With a transient past of ownership and religions, it’s no surprise the city of Istanbul has a chronicle of names. Trace the history of Istanbul’s names as it changed from the hands of Byzantines to Latin Crusaders, from Ottomans to Turks.
Pagan roots are attributed to the first recognized settlement of Istanbul’s historical peninsula. As legend goes, King Byzas of the Greek Dorian city-state Megara was instructed by the Delphi oracle of Apollo to settle opposite the ‘land of the blind’. He embarked on his destiny’s quest until stumbling on a highly strategic location between the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Marmara Sea. With no previous settlers to contest ownership, Byzas considered them blind to bypass such a strategic location. Byzantium was established on that very spot in 7th Century BC, named in honor of the king.
The new transformation of Byzantium into a city worthy of capital status earned Constantine immortality by name. The city became known as Constantinopolis or Constantinople, meaning the “City of Constantine”, and was the capital of the Roman Empire also known as the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire. Although Constantine’s preferred the name, Nea Roma (New Rome), it never caught local popularity. It remained the official name of the city throughout the Byzantine period, and was also commonly used by the west until up until the creation of the Republic of Turkey.
This started as simply the Arabic calqued word for Constantinople that held a familiar association to the city in the Islamic world. However, once the Ottomans took hold of the city in 1453, Kostantiniyye was used as the highest, formal official name of the city in Ottoman Turkish. It was sporadically used until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, but holds its place in history as it appeared as the official name on coinage in the 17th and 19th centuries.
An indication of pride, the Byzantines had several references for their great city, not least modest being ‘Queen of Cities’. Following a need to shorten names, it simply became referred to as ‘The City’, which is still used in Greek and Armenian slang. The Greek translation of city ‘polis’ also laid the foundation of its latter Turkish name Istanbul, meaning ‘in the city’.
The Fourth Crusades finally won victory over the Byzantine Empire and laid their claim by renaming the city once again. This feudal Crusader state was established as the Latin Empire in 1204, however it was short-lived as the weakened Byzantine Empire claimed the city back in 1261.
This adaptation of Istanbul’s name was a reference to the importance of the city’s role as the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, referring to ‘lots of Islam’. It came into being after Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city, whom allegedly invented the word himself. It also appeared on coinage and was officially used during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Finally, Istanbul was cemented after the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. However, it took a while before the city’s previous names became obsolete. To enforce the new name, all postages stating any other name were promptly returned to the sender after the 1930s. The name was not new, however, but rather a name used in common language before and during the Ottoman Empire. Etymologically, the name “İstanbul” can be translated to ‘in the city’.
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