What Is the Religious Significance of Constantinople, the City Founded by the Emperor Constantine?

by Mike Finch
The Hagia Sophia, a cathedral built during the Byzantine period, sits in Istanbul.

The Hagia Sophia, a cathedral built during the Byzantine period, sits in Istanbul.

The stature of Christianity grew exponentially in the city of Constantinople after Constantine I, ruler over the Roman East, was victorious in civil war, capturing the west and the Greek East. Under Constantine, Christianity emerged from the fringes of Roman society to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.

The Founding of Constantinople

After Constantine's victory in 330, he chose the ancient city of Byzantium as the new capitol of the Roman Empire, rebuilding the city and renaming it Constantinople. Located on the Bosphorus, Constantinople would come to symbolize the the legitimization of Islam after it was seized in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire. In Islam, the capture of Constantinople was evidence of a prophecy of the end times. Istanbul became the widely accepted name for the city in the 1920s, but many of the religious landmarks from the Byzantine period still remained.

The First Christian Emperor

The battle between the two Roman generals, Constantine I and Maxentius was fought at a time in the fourth century when Christianity was just beginning to take hold in Roman society. The co-emperors, Constantine and Maxentius, were grappling for total control. During their battle at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine claimed to see a vision from God that led to a favorable attitude towards Christianity, if not a full conversion. After winning the battle, Constantine felt he was chosen for Christianity and the empire would be the body for the teachings and work of Christ. Constantine took control of the Roman Empire and began to carve out areas for Christianity in Rome, converting pagan temples into churches.

Merging Roman Culture and Christianity

Over a period of just a few decades, Christianity became the presiding religion in the Byzantine and Roman empires. Constantinople is the first city where Christian practices were consolidated with the Roman state. The infancy of Christianity and the dominant belief in pagan rituals among the population made for a complex society. Constantine himself struggled with the moral obligations of Christian life. Although he claimed to have converted to the ways of Christ, actions like the execution of his son Crispus and wife Fausta were examples of his shortcomings.

Expanding Christianity

As Constantinople was made the new capital of the Roman Empire, elaborate basilicas were built there and many other places throughout the west. As pilgrimages became popular in Christianity, Constantine reconstructed Jerusalem around the places where Christ visited and died. The empire paid for Bibles to be reprinted. Members of other Christian faiths that did not include the Old Testament as a part of their teachings were persecuted.

Constantinople’s Legacy

The legacy of Constantinople is as a symbol of Christian legitimization and the foundation of Orthodox Christianity. If Constantine had not supported a new religious order east of Rome, Christianity would not have spread as far, or as fast as it did in the centuries afterward. The most important representation of Christianity in Constantinople was the Hagia Sophia, a cathedral that sat on the easternmost part of the city. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire invaded Constantinople and converted the Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. Today, the building functions as a museum. In the Sunni Hadith, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks represented the fulfillment of a messianic prophecy. The mahdi, or the "rightly guided one," was prophesied to seize Constantinople and renew Islam. (See Reference 4, Page 77)

About the Author

Mike Finch is a writer and reporter based in Miami. He has reported from West Palm Beach, St. Petersburg (Fla.) and New Orleans. He has a degree in political science.

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