Istanbul, a thriving ancient-modern city, has long been one of the largest cities in the world. Straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul has a vast array of residential neighborhoods, commercial districts, industrial zones, and tourist areas. Its palaces, churches, and mosques draw millions of visitors each year.
In the center of Istanbul is the historic Byzantine city of Constantinople. This great city has been the capital of both Christian and Muslim empires. Hagia Sophia, the Christian Cathedral built in 537 AD, was the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years! The sprawling, 500-year-old, covered Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth of thousands of shops where you can buy anything from spices, rugs, and pottery, to cell phones and computers.
Across the Galata Bridge from the historic district is Beyoğlu, a modern European district with international brand-name stores, expensive boutiques, coffee shops, and pedestrian streets rivalling those of Paris, London, and Rome. Istanbul is a bustling, cosmopolitan city boasting a mix of European and Asian influences.
Istanbul’s nearly 2,800-year history has huge significance. Founded as Byzantium in 660 BC, it became the capital of the Greek Christian Byzantine empire in 330 AD, when Emperor Constantine renamed it Constantinople.
After its fall to the Turkish Ottoman forces in 1453, its name changed again to Istanbul. It was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for nearly six centuries. At the empire’s height, the Turks ruled much of southern Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. Istanbul remained the capital of the Ottoman empire until the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, when the capital was moved to Ankara.
Today Istanbul is the economic, industrial, educational, religious and cultural center of Turkey. With two-thirds of its 15 million people living on the European side, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe. Turkish Airlines, based in Istanbul, serves more countries than any other airline in the world.
Istanbul is home to most of the non-Sunni religious minorities – including some 135,000 Orthodox Christians of different sects, as well as some Catholics and Protestants.
Christian minorities experience persecution in Turkey. These officially-recognized Christians suffer personal attacks as well as Islamist attacks on their church buildings and official confiscation of church properties.
Though there is a growing evangelical movement to Christ in Turkey, with a few dozen house churches across the country, there have yet to be any major breakthroughs.
A small evangelical seminary in Istanbul trains lay people and pastors across the country. A few evangelical churches of Turkish believers have been officially registered. More than 500,000 of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are in Istanbul.
This presents new ministry opportunities since Syrian Muslim refugees are often open to the gospel. In Lebanon and Jordan, the presence of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees has led to revival in many Protestant churches. Let us pray that churches in Istanbul will be transformed as they minister to Syrian refugees in their midst.