City of Empire: An Overview and Bibliography of Istanbul

Editor’s note: Istanbul is the Metropolis of the Month for September. This overview is the first entry for the month, you can read additional entries in this series, as they are published, linked at the conclusion of this post.

I’ve only been to Istanbul once in my life, during the summer of 2003, just before the second anniversary of 9/11, with the second Iraq War underway and coinciding with the rise of the Islamist AK Party and its authoritarian leader, former mayor of the city, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Despite my trip being delayed and shortened by the largest blackout in North American history, turning ten days in Turkey to six days in Istanbul and two in London, it’s not difficult to understand the magnetic attraction that exists between the “Queen of Cities” and those who have encountered it over the past 1,500 years.

Two friends and I traveled to Istanbul in mid-August, landing in the neighborhood of Beyoğlu on the European side of the city. Formerly referred to as Pera, the neighborhood has long been known for its tradition of multi-ethnic enclaves and a westernized cosmopolitanism. Istanbul’s history of commerce led to free trade agreements which resulted in thousands of Europeans settling in this part of the city, dating back to the Genoese merchants of the thirteenth century who later built Galata Tower in 1348. The first wide, wooden bridge across the Golden Horn connected Beyoğlu to a district of the old city, Eminönü, in 1845. Karaköy Square followed, as did cafes and theaters, to welcome those crossing the estuary.[1]

Istanbul, as historian Thomas F. Madden notes, is one of the few cities of antiquity to persist over the eras. Most early urban centers of the ancient world fell into disrepair and/or were abandoned, but not Istanbul.[2]

Whether Byzantion, Byzantium, Constantinople, or Kostantiniyye, all previous names for Istanbul, the city has attracted settlers, traders, and intrigue throughout its existence. Its history is complex: the accumulation of vast wealth and political power, architectural achievements such as Hagia Sophia, the Süleymaniye and Blue Mosques, and the creation of the legal foundations for modern Europe, but also a past that witnessed mass slaughter perpetuated within and outside its walls. The city accrued unprecedented levels of political, economic, and cultural hegemony, lost it all, regained it again, and then lost it once more. It’s been the beating heart of thriving multiethnic empires as embodied by the Byzantines and later the Ottomans, as well as the last functioning organ of both states in their diminishment.

Overlooking the Bosophorus, 2003. Photo by Ryan Reft.

It is a metropolis in which ancient remnants of its imperial history abound and convey the memory of a great past.  Though perhaps not all residents share this feeling—Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, being one of them. Rather, Pamuk sees “the melancholy of ruins…a dying culture…[a] wish…to be rid of all the bitter memories of the fallen empire, rather as a spurned lover throws away his beloved’s clothes, possessions, and photographs.” Yet, this melancholy, when absorbed collectively, can bind residents to a process or worldview he describes as hüzün.[3] 

The Turkish word for melancholy, hüzün, operates as the prism through which Istanbullus (or Istanbullular if we go by Wikipedia), residents of the city, see life existing as “not only a spiritual state, but as state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating…a black mood shared by millions.”[4]

Of course, as Dr. Nefise Kahraman notes in her forthcoming contribution, with regard to the city, Pamuk may not be the most reliable narrator—“the Istanbul that we read about in this book belongs to none other than Pamuk.” For our purposes though, we’ll grant Pamuk’s insights a baseline legitimacy for now and let Dr. Kahraman expand upon her argument later this month.

Though Pamuk’s melancholy and that which he ascribes to Istanbul residents, more generally, is derived from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it was not the first empire to occupy and define the city.

Mosque of St. Sophia (Hagia Sophia), Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey (ca. 1890-1900). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Byzantine Empire

Istanbul’s history as part of an empire began with the Byzantines and Roman Emperor Constantine (303–366), who declared it the New Rome in the fourth century. Until its capture in 1453, the city radiated Roman culture and Byzantine power, serving as the Roman Empire’s capital and central node. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the Byzantines took up its mantle and continued its traditions and customs while pursuing their own course under rulers such as Constantine, Justinian, and Theodora (527–565), followed by a succession of Macedonian emperors (867–1025) who expanded the empire and maintained the city’s vibrancy.

Justinian’s Hagia Sophia remains one of the city’s most distinctive buildings and influenced the construction of churches across the West. His law reforms cascaded across Europe informing its modern legal structures. Justinian’s Codex “enshrined the principle that we are innocent until proven guilty,” legally making many of us “Justinian’s children,” writes historian Bettany Hughes. Theodora, Justinian’s wife and empress, brought wise counsel and steeled courage to their relationship and his rule, especially during the Nika Riots of 523, when her decisiveness both saved and secured his legacy.[5]

The riots serve as a window into several aspects of the city’s history. Constantinople popularized the concept of “bread and circus.” The Hippodrome, a source of community and conflict, served to quell rambunctious citizens with its chariot races and sociability, but proved equally deadly as a space where political grievances could be channeled into political unrest. Such was the case with the Nika Revolt of 532, “one of the most impactful demonstrations of public action in the story” of Istanbul which nearly ended Justinian’s rule. Discontent over what citizens viewed as disrespect from the emperor in their pleas to spare two men sentenced to death, along with the coming together of rival factions—the Blue and Greens—to plot an uprising at the Hippodrome itself, ignited arguably the most destructive riot in the city’s history.[6] 

With his rule tottering, Justinian and his retinue prepared to flee when Theodora interceded, acknowledging that they had plenty of money by which to live in exile and an entire sea before them by which to escape, but cautioning that the emperor should “consider whether, once you have managed to save yourself, you might not later prefer death to safety. As for me, I hold to the old saying, ‘Empire is a glorious death shroud.’”[7] Granted, Byzantine historians likely provided rhetorical flourish when quoting Theodora’s counsel that night, but she undoubtedly distinguished herself among all others in that moment, even if historian Procopius’s account has her “first apologizing for speaking in front of other men,” a nod to both Procopius’s own prejudices and that of Byzantine society.[8] Whatever she said, it proved convincing; Justinian followed her advice and eventually put down the rebellion.

Theodora’s prominent role was not typical of women’s lives in Constantinople. Byzantine historians depict women much as they did barbarians of their day, as “inferior beings, incapable of the self-restraint that is typical of civilized individuals,” argues historian Ecaterina Lung. Yet, while women in the Byzantine empire endured lives bounded by misogyny and sexism, it was “one the few medieval societies that allowed the extensive exercise of power by women, sometimes in their own name.”[9]

Where the riot began reveals one final aspect of the city. The Hippodrome serves as just one example of the Roman affection for public spaces which facilitated solidarity among citizens but also conflict with the state. It would be a recurring theme and prove no less true in 2013 with the demonstration at Beyoğlu’s Gezi Park/Taksim Square. “Byzantium – Constantinople – Istanbul – is ours!” read graffiti across one shop window.[10]

Under Justinian and subsequent rulers, Constantinople grew wealthy and populous. Situated perfectly between Asia and Europe, Genoese and Venetian traders carried goods from East to West and set up “colonies” in the city. It absorbed migration from Anatolia, the Balkans, and parts of Western Europe. Over half a million souls resided in Constantinople by 330 AD. It expanded, contracted, and expanded again over the next 700 years, then fell into a trajectory of decline, succumbing to various pressures, some internal—political intrigue, over expansion, infighting—and others external—the plague and the dual threat of Western Christianity and a growing Islamic empire to the east.

Even amidst a diminished Byzantium, the city remained powerful. “Constantinople had become a historical oddity, a rich and populous capital of a small and relatively weak empire,” writes Madden. “Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world,” Benjamin of Tudela wrote upon visiting the capital of Byzantium in 1170. “Here also are men learned in all the book of the Greeks, and they eat and drink, every man under his vine and his fig-tree.”[11]

Sacked by crusaders from the West and under threat of Ottoman invasion from the East, Constantinople still managed to retain economic power. “[T]here was nowhere in the world where one could make the sort of money that could be found in the wharfs and bazaars of the Queen of Cities…the city prospered while the empire crumbled.”[12]

Süleymaniye Camii (mosque), Constantinople, Turkey (ca. 1890-1900). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Ottoman Empire

After the Ottomans took the city in 1453, it went by two names: the formal, Constantinople, and the informal, Istanbul. The latter eventually supplanted the former, hundreds of years later when Turkish nationalists forbid the usage of the term Constantinople in the 1920s and 30s.[13] Just as Constantinople stood for centuries as the crown jewel of Christendom, Istanbul, Ottoman rulers believed, would do the same for Islam, an “homage to the dynamism of those Ottoman Turks who had travelled from the steppes and the Muslims who had first ridden out of the Middle East,” notes Hughes.[14] Even under the current administration, this has been true. Erdogan’s redevelopment of Taksim Square, the issue that touched off the 2013 protests, is part of an effort to reorganize a notable secular space in Istanbul such that it “proclaims the city’s Islamic faith and glorifies its Ottoman past.”

Westerners clung to the idea Constantinople might be recaptured, “a bombastic expectation” that never subsided.[15]  Regardless of the delusional hopes of Western Christendom, the Ottomans returned Istanbul to greatness. Under Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled for over four decades beginning in 1520, the Ottomans entered their “golden age.” He expanded westward by consolidating gains in southeastern and eastern Europe, then turned his attention to the Persians in the east. Though he took a vastly different approach from Byzantine predecessors such as Justinian, Suleiman made great efforts to renew the city’s status as an international beacon. Istanbul was again transformed.

Unlike the Greeks and Romans who believed urban areas reflected their own civilization, one in which citizens lived, flourished, and interacted with the state, the Ottomans, according to Madden, had no such conceptions of the relationship between citizens and rulers, and demonstrated little interest in urban planning. No great roads were constructed, “everything was a snarl of dirt backways and a few cobbled wider streets that snaked through the city.”[16]

Imperial gate, Topkapi Palace, Constantinople, Turkey (ca. 1890-1900). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Despite their apparent ambivalence regarding urban planning, the Ottomans established numerous architectural achievements. Suleiman engaged in two general types of construction: 1) infrastructure for the pragmatic functions of the city and empire, and 2) securing his memory and those of others in Istanbul history.[17] The refurbishment of the Roman aqueducts serves as an example of the first, and the Süleymaniye Mosque is an example of the second. The Ottoman ruler benefitted from the talents of the empire’s greatest architect, Mimar Sinan, who has been credited with the construction of hundreds of buildings in the city and is widely regarded as the individual who ushered “in the Ottoman classical style of architecture,” notes Madden.[18]

The politics of the harem did enable some women to wield power, but only in the context of an institution that one can generously describe as misogynistic and, in its own way, quite violent. Outside of the few women who secured power by giving birth to the next Sultan, it offered a safe (relatively), but distinctly unluxurious existence, as many of the sometimes 4,000 residents of the Topkapi Harem were slaves of slaves.[19] More broadly, though excluded from the trade guilds, women participated in the larger Istanbul economy in manufacturing but more commonly in household cottage industries. They could bring suits in court, own property and workshops, lend money, co-own bathhouses, and sometimes worked as tax farmers. Well-off women engaged in urban redevelopment, residential and commercial.[20]  

By the mid-1800s, the Ottoman Empire had gained the unfortunate nickname, “the sick man of Europe,” a sprawling multinational conglomeration that under the pressures of nationalism was increasingly coming apart at its multi-ethnic seams—yet Istanbul stood as proudly as ever. Ottoman goods flowed into Western Europe and railways connected the city to Asia and Europe when the Orient Express established its route to Istanbul in the late nineteenth century. Global politics opened up the city such that Western tourists descended upon it, “to enjoy a bit of orientalist tourism…[T]he forbidden fruits of Istanbul were ever more desirable—and ever more attainable,” notes Hughes.[21] 

Modern Views of Istanbul

Designer Thomas Hope sketched his vision of the city into some 350 drawings, capturing mosques, palaces, coffee shops, street children, and numerous other aspects of the early nineteenth-century city. Lord Byron visited Istanbul in the early 1800s. His travelogues, as well as those of Hope, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley, were undoubtedly orientalist in nature and based on the limited access to the city granted to Europeans, who were not allowed to freely roam across Istanbul. Even when visiting acquaintances, “visitors were rarely admitted to any room but the parlor, foreigners are seldom able to make sense of what they say,” writes Pamuk.[22] Yet, even with such a blinkered view, nineteenth-century writers, Byron in particular, brought “Ottoman Istanbul into drawing rooms across the globe.[23]

Other writers, including Gustave Flaubert and Mark Twain, followed in subsequent decades, with access no greater than those who came before and often focused on Istanbul’s most “other” aspects such as the Topkapi Harem and the Slave Market when appraising the city. Twain captured the feeling of many of his Western contemporaries, who argued the city promised more than it delivered. From “a mile up or so the Bosphorus,” the city might be “the handsomest” ever seen, but “its attractiveness begins and ends with its picturesqueness…A street in Constantinople is a picture one ought to see once—not oftener.”[24]

Such orientalist interpretations have not sat well with Istanbullus like Pamuk, though the writer admits to feelings of ambivalence more than resentment. Turkish writers have failed to give the city their full attention, he argues, leaving Westerners to fill the literary vacuum. “Because the country is trying to westernize, what western writers say is desperately important, but whenever a western observer goes too far, the Istanbul reader…cannot help but feel heartbroken.”[25]

During the nineteenth century Istanbul became a common and popular diplomatic posting. Combined with the vibrant commercial trade that flowed through the city, the Ottoman’s own surveillance systems, and the constant breeze of international politics that gusted through the capital, Istanbul emerged as a city of spies.[26] By the 1930s most major governments had agents posted in the city, all looking to buy information, but the market was flooded with “too much money and not enough intelligence” creating a marketplace for double agents, hence the novels of Ian Fleming and John le Carré which popularized the city’s image “as an exotic and decadent home of treachery and subterfuge.”[27]

The Bosphorus, Constantinople (ca. 1919-1922). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The aftermath of World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who, along with others, managed to carve a new Turkey from the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire while also wrestling independence from the Allied forces. Always wary of Istanbul, Atatürk moved the capital to Ankara and aggressively pursued a westernization policy that radically reshaped Turkish life. By the early 1920s, for the first time in sixteen hundred years, Istanbul no longer stood as the crown of empire. Even worse, nationalists of the 1920s and 30s depicted the city “as the Byzantine Whore—a city that had surrendered herself to the tainted dabbling of foreign money and foreign love,” writes Hughes. Whatever his true feelings for the city, Atatürk publicly defended it. “On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of the Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, Istanbul has its place in the hearts of all citizens.” [28]

In the decades that followed, Atatürk’s reforms remade Turkey, and despite the political shift toward Anatolia, Istanbul grew exponentially from a population of one million in 1950, to eight million by the 1990s, to fifteen million today, much of this growth caused by migrations to the city from the countryside and the expansion of suburban Istanbul. This is where we leave you, on the cusp of a post-WWII Istanbul, as contributors for this month pick up Istanbul’s twentieth and twenty-first century story. As always, we’ve done our best to compile the bibliography provided below but acknowledge all our usual limitations (notably language, we are regrettably limited to English language texts and translations). Feel free, nay you are encouraged, to add further suggestions in the comments.


Altürk, Emre. “A Big Plan for Small Homes: The Effort to Set Housing Standards in Turkey,” Journal of Urban History (May 2021).

Avci, Özgür. “The Making of a Gecekondulu Identity: Journalistic Representations of Squatters in Turkey in the 1970s,” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 2 (Mar. 2014): 211-231.

Batuman, Bülent. “’Everywhere is Taksim’: The Politics of Public Space from Nation-Building to Neoliberal Islamism and Beyond,” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 5 (Sept. 2015): 881-907.

Çelik, Zeynep. The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986.

Erkal, Namik. “Grain Scale of Ottoman Istanbul: Architecture of the Unkapani Landing Square,” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 3 (May 2018): 351-381.

Fratantuono, Ella. “Building Authoritarianism in Turkey,” Journal of Urban History 46, no. 6 (Nov. 2020): 1420-1425.

Freely, John. Istanbul: The Imperial City. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Hamiloglu, Ceren. “Modernity and Leisure: The Construction of Florya Beach in Istanbul (1935-1960),” Journal of Urban History (May 2022),

Hughes, Bettany. A Tale of Three Cities: Istanbul. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017.

Houston, Christopher. Istanbul, City of the Fearless: Urban Activism, Coup d’Etat, and Memory in Turkey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020.

Khayyat, E. Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity: The World According to Auerbach, Tanpinar, and Edib. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

King, Charles. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Lung, Ecaterina. “Depictions of Women in the Works of Early Byzantine Historians and Chroniclers: Between Stereotype and Reality,” Historical Reflections 43, no. 1 (Spring 2017).

Ersory, Ahment. “Cosmopolitan Attachment: Pluralism and Civic Identity in Late-Ottoman Cities,” Journal of Urban History 4, no. 3 (May 2015): 521-525.

Madden, Thomas F. Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Pamuk, Orphan. Istanbul: Memories and the City. New York: Vintage International Books, 2004.

Özkoçak, Selma Akyazici. “Coffeehouses: Rethinking the Public and Private in Early Modern Istanbul,” Journal of Urban History 33, no. 6 (September 2007): 965-986.

Pinar, Aykaç. “Musealization as an Urban Process: the Transformation of the Sultanahmet District in Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula,” Journal of Urban History 45, no. 6 (Nov. 2019): 1246-1272.

Ryan, James. “’Unveiling’ the Tramway: The Intimate Public Sphere in Late Ottoman and Republican Istanbul,” Journal of Urban History 44 ,no. 5 (2018): 811–834.

Secor, Anna. “’There is an Istanbul that Belongs to Me’: Citizenship, Space, and Identity in the City.” Annals of the association of American Geographers 94, no. 2 (2004): 352-368.

Sert, Esra. “Metabolic Flows of Water in Istanbul in the Nineteenth Century: Tap Water, Waste, and Sanitation,” Journal of Urban History (2022): 1-19,

Tozoglu, Ahmet Erdem. “Addressing the Modern Regimes of Urban Spectacle: Revisiting the Ottoman General Exhibition of 1863 in Istanbul,” Journal of Urban History (Feb. 2022).

Wolf, Steve. “Other Urban Modernities: Istanbul in the Fifteenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 1 (Jan. 2012): 152-158.

Yilgur, Egemen. “Formation of Informal Settlements and the Development of the Idiom Teneke Mahalle in the Late-Ottoman Istanbul,” Journal of Urban History 48, no. 3 (May 2020): 608-637.

Yonucu, Deniz. “Counterinsurgency in Istanbul: Provocative Counterorganization, Violent Interpellation and Sectarian fears,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, (Jan. 2021).

Yonucu, Deniz and Talin Suciyan. “From the Ottoman Empire to Post-1923: The Catastrophe as Seen by the Angel of History” Critical Times 3, no. 2 (Aug. 2020): 300-311.

Yonucu, Deniz. Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press: 2022.

Yüksek, Ahmet Yusuf. “Sufis and the Sufi Lodges in Istanbul in the Late Nineteenth Century: A Socio-Spatial Analysis,” Journal of Urban History, (June 2021).

Zarinebaf-Shahr, Farbia. “The Role of Women in the Urban Economy of Istanbul, 1700-1850,” International Labor and Working-Class History, 60 (Oct. 2001): 141-152.

Zelef, Haluk M. “Impacts of Seaplanes and Seaports on the Perception and Conception of the Modern City: The Case of Istanbul,” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 6 (Nov. 2014): 1028-1053.

Additional posts in this series:

Featured image (at top): Annin & Smith, cartographer/engraver, Bosphorus of Thrace or Channel of the Black Sea (ca. 1830). Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Thomas F. Madden, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 321.

[2] Madden, Istanbul, 30.

[3] Orphan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City, (New York: Vintage International Books, 2004), 29.

[4] Pamuk, Istanbul, 113, 90-91, 92.

[5] Bettany Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities: Istanbul (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017), 234.

[6] Madden, Istanbul, 108-109.

[7] Pamuk, Istanbul, 110.

[8] Ecaterina Lung, “Depictions of Women in the Works of Early Byzantine Historians and Chroniclers: Between Stereotype and Reality,” Historical Reflections 43, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 6, 7-8.

[9] Lung, “Depictions of Women,” 14.

[10] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 216-17.

[11] Madden, Istanbul, 148.

[12] Madden, Istanbul, 175.

[13] Madden, Istanbul, 341-2.

[14] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 397.

[15] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 535.

[16] Madden, Istanbul, 266-67.

[17] Madden, Istanbul, 268.

[18] Madden, Istanbul, 269.

[19] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 485-87.

[20] Farbia Zarinebaf-Shahr, “The Role of Women in the Urban Economy of Istanbul, 1700-1850,” International Labor and Working Class History 60 (Oct. 2001): 142, 148.

[21] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 514.

[22] Pamuk, Istanbul, 277.

[23] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 514-5.

[24] Madden, Istanbul, 301.

[25] Pamuk, Istanbul, 235.

[26] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 553.

[27] Madden, 347.

[28] Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities, 585.

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