Secrets of Istanbul’s history
photo by Zeynep.

To those who know the history of Istanbul’s turbulent past, each name and location can reveal a treasury of secrets. Open the vault to reveal a couple of interesting facts about Istanbul’s history.

  • Istanbul claims fame from being the only city in the world to straddle two continents. However, historically, Istanbul’s centre was only situated on the European side while two separate cities existed on the Asian side. It only came to incorporate these separate cities and become a cross continental city in the 20th century. In fact, the extent of Istanbul today is the result of explosive immigration that eventually engulfed small villages lining the Bosphorus that are now suburbs today.
  • Istanbul was the most crowded city in the world in 1502, before London took the title in 1840. Still, today inhabitants are squeezed for space.
  • Istanbul boasted being the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire and the Ottoman Empire. But after Turkey became a republic in 1923, Istanbul’s title was stripped and the capital was moved to Ankara.
  • Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar was the first covered ‘shopping mall’ to be built. Still today, it has an estimation of over 4,000 shops and is considered the largest historical covered bazaar in the world. Grand by name, grand by nature!
  • When you’re having trouble finding a public toilet next time in Istanbul, think back to Istanbul’s ‘flush’ days. During the Ottoman Empire there were over 1,000 public toilets, before Europe had even accomplished such facilities at their palaces.
  • The four bronze horses that decorate San Marco’s Cathedral in Venice were apparently stolen by the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century. Supposedly, they once adorned the Emperor’s viewing box in Istanbul’s Hippodrome. They also stood on the Arc de Triumph in Paris in the early 18th century, when Napoleon forcibly removed the horses from the basilica’s facade. They were humbly returned to Venice in the early 19th century and ride inside the basilica while replicas stand guard outside.
  • Sirkeci Train Station was the last stop of the Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul from 1883 to 1977. Agatha Cristie was a passenger of the famous train, and wrote her famous novel “Murder on the Orient Express” while lodging at Istanbul’s Pera Palas Hotel during the 1920s and 1930s.
  • A sandy beach once beautified the Golden Horn’s inlet coastline at Galata before being replaced with a wharf in the late 19th century.
  • Since digging began for the Marmaray Tunnel underneath the Bosphorus, Neolithic artifacts have been found dating back to the 7th millennium BC. This places settlement before the Bosphorus had even started flowing.
  • The last Roman Emperor to have lived, Constantine XI, was killed during Sultan Ahmet I’s eight-week siege of Constantinople.
  • Istanbul sits on a major fault line running from northern Anatolia to the Sea of Marmara. The mosques of Istanbul would be even more abundant, had an earthquake in 1509 not caused a tsunami that broke over the city’s historical walls and destroyed over 100 mosques.
  • The obelisks protruding from the Hippodrome in Sultanahment were apparently modeled after the Circus Maximus in Rome.
  • The large and lavish buildings and embassies that line Istiklal and surrounding areas are evident of Istanbul’s role as a major center for the Art Nouveau movement in the late 19th to early 20th century.
  • Known as the father of the Turks, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was actually born in Greece. Although conquered by the Ottoman Empire at the time of his birth in 1881, Ataturk’s birthplace is now Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.
  • Istanbul’s architecture owes partly to the designs of Sinan Mimar the Architect. He also taught the architect of the Tajmahal in India.
  • The tulips that magically appear in spring are not just for aesthetics, but are in honor of their Turkish origins. Busbecq, the Ambassador of the Habsburg Emperor in Istanbul, introduced the tulip flower to Europe from Turkey.

Meet the author


After leaving Australia in 2003, Casey's path landed her in Istanbul for a summer stint only. Once addicted to Istanbul's eccentricity and charm, Casey failed to find reason to leave six years later. An avid traveller of sorts, Casey spent most of her time roaming across Europe and the Middle East looking for adventure and cultural experiences. Now a freelance editor and writer working from Madrid, Casey spends her days finding the words to excite the inner traveller in everyone.