It’s Istanbul, Not Constantinople

WORLD HISTORY | March 7, 2019

Suleymaniye Mosque is seen at sunset on February 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Source: (gettyimages.com)

When The Four Lads released their catchy Top Ten hit, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” in 1953, they were making a humorous jab at the 1930 declaration by the Turkish city to officially drop its ancient name in favor of the current one. It is not really fair to say that the city adopted a new name. The city just finally settled on one name. Here is how Constantinople became Istanbul. 

The Four Lads sang "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" in 1953. Source: (vancouversignaturesounds.com)

Istanbul is in an Important Strategic Location

The city of Istanbul is located on either side of the Bosporus, the narrow strait between Europe and Aisa, making it strategically important. The ancient Greeks established a trading outpost there call Lygos, that thrived for nearly a millennium beginning from around 660 BCE. It grew to be a large city and trade center for goods from Asia, North Africa, and across Europe. 

Statue of Emperor Constantine. Source: (thoughtco.com)

Emperor Constantine Renamed the City After Himself

Emperor Constantine, who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire from 306 to 337 AD, renamed Lygos after himself, Constantinople, and made the city the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Greeks and Romans took control of the region until 1299 when the Turks of the Ottoman Empire tried to remove the Greeks and Romans by force and take back the city that was once theirs, which they did by the 1400s. The Turks balked at calling the city Constantinople, so many referred to it as Istanbul or Stanbul. 

Ancient Constantinople. Source: (mediastorehouse.com)

What Does Istanbul Mean?

One legend explaining how the name Istanbul came into being dates back to the days when the city was under Roman and Greek control. Istanbul was such a large and sprawling city that many traders didn’t call it by name but just referred to it as “the City”, or “Polis” in Greek. These traders would say they were going “to the City,” or “eist enpolin”, which is pronounced like “is tin polin”. Some historians and linguists believe that Istanbul is an adaptation of “eist enpolin”. 

Source: (shepherdicstudies.org)

A City By Any Other Name

At another point in its history, during Turkish rule, Istanbul was known as Dersaader and Deralive. The Turks also converted the name Constantinople to a more Turkish sounding Konstantinoupolis after ousting the Romans. Spellings and pronunciations changed, adding Stanbulin and Konstantiniye to the mix. So if you are keeping track, the city has been called Lygos, Constantinople, Istanbul, Stanbul, the City, Dersaader, Deralive, Stanbulin, Konstantiniye, and Konstantinoupolis. This obviously created some confusion. 

Istanbul in the 1930s. Source: (enclosuretakerefuge.com)

The Ottoman Empire Falls

In 1923, the once-powerful Ottoman Empire finally fell and many of its former holdings became their own countries. The Republic of Turkey was established in the 1920s and one of their first orders of business was to settle on a name for their city. Istanbul became officially known as Istanbul. (The Turks also, at this time, changed the name of their capital city from Angora to Ankara). 

Istanbul in 1965. Source: (hemming.com)

The Rest of the World was Slow to Accept the Name

Many people…and many countries…still referred to the city by its old name of Constantinople, which probably irritated the Turks. In fact, the former name still appeared in textbooks and maps for several more decades. On March 30, 1930, Turkey officially requested that all other countries stop calling Istanbul Constantinople. They even went so far as to return all mail that was addressed to the wrong city name. 

Relations between Greece and Turkey are still weak. Source: (impactofthefallofconstantinople.weebly.com)

The Greeks Refuse to Call it Istanbul

Eventually, most countries caught on to the name change and called Istanbul by its official name. That is, except the Greeks. Greece refused to officially recognize the name change and still refers to the city by the name that was given to the city when the Greeks occupied it, Constantinople. In fact, many Greeks believe that the city should still belong to Greece. But for the rest of the world, it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople and, as the song tells us, “that’s nobodies’ business but the Turks.” 

Tags: constantinople, greeks, turkey, greece, istanbul

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