İSTANBUL City of Kings, City of God

The following is an article I recently authored for the new magazine of our Muslim Students Association at Salt Lake Community College:


City of Kings, City of God

by George Ellington

The Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent rising above the Bosphorus

By the 5th century A.D., the City of Constantine, emperor of the Romans, had become the center of the Christian world. To the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the Pope was a lowly bishop subservient to him. The fall of Rome, city of light, in A.D. 476 plunged the western Roman Empire into the Dark Ages, leaving many to wonder if perhaps the Patriarch might not have been correct. After all, Rome had fallen under the sway of supposed barbarians, while the increasingly wealthy and diverse population of Constantinople worshipped in some of the finest churches the world had ever seen. When Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, was dedicated by Justinian, Emperor of the Byzantines in Constantinople in A.D. 537, the largest domed cathedral in the world at the time, could there be any doubt left? The City of Constantine was indeed the new Rome, the new city of light, a source of inspiration and culture for peoples east and west, and its glory would survive until the end of time.


Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), Church of the Divine Wisdom, built 532-537

Of course, even the most cursory glance at history should be enough to remind us that empires rise and fall, and that temporal glory is as fleeting as the life of man. The fortunes of the eastern Romans or Byzantines did indeed ascend and decline as the years passed. Years became centuries. Leadership fell to great men and to corrupt fools. The borders of the empire stretched into Europe, Asia, and Africa, tenuous in some areas, firm in others. Invading armies crossed the borders and were turned back, while life in Constantinople went on untouched. Occasionally, enemy forces drew closer, even up to the walls of the great city itself. In A.D. 674 an Arab Muslim army under Yazid tested the strength and endurance of the city’s defenders before eventually withdrawing. Forty years later, the Arabs returned, and once again failed to breach the massive walls of Theodosius that encircled the city. Not that the city was impregnable. The once insulted church of the west took no little pleasure in seeing the Orthodox Christian capital of Constantinople sacked by Catholic Christians from the West in A.D. 1204. Although the Byzantines eventually reclaimed their capital city from the Catholics, many believe that it was now too late. Constantinople never fully recovered.

The walls of Theodosius, built 404-413

Two and a half centuries later, when yet another foreign army set up camp outside the massive walls of Constantinople, fear very quickly spread among the remaining inhabitants of the city. Frantic appeals were made to the West to come to the aid of their fellow Christians. The last Emperor of the Byzantines, another Constantine, even dangled before the Pope the possibility of reuniting the Latin and Greek churches. But to no avail. While some volunteers arrived from Greece and Italy, it was as if the West had already passed a shroud over the East, bidding farewell to the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. Although neglected by their fellow Christians in the West, the 10,000 or so defenders of Constantinople did their utmost to save the city, giving their lives in a truly valiant effort to hold off an invading army of around 100,000. On 29 May 1453, after a siege that lasted some eight weeks, the walls of Constantinople were overrun by the army of the Turkish Ottoman Empire led by Sultan Mehmet, who would come forever after to be known as Fatih—the Conqueror.

One of Mehmet’s first acts was to ride to the great basilica of Hagia Sophia and there have an imam pronounce the Shahada:

ašhadu an lā ilāha illa Allāh, wa ašhadu anna Muhammadan rasūlu Allāh

(“I testify that there is no god but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”)

The Mosque of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, built 1463-70

Out of the neglect and betrayal that had plagued the City of Constantine for centuries, out of the fire and destruction of the Turkish conquest, a new city was born, a city dedicated, not to a man, not to a king, but to Allah. And as the city of İstanbul became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks under Mehmet and his successors set about quickly to revitalize the city, to reshape it, transforming it from a Christian capital to a Muslim one. Initially, many Orthodox churches, including Hagia Sophia, were converted into mosques for Muslim worship. But authentic houses of worship were required for a growing population of Muslims. And sultans and nobles were eager to contribute the funds necessary to have mosques and masjids built, along with schools for Quranic study, markets to improve trade, hospitals for the ill, mansions for the rich, shelters for the poor, caravansaries for pilgrims and merchants. Within a century, Constantinople no longer looked anything like its former self. When and why it came to be called İstanbul is still open to debate, but there is no doubt that İstanbul was quickly becoming the richest, most powerful capital city in all of the Muslim world.

The Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapı Palace along Seraglio Point

The Byzantine Emperor had lived in a grand style in a magnificent palace. But the Ottoman sultans required a home fit not for just any emperor, but for the “Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe.” So began the lengthy title appended to the name of the man who may have been the greatest of Ottoman sultans—Süleyman the Magnificent, the great grandson of Mehmet the Conqueror. In the centuries after Mehmet entered the city in triumph, the Turks constructed several palaces, the grandest of all stretched out along Seraglio Point, known as Topkapı Palace, which underwent its most extensive construction in the time of Süleyman. Amidst lush gardens, a menagerie of animals, ornate fountains, military barracks, kitchens that fed around 4,000 people a day, and the most meticulous bureaucracy the city had ever known, were beautifully adorned apartments for the sultan and his retinue. Yet perhaps more impressive was the harem itself, a maze-like cluster of hundreds of rooms for the sultan’s mother, wives, and concubines, who at times exceeded 100 in number.

The Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, built by Sinan 1550-57

Yet the magnificent appearance of the city of İstanbul as it comes to you today—walking the streets, wandering the markets, exploring the historical landmarks—was determined by one man in particular more than any other. His name was Sinan, the greatest of Ottoman architects. Arguably, the greatest builder the Muslim world has ever known. Born in 1489 as a Christian named Joseph, he was conscripted for government service in the elite Ottoman forces—the Janissaries. Along with his military training, he was instructed in architecture. His obvious talents won him the attention of some rather powerful patrons, the most important of which was none other than Sultan Süleyman himself. To Sinan and to those who served him have been attributed 94 mosques, 52 masjids, 57 colleges, 48 bath houses, 35 palaces, 22 mausoleums … and the list goes on and on. He supervised much of the building of Topkapı, oversaw repairs to the Sacred Mosque at Makka, designed stately homes for the wealthy, and served the needs of the common people with aqueducts, kitchens, caravansaries, and hospitals.

The Şehzade Mosque, built by Sinan 1543-48  for Mehmet, son of Süleyman

The most noticeable and memorable of Sinan’s works in the city of İstanbul were the edifices commanded by the royal family he served—the House of Osman. The skyline of İstanbul today is replete with examples of his finest works, all ordered and paid for by sultans, their sons and daughters, their in-laws, yet all dedicated by Sinan to the glory of Allah. The first of Sinan’s royal complexes was built for the wife of Süleyman—Hürrem. Like Sinan, Hürrem was not born into a Muslim family of the empire, but to a Christian family. And like Sinan, she too would rise from obscurity to play a major role in Ottoman history, if only behind the scenes as the sultan’s beloved wife, managing the affairs of the harem while steering her proud husband in directions he might not otherwise have chosen to follow, including having his own son by a different wife put to death in favor of Hürrem’s son, who succeeded Süleyman to the throne as Selim the Sot. Hürrem’s daughter, Mihrimah, and her husband, Rüstem Paşa, Grand Vezir to the sultan, also made good use of Sinan’s skills to contribute to the beauty and piety of the city of İstanbul.

The Rüstem Paşa Mosque, built by Sinan 1561-63

The fortunes of the great city of İstanbul fluctuated much as those of Constantinople had. By 1923, it faced foreign occupation and the dismemberment of the empire. On 29 October of that year, Mustafa Kemal and his courageous companions declared the establishment of the Türkiye Cumhuriyeti—the Republic of Turkey. The capital was moved to Ankara, where it remains today. But for many, the heart of Turkey is still İstanbul, the largest city in the nation, the preeminent center of art, business, and culture. And the most visible reminder of a glorious past when this was indeed the city of kings, the city of God.


1 thought on “İSTANBUL City of Kings, City of God

  1. Hi Ellington, your storytelling on Istanbul glorious past is phenomenal. The article is an eye-opening to someone who has very shallow knowledge of the past, like me.

    Happy New Year!


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