“Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me.” –Fatih Sultan Mehmet
Turkey’s capital is Ankara. But in the minds of many it will always be Istanbul.
Turkey is a country with a tumultuous history and a lasting legacy. Istanbul is a city within that country, its memory framed by the words of one of its most devoted citizens Mustafa Kemal Ataturk:
“On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, Istanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens.”
In April 2006, the EU Council chose to designate Istanbul the European Capital of Culture (ECC) 2010. A city is designated by the European Union for a period of one year. During that year, the city has the opportunity to showcase its cultural life and development. But why was Istanbul given this accolade or distinction?
Istanbul’s selection as an ECC was based on an evaluation of multiple criteria, including:
The city’s religious, political and cultural history.
The city’s homeland, Turkey, is a member of the EU (European Union).
The city attracts international immigrants and so reflects diversity and tolerance.
The city has become a center for entertainment.
City’s religious, political and cultural history
Istanbul, formerly known by the names Constantinople and also Byzantium, was once the capital of three empires, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. (For a brief period, it was also named Augusta Antonina by the Roman emperor Septimus Severus.) Istanbul lost its seat as the political center when Ataturk moved the capital of the Republic of Turkey from Istanbul to Ankara, in the 1920s. Though no longer the physical political capital, Istanbul continues to be the center of the nations cultural and economic life, which makes it, even to this day, a vital city. Its strategic geographical position (located right between the Black Sea and the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea), cultural heritage, religious and political history cannot be disregarded or denied.
Historically known as Byzantium and Constantinople, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world. Its roots can be traced as far back as 1000 B.C.; however, beginning around 500 B.C., the city underwent several stages of construction and reconstruction by struggling through centuries of invasions, resulting in changes to its political, religious and cultural landscapes. Darius, emperor of Persia, captured the city in 512 B.C., when he battled against the Scythians. Less than 50 years later, the town came under the influence and protection of Athens (Greece) in 478 B.C. The Spartans took control of the city in 404 B.C. at the end of the Peloponnesian War. But possession by the Spartans lasted until 390 B.C. when it went back to the Athenian League.
In 355 BC, it was granted independence but stayed under the protection of the Athenian League. This umbrella of protection enabled the city to withstand a siege by Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, in 340 B.C. After Greece, Byzantium formed an alliance with the Roman Empire and was permitted to retain its status as a free, independent state, even after the emperor Vespasian officially incorporated the city into the Roman Empire in A.D. 79. When the Roman emperor Pertinax died in A.D. 193, a power struggle ensued. Roman emperor Septimius Severus emerged victorious and massacred the Byzantium citizens into submission. Severus renamed the city Augusta Antonina, and it was subsequently ruled by a succession of emperors up to and including the Emperor Diocletian.
After Diocletian’s death, another power struggle ensued with the emperor Constantine emerging triumphant. Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He moved the empires capital, made it bigger and better, new and improved, and on 11 May 330 dedicated the city as Neo Roma (i.e., New Rome), later renaming the former Greek city of Byzantium, Constantinople. After Constantine’s death in A.D. 361, Constantinople continued to thrive and grow, governed by the succeeding Roman emperors.
The years following Constantine’s death were not always peaceful. In addition to ruthless and treacherous internal politics, which is usually how it was determined who would be the next emperor, and the so-called Christian Crusades, every external invader on the planet wanted to own Constantinople as well — Attila the Hun, the Persians, the Avars, Arab armies, powerful emperors of the Bulgarian empire and the Turkish warlords of the Ottoman Empire.
It was the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II “the Conqueror” who finally captured the prize.
The Ottoman Empire was founded about 1307 by Osman I. Ottoman sultan Mehmet II “The Conqueror,” son of Sultan Murad II and Huma Hatun, was the seventh sultan in the Ottoman Empire and ruled 1451-1481. He came to power with the goal of creating a world empire and made it his mission to take Constantinople as his “prize.” He succeeded and rebuilt Constantinople into the prosperous Ottoman capital of Istanbul. The Turks had a reputation for being fierce warriors but tolerant conquerors.
Burak Sansal is a certified professional tour guide in Istanbul, Turkey, and publisher of the award-winning website AllAboutTurkey.com. Per Mr. Sansal:
“Mehmet authorized autonomous religious communities to give his subjects religious freedom and gain the support of their religious leaders. Equitable tax and administrative systems were created, and justice for all was emphasized.”
Sadly, disloyal soldiers, incompetence and conspiracy all contributed to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed Vahdettin VI was the last sultan, and in 1922, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the sultanate.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is known as the founder of the Republic of Turkey (1923-1938) and sometimes referred to as “Father of the Turks.” Per Mr. Sansal:
“He was not just a Turkish leader who led his country’s war against aggressors, but also a peaceful son of humankind who sent very important messages to the other nations about the necessity of a peaceful and mutually respectful co-existence of all nations on the same planet.”
Atatürk was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934. He died in 1938, just before World War II broke out. Turkey entered World War II in 1945 on the side of the Allies, who secured an agreement that Turkey would become a democracy. Adnan Menderes won the first election in 1950. Although he began as a democrat, Menderes became increasingly autocratic. A decade later, the military staged a coup, overthrew his government, and he was convicted of treason and hanged, along with two of his ministers. But the political administrations, military regimes which followed Menderes, were also corrupt.
Turgut Özal won the presidential election in 1983. He was an economist, a member of the Motherland party, and non-military. Under his presidency, Turkey experienced a free, market-led economic and tourism boom. In April 1993, he died suddenly at the age of 66. At the time of death, his political influence in Turkey was waning.
The city’s homeland, Turkey, is a member of the EU (European Union). In 1999, the European Union accepted Turkey’s candidacy for membership on one precondition: Turkey was required to align its policies toward minorities more closely to EU requirements concerning human rights. Turkey initiated substantial economic reforms and human rights.
Nevertheless, Turkey has a sizable Kurdish community, who maintain their civil rights are being violated and that they are at a clearly defined economic disadvantage. There are also concerns about the friction between a secular system supported by the military and a traditional society deeply rooted in the religion of Islam. As recently as January 10, 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was awarded the “Outstanding Personality in the Muslim World” prize. Further, Turkish-Israeli relations are beginning to break down, and Ankara is now aiming at cultivating better relations with Arab countries. Certain nations are still not willing to accept Turkey’s membership into the EU. Increases in oil prices and terrorism have further exacerbated relations between Turkey and other countries.
Still Turkey’s endeavor to join the European Union and transform itself sociologically, culturally, etc. lends itself to same evaluation process used to approve Istanbul as an EEC. The criteria that make the city a qualified designate should be applicable to the country as a whole.
Regardless of changes in political administrations and what appear to be movements or shifts away from the ideals Mehmet II “The Conqueror” had envisioned (i.e., religious freedom and justice for all and the peaceful existence desired by Atatürk), Turkey is a key player in the world of business and its geographical location makes this country strategically important. Its location between the continents of Europe and Asia gives it major influence in the region and control over the entrance to the Black Sea.
And even though the capital of Turkey was shifted to Ankara, Istanbul has managed to maintain its influence for 1,500+ years in the “hearts” of its people and the public consciousness of the world at large. Ask most people (directly, not via an Internet search) “What is the capital of Turkey?” and almost always the response will be “Istanbul,” not Ankara. However, in all fairness, Ankara, Turkey is not a capital city that people ignore. So if you have traveled all the way to Turkey to visit Istanbul, why not visit Ankara also? It’s only 218 miles from Istanbul. That’s about a 3 to 4 hour drive. That city has a lot of history too!
Interested in the other criteria for becoming an EEC? Recommend reading “Istanbul European Capital of Culture”.
- “History of Istanbul – Lonely Planet Travel Information.” Lonely Planet Travel Guides and Travel Information. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.
- “BBC News – Turkey Country Profile.” BBC News – Turkey, Country Profile. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.
- “Nomination Database – Peace.” Nobelprize.org. 24 Mar 2011.
- “Turkey To Form Civilian Regime.” Daytona Beach Morning Journal 8 Dec. 1983: 24A. Print.
- Steves, Rick. “Rick Steves’ Europe: Istanbul, Turkey.” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian Magazine. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.
- “Istanbul: European Capital of Culture 2010 – 1 (January 2007).” AICA International. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.
Suggested Reading: Horvath, Dennis. “A Day in Constantinople; Istanbul, Turkey.” Trekity.com. Web. 06 Mar. 2012.