Culture Re-View: Istanbul (Not Constantinople) - 5 cities that changed their names

The Hagia Sophia in İstanbul
The Hagia Sophia in İstanbul Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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On this day many years ago, Constantinople was renamed İstanbul. To celebrate, let's look at some other historic city name changes.


28 March 1930: Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Once the Ancient Greek city of Byzantium, when the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of his Empire to the Bosporus strait, it was renamed Constantinople in his honour.

For centuries, many have referred to the Eastern Roman Empire by the Greek name Byzantium, while the city itself was renamed as Kostantiniyye when the Ottomans conquered it in the 15th century.

It was only in 1930, after the formation of the Republic of Turkey that the city’s name was officially changed to the Turkish name İstanbul. Tracing the country back to its Greek history, the word İstanbul originates in the Greek phrase “στην Πόλι” (stim poli) meaning “in the city”.

Prior to its renaming, in 1923 Angora replaced İstanbul as the capital of the country and was renamed Ankara.

Just 23 years later, the name change from Constantinople to İstanbul was the focus of the novelty song ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ by Jimmy Kennedy, famously covered in 1990 by They Might Be Giants.

To celebrate the name 93rd anniversary of İstanbul and Ankara’s name changes, here are some other cities with interesting name changes.

New York

“Even old New York was once New Amsterdam;

Why they changed it I can't say;

People just liked it better that way”

While the Jimmy Kennedy song may claim New York’s name changed was down to just personal preference, the actual reason was down to a financial trade between the Dutch and the British.

In the early 17th century, the area known as New York today was under the Dutch Empire’s control. The city of New Amsterdam was part of New Netherland, an area spread across modern New York and New Jersey and ruled by Director-General Peter Stuyvesant.

When English troops attacked in 1664, Stuyvesant couldn’t mount a counter-attack. To avoid bloodshed, he surrendered the territory to the British. Later, in 1667, via the Treaty of Breda, the Dutch agreed to permanently relinquish New Amsterdam to the British in order to gain control of the Caribbean Banda Islands, at the time the only source of nutmeg on the planet. And so, New Amsterdam became New York.

1660 painting of New Amsterdam. Hard to imagine Carrie Bradshaw here, right?Canva


So the entry for this one’s going to follow a slightly different trajectory to the past two. While China’s capital has had many different names in its history including Ji and Youzhou, the name Beijing was already in use when the name “Peking” started spreading.

It’s still regularly referred to as Peking today, but why? It all comes down to the Portuguese missionary Francis Xavier who wrote the city’s name as “Pequim” in his letters after the country first interacted with China in 1550s. The name stuck in Europe and China’s capital was known as Peking until 1979 when China’s new romanisation system Pinyin was introduced, providing Latin-script pronunciation guides for Mandarin Chinese, which provided the more accurate spelling of “Beijing”.

Peking is such a pervasive term though that the city’s roast duck delicacy is still known as Peking Duck as well as Beijing’s main university officially translating its name to “Peking University”.

Saint Petersburg

Another city which has changed its name a fair few times down the line is Saint Petersburg in Russia. First founded by Peter the Great in 1703, the Russian Tsar had the creative ingenuity to rename the city after Saint Peter.

Saint Petersburg’s founding was seen by many as the creation of the Russian Empire and the city stood as its capital until 1917 when the Bolsheviks revolted over the Tsar and moved the capital to Moscow.


Before that, Tsar Nicholas II changed the city’s name to Petrograd in 1914, dropping the German associations for a more Russian sounding name first coined by Alexander Pushkin.

Petrograd lasted for nearly a decade before the city was renamed Leningrad in 1924 to honour Vladimir Lenin, founding head of the USSR who had died earlier that year. After the fall of the USSR in 1989, a vote was held on what to rename the city in 1991 and it returned to Saint Petersburg.

Astana is a wild place. Sorry, I mean Nur-Sultan. No wait, I meant Astana.Canva


Among the northern steps of modern day Kazakhstan, the city of Astana today gleams with incredible buildings, many of which were designed by British architect Norman Foster. But it’s been an interesting ride to reach this point.

First known as Akmola after it was settled in 1830. It was then given official town status and renamed Akmolinsk by the Russian Empire. The Soviets renamed it to Tselinograd in 1961.

When Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, the city’s name reverted back to Akmola. This would last till 1998 when it replaced the southern city of Almaty as the capital and it was renamed Astana, meaning “capital city” in Kazakh.


Finally, in just the last four years, Astana’s name was changed to Nur-Sultan in 2019 by then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. After his resignation, current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had the city renamed Astana in 2022.

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