Istanbul, located at the intersection of Asian and European continents, is the most significant and largest metropolitan city for many years in the world. The city, which hosted many different civilizations throughout history, has a cosmopolitan and metropolitan structure where people from various religions, languages, and races live together.
The architecture of İstanbul presents stunning examples throughout the ages with the effect of the cosmopolitan nature, too. It is possible to analyze the architecture of Istanbul under five main titles. These are the Prehistoric period, the Byzantion period, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire Period, the Ottoman Empire Period, and the Republic of Turkey Period.
1. The Prehistoric Period
In the prehistoric period, Istanbul played a decisive role in knowledge transfer between different societies. The main communication ways of these societies, which lived in different periods, were trade, migration, and wars. In the prehistoric period, the architecture of Istanbul was affected by the needs and inventions of various societies besides trade, migration, and war. There was a very delicate balance between the city’s architecture and its natural environment in this period.
Prehistoric people lived in many different places, such as caves, rock shelters, and settled villages. It was possible to analyze the architecture of Istanbul in the prehistoric period under four subtitles. These were the paleolithic age, the neolithic age, the chalcolithic and bronze age, and the iron age.
Istanbul was the scene of residing Homo Erectus, Neanderthal, and Homo Sapiens, with the human species starting to spread from Africa to the world. Paleolithic Age people were hunters and gathers. In this period, people lived as nomads due to the variability of climate and environmental conditions, and they mostly lived in caves and underground shelters. Yarımburgaz cave was an example of this. In the Neolithic Age, people lived in housing instead of a cave.
In addition to this, the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle happened. This new lifestyle of the Neolithic Age spread all over Europe, too. Village settlements of Fikirtepe, Pendik, Tuzla, and Yenikapı were examples of this agricultural lifestyle settlement. In this period, the Sea of Marmara was a lake covering a much smaller area than today. For this reason, the first Neolithic Age settlements, close to the coast, were later submerged by the rising Sea of Marmara.
In the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age, empires developed in Anatolia, but rural life continued in Europe, the Marmara coastline changed rapidly, and as a result, coastal settlements were destroyed. In this period, the Sea of Marmara formed a cultural border. The isolation of Anatolia from the environment caused Istanbul to create its unique architectural understanding. Sultanahmet Hippodrome and Ayamama Creek were significant finds of this age. In the Iron Age, immigration from the Northern Balkans dominated the city. Sarayburnu and Yenikapı were examples of these age settlements.
2. The Byzantion Period
The Byzantion period covers the period from the city’s establishment by the Megarian colonists from Greece in 667 BC until it became the capital city by the Roman Empire in 330. Byzantion was the name of the city of Istanbul before Constantinople. Due to its strategic location, Byzantion became the capital of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire and the Latin Empire, and finally the Ottoman Empire. In addition to this, Byzantion was an important trade center.
The first area that formed Byzantium was the area where Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia are located today. Topkapi Palace was located in the acropolis of Byzantion. In the acropolis of Byzantion, there were several temples built on behalf of Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Poseidon, besides the palace. Various architectural structures were built in Byzantion, such as Akhilleos and Zeuksippos baths, cisterns, a theater, and religious buildings, but nothing remained of these structures.
The most significant construction activity of The Byzantine period was the construction of the hippodrome, which was called the At Meydanı in the Ottoman Empire Period or the Sultan Ahmet Meydanı in the Republic of Turkey.
3. The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire Period
Istanbul, which was named Constantinople in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire period, was the capital of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire, and Constantinople dominated the Middle East for about 1000 years. Constantinople had three symbolic institutions in this period. These were the Hippodrome, the Great Palace, and Hagia Sophia. Hippodrome, which reflected the Byzantine identity, was built as a continuation of Rome.
The Great Palace, another symbolic institution built as a symbol of authority and power, was a complex spread over huge areas, consisting of halls, rooms, chapels, barracks, service buildings, corridors, and courtyards. With the acceptance of Christianity, the other significant symbolic institution Hagia Sophia built as a symbol of the new religion. In this period, the size and proportions of buildings and materials reduced in Constantinople with acceptance of the new religion.
With the reduced size and proportions of buildings and materials, structures, such as baths, theaters, and stadiums built in the Byzantine period could not find a place for themselves in Constantinople. In this period’s architectural structures did not reach today due to natural disasters and destruction, but the materials belonging to these architectural structures survived in the following centuries’ buildings as Spolia.
In short, it is possible to say that the significant factor that played a role in the architecture of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire period was religion. In this period, Constantinople’s administration used architecture as a means of representation of the new religion. Therefore, religious buildings were always built and opened to use constantly.
4. The Ottoman Empire Period
Sultan Mehmet II, also known as Mehmet the Conqueror, conquered Istanbul in 1453, and the Ottoman Empire period began. This date was also known as the end of the Middle Ages. In the Ottoman Empire period, Istanbul became one of the largest cities in the world, where various people of different religions lived in harmony. In this period, there were hundreds of architectural structures in Istanbul, such as bazaars, mosques, schools, baths that gained a modern identity to İstanbul.
It was possible to analyze the architecture of İstanbul in the Ottoman Empire period in three periods. These were the early period, the classical period, and the late period. The early period structures had characteristics of Seljuk Architecture. The significant architectural structures in the early period were Haci Ozbek Mosque and Green Mosque in Iznik, Ulu Mosque, Green Mosque in Bursa, Ulu Mosque, and Three Balcony Mosque. The Anatolian Fortress, built by Yıldırım Bayezit, and the Rumeli Fortress, built by Fatih Sultan Mehmet, were the most stunning examples of the early period’s military architecture.
In the classical period, the architectural structures of Mimar Sinan were in the foreground. Ottoman architecture reached its peak with Mimar Sinan, who built more than four hundred architectural structures. In the late period, the architecture of the Ottoman Empire was affected by European architecture, which the baroque and rococo styles entered Ottoman architecture. The first architectural structure made under the effect of the European architectural style was the Nuruosmaniye Mosque.
5. The Republic of Turkey Period
In 1923, Ankara was the capital of the Republic of Turkey, and Istanbul lost its long-standing capital status. Therewith, Istanbul lost a large part of its population due to the war, and homogenization dominated its multicultural nature. Prioritizing the construction of the capital Ankara and Anatolian cities caused the delay of investments in Istanbul.
In the Republic of Turkey Period, the new administration supported a modernization approach and mainly made planning initiatives that regulated the physical infrastructure and urban landscape. Due to this, new squares were built in Istanbul by the new administration. Taksim square and Beyazit square were examples of this. Then, uncontrolled urbanization replaced modernization in İstanbul. As a result, several large-scale housing projects, business centers, and malls were built with private and state enterprises. In today’s Istanbul architecture, neoliberal global policies dominate.
Local governments determine the dynamics of urbanization in this period. An intensely massive and branded urbanization dominates Istanbul architecture. Istanbul, where the capital, shopping, and communication increase incredibly, causes the physicalization of class differences and irregular income distribution. As a result, neoliberal urbanization brings many problems, such as the problem of squatter settlements.
Helbert, A. (n.d.). Archives des Byzance architecture. [online] Antoine Helbert, Artiste Peintre, Sculpteur, Illustrateur à Strasbourg en Alsace. Available at: https://www.antoine-helbert.com/categories-annexes/byzance-architecture/ [Accessed 30 Sep. 2021].
İstanbul Shopping Fest. (n.d.). İstanbul’un Tarihi. [online] Available at: http://istshopfest.com/istanbulun-tarihi/ [Accessed 30 Sep. 2021].
İstanbul Valiliği Bilgi İşlem Şube Müdürlüğü (2021). Üç İmparatorluğa Başkentlik Yapan Şehir: İstanbul. [online] Istanbul.gov.tr. Available at: http://www.istanbul.gov.tr/uc-imparatorluga-baskentlik-yapan-sehir-istanbul [Accessed 30 Sep. 2021].
İSAM (2021). İstanbul’un Bizans Dönemi Mimarisi | Büyük İstanbul Tarihi. [online] Istanbultarihi.ist. Available at: https://istanbultarihi.ist/298-istanbulun-bizans-donemi-mimarisi [Accessed 30 Sep. 2021].
İSAM (2021a). Cumhuriyet Döneminde İstanbul’da Mimarlik | Büyük İstanbul Tarihi. [online] Istanbultarihi.ist. Available at: https://istanbultarihi.ist/326-cumhuriyet-doneminde-istanbulda-mimarlik [Accessed 30 Sep. 2021].