Istanbul Was Constantinople

Dear Language Nerd,

Why IS it Istanbul (not Constantinople)?

-Cameron J.


Dear Cameron,


Istanbul (photo credit: noutsias)

And whose business is that, really? I mean besides the Turks?

Renaming places is generally slightly more complicated than people just liking a city better that way. In fact, it’s all about the power. It happens frequently when new groups replace the previous top bananas. For one giant pile of examples, consider the changes that occurred during the extremely rename-happy USSR. The town of Naberezhnye Chelny became Brezhnev immediately after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, when he was considered a great leader. It was swapped back a mere six years later, when new officials decided he hadn’t really been all that great after all. St. Petersburg has had a busy century – oh, it sounds too German, and we hate them Germans, better change it to Petrograd (1914); no wait, now we’re naming every third thing after Lenin, let’s jump on that and call it Leningrad (1924); no, we need to get back to our roots, let’s change it back to St. Petersburg (1991). Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad when Stalin was in power, then Volgograd when Stalin was out. There are several hundred more examples. USSR cartographers all had incredible headaches by the 1980s.

Those are internal power struggles, though. Let’s talk outside influence. The Lenape sold their “Island of Manhattes” to the Dutch in 1626 (and not for 24 bucks, either), and the Dutch decided to name their city New Amsterdam. About 40 years later, the British rolled through, and suddenly the residents were living in New York. (Wait a minute, that one’s in the song.)

On a larger scale, enormous swaths of Africa were renamed by colonizers, and have been reclaiming old names or coming up with new ones in the last few decades. Namibia, for one. The whole country was called “German Southwest Africa” until World War I, then was taken over by South Africa, and became an independent country in 1990. Now, most of the names brought in by the German colonizers are being kicked out, and traditional Namibian names being brought back in, like the city of Lüderitz, which was formerly and now  is again !Nami≠Nüs (for how to pronounce ! and ≠, head here).

I’m portraying this as if it were simple – the citizens all repaint Town Hall and move along – but of course it’s not. There’s always contention. People in !Nami≠Nüs are protesting the name change, not because they’re terribly fond of German names, but some because they feel like the change was made undemocratically, without input from locals, and some because they feel like the government is trying to whitewash their history. Because re-naming is so connected to power and to people’s views of themselves, it tends to be very emotional. Consider the Sea of Japan. Call it that in Korea, which is not exactly BFFs with Japan, and you’ll find yourself in trouble. It’s the East Sea, guys. Get it straight.

So what’s the story with that big ol’ city on the Bosphorus? Well, it was probably Lygos very early on, but that wee town was quickly stomped by Byzas, an excellent general who may or may not have been real. Either way, he followed the well-trodden path of the conqueror and named the city after himself.

Now, this is going to be strange, so follow me closely: Constantine showed up in 330, and he renamed Byzantine not after himself.* Yes, despite being a Roman emperor, a breed well known for naming things and places and months and people after themselves. Instead, the Big C called his revamped city “New Rome,” or “Second Rome,” or “Rome v2.0,” or “Eat It Old Rome This One Is Way Cooler.”

Other people began calling it Constantinople because Constantine was such a boss, and the name really only took off about a hundred years later, after people had had enough experience with crappy emperors to appreciate how awesome Constantine had been.

But the most recent name change was, at least in some ways, the business of the Turks. The Ottoman Turks rolled up in 1453, breached the gigantic walls, busted in and made themselves at home. They decided to drastically change the name of the city… to Konstantiniyye.

Yup. That’s right. Istanbul was Konstantiniyye, y’all. Keep up.


Constantinople (photo credit: still Noutsias)

Before we can get into this wacky plot twist any further, we need to make one thing clear: Constantinople was the only place to be around a millennium ago. It was the second-biggest and first-happeningest city in the world, and to most people, as far away as the friggin’ Vikings, Constantinople was The City. In Greek, this meant it was The Polis.

The “–ple” in “Constantinople” comes from Polis – it means “City of Constantine.” But the people who lived in the area also just called it “Polis,” especially since there were still a good number of Greek descendants around. And, because Greek for some reason likes to leave bits and pieces hanging onto place names, the phrase “into the City,” eis ten polin, started rolling around. And this is where we get the name Istanbul – not actually the Turks, but the Greeks. In fact, they were using that name before the Turks showed up.

Back to the Ottomans. All they did when they came in was change the Greek “-ople” ending to the Arabic “iyye,” for “place.” Konstantiniyye was the official name, though Istanbul was used for srs bznss too, and the government and people went back and forth on which one they preferred.

It’s not until the Ottomans collapse and the Turkish republic is formed, 1923, that the real push for the name Istanbul comes. The ruling powers are serious this time, and even get other countries involved by refusing to deliver mail addressed to Constantinople. Moreover, they went in for a bit of historical revisionism and decided that the Ottomans really only used Istanbul, after all. The huge push for a strong national identity, and against the Western nations (including the Greeks, and by extension the Byzantines) meant that the names were suddenly taken much more seriously. If you are ready for me to class this joint up, I will gladly quote Orhan Pamuk on the matter:

“For [Turkish] Westerners, 29 May 1453 is the Fall of Constantinople, while for Easterners, it’s the Conquest of Istanbul. […] When I was a child, the view among the city’s more vocal nationalists was that anyone who so much as used the word ‘Constantinople’ was an undesirable alien with irredentist dreams of the day when the Greeks who had been the city’s first masters would return to chase away the Turks… By contrast, many Ottomans were content to call their city Constantinople.”

Orhan Pamuk, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t say I never quote anything but rad 90s TV shows. And Sesame Street.

Just as a side note, power changes are the main way that names change, but it’s not the only way. If you change the way of writing a non-Latin-letter-using languages in Latin letters, you change how a name looks to outsiders, though the area remains the same to its residents: Korea’s government changed romanization systems in 2000, and “Pusan” became “Busan” to the rest of the world, but the Korean stayed the same (부산, and if you can’t read that sweet alphabet you should check it out here. I am just full of helpful reading tips today.)

And some places, small towns especially, will occasionally change their names just to get some attention (and dollaaaaahs). In 1950, the extremely popular radio show Truth of Consequences offered to visit and broadcast out of any town that would rename itself for them. The little town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, was one of about six bajillion towns named Hot Springs, but it took the leap, and now highway signs thereabouts point the way to “T or C.” More recently, a couple of little towns have decided to  become website urls, like, Oregon. Though they’re not going all the way, like T or C did – kept the name for less than a year.

Alright, I’m off to try and dislodge this song from my head. There has to be something catchier out there, right?


The Language Nerd

*Alright, The Const may once or twice have mentioned that he wouldn’t mind if people occasionally called the city “Roma Constantinopolitana.” Just every now and then.

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My baseline knowledge of Istanbul’s history comes from Lars Brownworth’s outstanding podcast, 12 Byzantine Rulers, which I recommend to everyone forever. Cheery, fascinating, and excellent podcast length (around 20 minutes each). Somewhat longer and not as tight, The Ottoman History podcast is still a good listen, though I’d only recommend it to people who already have some interest in the Ottomans.

Orhan Pamuk quote from his book Istanbul: Memories and the City, the only travel guide written by a Nobel laureate. Also the only travel guide that leads you not to tourist sites and restaurants, but to melancholy reminiscence and ponderings on the meaning of history and empire. Probably these are connected.

Specifics on Istanbul’s etymology from etymonline.

Name changes in Namibia, and less-than-thrilled responses.

Korea’s government explains the revision to the romanization system.

New York Times articles from the 80s on the name changes in Brezhnev and St. Petersburg, and the Guardian on Stalingrad.

The town of, as explained by the BBC.

What’s that, Wikipedia? You’ve got a list for me of all the names Istanbul’s ever had? Good boy, Wikipedia, you’re the best!

Truth or Consequences information comes from locals! That’s right, I have friends in tiny places.

P.S. On a highly related note, Istanbul is the coolest city ever, y’all, you should totally come visit.


Posted on September 17, 2013, in The Language Nerd and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Think this will make people stop singing that song to you? Think again!

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