"Istanbul (but Constantinople)"...
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
“Here is İstanbul, in another word İslambol (Full of Islam); this is not Constantinople!”, said President Erdoğan, on the 566th anniversary of the conquest of the city by Mehmed II. However, long time before him, Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy wrote a song with the same claim. The lyrics of Kennedy’s song were composed by an American pianist Nat Simon; later the song was recorded by a Canadian singing quartet, the Four Lads, and became their first gold record ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wcze7EGorOk ). The song became popular again in 1990 after released within the album (Flood) of a New York based alternative rock duo, They Must Be Giants (TMBG) ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsQrKZcYtqg ). The song is still commonly known with it chorus part if not with the whole lyrics, “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”. Indeed, this is how it is commonly believed in many countries, but especially in Turkey and Europe where the city lays herself. However, is it really Istanbul, but not Constantinople? Did the Ottomans change the name after the conquest in 1453? What was the official name of the city under Ottoman rule? Also, why the city’s name has always been subject to claims?
Where does "Constantinople" come from?
First of all, after becoming the emperor, Constantine I (d. 337), ordered reconstruction of Byzantium, today’s historical part of Istanbul, as the new capital for the Roman Empire. The city was named as “Nova Roma”, the New Rome. Later, “Konstantinoupolis”, the city of Constantine, was used in coinage, so the era with the name of Constantinople has officially started. The Muslim Arabs also used this name by adding Arabic suffix, -iyye: Kostantiniyye. Although, I could not find any reference for how the Seljukids, who ruled
Anatolia before the Ottomans, called the city, we know that the Ottomans, after the conquest in 1453, used Kostantiniyye in their coinage until 1922 when the Empire officially ended. Therefore, we see that the Ottoman Turks did not change the name of the city, and they even kept it in official and public use by issuing on coins which is one of the necessities of a sovereign state.
Where does "Istanbul" come from?
We also need to mention that the city had many other official names since 1453, but more referring to the state offices than the city as herself, such as Bāb-i ʿĀlī (the Sublime Port), Der-i Saʿādet (Adobe of Felicity), Pāy-taḫt (the Seat of the Throne). However, these names
never replaced Kostantiniyye on coinage, although Islambol (Full of Islam) did for a short time in the early 18th century during the reign of Ahmed III (1703-1730).
It is not known clearly whether Islambol derived from Istanbol or not, but it sounds very much likely; as Istanbul comes from Byzantine Greek use of “εις την Πόλιν” (eis tin Polin) meaning “in (to) the city” which refers to the city center in public use. The same applies to many other locations in Anatolia and the Balkans such as Manisa from Magnesia, İzmir from eis Smyrna, İznik from eis Nikea or Edirne as comes from Adrine, Adriana, and Adrianoupolis. These are the cities came under Ottoman rule much before than Constantinople, and apparently they kept their Byzantine names even until today. We can make the list longer with countless examples also including from Istanbul broughs: Balat (Palatium), Tarabya (Therapia), Samatya (Psamathion). The most obvious but neglected example for the renaming discussion, doubtlessly, must be Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia). Officially and publicly the great imperial temple kept its name as the original after being converted into a mosque from a church. Indeed, many other churches kept their names as mosques such as Kariye Camii (Chora), or they were called with Orthodox Christian words such as Kilise Camii - the Church Mosque (Church of St. Theodore).
Ottoman claims over Roman legacy
Then, why did not Ottomans change the name of the glorious Roman capital with an Islamic name? The answer for this is simple: the legacy of the Roman Empire. Architectural details such as adopting dome for public buildings and mosques, expanding territorial control through central Europe and Italy, literature production like Iskendernâme (Book of Alexander) all point an ambition for a universal empire whose predecessor is Alexander the Great (d. BC 323) and the Roman Empire. To reach this goal, a heritage and a legacy take
over was needed, and this included the Roman capitals, Constantinople and Rome. Also, the concept of “nation” was much different than how it is regarded today, a re-naming would not be necessary in early modern conquerors minds. For instance, some Orthodox Christian origin converts who served in the Ottoman Empire kept their names and even their ethnic backgrounds as distinguishing titles: Köse Mihal - Michael the Beardless (d. 1328) who was a Byzantine governor of Chirmenkia, Evrenos Bey (d. 1417), Rum (Romaio-Greek) Mehmed Pasha (d. 1474).
Modern Turkish political Agenda
On the other hand, one may ask why President Erdoğan claims that it had not been Constantinople since 1453 but Istanbul which is also a Byzantine Greek use? Firstly, this is a common false information about the name of the city as in the song of “Istanbul (not Constantinople)” by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon. Many Turks, Europeans, and also Greeks believe that the name was changed after the conquest. Politically this false information can be used as a propaganda as it has a confirmation by the “others”. The second reason, as a consequence of the prior, is that this claim sounds charming for conservative and nationalist voters. Surely, today’s Turkish politics do not share 15th century Ottoman motives as we are in a different age of time. However, it shows us false historical information may support some political agenda, and effect societies.
Finally, despite general knowledge, the Ottomans did not change the name of the city as this was not neither in their tradition nor in their understanding of conquering. Moreover, they aimed to be regarded as the Roman Empire by inheriting its legacy, but not by erasing it. Therefore, they both adopted the official name of the city, Kostantiniyye (city of Constantine) and the name in public use, (eis tin poli / istinpol). Misinterpreting history is easy as it does not require research, but it is also dangerous as history is a common value and it effects common understand in societies. Therefore, the etymology and history of Istanbul’s name should be re-evaluated not only in Turkey but also in other societies as right information is necessary for a better understanding for better social, intellectual conditions.