Iconic Istanbul: How did the city get its name?

Europe Contributor
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Istanbul is the largest and most beautiful city in Turkey. It is the city of a legend with its mosques, markets and museums. The sheer brilliance of the Ottoman Empire is now sought after worldwide. The city has welcomed various civilizations and cultures throughout history. As a consequence, the name of the city changed several times along with the change of the rulers. As a reference to the popular culture, there is an English song which describes this retitling in a jovial way. The song is named Istanbul(Not Constantinople).

To the Muslims of the world, Istanbul is the city of happiness, culture and rich diversity.The city had been a capital for different rulers for about 1600 years. The Romans, Byzantine and Ottomans had considered the city as their capital. For that, it has got plenty of names. Each ruler wanted a unique name for his capital, no wonder Istanbul got titled so many times. The city is an amalgamation of heritage and history and still radiates a vibe of elegance.

The rich and elegant history and historical names of Istanbul


The first name of the city was Lygos. This was based on a Thracian settlement situated in this place. The Thracians are Indo-European people who lived in Eastern and South Eastern Europe for a long time.


Istanbul was formerly known as Byzantium. The historical lore says that a group of Doric Greek settlers from Megara founded a colony in 7th century BCE at the very place where present Istanbul stands. Their King was Byzas. He was instructed by an Oracle of Delphi to settle across from the ‘land of the blind’. The oracle of Delphi was an important Greek religious sanctuary which worshipped the god, Apollo. Byzas considered this place as it has a superb location at the entrance of the Bosphorus Strait.

Nezih Basgelen, the famous archaeologist somewhat supports this tenet. He says that the first name given to the peninsula on which Istanbul stands was Byzantion or Bizantion. Most probably it derived from the Thracian name of Byzas or Vizas. According to the lores, the city was built by King Bizas. He was the son of the demigod Semestras and raised by Thracian people.

Nova Roma or Secunda Roma

The city became the capital of the Roman Empire in the year 330 AD. It was again retitled by Roman emperor Septimus Severus as Secunda Roma or Second Rome. From the beginning of the fifth century, it was named as Nova Roma. This means new Rome. The citizens were called Romaios. We come to know about other names from Islamic sources. Such names are, Rûmiyyetü’l-kübrâ (Grand Rome), Taht-ı Rûm (Seat of Rome), Gulgule-i Rûm(sound of Rome) etc.


In the years 306 and 337 AD, the name of the city changed to Constantinople. This name was given by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. He made the city the capital of his empire. Konstantiniyye, a derivative of the name Constantinople was used by Arabs and Persians.This name was important and used for a long time by the western countries. Even when the city was under the Ottoman Empire. Though, the Ottoman Empire also used a variant of the similar name until the end of their rule.

Eis Ten Polis or I Sten Pol

The local people of the city referred to it as I Sten Pol (Within the city) or Eis Ten Polis (Go to the city) from the 10th century. Gradually this phrase morphed into one word. It can be said that the Greek way of referring the name Constantinople gave birth to the name Istanbul.


The Ottoman Empire used this name officially as the name of the city. It means the centre of the Caliphate.


This is also used while the Ottoman Empire was ruling the city. It is one of the old names of Istanbul. The meaning of this name is ‘Gate of Happiness.’


This name has a beautiful meaning. It comes from the Ottoman Turkish words Astana and Pisces. It means, belonging to a beautiful place or rulership.

In Slavic languages, Istanbul was named Carigrad or Tsarigrad (City of the Emperor). The Vikings called it Mikligarðr (The Big City).


The root of the present name Istanbul is Greek ‘Stinpolis’. It means a phrase… ‘to the city.’ It refers to a city which is within safe walls. The name became the official in the year 1930 under Ataturk’s administration.

Professor Yakoob Ahmed from the Theology department of Istanbul university casts light into this matter. He says, “We are not sure how the name Istanbul was developed as it emerged from the Greek . Also, we are not sure how far it goes back. It means to the city.’’ To the local people, the city is ‘Seher’. When someone says he is going to visit Seher, he means he is going to Istanbul.

Istanbul is full of unique historical surprises just as its name. Which allures the travelers from the various corners of the world.


(Written by freelancer Shreya T)