Constantinople was the capital city of the Byzantine (330–1204 and 1261–1453), and also of the brief Latin (1204–1261), and the later Ottoman (1453–1923) empires. It was reinaugurated in 324 AD from ancient Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine the Great, after whom it was named and dedicated on 11 May 330 AD.
A faithful reconstruction of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (1200 AD)
From the mid-5th century to the early 13th century, Constantinople was the biggest and most flourishing city in Europe.
By the time the Ottomans took Constantinople, the Empire had consisted of the immediate suburbs around the city, a few islands in the Aegean, and the Peloponnesus in southern Greece. The town itself had been wracked by war and decimated by the plague. Contemporaries described it as being a series of individual walled settlements and fields all circled by the Theodosian walls. It’s likely that the population had fallen to around 30,000 people, far below the quarter-million people it had even just a century before, let alone the half a million to million people it had held at its height.
Constantinople was famed for its vast and complicated defenses. Although attacked on numerous occasions by different peoples, the defenses of Constantinople declared invulnerable for nearly nine hundred years before the city was taken in 1204 by the Crusader armies of the Fourth Crusade, and after it was liberated in 1261 by the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, a second and final time in 1453 when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured it. The first wall of the city was built by Constantine I and circled the city on both land and seafronts. Later, in the 5th century, the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius under the child emperor Theodosius II began the construction of the Theodosian Walls, which consisted of a double wall lying about 2 km (1.2 miles) to the west of the first wall and a canal with palisades in front. This impressive complex of defenses was one of the most advanced of Antiquity.
Map of Constantinople before Ottoman occupation
The city was built deliberately to competitive Rome, and it was claimed that several hills within its walls matched the ‘seven hills’ of Rome. Because it was located between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara the land area that required protecting walls was reduced, and this helped it to present an unconquerable fortress surrounding sumptuous palaces, domes, and towers, the result of the prosperity that was caused by its being the gateway between two continents (Europe and Asia) and two seas (the Mediterranean and the Black Sea).
Constantinople was also famed for its architectural masterpieces, such as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which served as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the divine Imperial Palace where the Emperors lived, the Galata Tower, the Hippodrome, the Golden Gate of the Land Walls, and the wealthy aristocratic palaces outlining the arcaded boulevards and squares. The University of Constantinople was established in the fifth century. It contained various artistic and literary treasures before it was fired in 1204 and 1453, including its enormous Imperial Library, which included the remnants of the Library of Alexandria and had over 100,000 volumes of ancient texts.
The city never truly recovered from the destruction of the Fourth Crusade and the decades of mismanagement by the Latins. Although the city partly recovered in the early years after the restoration under the Palaiologos dynasty, the advent of the Ottomans and the consequent loss of the Imperial territories until it became an enclave inside the fledgling Ottoman Empire did the city severely depopulated when it fell to the Ottoman Turks, whereafter it replaced Edirne (Adrianople) as the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.