Behind the Exhibition
Prospect of Constantinople Melchior Lorck (Lorichs) 1561 Brown and black ink, watercolors c. 42,5 x 1127,5 cm (in 21 sheets) Leiden University Library, BPL 1758 Leiden, the Netherlands
Istanbul is located on a strait that was ripped open by an earthquake in prehistoric times, dividing two continents and creating a passage linking two seas. The 8000 year past of the city reflects all the stages in human history. Beginning with the Greek colony of Byzantion, the settlement grew into a city of the Roman Empire, and later, as per the Roman Emperor Constantine's decision to move the capital to Byzantion, it went through an ambitious building program that is generally agreed to have commenced in 324. From then on, the city became known as Nea Roma or New Rome, as well as Constantinople after its new founder Constantine. It was modeled after the former Roman capital, with splendid colonnaded streets, forums, and baths. In addition to its unique natural qualities, such as the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, the largest natural harbor in the Mediterranean region, the city was a place which many have envied due to its imposing monuments and strategic position on profitable trade routes. Surrounded by strong walls, the city resisted many attacks until it was invaded and sacked in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, to be retaken later by the Byzantine government in exile in 1261. Then in 1453, it was conquered by the young Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmed II, who brought the Byzantine Empire to an end. Having had become one of the most splendid capital cities of the modern age, Istanbul reflected the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman Empire through its rich demographic mosaic of the city, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities lived together.
Byzantion, Nea Roma, Constantinople, and Istanbul—the series of cities which have occupied the same site by turn—and their histories constitute a treasury of symbolic phenomena. Inarguably continuous with its past, Istanbul is a universal space that reflects historical encounters.
Legendary Istanbul - From Byzantion to Istanbul: 8000 Years of A Capital
The exhibition Legendary Istanbul: From Byzantion to Istanbul - 8000 Years of a Capital took place among the most extensive events of the year 2010, where the European Commission selected Istanbul as the European Capital of Culture. In collaboration with the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency and with the sponsorship of Sabancı Holding, the exhibition (5 June - 4 September 2010) presented a historical account upholding the cosmopolitan structure of the city, which had assumed the names Byzantion, Nea Roma, Constantinople, Konstantiniyye and Istanbul throughout its past. With a selection of objects that had opened with prehistoric findings, the exhibition covered the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods of the city through a lens focusing on these civilizations’ influences upon each other. Accordingly, it aimed attention at the multicultural qualities of the colorful population that has characterized Istanbul throughout its history, the energy emanated from this dynamic crowd, its ability to adapt to innovations, and the spirit of youth it had continued to reflect despite its long past. The content of the exhibition represented all the aspects of the city, from its daily life to the wars it witnessed, and the economic activities it accommodated to its sacred spaces. The selection included objects and works from a total of 58 museums, archives, libraries, and churches, 39 abroad and 19 in Turkey, as well as private collections. Having brought together treasures scattered among various countries through trade, gifts, and historical events such as the looting of the 4th Crusade, for the first time in centuries, the exhibition Legendary Istanbul: From Byzantion to Istanbul - 8000 Years of a Capital shed light on the city’s long past.
A major world city, in every epoch Istanbul has played a determining role in the movement of people, knowledge and goods between far-flung lands. Its position at the junction of important cultural regions was responsible for making it the capital of great empires that expanded over different continents. The city is located in a position that dominates the entrance to a narrow canal of water connecting two inland seas, the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. However the natural environment that defines its present location has undergone constant change throughout history. The relationship between the city’s cultural progress and its natural environment is based on a very delicate balance that exists nowhere else in the world. Paleolithic Era: The first beings known as homo erectus made their appearance nearly 1,800,000 years ago in Africa and spread throughout the world, followed by different human groups such as the Neanderthal and homo sapiens. The Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age) represents the longest period in the history of mankind, when life was based on hunting and gathering. The Istanbul region during these times when the Bosphorus did not yet exist was an important land bridge in the spread of mankind to Europe. The oldest remains from this era were discovered in the Yarımburgaz Cave, but discoveries from the Paleolithic Era have been made in excavations conducted in many other locations in the region, primarily in Dudullu, Ümraniye and Ağaçlı. Neolithic Era: This era represents the time when nomadic life was replaced by village settlements, and hunting and gathering by agriculture and animal husbandry. This era in which the foundations of present-day civilization were being laid is also called the Neolithic Revolution. This form of life style began to develop in Anatolia and the Near East, and in approximately 7000 BCE was brought by societies migrating from Inner Anatolia to the Istanbul region, where villages were established in Fikirtepe, Pendik, Tuzla and Yenikapı in the historical peninsula. This new style of living spread throughout Europe via the Balkans and the Danube Basin, thus forming the foundation of European civilization. Chalcolithic and Bronze Age: During this period in which cities, city-states and empires were developing in Anatolia, in contrast to Europe, where rural life continued, the Sea of Marmara comprised a cultural boundary. It is possible that changes at the sea level of Marmara and the opening of the Bosphorus caused damage on the coastal settlements. The Sultanahmet Hippodrome, the Ayamama Stream and the Selimpaşa Tumulus to the west of the city are locations where important discoveries from this era have been made. First Iron Age: During this era, a wave of immigration from the northern Balkans brought all of Thrace, including the Istanbul region, under its influence. Discoveries related to these societies, which lived in small settlements, have been made during excavations at Sarayburnu and Yenikapı.
According to legend, Byzantion, a colony of the city of Megara in Southern Greece, was founded in about 660 BCE by the mythical King Byzas. At that time, its territory covered the area of what is now the Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia. Under Roman domination, the city, known as Byzantium, developed towards the west to the forum of Constantine (today’s Çemberlitaş). In the surrounding area, particularly along the Golden Horn, numerous villages came under the city’s influence. Byzantion, as a strategically important and commercially lively town, was to fall in turn under the domination of the Persians, Athenians and Spartans in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Subsequently, after having gained independence during the Hellenistic era, the city came under Roman suzerainty in the year 146 BCE. As part of the Roman province of Bithynia in the first and second centuries CE, the city prospered. However, at the end of the second century CE, the city was destroyed as a punishment for having supported Pescennius Niger, the imperial rival for the throne, before being rebuilt by its destroyer, the emperor Septimius Severus. The most important religious buildings of the acropolis of Byzantium were the temples of Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite and Poseidon, as well as the altar of Athena Ekbasia. The city boasted a large number of public buildings, notably the baths of Achilles and Zeuxippos, cisterns, a theatre and a hippodrome, the construction of which is commonly thought to have begun under Septimius Severus and been completed under Constantine. Sources mention the existence of three ports: those of Prosphorion and Neorion to the north of the entrance to the Golden Horn, and the port of Theodosios to the south. The latter has been recently excavated by the Istanbul Archaeological Museums within the context of the construction of Yenikapı metro station.
Some say the Roman Empire did not fall, it simply moved to the East. That is why the Byzantines called themselves Romans, and their capital, New Rome. After the third-century Crisis that shook the empire to its roots, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, and established his new capital at the site of the pagan town of Byzantium in 330 CE. By the sixth century, Constantinople had become the political and commercial center of the Late Antique world with a population of half a million and the practical leader among the five principal sees of Christendom. The city was to become a “Second Jerusalem” through the construction of new churches and the accumulation of sacred relics. Notwithstanding the “Dark Ages” (seventh-eighth centuries) during which Constantinople was plagued by underpopulation, cessation of construction and sieges, Constantinople remained a city of wonders in terms of its size, wealth and imperial grandeur in the Middle Ages. Under the Macedonian (867-1056) and Komennian dynasties (1081-1185), the Greek-speaking city was also home to various groups such as Jews, Armenians and Italians, and attracted merchants, diplomats and pilgrims from all around the world. It was not the Turkish expansion in Anatolia in the eleventh century, but the Crusader attack on Constantinople in 1204 that dealt the heaviest blow to the Empire and its capital city. Even though the city was captured back in 1261 by the Byzantines under Michael VIII Palaiologos, the combined effects of political foes such as the Serbians and Turks, economic subjugation by Italians and internal changes in the Byzantine state and society precluded any substantial recovery under the Palaiologan dynasty (1261-1453). At the dawn of the fifteenth century, the capital of the empire was in decay, with its abandoned monuments and a population of less than 50,000 inhabitants. The Ottoman conquest, though it had destroyed the empire, would allow the city to be reborn under a new identity.
The vast and complex Ottoman Empire was a dynastic state extracting agricultural surplus from scores of small producers through tightly controlled fief holders, but with a sultan powerful enough to also finance a standing army, equipped with firearms, which make it one of a few non-Western “gunpowder empires”. Hence with enough clout to conquer an immense area spread over three continents and to limit feudal tendencies, the House of Osman ensured its longevity, remaining unchallenged through its six centuries of rule. There have been other states and empires of longer duration, but none under the same dynasty from its beginnings in the early thirteenth century to its demise in the early twentieth century. Even in terms of its institutional mix and temporal frame, the Ottoman Empire was neither purely medieval nor strictly modern, but rather a hybrid structure based on two forces: on the one hand, a very medieval territorial cavalry, and, on the other, the first example in Europe of a salaried standing army. Such ambiguity is also found in Ottoman culture. Was it clearly and emphatically Islamic? Probably, when seen from the other side of the great divide between Islam and Christendom. But perhaps not quite so when seen from further south, from the lands of classical Islam, where such degree of innovation through customary law was more likely to be frowned upon. By the same token, was it unequivocally Turkish? Again, probably not, if we were to place ourselves further East, in Inner Asia, to look at an “Ottoman way” that had turned its back on both nomadism and tribalism as it gradually developed as a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional empire. Feeding on the Byzantine, Turkic, Persian, and Islamic traditions, but developing its own power for innovation, the early Ottoman Empire is a fascinating example of transition into Early Modernity.
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