From Founding to the Latin Invasion

In the years following the founding of Constantinople in 330 by Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), the city underwent rapid expansion. A large number of people flowed into the city, attracted by features like the distribution of free bread, employment opportunities, including in new administrative and military institutions, and proximity to the imperial court. As early as 359, Constantinople had developed and expanded to such an extent that, like Rome, it could be referred to as an urban prefecture.1 To meet the growing city’s increasing water needs, construction of canals began. The archbishop of Constantinople, serving in the Megale Ekklasia, the construction of which was completed in 360, “started to outstrip the former authorities behind in power and wealth.”2

In addition to an imperial palace, Constantinople housed a senate and all the social, financial, and administrative institutions that a major urban space needed; within a short time, it became one of the outstanding cities of the eastern Mediterranean, competing with Alexandria and Antioch in terms of wealth, reputation, population, and cultural influence. The founding of the capital of the new empire on the Bosphorus had a substantial long-term effect on the movement and trade of goods throughout the Aegean and the Mediterranean basin, as well as on the political life of the Roman world. The choice of location for the capital was meaningful, not because it was a radical separation from tradition but because the new city was located on the edge of the Orient. Rome had been occupied with this region due to wars with the Sassanids and, in time, in attempts to suppress Christianity. Indeed, as a result of the tetrarchy, the emperor needed a regional center. Constantine’s choice of this location was probably based on strategic assessments. The new capital was located at the intersection of two strategically important roads: The Via Egnatia (Egnatia Way), which led to the Adriatic Coast through Thessaloniki, and the military highway that led from Chalcedon (now Kadıköy) to the east through Nicomedia (now İzmit). Moreover, the location of the peninsula on which the city was built made it easy to access by sea and made it possible to control, or at least manage, sea traffic from the south and east.3 Constantinople became one of the most important cities in the world to be established in this way.

Constantinople was designed as the New Rome, and all the conventions and privileges of ancient Rome were conveyed to the new capital. Constantine the Great made every effort to increase the splendor, attractions, and wealth of the capital. He arranged for enough grain to be imported from Egypt to meet the needs of approximately 80,000 people per year. This is an indication of Constantine’s foresight with regard to probable population growth. The city grew quickly, and new construction was begun in order to meet various needs, especially the need for water. Aqueducts and cisterns as well as grain stores and housing areas rapidly increased. Pipe drains, canals, and aqueducts that carried the city’s water stretched for 150 kilometers into the Thracian hinterland. In addition to city walls, which had been partially destroyed, Constantine I commenced construction of new walls to the far west, enclosing an area twice the size of the original city. A new physical structure emerged as a result of Gothic threats in the 370s; later, the city’s vulnerability to attack from Thrace, its rapid population growth, and the needs of the imperial government all played a role in the decision to build the city walls.4 Succeeding emperors ornamented the city with their own monuments; these included arcaded structures, columned streets, public baths, and other public structures. From the fourth to the seventh century, nearly 40 public baths were built and water was brought to them via a number of large, mostly open-air cisterns. The Aetios cistern in Karagümrük, one of the largest, held approximately 160,000 m3 of water.5

Attracting representatives of the ancient Roman aristocracy to Constantinople, Constantine also contributed to the corporate identity of the capital. In the middle of the fourth century, the members of the Synkletos (senate), most of whom were members of the landed aristocracy, reached 2,000.

The city was the site not only of magnificent secular buildings and monuments but also of churches. Ancient Roman and Christian components were included in the city plan; as more churches were built, the old pagan atmosphere gave way to a Christian one. Most of the population spoke Greek.6 Although Constantine appears to have only built three churches (Hagia Eirene, which served as the cathedral, and two churches, dedicated to the local saints Acacius and Mocius), in subsequent years the city became famous for its churches. Theodosius I (r. 379–395) and his successors developed the urban structure further, including a large new port, which must have increased the commercial capacity of the city; there were also new warehouses, as well as the Theodosius and Arcadius Forums and splendid monuments. The women of the reigning dynasty competed with one another by constructing residences and obtaining favored estates. In 423, the fortified area was expanded again with the construction of double land walls, making Constantinople into a fortress of unprecedented strength. The urban area reached nearly 1,400 hectares, and the population was between 300,000 and 400,000.7 Constantinople was now larger than Rome, which was in decline, and even larger than Alexandria or Antioch.8 Around the 420s, there were nearly 14 churches in Constantinople, and in the following years this number increased. During the reign of Theodosius II (r. 408–450), the city prefect Anthemius enclosed a larger amount of land within walls. These impressive moated walls, which can still be seen today, extended 6 km from the Marmara Sea to the Gulf of Marmara. While the construction of land walls began in 412 and 413, the construction of the sea walls did not start until the end of the 430s. In the following centuries the value of these walls was appreciated.9

The administration and public order of the city in the fifth century was the responsibility of 13 curatores (each for one region), 65 night watchmen, 560 firefighters, and other personnel, all directed by the prefecture.10 There were probably about 1,000 staff members in the prefecture. Although a notitia was prepared after the construction of land walls by Theodosius II, this document related solely to the two settlements outside the city in the period of Constantine: one that reached beyond Galata (Sycai) and another that extended beyond the Golden Horn, probably including today’s district of Eyüp. The wide zone between the walls that remained from the period of Constantine and the walls of Theodosius II was not considered to be an urban area and was sparsely populated throughout the Middle Ages.11 This area was used for farms, gardens, and a cemetery. Some early monasteries were probably also located in this area. Apparently, the Theodosian walls were built not to enclose residential areas but for defense, in particular to protect large water reservoirs.

The rapid growth of the capital in the fourth and fifth centuries may have created an urgent need for supplies. The agricultural and transportation capacity of the ancient world could not provide sufficient food for the new city and its vicinity, which included a population of 300,000 to 400,000. Wheat, corn, and vegetables were grown in neighboring Thrace, but not in sufficient amounts to feed the city; the Thracian region was constantly exposed to attacks by barbarians. The Avar, Slavic, and Bulgarian invasions that took place in Thrace demonstrated Constantinople’s vulnerability to attacks from the west. For this reason, as early as the fifth century, the construction of walls that extended from Silivri (Selymbria) to the Black Sea, up to 60 km from the capital, was prioritized.

The western coast of Anatolia was unable to meet the grain needs of the city; it produced only enough to meet its own needs. The only place that could supply Constantinople with enough grain was Egypt. During the reign of Constantine, grain from Egypt was sent to the new capital from Rome. At first, the amount was the equivalent of 80,000 daily rations, indicating the existence of a population twice that size.12 During the reign of Justinian, the supply from Egypt increased to 8 million artabae (a unit of measurement corresponding to three modius or bushels)—enough to satisfy the needs of half a million people.13 No further data are available to compare to or to test these numbers. But transportation by sea, the distance, and the critical situation of the administration in Egypt indicate the disorder of the system in relation to food problems in the city as well as some probable risks. Above all, the grain supply from Egypt depended on the annual flooding of the Nile. The harvest had to be collected, measured by government inspectors, and transported to warehouses in Alexandria before September 10 each year. Then the cargo, known as “well-chosen shipping,” was carried from Alexandria to Constantinople.14

If there was an insufficient harvest in Egypt or if a mistake was made during storage or transportation, Constantinople’s population faced the threat of hunger. In such an event, emergency measures were carried out. Problems during grain production and transportation could cause unrest and revolts in the capital. For example, in 409 a famine occurred that led to a bloody revolt and the reorganization of shipping. If one takes into account the possible faults in this process, the reason the administration gave priority to Constantinople’s need for grain becomes clearer. However, in spite of all incidental situations, this system continued to operate for many centuries. Constantinople’s existence as a major city depended on a well-functioning coastal supply network.15

As the importance and population of Rome declined, the new capital grew. Less than a century after its founding, Constantinople’s population surpassed Rome’s, and by the middle of the sixth century it had become a metropolis with a population between 400,000 and 500,000. The total population in the 530s was 500,000 (some estimates are higher). In the middle of the eighth century, it is likely that the population of the city, after a series of setbacks—including a plague outbreak in the 540s as well as other epidemics throughout the period, culminating in a great plague epidemic in the 740s—fell to between 30,000 and 40,000. However, all these figures are contested and need to be verified. The expansion of the city came to a halt between the middle of the seventh century and the end of the eighth century.16 From the ninth century onward, the population and construction in the city started to increase once again. Near the end of the 11th century and during the 12th century, the population gradually increased until it again reached the level that had existed at the beginning of the sixth century.17

Constantinople became the largest city in the ancient world just before the plague of 542, during the reign of Justinian I (527–565). Although it is not possible to determine the exact date when the population reached its peak, it is likely to have occurred between 500 and 540. From then on, fewer large public buildings were constructed, although the number of churches being built increased. Indeed, Justinian’s construction efforts focused on churches and official buildings of the empire.

There can be no doubt that conditions in the capital worsened during this period, with the population rapidly falling off due to the plague in 542. There is no evidence that these losses were compensated for at a later date, nor that there was any amelioration to the worsening environmental conditions. During the rest of the century, the city suffered not only from epidemics but also from other disasters. Following the occupation of Alexandria by the Sassanids in 619, grain imports from Egypt stopped.18 Within the same period, an epidemic also broke out. In 626, the city was besieged by Avars, who devastated Thrace, thus depriving the city of its remaining food supplies.19 Between 674 and 678 Constantinople was besieged by the Arabs. In 698, another plague epidemic broke out. Expecting another Arab attack in 714/715, the emperor, Anastasius II, exiled everyone who did not have enough food stocked for three years from the city. It is likely that the majority of people did not have such supplies. Between 717 and 718 another plague epidemic occurred; this was of such extraordinary severity that the city became “nearly uninhabited,” one source stated. In 747, the population of Constantinople reached the lowest point seen in the Middle Ages.20

It is not possible to verify in detail the effects of this sharp decrease in population on daily life. These adverse conditions continued throughout the seventh century. The Miracles of St. Artemios, written shortly after 689, presents a vivid picture of life in the first half of the century. Artemios, of unknown lineage, was a healer who specialized in tumors. His church was located in a working-class area, probably in the neighborhood in which the Grand Bazaar is located today; his patients were common people. The healing would occur after a waiting period, sometimes lasting a few months, during which the patients and their relatives had to sleep in the church; during this time they prayed that the saint would appear in their dreams. Among those who experienced miraculous healing were an African, a few Alexandrians, a couple of people from Rhodes, and a tradesman from Chios. Among others who were not inhabitants of Constantinople was a man from Amasra (Amastris), a Phrygian, and a coppersmith from Cilicia, who practiced his profession near the church and had a bad temper, like all his countrymen. The patient mentioned in the text who had come the farthest was a man from Gaul (France) who had come to Constantinople to work on ship repairs.21 Among the people mentioned in The Miracles of St. Artemios were sailors, a candle maker who kept his stall open until late at night, a bow maker, a tanner, a vintner, a woman who ran a public bath, and a few goldsmiths, said to be dishonest. The text gives the impression that Constantinople remained a center for trade and artisanship (although on a small scale) during a period when the vitality of urban life had begun to diminish in Anatolia and the Balkans.22

A great depression occurred in the first half of the eighth century, for which a number of indirect indicators can be found. The land walls of the city, which had been severely damaged during the earthquake of 740, could not be repaired by the local inhabitants for a long time; most probably the emperor had to collect a special tax in order to employ a foreign labor force. After the plague of 747, Constantine V (reigned 740–775) tried to revive the city by bringing settlers from Greece and the Aegean Islands, both of which had already experienced population losses. The most important water canal of the city, the Valens aqueduct, was not repaired until 766. The labor force needed for this job was once again imported: 1,000 masons and 200 plasterers from Pontus, 500 potters from Greece and from the Aegean islands (to produce water pipes), and 5,000 construction workers and 200 brickmakers from Thrace.23 These data suggest that even unskilled workers could not be found in the city. Considering the fact that Constantinople could not take drinking water from nearby sources, the survival of the city without a major aqueduct for 140 years (all the aqueducts had been destroyed during the Avar attacks) can only be explained by a sharp decrease in population. Cyril Mango estimated that during the middle of the eighth century, the population of the capital was well below 50,000, perhaps only half that number.24

There are serious problems with the figure of Cyril Mango gave for the population of Constantinople in the middle of the eighth century. His calculations depended upon the fact that during this period Constantinople sustained itself without receiving grain from Egypt. But this was also true for the 11th and 12th centuries, by which time the city had recovered and had a large population. Other proofs that Mango presented to demonstrate the decrease in production, the reduction in port facilities, and the destruction of aqueducts by the Avars in 626, are more related to cultural disadvantages. Moreover, it is necessary to ask whether the population of Constantinople could live without their public baths, which used large amounts of water. It would not be inaccurate to compare the city to scattered settlement blocks during the period of Iconoclasm (711–843) and the reign of the Palaiologoi (1261–1282), when “most of the city was empty and not occupied.”25

When and why this decline in population occurred is controversial. Was it caused by the famous Nika Revolts of 532, during which the city was burned and 30,000 people died?26 Given that 30,000 people were killed in the Hippodrome during the suppression of these revolts,27 it is likely that two or three times that number fled the city. Or was it caused by the illness frequently encountered in the Mediterranean world after 542, the plague?28 The first recorded bubonic plague outbreak occurred in 541–542; it caused an unprecedented catastrophe. Originating in Ethiopia, it spread throughout the Mediterranean world, from Spain in the west to Iran in the east. An epidemic broke out in Constantinople in the spring of 542, ravaging the city for four months. According to Procopius, an eyewitness, the number of the people who contracted the disease daily reached 5,000 and later 10,000. Since the graveyards were full and there was no time to dig new graves, corpses were piled on top of one another on the coast or were thrown into the sea from the towers of the Galata citadel. Then an awful smell spread over the city. That first epidemic was followed by other outbreaks of plague or other illnesses in 555, 558, 561, 573, 574, 591, 599, and at the beginning of the seventh century.29

Perhaps the reason for the sharp population decrease was the loss of Egypt, which was the major granary of the imperial capitals in the middle of the seventh century (642). Another factor that should be considered is the role that wars and loss of land played in the destruction of the system that sustained Constantinople, a major city of late Antiquity.30 It is possible to state with some certainty that half of Constantinople’s population died in 542; it is apparent that while some cities were abandoned, others were less affected. In recurrent 15-year cycles, the outbreak of diseases to which young adults were particularly susceptible may have led to some destructive demographical outcomes.31 The economic outcomes were no less serious: all normal professions were interrupted, the price of goods tripled or quadrupled, hunger appeared, arable fields were abandoned, and the burden on surviving farmers increased with additional taxes being imposed on the arid lands of their dead neighbors.32 A differentiation should be made between those who completely disappeared from city life during the process of urban transformation and those whose functions became smaller or whose locations were changed, but who managed to survive.33 Changes in the number of bakeries in the city could be an indication of a decrease or increase in the population. Cyril Mango saw this as evidence of population decrease in the 10th and 12th centuries.34

The population of the city started to increase from the beginning of the ninth century. In parallel, construction activities in the city gained speed. It is apparent that Constantinople had a few dozen churches that were well used in the 10th century, having been renewed from the sixth century onward. This indicates a consistently large population. Heraclius, in a story dated 612, related that he tried to reduce the staff in Hagia Sophia and Blachernai. According to his plan, there must have been 600 religious officials in Hagia Sophia and 72 in Blachernai. In the Church of St. John, 10 religious officials were employed. The growing economic crisis forced a reduction in the number of religious officials. There were also many priests, monks, and priestesses living in churches and monasteries in the center and periphery of the city.35 In the 10th century, some of the dead were buried in cemeteries within the city walls, which had not been possible 300 years earlier. The city’s decrease in the population also affected its physical conditions. The ceremonial activities of the Blues and the Greens were performed at court.

The population increase that started in the ninth century continued, making Constantinople Europe’s largest city during the Middle Ages, until it was plundered during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.36 After that the population sank, reaching its lowest known level, about 70,000, in the early 15th century, 30 to 40 years before the conquest. Water reservoirs were smaller than those in the eighth century. There is no evidence that the large open-air cisterns west of the city had fallen out of use before 1204. However, these areas were filled with earth in the 15th century and used as vegetable gardens.37

There are various opinions about the demographical crises of the sixth and eighth centuries. The most common opinion is that the capital recovered gradually and there was a broad spectrum of residents during the Crusades. The text Parastaseis Syntomoi Khronikai (Short Historical Notes), which sheds some light on the city’s appearance in 760, resembles a guide to the amazing panoramas of the capital, and gives an impression of abandonment and desolation. It narrates the destruction of various monuments—statues, palaces, public baths, most of which must have belonged to the fourth and fifth centuries— and the remnants that the function of them cannot be understood. They evoked something magical and ominous. Of the inscriptions scattered throughout the city, the writer said, “If I had not read this inscriptions, I would have been happier.”38 From 755 onward Constantinople entered a process of recovery that would last until the Crusades. Apart from fortification and repair of the damage caused by the earthquake, there was no construction during the eighth century. In the ninth century, new buildings began to be constructed. But these were different in quality from those built during the early Byzantine period: there was no need for buildings that would be open for public use, and new buildings were mostly around the imperial court. A spirit of renovation—repair rather than new construction—was promoted by propagandists in the courts of Michael III (r. 842–867) and Basil I (r. 867–886). The building list of Basil I indicates that all the capital’s major churches had begun to deteriorate and some were almost in ruins. For this reason, Basil began to renovate six churches in the villages around the city and more than 25 churches within the city.39 Recovery in the capital corresponded to the recovery that was experienced throughout the empire. This gained speed in the 10th century and reached its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries.40

The presence of Russian and Italian merchants in Constantinople during the 10th century and the commercial capitulations granted to Venice by Alexios I are also interesting. In 1126, when John II Komnenos tried to suspend the capitulations of Venice, he was forced at gunpoint to abandon this enterprise.41 Moreover, in 1148 the Venetian neighborhood of Constantinople, which lay across the two bridges that connected the coasts, was expanded. These developments demonstrate that Constantinople gradually became the scene of foreign intervention and commercial interests. The number of Venetians living in Constantinople who had commercial and economic potential grew with these capitulations, reaching approximately 20,000. Theoretically, these foreigners were citizens of the empire and thus at first were under the authority of the imperial officials. Yet gradually they achieved self-management.42 During this period, the number of Western inhabitants with capitulations in the city probably reached 200,000 to 250,000 or one-fifth of the total population.43 On the streets of Constantinople one could hear a number of foreign languages, as John Tzetzes, who wrote at the end of the 12th century, described (although part of his description is obscure):

You may encounter me among Scythians as if I am a Scythian, as a Latin among the Latins and among all other nations as if I am one of them. While greeting a Scythian I address him like this: Salamalek alti ... salamek altuğep. I address the Persians in the Persian language: Asan hais kourouparza hantazar harantasi. With the Latins, I speak in the Latin language. Bene venesti, domine, bene venesti, frater. Undo es et de uale provincia venesti? Quomodo, frater, venesti in istan civitatem? Pedone, cavallarius, per mare, vis morari? I also address the Alans in their own language: Tapanhas mesfili hsina korthin ... In Arabic, I say to Arabs: Ala aina tamurr min, en ente sitti maulaje sabah. I address the Russians according to their customs: Sdra, brate, sestrica ve dobra deni. I address the Jews in Hebrew as required: Memakomene vithfaği Beelzebul timee ... Since I know that this is the most fitting behavior, I address everybody appropriately.

Like a true Levantine, Tzetzes could speak a few words in several languages, although he was probably most fluent in Latin.44 In short, in Constantinople during the reign of Komnenos, most commercial life was dominated by native Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and other foreigners. Occasionally, some form of oppression would occur against Constantinople’s immigrant population. The arrest of all Venetian inhabitants in 1171, the confiscation of their property, and the massacre of other Latins (especially those from Pisa and Genoa) in 1182 did little more than accelerate the retaliation that would be carried out by the Westerners.45 In spite of this, toward the end of the Ottoman period, the aggravated conditions of the capitulations were economically and demographically inverted at the beginning of the 20th century and during the Republican period.

During the Crusades

Just before the plunder and destruction of the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople experienced a devastating fire. This occurred in 1203, affecting practically the same areas as the fire of 465. This indicates that most of the population lived in the same areas—between Hagia Sophia to the east and Philadelphion to the west—as in the city’s early history and that these areas possessed a similar density. When the armies of the Fourth Crusade arrived in front of the city in 1203 they were astonished; never before had they seen such a big, powerful, and wealthy city, filled with so many palaces and churches.46 The fire, which broke out in August of the same year and destroyed half the city within eight days, could be seen as a prediction of events to come. Overtaken by the Crusades after a year and exposed to plunder for nearly 60 years, Constantinople was deprived of its old inhabitants and its glory; it was unable to regain its magnificence.47

Constantinople is not mentioned at all in the records of the first three Crusades. In contrast, the Fourth Crusade directly affected Constantinople and Byzantium, and its chroniclers recorded valuable information about the population of the city during the siege. While stating that 20,000 Crusaders captured a city of 400,000 people, Geoffroi de Villehardouin, the chief chronicler, gave information about the population of Constantinople. He also mentioned that “many houses had been burnt down, more than those in the three largest cities of the Frankish Kingdom.”48 Another Crusader chronicler, Robert de Clari, wrote that there were nearly 30,000 priests in the city, as well as monks and other clerics. Corresponding to this information are the statements of two English writers about records provided by Crusaders. According to one of them, Gerald of Wales, Crusaders counted 64 monasteries, 294 churches, 2553 boats, 361 sailing ships, and 157 galleys and cargo ships on the Bosphorus and outside the city.49

There is agreement between these data. They are also supported by statements made by Benjamin of Tudela and historians of the First Crusade. The figure of 30,000 clerics given by Robert de Clari is close to Chartresli Flucher’s 20,000 eunuchs.50 Although this type of information was sometimes exaggerated by Western writers, the numbers are not impossible. For example, the census that Manuel I conducted in 1200 found that there were 54,000 monks in Constantinople; this figure provides indirect information about the population of the city. In light of these data, the number that Geoffroi gave for Constantinople’s population is reasonable. Although 400,000 is slightly below average estimates of Constantinople’s population in the sixth century, it demonstrates that the city showed indications of overcrowding once again just before the Fourth Crusade. It is necessary to take limiting factors into consideration in this development, such as the destructive fires and the ongoing water shortage, despite the large number of cisterns.51 Also, in a multilingual environment which poor artisans, powerful traders, and other social groups coexisted, riots broke out from time to time, threatening the regime.

During the reign of Constantine V (741–775), the population started to increase again, possibly due to migration rather than the local birthrate.52 There were sharp changes in the population of Constantinople: between 1014 and 1044, and again between 1077 and 1078. After a great riot in 1044, Constantine IX Monomachos ordered the expulsion of all foreigners, but particularly Armenians, Arabs, and Jews, who had come to the city in the last 30 years.53 About 100,000 people probably left the city during this process. At the same time, an unknown number of other people were coming to the city, as slaves or in pursuit of better work. The capital continued to attract people from Anatolia, the Balkans, and the islands. With the reconquest of the city in 1261 and further centralization, its attraction increased.54 The waning of the empire in the second half of the 12th century did not reduce this attraction, as the city became home to people trying to flee from danger. The conquest of Anatolia by the Turks increased immigration to Constantinople during the Komnenian Dynasty. The growth in agriculture and commerce also continued after the Battle of Mantzikert. The aqueducts, which were of great importance for water supply to the city, were renovated twice, first by Basil II in 1021 and then by Romanos III in 1034.55

It is possible to make a similar observation for the canals and roads used for food supply during this period. Occasionally, difficulties occurred in the food supply from Thrace and the Dardanelles. These difficulties appear to have been reduced with the abolition of the Bulgarian state in Thrace by Basil II (r. 976–1024).56 In terms of the relation between the population and the settlement in Constantinople, all invasions, fires, exiles, epidemics, and other political turmoil had a negative effect on the city’s population. However, political stability, periods of peace, the development of commerce and crafts, regional population movements, and the end of food and water shortages in the city had positive effects on the city’s development and population size. The area of the city that was surrounded by the Theodosian Walls, measuring nearly 13 km2, appears never to have been completely built up or settled. During the reign of the Komnenos, when the city had not yet started its decline, there were cultivated fields within the city walls, probably in the Lycus (Bayrampaşa river) valley and along the city walls. This area was not very large, but the Latin invasion caused such adversity that the city could not populate it. Fire destroyed vast areas of the city in 1203 and 1204, and most of the Byzantine public, who did not want to endure Latin dominion, migrated to other places. When the Byzantines regained the city in 1261, Michael VIII had to spend a large amount of money to repair the most crucial areas. Most of the colonnaded roads were removed and replaced with parkways.57

Immediately before and after the Conquest

The fact that around 1344 the city was filled with gardens can be deduced from a sentence written by Nikephoros Gregoras: “An earthquake destroyed the walls of the gardens.” According to this and other similar indications, the city fell into decline again in the 14th century; large neighborhoods were abandoned and replaced by large monastic institutions, which had large gardens. Surviving cadastral documents make it clear that the streets and alleys were the border. The documents of the Patriarchate, the Typica, and other historical records give us an idea about how the process of Constantinople becoming a village developed in the final period.58

Clavijo, who saw Constantinople in 1403, wrote that the area within the city walls included small neighborhoods separated by orchards and fields. The ruins of palaces and churches could be seen everywhere. The aqueducts and the most densely inhabited neighborhoods were along the coast of the Marmara Sea and Golden Horn.59 Only the coastal areas, in particular the commercial areas facing the Golden Horn, had a dense population. Although the Genoese colony in Galata was small, it was overcrowded and had magnificent mansions.60 According to another source, the hagiasmata (holy springs) were indications of churches in ruins. Apart from monastic areas, there were also mansions and their annexeses, which belonged to high-ranking officers. The palace of Theodore Metochites, damaged by a riot in 1328, consisted of not only a church, the houses of the children of the vizier, and some commercial and administrative departments, but also a park with a pool and gardens. Even camels could be seen there, something that was quite rare for the time.61 In short, the center of the city (around the Lycus Valley and the aqueducts) and the area along the walls were occupied by gardens and fields. Expansive monastic buildings and palaces, orchards, and olive gardens were dispersed throughout the city, which had taken on the form of an island. The port on the Golden Horn was more densely populated, while the Marmara coast, with its small ports (Kadırga, Sophia, Kumkapı, and Kontoskalion), was less populated. Since the old palace belonging to the king, the Hippodrome, and the large forums were no longer of any importance, they gradually fell into ruin. The landscape of the city was most probably like Rome in the Middle Ages. Gennadios Scholarios stated that the city was “poor and mostly uninhabited”; it became “the city of ruins,” when it had once been the “city of wisdom.”62

In Istanbul today, it is difficult to determine the layout of the Byzantine city. Some segments of the Mese—Divanyolu, the Hippodrome, Augusteion (today’s Hagia Sophia Square), and the Forum Theodosius—still exist today, but other Byzantine squares have disappeared. It is apparent that the urban transformation took place much earlier, and Constantinople in the Komnenian period was different from Constantinople in the Justinianic period.63

The population of Constantinople was estimated in the Vekâyinâme—written by a delegate of a Western embassy who could pass honest judgments and who was in the city in 1437—at about 40,000. This number seems low, even taking into consideration the fact that the city was thinly populated. Tedaldi of Florence estimated the population at 30,000 to 36,000, while in Chronica Vicentina, Andrei di Arnaldo estimated it at 50,000. The plague epidemic of 1435 must have caused the population to drop. If this was the case, a population estimate of 40,000 to 50,000 would not be inaccurate. Although the figure of 60,000 that Leonard, the Bishop of Chios, gave as the number of slaves indirectly supports this estimate, it is exaggerated.64 The number of people captured by the Ottomans after the fall of the city was around 33,000.65 But some people, such as the Jewish population in Balat66 and the Christians who escaped to Galata or sheltered in underground buildings, later to be pardoned, are not included in this number. With reference to these data, it can be stated that Constantinople had a population of well below 50,000 when it was conquered by the Turks in 1453. The emperor at that time, Constantine Palaiologos, could recruit only 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers to defend the city.67 There were also rumors that many priests had converted to Islam before and during the siege.68 As a result of the siege and the weak defense, not to mention the decrease in population, the city fell.

After Sultan Mehmed II entered the city with his regiment on Friday, June 1, and performed the Friday prayer in Hagia Sofia, he stayed in a Franciscan monastery. In the second half of the same month, he returned to his palace in Edirne and left subaşı Süleyman, a qadi, and 1,500 janissaries in the city; these were given the task of repairing the walls. The small number of people left in the city indicates that there could not have been many residents there.69 Some of the many Muslims (the specific number is unknown) who followed the invading army may have remained in the city, but their number was not adequate for the revival and reconstruction of the city. The primary concern of Mehmed II in the early years of his reign was the construction and settlement of the city. However, since an insufficient number of Muslims accepted his invitation, the settlement of 30 abandoned neighborhoods with the inhabitants of formerly conquered areas became necessary.


1 Cyril Mango, Bizans- Yeni Roma İmparatorluğu, tr. Gül Çağalı Güven, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2008, p. 84.

2 Mango, Bizans, p. 84.

3 John Haldon, Bizans Tarih Atlası, tr. Ali Özdamar, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2007, p. 71.

4 Haldon, Bizans Tarih Atlası, p. 73.

5 Haldon, Bizans Tarih Atlası, p. 72.

6 G. Ostrogorsky, Bizans Devleti Tarihi, tr. Fikret Işıltan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1981, p. 35.

7 Mango, Bizans, p. 70.

8 Mango, Bizans, p. 85.

9 Haldon, Bizans Tarih Atlası, p. 73.

10 Mango, Bizans, p. 86.

11 Mango, Bizans, p. 86.

12 Mango, Bizans, p. 86.

13 Mango, Bizans, p. 86.

14 Mango, Bizans, p. 86.

15 Mango, Bizans, p. 87.

16 Haldon, Bizans Tarih Atlası, p. 73.

17 Haldon, Bizans Tarih Atlası, p. 73.

18 Ostrogorsky, Bizans Devleti, p. 89.

19 Ostrogorsky, Bizans Devleti, pp. 96-97.

20 Mango, Bizans, p. 88.

21 Mango, Bizans, p. 88.

22 Mango, Bizans, p. 89.

23 Mango, Bizans, p. 89.

24 Mango, Bizans, p. 89.

25 Mango, Bizans, p. 62.

26 Mango, Bizans, p. 76

27 Charles Diehl, Bizans İmparatorluğu’nun Tarihi, (tr. A. Göke Bozkurt), Istanbul: İlgi Yayınları, 2006, p. 36.

28 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 34.

29 Mango, Bizans, p. 76.

30 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 34.

31 Mango, Bizans, p. 77.

32 Mango, Bizans, p. 77.

33 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, pp. 34-35.

34 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 39

35 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, pp. 48-49.

36 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 16.

37 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, pp. 32-33.

38 Mango, Bizans, p. 90.

39 Mango, Bizans, p. 90.

40 Mango, Bizans, p. 91.

41 Ostrogorsky, Bizans Devleti, p. 349.

42 Mango, Bizans, p. 93.

43 Mango, Bizans, p. 94.

44 Mango, Bizans, p. 96.

45 Mango, Bizans, p. 97.

46 Diehl, Bizans İmparatorluğu’nun Tarihi, p. 83, 99.

47 Mango, Bizans, p. 97.

48 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 89.

49 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 89.

50 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 91.

51 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 91.

52 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, pp. 92-93.

53 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 93.

54 Auguste Bailly, Bizans İmparatorluğu Tarihi, Istanbul: Pegasus Yayınları, 2006, p. 275.

55 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 93.

56 Magdalino, Ortaçağda İstanbul, p. 95.

57 Alfons Maria Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, TTK Belleten, 1952, vol. 16, no. 61, p. 36.

58 Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, p. 36

59 Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, p. 38

60 Mango, Bizans, p. 96.

61 Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, p. 38.

62 Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, pp. 37-38.

63 Mango, Bizans, p. 96.

64 Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, p. 39.

65 Yannis Kordatos, Bizans’ın Son Günleri, çev. Muzaffer Baca, Istanbul: Alkım Yayınevi, 1999, p. 81.

66 In return for the loyalty and honesty the Jews displayed during the conquest, they were granted religious freedom and the right to keep their synagogues. This was recorded by two janissaries, who claimed to have been present at the conquest, in 1533. A similar agreement was made with the Christians in 1538. The leader of the Jewish community in the period of the last Palaiologos, Rabbi Mose Kapsali, was allowed to keep his post by Mehmed II (Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, p. 40).

67 Kordatos, Bizans’ın Son Günleri, p. 48.

68 Kordatos, Bizans’ın Son Günleri, p. 49, 50.

69 Schneider, “On Beşinci Yüzyılda İstanbul’un Nüfusu”, p. 40.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.