02 September 2006

975) Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Istanbul (not Constantinople)
by They Might Be Giants

Joe Frazier used to take potshots at Muhammad Ali by using Ali's former name, "Cassius Clay." It was a sign of disrespect, Frazier's way of saying, "I am your foe." Similarly, Turk-haters to this day still refer to Istanbul as "Constantinople."

Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali

"Smokin' Joe" Frazier (right) couldn't match wits with Ali, and his childish recourse boiled down to hitting below the belt. Imagine that you want to be called by a certain name, and you have to deal with those who insist on calling you by another name.

The city signified Christendom as part of the Byzantine Empire; "Byzantium" had been changed to "Constantinople," to honor the Eastern Roman Empire's Constantine the Great. The Western Empire fell to "barbarians," as we are often told in western history, as though the Romans were perfect gentlemen. Constantinople, as a result, gained even more importance as a symbol of Christian civilization.

Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city in 1453, and changed its name to "Istanbul." It's not very often a conquered city retains its old name. "New Amsterdam" became "New York," after the British took over from the Dutch. The Dutch also couldn't hold sway when their "Batavia" (which the Dutch had renamed from a variation of Jakarta, circa 1619) in Indonesia finally became "Jakarta" again.

No one today calls these cities/provinces by their old names. Yet because the idea persists in the minds of Turk-haters that Turks still don't belong in what was once such a symbolically Christian city, the only way they can show their contempt is by insisting the city is still "Constantinople." This is "Christian code" for "Turks don't belong here."

That is just plain rude, especially after more than half a century of ownership. Cities and countries are called by the names used by their occupants. By what stretch of the imagination would an empire known for its Islamic foundation retain a symbolically Christian name as "Constantinople"? It defies common sense.

Accounts of the name change have it that the city's name was "officially" changed in March 28, 1930. (Popularized by the 1953 song, "Istanbul not Constantinople," by The Four Lads. Here's a sample to listen to ) What does that mean? Is there a "name change registrar" that countries apply to?

(An online encyclopedia hijacked by tenacious pro-Armenians has a footnote for this "fact," pointing to a [at the time, not operational] Library of Congress link, the Federal Research Division for Country Studies. The country is "Albania.")

(Someone in Internet-Land cited this very tainted source in response to another who claimed the name was called "Istanbul." The message was capped with: "I bet the Dutch and everybody else in the 17th century told friends they were going to Constantinople, if they were going." In other words, if Christendom called the city by its old Christian name, thanks to spite, wishful thinking or ignorance, it shouldn't matter what the owners of the city called their city. Mighty fine logic, there.)

I don't know exactly what transpired on March 28, 1930, where it's said "Angora" was also "officially" changed to "Ankara." But if the government of Ataturk made such an announcement, it was not in terms of acknowledging the city was named "Constantinople." What Ataturk was telling the arrogant West was, the name of this city has been Istanbul for half a century, it's time to stop behaving like "Joe Frazier," and begin to act as respectful neighbors.

This page was mainly inspired by a viewing of the documentary, "The Ottoman War Machine." Real Ottoman historians were on call for a change (not that the producers always listened to them), and the program stated — as common sense should tell all — that as soon as Constantinople was conquered, the name was changed to Istanbul.

There are a number of speculative explanations for the origin of "Istanbul," such as deriving from the Greek "Stanbulin" ("to the city"), and what religious devotees referred to as "Islambol" (Much Islam). In coinage and some documents "Konstantiniye," a derivation of the Christian name was used, perhaps as a gesture of goodwill toward childish Europeans. (Mustafa III, the sultan during 1757-73) actually prohibited the name 'Konstantiniye,' but old habits die hard.) The fact is, however, the name of the city for the Turks was "Istanbul." This common usage is what persuaded western travellers to call the city "Stamboul," in their writings.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908:

"Thus was granted the sacrilegious prayer of so many Greeks, blinded by unreasoning hate, that henceforth, not the tiara, but the turban should rule in the city of Constantine. Even the name of the city was changed. The Turks call it officially (in Arabic) Der-es-Saadet, Door of Happiness, or (chiefly on coins) Konstantinieh. Their usual name for it is Stamboul, or rather Istamboul, a corruption of the Greek expression eis ten polin (pronounced stimboli), perhaps under the influence of a form, Islamboul, which could pass for 'the city of Islam'."

Again, note the source. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia was not insisting on "Constantinople," back in 1908. If they are saying the name was changed well before 1930, then what could have been the reason for the Turkish announcement in 1930... other than to remind the world to please be courteous, and to recognize the reality of the situation.

Let's cover a few other sources that examine this name game.

Known as Istanbul long before

"[The city's] name, in everyday spoken Turkish, even before the conquest, was a corruption of the Greek phrase for `into the city', eis teen teen polin: Istanbul."

CONSTANTINOPLE : City of the World's Desire 1453-1924 Philip Mansel, New York, 1996; Chapter I. Excerpts.


The following is from pp. 252-53, a book by the noted Turkish historian, Halil Inalcik. Note the psychology behind the transformation of the city, after its conquest. (As the Sephardic Studies page on the subject claims, "Recent research has shown that the name 'Istanbul' was used if not during the Byzantine period, at least during the 11th century and that the Turks knew the city by this name." The name of Istanbul existed for the Turks centuries before the city's conquest.) Here the sultan is taking pains to turn churches into mosques and paying tribute to the spirituality of the affair, and he was going to keep the Christian name, "Constantinople"? Does that make any sense?

Seyh Aq Semseddin was also charged, upon the Sultan’s order with locating the tomb of Ayyüb al-Ansari. Its discovery by the Seyh was no les miraculous and significant than the conquest. It assured the Muslim that providence was still on their side. Later, Mehmed built a mausoleum at the site, a mosque and a dervish convent.

Ayyüb’s tomb, which rapidly grew into a town outside the walls of the city on the Golden Horn, became the most sacred place in Istanbul. Each day hundreds of believers would visit with offerings and seek the saint’s help. The most famous of the dervish convents as well as a huge cemetery clustered around the tomb. It is also significant that each Sultan upon his accession to the throne visited the tomb following the same route as the legend described for Ayyüb. At the site, the most venerated Seyh of the day girded the Sultan with the sacred sword of ghaza. Thus, the saint’s presence not only made the whole area of Istanbul a consecrated place for Muslims, but also gave the Sultan rule over the Muslims a religious sanction.

It should be noted that every Ottoman city had its own wali or saint whose tomb, usually located on a hill-top outside the city, combined Islamic mystic tradition with a pre-Islamic mountain cult. Cities were regarded as persons and a prayer formula recited each time the name of the city was mentioned.

Constantinople becomes ‘Islambol’

After the conquest, Mehmed’s first act was to convert Constantinople into an Islamic city. The preamble of his waaf deed for his mosque reads: ‘Sultan Mehmed conquered Kostantiniyye with the help of God. It was an abode of idols ... He converted its churches of beautiful decoration into Islamic colleges and mosques.’ There were six churches converted into mosques and one into a college. Interestingly enough, the monastery of Aya-Marma was given to Baba Haydari dervishes. In general the best sites were assigned either to members of the military or to the men of religion including the Süfi orders.

On the day following the conquest the Sultan went straight to St Sophia church and converted it into a mosque, saying there his first prayers, an act that symbolized the dedication of the city as an Islamic one. He also solemnly gave it the name ‘Islam-bol’ (Islam abounds), which actually reflects the centuries — long aspiration of Muslims to convert the great city of Constantine (‘Qostantiyya al-Kubra) into a city of Islam. The new name was hereafter strictly maintained by the ulema, though the people at large continued to use the pre-Ottoman Turkish name Istanbul. Folk memory of the congregational prayers after the conquest, as described by Evliya Çelebi, records: ‘When the muezzins began to recite the verse inn’ Allaha wa mala ’ikatahu’ in a touching tone, Aq-Semseddin, taking Sultan’s Mehmed by his arm in great respect led him to the pulpit. Then be called out in a strong deep voice, “Praise to God, Lord of all creatures,” and the ghazis present in the mosque, deeply touched, broke into tears of joy.’

Islamic faith and the popular imagination combined to convert Constantinople into Islambol. For the Ottomans it was a Muslim city from the time it held the sacred remains of the Prophet’s companions. In Islamic tradition, a place where Muslims had built a mosque and prayed was considered Islamic territory. The churches, Hagia Sophia in particular, were admired as works of God which the Muslims believed He would ultimately grant to the true religion. Legend tells us that Abü Ayyub al-Ansüri performed his prayers there before his martyrdom. Also, while an area or a city of non - Muslims who had submitted to a Muslim state was accepted as, administratively, a part of Islamic territory, its ultimate Islamization remained a constant hope. Tolerant enough to resettle the city with Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, Mehmed the Conqueror nevertheless took measures to ensure that ‘Islambol’ had a Muslim majority — a policy systematically applied to the major cities conquered for Islam.

(With apologies that the following footnotes do not have placements in the text above. But for those who can put two and two together...)

16 Wittek, ‘Ayvansaray ...‘ (n. 5 above), 5234. For the walkfiyya of the complex see Fatih Mehmed Il Vakfiyeleri (Vakiflar Umum Müdürlügü, Ankara, 1938), 285-327.

17 On the ceremony of swordgirding see I. H. Uzunçarsili, Osmanli Devletinin Saray Teski (Türk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara 1945), 189-200. On the town of Eyüp now see Eyüp: Dün/Bugün, 11-12 Aralik 1993, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfi, 1993, 1-23.

18 On the dervish convents built on a hill outside the Ottoman towns see Semavi Eyice, ‘Zaviyeler ve Zaviyeli Camiler’, Istanbul Universitesi liktisat Fakültesi Mecmuasi, xxiii (1962-3), 23, 29; F. Hasluck, Christianity and Islam under the Sultans (ed. Margaret M. Hasluck Oxford, 1929), i, 324-5; 0. E. von Grunebaum, ‘The Sacred Character of Islamic Cities’, A. Badawi, ed., Mcüanges Taha Husajn (1962) 25-37.

19 Conqueror’s waqfiyya in Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatname, (see n. 11), 30-31.

20 Mentioned in the Ottoman survey of Istanbul made in 1455. The survey, preserved at 21 the Topkapi Palace Archives, Istanbul, is being prepared for publication. See H. Inalcik, ‘Istanbul’, El iv, 224,

22 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatname, 111.

23 The Qur’an, 2: 30-34.

24 Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatname, i, 76.

25 H. Inalcik, ‘Istanbul’, (n. 21), 238. H. Inalcik, ‘Ottoman Methods of Conquest’, Studia Islamica, 11, (1954), 122-9. For the Balkans see Structure sociale et developpement culturel des villes sud-est europeennes et adriatiques (Bucharest, 1975); N. Todorov, La ville balkanique aux XV-XIX siecles, developpement socioeconomique et demographique

(Thanks to Sukru Aya.)


This book by Edwin A. Grosvenor, professor of Latin and Greek in Istanbul at Robert College, was apparently begun in the 1870s but printed in 1895, in a two-volume set; below are pp. 48-9. National Geographic Magazine was started by Grosvenor's son.

At noon Sultan Muhammed II, the Conqueror, made his triumphal entry, and proceeded slowly through the city by the later Triumphal Way to Sancta Sophia. The cymbals and gongs resounded without cessation along the route; their every note was proclamation that the Second Epoch of Constantinople had ended, and that the Third Epoch was begun.


If the transition of Byzantium to the Second Epoch had been enormous, that of Constantinople to the Third was greater still. The moment the last Cacar’s fall left her without an empire and head, she became the capital of the Sultans. Even in the new name by which hereafter she was commonly to be called — in the name Stamboul or Istamboul [1], fashioned in Turkish derivation from Constantinople — lingered the tale of her lofty origin. Another name, Constantinieh, the most frequent on Turkish coins and of constant use Arabs, Persians, and Ottomans, preserved the memory of her emperors. Save in these two respects, — municipal rank and source of name, — all else was absolutely changed, not only in outward form, but in individual essence.

The Romans and the Greeks had been of kindred blood, tracing their languages to a cognate source. In the childhood of their race they had worshipped at the altars of common pagan gods, and in their fuller manhood together abjured paganism for a higher and a diviner faith. Their civilization had flowed from neighboring fountains, whose waters mingled inter in a common stream. Eventuality at Constantinople the Roman element had disappeared, had been absorbed, costume, language, contour of brow, color of hair and eye, tint of skin, natural disposition even, into the entity of the Greeks. Yet it was not all forgotten, for the name survived in the appellation of their language, Romaic, the medieval Greek, and in the title by which they call themselves even to-day, the Romaioi.

But between the Ottomans and the Greeks there was not a link in common save a common humanity. The host that appalled the ravished city with its frenetic shouts had come in a slow march of the hundred and fifty years from beyond the Caspian, beyond the Great Salt Desert, from the wide wastes of Khorassan. The robes they wore; the steeds they bestrode, the arms they used so well, told of the distant East. The palaces they summoned into existence for sultan and pasha, in structure and appearance recalled the patriarchal tent and the nomad life of the plain.

1 One derivation often given for Stamboul is from … (ees teen poleen), “to the city.” It is supposed that the Ottoman often overheard this phrase on the lips of the Greeks, and that from it they formed the word Stamboul. This derivation is untenable, The Ottomans often retained foreign name of places they had captured. In case the name was long, they dropped the first syllable, and contracted or abridged the last syllables. Thus from Thessalonica they made Selanik; from Constantinople, Stamboul.

(Thanks to Sukru Aya.)

© Holdwater

The source site of this article gets revised often, as better
information comes along. For the most up-to-date version, and
the related photos, the reader may consider reviewing
the direct link as follows:


* More on : Istanbul, Not Constantinople

* Here's how Hakob Chakrian -AZG Armenian Daily wants to call "Constantinople" not Istanbul

Turkish Armenians


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