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My blog posts are 90+% about technology-related topics, but occasionally I share comments and pictures about travels. After two nights in Athens, we departed on the Silversea Silver Spirit ship for a 15-day cruise. We have been in this part of the world before but never to the first stop of the itinerary, Istanbul. I was very impressed with the city and decided to share some comments about it.

Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and one of the largest in Europe. It is also the administrative capital of the Istanbul province, one of the 81 into which Turkey is divided. Istanbul is divided in two by the Bosphorus Strait, with one half in Asia and the other in Europe. It has a population of about 16 million people, comprising 19% of the population of Turkey and is the most populous European city and the world’s 15th-largest city.

The city has a very long history. Permanent economic activity in the city is due to its location at the crossroads of two civilizations: the Mediterranean civilizations of Rome and Greece, and the Eastern empires originating in Asia. Up until the year 330 A.D., Istanbul was known as Byzantium, and then as Constantinople until 1453. Its current name of Istanbul came into being on March 28, 1930.

Istanbul was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and later of the Ottoman Empire. In October 1923, the Turkish Republic was proclaimed, and the capital of the new country was moved to Ankara. Most the city’s population is Muslim, with minority populations of Christians and Jews. From a religious point of view, it is also the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, head of the Orthodox Church. In 1985 the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Byzantium was founded on the European bank in the year 667 B.C. by Greek settlers from Megara, who settled in a deep and well-protected gulf known as the Golden Horn. In the 5th Century B.C., the city was occupied and destroyed by the Persians, and reconstructed by the Spartan Pausanias in 479 B.C. In 409 B.C. it fell into the hands of the Athenians, but four years later it was conquered again by the Spartans until the Athenian reconquest in 390 B.C.

Byzantium formed a part of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire. As a side note, we had another reference to Alexander the Great during our stay at the Hotel Grande Bretagne. The hotel deserves a separate blog post but for now, just a comment about the hotel’s Alexander’s Bar, voted best hotel bar in the world by Forbes magazine. It is an ideal choice for a cocktail with its impressive variety of brandies or select cognac. On the wall behind the bar is an authentic 18th-century tapestry, featuring a victorious Alexander the Great, the centerpiece of the hotel’s collection of art works. The equally impressive drinks menu includes such connoisseur choices of the famous extra rare single malt Macallan series of 1937, 1940, 1946, 1952, 1969, 1973, and the astonishing Luis XIII Black Perl edition. Alexander’s Bar signature mixed drink, the Mandarin Napoleon Select includes a blend of Dubonnet Rouge, Grand Marnier, gin, and fragrant essential oil of Sicilian tangerines.

Back to reality, in 279 B.C., when the Celts imposed a tribute, Byzantium was relatively independent. In 191 B.C., it was recognized as a free city, although in 100 B.C. it was taken as a possession of the Republic. In 197 B.C., the emperor Septimius Severus sacked the city and destroyed its walls, but later decided to reconstruct them in the image of other Eastern colonies, doubling the walled area in the process.

Constantine the Great began to build a new Rome in 324 and in 330 it was consecrated as Constantinople, becoming the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire. For its inhabitants, it was always a Roman capital. Built upon seven hills, as Rome was, it was divided into fourteen regions ten of which were inside the walls. The first Hagia Sophia cathedral, built by Constantine II next to the Grand Palace and consecrated in the year 360, was severely damaged in 532, which led Justinian to build a new cathedral.

The Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya as the Turks call it, is the symbol of Istanbul, and is one of the great things in the world you must see to believe. It was built during the reign of Justinian between 532 and 537 and is a masterwork of Byzantine art. The construct is in Istanbul’s highest point, and it dominates the Istanbul skyline. Its four minarets and 100-foot-wide dome are amazing. The dome could contain almost two copies of the Statue of Liberty. The interior is stunning. The dimensions of the main hall (230 feet x 240 feet), the natural illumination, the enormous decorative medallions and the monolithic columns are said to have left millions of visitors aghast over the years.

Due to its strategic position between Europe and Asia, Constantinople controlled the route between these two continents and passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. That meant for centuries it was the major medieval urban center in Europe, while the Western part of the Roman Empire was engulfed in a profound political, economic, and demographic crisis.

The city grew, from 30,000 inhabitants in the time of Septimius Severus to be home to 400,000 during the reign of Justinian. In the 9th and 10th centuries, with the East-West Schism in the Catholic Church, Constantinople began another renaissance period, and the city continued to be an important cultural and commercial center in the Mediterranean. Constantine XI, the last emperor, died defending the city, and it was known as Constantinople until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453 and in Europe until the 20th century, when the name became known as Istanbul.

After long years of conflict with the Turks, who had already conquered the rest of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople fell to Mehmed the Conqueror in May 1453, and the Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque. This date marked the end of the Middle Ages. During this period, the city underwent a profound cultural transformation, as it changed from a Byzantine Imperial city to an Ottoman one, and from Orthodox Christianity to the Islamic religion. Although some churches were converted into mosques, many were conserved, and new mosques were built on the outskirts of the city to commemorate the reign of the sultans.

In October 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic, and the capital moved to Ankara. In 1930, Istanbul officially adopted its current name. In the 1950s and 60s came a great structural change. Many Greek descendants, belonging to the large Greek community left for Greece after attacks on the Armenian, Greek, and Jewish communities in 1955. In the 1960s, at the cost of a number of historic buildings, Istanbul built a modern public transport network. in 1963 the Ankara Accord was signed, the first step in their process of integration into the European Union.

During the 1970s, Istanbul experienced major demographic growth due to emigration from Anatolia, and the offer of work in the many factories built in the outskirts of the city. This created a real estate boom, and many of the outlying towns became absorbed into the city proper. Today, Istanbul is one of the most visited tourist destinations with more than a million visitors per year.

I am not much of a history buff, but I cannot help but be impressed with the story of Istanbul. The grand bazaar has almost 4,000 shops. We saw a few and headed back to the ship. Not surprisingly, many the visitors and vendors were smokers. Air quality was pretty bad.

In next week’s post, I will provide a link to view photos from the various cities we visited.