almost three kilometers west of Severus's and encompassing two more hills.  Pretty soon the city was renamed Constantinople and when in 408 Theodosius II began the construction of his double wall about two kilometers west of Constantine's, the city had incorporated three more hills.  In barely more than two centuries, this new Rome had managed to turn, like its celebrated predecessor, into a city of seven hills.

While Justinian--the ambitious emperor that ruled the Byzantine Empire for much of the 6th century--expanded the reach of the empire as far as Spain, he didn't find the need to enlarge the capital itself.  Instead, as we know, he chose to build one of the most magnificent monuments in history: Hagia Sophia.

And that's the Constantinople that Sultan Mehmet II will enter--actually through a huge cannon hole in the Theodosian Walls--about a thousand years later and make it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.

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