Written back in 1953 by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon and later performed as a cover single by the band They Might Be Giants, the song, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is often remembered as a catchy ditty involving long names that drift back and forth between (you guessed it) Istanbul and Constantinople. The grueling fact is that this song actually reflects a dark history of the modern city of Istanbul in Turkey before it actually came to be known as such. Once again, you probably put together that it was once known as Constantinople, the great capital of the historic Byzantine empire.
Originally established as part of the Holy Roman Empire, the eastern and southeastern portions of the empire’s expanse were settled predominantly by Greeks (and very likely, tribes of Thracians before them). At the site in question, the settlement was initially known as Lygos – speculated as the site upon which the Thracians settled before the Greeks. The Greek government thus renamed the site Byzantium, later to become the name that reflected the whole of the empire. But, until that time, the city itself underwent a number of name changes while still under the rule of the Romans, including Augusta Antonina – in honor of the son of Emperor Septimius Severus – as well as New Rome, most likely to reflect the city’s influence within the eastern reaches of the empire. It also reflected Emperor Constantine’s efforts to rebuild and renovate the city. Historically speaking, the name New Rome also reflected the intrinsic rivalry between itself and the city of Rome located in modern-day Italy, particularly during a time called the Great Schism when the separation of the western and eastern empires had begun to take place due to a number of reasons, including socioeconomic and religious ones.
The city finally came to be known as Constantinople during the time of Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century A.D. This was to honor its namesake, the earlier emperor Constantine the Great, who had established Constantinople as the eastern capital in the century prior. This name would be used to refer to the eastern capital until its separation from the Roman empire and throughout its history as the center of the Byzantine empire for the following thousand years. The city acquired a mass of nicknames in this time as well, including the “Queen City,” the “Reigning City” and even colloquially known just as “the City.”
Under the rule of Constantine Palaeologus, Constantinople suffered an attack and siege from Sultan Mehmed II and the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It would later come under Ottoman rule and submit to Islamic practices. Along with an internal transformation of the city’s culture, the Ottomans also renamed the city “Konstantiniyye,” in what is referred to as a calqued translation from Greek to Arabic, essentially meaning the same thing between the two languages. Under the rule of the Ottoman empire, this new city name would persist for another 470 years before being officially and permanently changed to Istanbul (meaning “into the city”) within the established Republic of Turkey in 1928.
The name Istanbul was actually a common way for Ottomans to refer to the city of Constantinople even before it was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II. It only became official after the First World War and when occupying Allied forces had withdrawn. Afterward, the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, and only a few years later they adopted the Latin alphabet. Up until this point, the worldwide opinion was still to call the city “Constantinople,” but Turkey would soon insist upon formally addressing it as Istanbul.
And that’s why it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople.