BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Constantine’s Capital City

Birthplace of the first Christian empire

Photo of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The stately Hagia Sophia overlooks the Bosphorus Strait. Originally built as a church, the building has been a mosque and a museum, and is now officially a mosque again. Photo by Benh Lieu Song, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Doubtless many have heard the Four Lads’ 1953 novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” But prior to the city’s change of names in 1922, Constantinople was a locus of rich history through the Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, and Ottoman periods. The ancient name refers to Emperor Constantine’s designation of the crucial port as the new capital of the Byzantine Empire in 324 CE. Just a few years earlier, in 313, his Edict of Milan legalized Christianity and set the stage for it to develop into the official state religion over the following decades. The city boasts a wealth of evidence reflecting this process: for instance, the Hagia Sophia church, perhaps its most famous landmark, was built in 360 during the reign of Constantine’s son.

In the Fall 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Sarah K. Yeomans, a fellow at the American Research Institute in Turkey, invites us to revisit the city’s impressive history in her article “Constantinople: Christianity’s First Capital.”

She opens her article with an observation about the geographical location of the city that warrants close attention: It straddles the divide between the continents of Europe and Asia. To this, we may add also that it controls the Bosphorus Strait, the only waterway between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Since the city’s founding in the seventh century BCE, its geographical placement made it a nexus for immense wealth and trade, particularly as the European demand for goods from East Asia grew. For these reasons, in 324 CE Constantine designated the city—whose Latinized name was Byzantium—as the new capital of the Byzantine Empire. It came to be known as Constantinople, the “city of Constantine.”

As the new seat of the empire, the city became a focus for the kinds of major urban building projects attendant to an imperial Roman city. Yeomans details a variety of city works on a grand scale: aqueducts, bath complexes, public forums, temples, a new hall for the senate, an imperial palace, and a significant expansion of what would come to be known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople.


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It was over the next two centuries, however, that Constantinople’s Christian landscape would emerge as a key element of the city’s identity. Just a few years before he shifted the imperial seat to its new location, in 313, Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity throughout the empire. This set the stage for the rapid emergence of the faith as a central part of imperial life, particularly in the new capital. The Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) church, for instance, was built by Constantine’s successor in 360; and 20 years later, Theodosius I would issue the Edict of Thessalonica, effectively making Christianity the official imperial religion. Right next to the Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome of Constantinople, now a part of Sultanahmet Square, became a sort of collection site to which various Byzantine emperors brought treasures from across the known world, famously including an obelisk from the Temple of Karnak in Egypt and a twisting bronze column (the “serpent column”) from the temple of Apollo at Delphi.

Photo of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, AKA Sultanahmet Square

Originally built for horse and chariot racing, the Hippodrome of Constantinople is now known as Sultanahmet Square, a key tourist destination. Photo by Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

For nearly a millennium, through the Byzantine and Islamic periods, Constantinople enjoyed the prestige and prosperity one would expect of a capital city through which passed immense commerce in the form of both land and sea trade. Situated at the western end of the famed Silk Road trade network, the city was virtually the sole gatekeeper for East–West trade.

Nevertheless, Constantinople also experienced its share of challenges, and subsequent centuries saw it besieged by various aggressors. In 1204, after failing to capture Jerusalem, the European Crusaders sacked Constantinople; although their hold on the city lasted more than two centuries, its defenses were significantly weakened, eventually falling to the Ottomans in 1453.

Photo of a mosaic in The Chora Church

The Chora Church, now a mosque, is famous for its impressive Byzantine-era mosaics. Photo by Harkolufs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Yeoman’s article concludes with the observation that Constantinople’s rich history is easily accessible to visitors. Its dynamic pre-Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic pasts are “woven into the fabric of the modern city,” resulting in as rich and unique a historical character as that of any city in the world.

For a deeper dive into the Hagia Sophia and other wonders of ancient Constantinople, read Sarah K. Yeomans’s article, “Constantinople: Christianity’s First Capital,” published in the Fall 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Constantinople: Christianity’s First Capital” by Sarah K. Yeomans in the Fall 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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