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Istanbul vs. Constantinople: Why Both Words Are Greek

 Istanbul Contantinople
Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral which served as the seat of Eastern Christianity for nearly one thousand years, is now a mosque. Credit: Greek Reporter

Constantinople, originally founded as Byzantium by the ancient Greeks in 657 BCE, became the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 330 CE under the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. In 1453, it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed II, and later renamed Istanbul

However, the name Istanbul was adopted from Greek. Specifically, “Istanbul” (Is-tan-bul) derives from the Greek phrase “is tin poli,” which means “to the city.”

In fact, throughout the many centuries of its existence, Greeks had referred to Constantinople (Greek: Constantinoupoli) as simply “poli,” noting that the word “poli” is also included in the latter part of the name Constantinoupoli. When one was going to the poli, they would say “Is tin Poli”—a phrase which morphed into the modern term Istanbul.

The great city was called Constantinople by the entire wider world until the 20th century. Although the Ottomans had unofficially called it Istanbul for years, the official name change took place in 1930 after the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic.

Istanbul Contantinople
Panoramic view of Constantinople, 1876. Source: Wikimedia commons/ Public domain

The history of Constantinople

First settled in the seventh century BC, the city developed into a thriving port thanks to its prime geographic location between Europe and Asia, as well as its natural harbor. In 330 AD, it became the site of Roman Emperor Constantine’s “New Rome,” soon becoming a wealthy city with magnificent Christian architecture.

Constantinople stood as the seat of the Byzantine Empire for the next 1,100 years, enjoying great prosperity interspersed with a series of deadly sieges over the years until it was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire.

In 657 BC, the ruler Byzas from the Greek city of Megara founded a settlement on the western side of the Strait of Bosporus, which linked the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. Byzantium (or Byzantion) was born, quickly developing into a thriving port city.

Walls of the Palace of Blachernae in Constantinople (todays Istanbul) built in 500
Walls of the Palace of Blachernae in Constantinople (todays Istanbul) built in 500. Credit: wikimedia commons / Adaconda

In 324 AD, Constantine became the sole emperor of Rome, and in 330 AD the city was established as Constantinople (the city of Constantine), also having other unofficial names such as the Queen of Cities, Istinpolin, Stamboul, and Istanbul.

Greek was its spoken language, and Christianity was its main religion.

Justinian I, the emperor who reigned from 527 to 565 AD, expanded Byzantium’s borders to encircle the Mediterranean Sea.

After the Great Schism of 1054, when the Christian Church split into Roman and Eastern divisions, Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, remaining so to this day even after Muslim Ottoman rule was imposed there.

The original splendor of Byzantium was tarnished forever in 1204, when the armies of the Fourth Crusade, instead of saving Jerusalem from Muslim rule, sacked the great Christian city instead, and its inhabitants lived several decades under Latin misrule between the lords of Venice and their allies.

In 1261, the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos liberated the city, and after its restoration under the Palaiologos dynasty the Byzantine Empire recovered some of its glory—that is, until May 29, 1453, when after a 53-day siege, Constantinople fell into the hands of the Ottomans.

column of Constantine, Istanbul, Constantinople
The Column of Constantine, built by Constantine I in 330 to commemorate the establishment of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire. Source: Wikipedia

For Greeks, Istanbul will always be Constantinople

Naturally, throughout history, Greeks never called Constantinople “Istanbul.” This is partly due to the horror they felt knowing that when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans on May 29, 1453, it meant the end of Byzantium, and subsequently, Hellenism in the East. The fall of Constantinople marked the beginning of nearly 400 years of Ottoman occupation.

Istanbul Contantinople
18th century map of Constantinople. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

It is also partly because Greeks naturally feel nostalgic for the splendor that was the Byzantine Empire, which also helped further the spread of Orthodoxy all the way through Russia and today’s Balkan lands.

Another big part of the Greeks’ refusal to accept the name “Istanbul” for their beloved Polis is that since the 1920s, the contemporary Turkish state has been hostile to Hellenism and Greece itself on numerous occasions.

Greeks can never forget the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, the burning of Constantinople’s Greek neighborhoods, the further persecution of Greeks in 1955, or the Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus in 1974.

In much the same way that the vast majority of Greeks continue to refer to the Republic of North Macedonia as “Skopje,” Istanbul will always be Constantinople to them, and Hagia Sophia will always be Greek in their hearts.


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