Istanbul, Constantinople, al-Āsitāna, Qustantiniya, Tsarigrad, Mucklegarth – Bolis – the city on the Bosphorus, the largest city in Turkey, means many things to many people. For most of its life its geographical position, as a port bestriding two continents, has made it an international and cosmopolitan city. For a thousand years it was the principal city of Christendom. For nearly five hundred years it was the capital of the most successful Islamic state in history. It has always attracted people from the rest of the world, traders, scholars, writers, adventurers, men of religion. In the sixth century it imported wine from Gaza and in later Byzantine times herrings were brought from England. In the twenty-first century a community of Turkic speaking Uighurs provides the government with Chinese interpreters.
In the last twenty years or so the city has attracted people from the former Soviet Union. Poorer people flock to the cheaper hotels of Aksaray, and services are advertised in Russian; the wealthier migrate to the Taksim area and luxury clothes shops in Nişantaş advertise their wares in Russian. More recently Aksaray has housed thousands of refugees from civil war-torn Syria; here services are advertised in Arabic.
Its most famous monument, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Haghia Sophia, Ayasofya, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet after the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453. It became a ‘museum’ in 1935. Islamists want to turn it back into a mosque as they have done with the Ayasofya in Trabzon, Trebizond. It is the prototype for almost all subsequent mosques in the Ottoman Empire and beyond, to such an extent that a dome is still commonly regarded as an integral feature of a mosque.