Why and When Istanbul Became Constantinople? A Local Answers

I lived all my university years and half of my professional life in Istanbul. Istanbul has a vast history and immense culture. Yet, Istanbul can be confusing even with the most basic questions.

Istanbul has many layers and it is so unique that it was called “the city” for many centuries. Even Istanbul’s name means going to the city in old Greek. Going to the city phrase “eis ten polin” (Istanbul) is the origin and meaning of Istanbul’s name.

Istanbul is Turkey’s most populous city, with a local population of 16 million. Istanbul is a megacity that, on its own, has more history, population, and culture than most countries in the world.

Istanbul is also one of the most visited cities in the world. In 2019, 15 million tourists visited to experience Istanbul. Even in the pandemic conditions of 2020,  5 million tourists came to Istanbul. 

1. Are Istanbul and Constantinople the same place? 

Istanbul is exactly not the same place as Constantinople. More accurately, Istanbul includes Constantinople. Many years ago, Istanbul’s name was Constantinople.

Constantinople was the capital city of the East Roman Empire (or in other words Byzantine Empire.) When Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453 and Istanbul also became the capital city of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

During the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul and Constantinople were used interchangeably with many other less popular names. In 1930, the newly founded Turkish Republic adopted Istanbul, and since that time Istanbul is the only official name of Istanbul.

Today, Constantinople is mostly used to define the old city or historical areas of Istanbul. Yet, in centuries Istanbul grew much more than Constantinople. The old city, which was called Constantinople, is now just a fraction of Istanbul.

Today when people are speaking of Constantinople, they are not speaking about Istanbul. Constantinople is used to refer to the historical center of Istanbul.
Another map of Istanbul showing locations of Byzantium (older city) and Constantinople (old city)

3. Where is Constantinople in today’s Istanbul?

Istanbul started as a small settlement. In the beginning, Istanbul was called Byzantium.

In the map above, you can see the old borders of Constantinople and Byzantium. As the population grew, the city walls pushed further away to create more living space.

Today the area inside the old walls is Fatih, Aksaray, and Sultanahmet districts.

The Sultanahmet area was the administrative part. The grand bazaar is the oldest shopping mall in history. Sultanahmet area is the place where the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace are located.

Additionally, Galata and Taksim were part of Constantinople as this area was a trading hub mostly operated by Italian (Genoese) Merchants.

For travel tips and hacks about Istanbul click to read Istanbul: All You Need to Know Before Coming

Sultanahmet (where Hagia Sophia is located.) in Byzantine Times

The Golden Horn which was between the trading area and administrative center was one of the harbor areas of Constantinople. Golden Horn was also a protected area by numerous defense systems.

On the other side of the Golden Horn, was a trading hub mostly controlled by Genovese merchants. The Galata and Taksim area used to be the commercial centers of Constantinople.

It was one of the major trade ports in the Silk route coming all the way from China.

Constantinople in Byzantine times.

5. Why did they change the name of Constantinople? 

Constantinople’s name was changed to Istanbul by Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic. 

At the time Turk had just won their independence war, many fiercest battles were fought between Turkey and Greece.

The name change has two major reasons, one of them was the current Greek Kings’ name, and the second was the Turkish Republic’s negative reaction to Ottoman Empire’s history.

Constantine I, was the Greek King at the time. One of the reasons for the name was the name of the Greek King.  Turks did not want their biggest city resembling the name of the king of their major enemy.

Also, the following decades after the 1920s were the time of modernization and nationalization in Turkey. Everything was changing the dress code, the alphabet, and Turks were rediscovering their identities.

Turks reformed everything about their Ottoman past during the early years of the Turkish Republic. The Ottoman Empire at the time was a symbol of failure and old ways that don’t work.

I believe Turkey went under a similar transformation to the Meiji era of Japan. During these years, Constantinople’s name was changed to Istanbul.

6. When did Constantinople Become Istanbul?

Constantinople officially became Istanbul in 1930. In 1928 the Latin alphabet was adopted in Turkey and In 1930, it was declared the official name of the city is Istanbul.

After this date, it was the rule of law to use Istanbul. The rule was strictly enforced. The Turkish postal administration started returning mail addressed to Konstantinopolis, Constantinople, Konstantiniyye, or other variant names.

SUGGESTED READING: Is Istanbul Safe? Answered By a Local

7.  The Old Names of Istanbul

Byzantium (also Byzantion) – Indigenous People and Greek Immigrants (until 330)

The remnants of this ancient settlement are located near the Yenikapı district.

It is believed that this settlement’s history goes back to 8500 BC. 

Byzantium’s name comes from the Greek Settlers who named the city Byzantion to honor their king Byzas.

Nova Roma – Romans (Between 330 – 337)

Nova Roma’s name was given to Istanbul after the Roman Empire was divided into West and East. From the year 330, Istanbul was the capital of the East Roman Empire.

Nova Roma did not become popular and was soon replaced by Constantinapolis.

Constantinople – East Roman Empire, Byzantium, and Ottoman Empire (Between 330 -1930)

After the death of Emperor Constantin I (aka Constantine the Great)  in the year 337, the name of the city is changed to Constantinople meaning “the city of Constantin”

After the year 337, Byzantion and Nova Roma were replaced by Constantinapolis. 

The East Roman Empire name was also changed to Byzantium which was derived from the city’s old name.

Stanpoli – Ottoman Empire (Between 1453 to present day)

Istanbul was the city of all cities and the capital of all capitals for a long time.  If you were going to a city in those times, it must be Istanbul. This is also the reason Istanbul got its name.

At those times, if somebody asks where you are going, you would answer “ ‘eis ten polin” (Istanbul). This old Greek phrase means I am going to the city. This is the origin and meaning of today’s Istanbul name.

In Ottoman times, Constantinople and Istanbul names were used interchangeably until 1928.

Kostantiniyye was the Turkish version of Constantinople. Yet, the use of the name “Konstantiniyye” was prohibited at one time during the Ottoman period by Sultan Mustafa III, but it was a brief period in history. 

Stanpoli, Islambol, Istanbul were other versions during the Ottoman Empire.

Istanbul – Turkish Republic (1930 is the year spelling of Istanbul is fixed.)

Today, Istanbul is still the sole official name of Istanbul. Constantinople is only used to define the old town of Istanbul and the historical context for the Byzantine Empire’s capital.

Istanbul’s cultural history is also reflected by the languages spoken in the city, you can click here to read more about the languages spoken in Istanbul.

7. Istanbul, the capital of which countries? Why is Istanbul so famous?

Istanbul has been one of the most important cities in human history. Between 330-1922, Istanbul has been the capital of four world superpowers, and it was the administrative center for two world major religions. 

Istanbul was the capital of 

  • Roman Empire between the years 330 and 395 
  • East Roman Empire (Byzantium) between the years 395 and 1453 (except between the years 1204-1261)
  • Latin Empire between the years 1204-1261
  • Ottoman Empire between the years 1453-1922 

Not only Istanbul was the capital and administrative head of empires, but Istanbul was also the spiritual capital of two major religions.

As the Pope is the leader of the Catholic world, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity worldwide.

Also, Sultan was the Khalife and the spiritual leader of Islam.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople still lives in Istanbul, and Patriarch is still regarded as the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity.

Khalife was abolished by the secular Turkish Republic.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has been Bartholomew I since 2 November 1991.

Istanbul is not the oldest city in the world. Yet, its immense culture and history cannot be matched by any other city in the world. 

8. Why is Istanbul not the capital of Turkey?

The last days of the Ottoman Empire were devastating to the Turkish people. Millions were lost to wars, millions were expelled from the Balkans, Crimea, and other parts of the Empire. The Ottoman Empire failed miserably.

The homeland of Turks was invaded by Greek, English, Italian, French, Russians, and many more. Fortunately, a Turkish resistance was formed with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk being the leader.

The resistance and the following Turkish Independence War united the Turkish people once again.

Ankara was an underdeveloped city until the Turkish Independence war. The founding fathers formed the parliament in Ankara, and Ankara became the capital of the new Turkish Republic.

At that time, Ankara was a symbol of rebirth, secularism, modernization, and new ways. Yet, Istanbul resembled the sad days of the Ottoman Empire, conservative old ways, and Islamist rule.

Also, the Istanbul (Ottoman) administration took hostile actions against the Turkish resistance during the Turkish Independence War. For this reason, the Istanbul (Ottoman) administration was viewed as a puppet of invading armies.

After the war, it was time to change. Ankara and new leadership under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gave hope, yet people did not believe in Istanbul and Ottoman past. For these reasons, it was decided Ankara should remain the capital of Turkey and not Istanbul.

A Quick Historical Fact about Constantinople Walls and Istanbul Defenses

Istanbul is also famous for its walls. The old city was surrounded by city walls. These city walls were legendary at the time, and they repelled many massive armies until 1453.

If cannon was not invented, it was technically impossible to breach Constantinople’s walls at the time. Today, you can still see the remnants of old city walls in İstanbul.

The best-known defense system of the Golden Horn was its chains. The chains between Galata and Sultanahmet were lowered for friendly ships and uplifted for hostile ships to prevent their entry.

The defense weapon Byzantines employed was the Greek fire. This incendiary weapon was used to burn enemy ships. Because water could not extinguish Greek fire, it was a very effective tool to stop naval invasions.

Efe Genit

I am a father, a passionate traveler, and a Turkish lawyer. You can enjoy my guides and tips about Turkey that only Turkish locals would know.

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