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Posted on Dec 3, 2012 in War College

Historic Istanbul’s Military Sites

By Peter Suciu

While the old swing style song may try to make heads or tails out of why Istanbul was once Constantinople, the truth is that the city has changed names as often as it has changed rulers. According to Pliny the Elder the first Thracian settlement in the area may have been known a Lygos, but the Greek settlers who arrived in the region in the 7th century BC named it Byzantion, which was Latinized as Byzantium.

The city was briefly known as Augusta Antonina by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 CE) in honor of his son Antoninus. When Constantine the Great decided to create a new eastern capital of the Roman Empire he chose that location and opted for the name New Rome, a name that is still part of the official title of the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, it was that name – in honor of Constantine – that the city was widely known as for nearly 1500 years.


While known as the Kostantiniyye throughout the Islamic World, notably after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, it didn’t actually become Istanbul officially until 1930. The transition in the name from Constantinople to Istanbul has several possible origins. The most accepted is that the city was simply known by its residents as “the city” and the phrase in Greek “in the city” was essentially pronounced as “istimbolin” or “Istanbul.”

However, the city may have been known as Stamboul or Islambol at various points in the Middle Ages, and these have been suggested as the origin to the name, “Istanbul,” but as the song lyric says, “Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.”

Today Istanbul is thus like a wooden Russian doll, with many layers from its vast history. Visitors to the modern Istanbul can find a city that is truly an East-meets-West where the Islamic call to prayer can be heard throughout the day, while alcohol flows freeing in the restaurants and clubs.

But for the military history buff the city is a treasure trove of sites to be seen. The massive city walls that defended the city from repeated siege – with the notable exceptions of 1203 CE when it was taken during the Fourth Crusade and then finally conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 CE. It was on the walls where the Emperor Constantine XI of the Palaiologos dynasty is believed to have been killed with his men. Following his death it was believed an angel turned him to stone and that he would return one day to liberate the city. Today he remains a national hero in Greece.

In preparation for the siege Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II constructed a massive Rumelian Castle on the European shores of the Bosporus – also known as the Fortress of Europe – to cut off the Black Sea. This was actually the second such fortress in the area. Across from the Remelian Castle stands the remains of the Anadoluhisari fortress build on the Asian side of the Bosporus in preparation for the 1395 siege. Following the conquest of Constantinople the Anadoluhisari served as a prison. After the city was conquered Sultan Mehmed II build a new fortress on the walls, known as the Fortress of Seven Towers. It was used as treasury, archive and state prison.

Within the old city is the Topkapi Palace, which served as the home of the Sultans for hundreds of years. Today it is a museum, and offers an excellent collection of arms and armor – including the sword (as well as other relics) from the prophet Mohammad. Unfortunately photos of such items are not allowed!

The city today is also home to two excellent military history museums, which include the Istanbul Naval Museum (Istanbul Deniz Müzesi), which was first established in 1897 and includes notable artifacts pertaining to the Ottoman Navy; and the Istanbul Military Museum (Askerî Müze), which is dedicated to more than one thousand years of Turkish military history. This museum occupies the site of the Ottoman military academy, and it was here that such notable Turkish officers such as Enver Pasha and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk studied.

The Janissary Band “Mehter Takimi,” which remains one of the world’s oldest military bands gives concerts of march music in traditional uniforms.

Finally, as Istanbul is a city of traders and craftsman, visitors can hunt for old treasures in the massive Grand Bazaar. While many items are modern replicas, it isn’t hard to find something that might have been there a long time coming.

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting. One of the cities on my list of places to see. Great photos as well