Birthplace of the first Christian empire
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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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.
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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