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Istanbul, Byzantium, Constantinople, whatever you call it, this city has always excited the imagination. Once home to two of the world’s greatest empires, it straddles the Bosphorus like a bridge between continents, with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. At first glance, Istanbul is full of contradictions. It’s a city of mosques and minarets but it’s also the spiritual home of the Orthodox Church. It’s not even the capital of Turkey, a largely Muslin, Asian country, but could soon be the biggest metropolis in the European Union.
At the junction of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, Istanbul is a city on the water. Stand on the dockside at Eminonu, beneath the Galata Bridge, at dusk. The scent of grilled mackerel mingles with the soundtrack of city life, as taxi horns, honking ferries and Arabesque music almost drown out the call to prayer from a thousand minarets. As the sun sets over the water and the domes of Istanbul are silhouetted against the sky, it is impossible not to be seduced by this unique city.
Read more on this destination in the AA Citypack Guide to Istanbul.
The history of Istanbul
It is though Istanbul was inhabited since 3000BC but history does not really begin until a Greek King founded it as Byzantiona in 658BC (city of Byzas) and the city prospered as a fishing village. In 196AD the city was captured by the Roman Empire and in 330AD Constantine the Great declared it the capital of the Empire and renamed it Constantinople. A change of power in 395AD reintroduced a Greek flavour and with its position at the centre of two continents and with a great trading position, the city became very powerful. Hundreds of years saw many battles and many powers trying to take control of the city. Eventually Ottoman Turks captured the city, claiming it as their capital and renaming it Istanbul. Many magnificent architectures were constructed and a mixed population was encouraged with Muslims, Christians and Jews all living alongside each other peacefully.
If one man has had the greatest impact on the appearance of present day Istanbul, it is probably Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), who was chief imperial architect under the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent at the height of the Ottoman empire. His legacy includes the Cemberlitas baths, Rustem Pasa Mosque and Suleymaniye Mosque. The Empire ruled until it was occupied by allies in World War I and in 1923 it became part of the Turkish Republic. Since the 1970’s Istanbul has once again started to thrive and in 1985 the city’s historical monuments and features were officially added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Old women in headscarves wander the streets of Fenner, while young women in miniskirts stroll along Istiklal Caddesi and drink in trendy bars on their way to the latest opening at Istanbul Modern. It may be cliché, but Istanbul seems torn between ancient and modern, east and west. Look more closely and you see a confident, forward-looking city, which is rediscovering its Ottoman heritage at the same time as embracing Europe. In music, art and cuisine, young Turks are seeking inspiration in the past to create a 21st century Ottoman chic. Most visitors are attracted by the beauty of the Blue Mosque, but the legacy of the Ottoman Empire is more than just a collection of monuments.