How Istanbul Found Its Melancholia: A Short Urban History

Unfortunately, our generation did not carry the valuable heritage that it inherited into the future. It may seem slightly extreme, but it was almost a betrayal. -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Aesthetic Cities conference, Istanbul, April 2013.

The story of Istanbul begins with the first storytellers. Greek settlers first dropped anchor at Chalcedon, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, in 685 BC – though it may not have been the most promising locale. According to Greek lore, Byzas, a Megaran and the son of King Lisos, some years later asked the Oracle at Delphi where he should settle down and build his great city. He was given vague plans to look “opposite the land of the blind.”

Byzas sailed up the Aegean to where the Marmara Sea meets the Bosporus, spied Chalcedon and decided its settlers must have been blind to settle in a location so inferior to the one across the strait. There, on an acropolis surrounded by water on three sides – the Bosporus Strait to the east, the Golden Horn to the north and the Marmara Sea to the south – he founded Byzantium, in 657 BC.

Byzas secured his prize by building great stone walls around the promontory. The city flourished, taking advantage of the best natural harbor between the Atlantic and the Pacific and great incomes from trade, fishing and tariffs from boat traffic. All that lucre inspired Dionysian revelry among the people – “Byzantium makes all of her merchants drunkards,” the Athenian playwright Menander wrote – and a fetish for physical expressions of greatness.

In 196 AD, Roman emperor Septimius Severus expanded the city walls, erected a Hippodrome and laid a colonnaded Royal Path. Constantine the Great arrived in 324 and expanded the walls again. He also renamed the city in his name and built a forum, temples and palaces. A few decades later Theodosius built what came to be known as the Theodosian Walls, chunks of which remain standing today and are protected as UNESCO heritage sites.

The city stretched for miles, yet Istanbul had barely been born. Soon after Justinian dedicated the Hagia Sophia in 537, the great church was hailed as the architectural splendor of the world, inspiring jealousy in rival leaders. A thousand years later, when Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he is said to have ridden directly to the Hagia Sophia and converted it into a mosque on the spot.

Mehmet II, known to Turks as Fatih (meaning “conqueror”), undertook the first of Istanbul’s many projects of urban regeneration, sprucing up the streets of the sagging capital and building the Fatih mosque complex, the origins of the Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace, among other works.

The Ottoman era peaked in the mid-16th century during the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning sultan. He teamed with the famed Mimar Sinan (architect Sinan) to build Suleimaniye, still the city’s largest mosque and generally regarded as its most beautiful.

Sultan Ahmet I needed a dozen years to build the six-minaret Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, and died a year after its dedication in 1616. Centuries of decline soon followed, during which the city’s center of gravity drifted across the Golden Horn, to Pera.

When Mustafa Kemal established the Republic of Turkey, in late 1923, he shifted the national capital, and the focus, to Ankara. Years later, just as he had embraced secularism and modernity for his country, he looked to the West to revive Istanbul and set it on a course for future greatness. In 1935, the French urban planner Henri Prost won a competition to devise a master plan for the city.

Prost, who had gained renown with his work in Fez, Marrakesh and Casablanca, re-envisioned Taksim as a central square with a broad green space. He demolished the Halil Pasha Barracks, which had been built in 1806 and turned into Taksim Stadium a century later, and remade the square. The Taksim we know today, complete with a monument to Ataturk and 30-acre Gezi Park, was completed in 1943.

By this time, a proud melancholy known as huzun had fallen over the city. “In Istanbul the remains of a glorious past and civilization are everywhere visible,” Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk writes in his memoir, Istanbul. “No matter how ill-kept they are, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city…inflict heartache on all who live amongst them.”

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