‘Either I conquer Constantinople or Constantinople conquers me,’ Fatih Sultan Mehmet II, the seventh Ottoman Sultan, once said. He was a key figure in the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, creating a world power. In 1453, at the age of 21, he as first Muslim conquered Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and realized a centuries’ old dream of Islam. Conquering Constantinople led to the end of the Byzantine Empire. And at the end Sultan Mehmet II was, as we are all, conquered by the city itself. After his death he was buried in Istanbul, in the cemetery of the Fatih Mosque Complex.
Istanbul saw many more conquerors, empires and word-leaders. Excavations prompted by big infrastructural projects in Istanbul’s historic peninsula (like the Marmara metro) showed us, that the history of this city dates back more than 8,000 years ago. Lygos, Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, New Rome, Constantinople, and Istanbul: it is the same city, just different names. Thousand years and layers of empires, human history and culture are hidden beneath the present city’s surface. Yet, luckily, once every while, the history finds its way back up.
The historic diplomatic district of Pera/Beyoğlu: built on the ruins of a necropolis
During the restoration of the Societa Operaia Building (a foundation for Italian workers during the 19th century) on Istiklal Caddesi, not far from the Dutch Consulate, workers unearthed a skull last year. When archaeologists visited the site and began their excavations, they discovered eight Byzantine-era tombs this spring. They also found a large number of potteries, chandeliers and plates from both the Ottoman and the Byzantine era, leading them to conclude that at least part of the area of Beyoğlu was a necropolis.
It was the first time that I heard about such tombs in this area, but it might be safely assumed that on earlier occasions tombs have been unearthed during previous construction work – but kept a secret. Archeology and fast infrastructure do not always go hand in hand as experiences shows all over the world.
Yenikapı: A massive Byzantine port
A little while ago I wrote two blogs on this governments’ infrastructural projects (read the last one here). While performing construction works for the Marmaray underground train line and other new Metro lines, workers found material that has led to groundbreaking discoveries about Istanbul’s history. Remains of almost forty ships of different dimensions and dates were unearthed, together with remains of animals and human skeletons. An open excavation of 59,000 square meters uncovered Republican, Ottoman and Byzantine cultural layers.
‘Istanbul’s history was known to date back 2,600 years. But we found foot prints from 8,000 years ago,’ says Zeynep Kızıltan, director of Istanbul Archeological Museum, in an interview with Hürriyet Daily News. ‘We had no clue of that settlement in Yenikapı and we would not have discovered if had it not been for these projects.’
History on the surface
A substantial part of Istanbul’s history is covered with sand, roads and new buildings. Fortunately, at the same time other parts of Istanbul’s and Turkey’s history remain strong and visible and as the byzantine tombs in Beyoğlu and the port in Yenikapı show, there is more to Istanbul than meets the eye.
Think of the city walls in Balat area; the many palaces next to the Bosporus, such as Dolmabahçe Palace (the administrative center of the late Ottoman Empire); Rumelihisarı Castle in Sarıyer – built in 1451; and of course, all the lesser known ‘hidden treasures’, such as mosques, bathing houses and other monuments.
Also: the oldest diplomatic mission in the world, the Italian consulate, can be found in Istanbul, from the 14th century. The oldest diplomatic mission of the Netherlands is also in Istanbul, the Palais de Hollande. Our building dates back to 1714, our chapel is even older, from 1711. The Netherlands Consulate General is certainly not the only diplomatic mission with its own church; the Italians, the French, the Greeks, the Swedes, the Russians; they all have their consulate churches. For more on the Dutch church look here.
It is hard not to get conquered by the surprising and timeless beauty of Istanbul, whether a Sultan, diplomat or tourist.