Istanbul

From Emperors to Street Vendors

by Brett Miller

18 April 2017

Historian Thomas F. Madden's Istanbul leaves one with a sense of awe for how much of the human experience is on display in this one city, in this part of the world.
 
cover art

Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World

Thomas F. Madden

(Viking)
US: Nov 2016

When Greek settlers from Megara went looking for rich gains around 667 BC, they surely couldn’t have imagined the far-reaching effects of their actions. Their establishment would one day result in a city that was the essence of cosmopolitan life. It would be the home to many powerful empires—rising and falling—along with their (often) merciless leaders. Within those empires would be the home of some of the most magnificent art and architecture in the world. Moreover, it would be a place of much intellectual, religious, and political ferment. It would also be a city in which hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens lived out their daily lives.

All of this is brought to life in Thomas F. Madden’s rich and comprehensive book Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Apparently the first of its kind in some time, Madden’s book is indeed what it claims to be: the full history of this great city—from its early days as Byzantion to present-day Istanbul—
brought together “into one enjoyable and clear narrative.”

Such a lofty aim entails covering a vast amount of history. Madden’s modus operandi is to cover “the most important episodes” and “to keep the focus on the human stories of those who lived there”, from emperors to street vendors. It’s a sensible plan, carried out for the most part successfully, and one which allows the reader to experience the sweet and bitter taste of a 2,500-hundred-year-old city that has witnessed astounding achievements alongside near-unimaginable violence. 

Madden begins the first of his four-part narrative with Byzantion. From the outset, the city’s strategic location was its most valuable asset. Positioned on a hilly peninsula, with a nearby river well-suited as a natural harbor (the Golden Horn), and its unique position as a crossing point between Europe and Asia, “(i)t seemed in every way a perfect location for a commercial city.” Its good fortune in these regards did not mean life was easy. Thracian attackers and the difficulties of starting a city were formidable challenges. Nonetheless, the city managed to grow and flourish, beating out the once rival Chalcedon, which lay across the Bosporus.

But bigger challenges would come. Madden shows how Byzantion often found itself at the center of chaos—in part due to its key location and others’ desire to control the area (a trend which would extend well into city’s future.) In the Persian Wars in the early fifth century BC, for example, the Persians took advantage of Byzantion’s location in their attacks on Athens. Freedom eventually came when the Persian attacks were put down—thanks principally to the intrepid Athenians—but the city would exist in a state of duress for much of the century.

In fact, it was those same Athenians and the creation of the not-so-altruistic Delian League that set off a near constant rollercoaster of havoc and uncertainty for Byzantion. It wasn’t until Alexander the Great came along that the chaotic years finally transitioned into a period of relative calm. Why Alexander chose to leave Byzantion largely to itself is not fully understood, though Madden suggests it may have been because he was focused on conquering the East. In any case, Byzantion would go on to have a golden age in the third century BC. It was a city not only of artistic culture, but “a place of commerce, hedonism, and a strong aversion to war.”

As Madden moves into the second and longest part of the book, Byzantion is subsumed into the Roman Empire via Pax Romana. It was a process that turned it from a Greek polis into a Roman urbs. The Greek culture would remain, though, and its mixing with Roman culture would create a rich, cosmopolitan environment. By 330 AD, the Christian convert Constantine was the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and Byzantion had become the official headquarters—though it would be renamed Constantinople.

Madden covers a tremendous amount in the 1,000-plus-year life of the city. Constantine’s renovation of the city was on a scale “unprecedented in the ancient world”. Many of his ambitious projects were not finished during his life, but through the subsequent reigns of Theodosius, Justinian, and a great many others, Constantinople would be home to the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia, well-functioning aqueducts, an impressive road system, and a formidable set of defensive Land and Sea walls. 

More than just elaborate constructions, Constantinople was the center of religious action. Emperor Constantine’s bringing in of the Christian faith had an almost incalculable influence. “What had been a hated, persecuted faith of the underclass became in a few short decades the beloved creed of the majority of Romans. Churches sprang up by the thousands across the empire, nowhere more rapidly than in Constantinople.” A strong religiosity would always permeate the city’s life. Relics were regularly brought into the city; key decisions about Christian doctrine were decided, and emperors routinely believed they were more or less God’s divinely appointed agents.   

For all of its grandiosity in these regards, however, episodes of tension and turmoil were just as much a part of the city’s fabric. The Nika Riot in 532, for example—an event which Madden discusses at some length—amounted to 30,000 deaths at the hands of the Emperor Justinian. On top of the mess, by the end of Justinian’s reign, the city was more or less broke. Foreign invaders were also serious problems for the city, and the seemingly impregnable land walls were regularly put to the test. Muslim invaders in 717/18 made a determined attack, but were nonetheless defeated, a result which “preserved not only the Byzantine Empire, but all of western Europe.”

Constantinople would not always be so fortunate. In 1204, the momentous Fourth Crusade—which pitted Christians against Christians—brought down the walls of the city. The Latin Empire of Constantinople followed (1204-1261); and although the city would eventually come back into the power of the Greeks, “(i)t would never regain its glory under Christian emperors.” In the early 1300s, much of the territory the city had previously controlled was lost, a significant part going to the Turks. General decay was also taking place, and by 1400 Constantinople was much reduced from the grand city it had once been. In 1453 its long reign ended for good, with Mehmed II and the Ottomans laying siege to the city. It was now Ottoman Constantinople. 

For the nearly 500-year reign of the new city, Madden provides a fascinating look at a wide-range range of topics, from the many mosques that replaced former churches, to the social and political mechanisms that powered the engine of the city’s long existence. This includes an in-depth look at the imperial harem system and the formidable Janissaries that served as the “elite bodyguard of the Sultan”.

Under one of its greatest sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, the city experienced a golden age for much of the 16th century. This included the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque, “an architectural masterpiece” which was labored on for eight years. 

Like its previous inhabitants, though, there was plenty of chaos and unrest to witness throughout the city’s existence. Ottoman Constantinople would eventually come to an end in 1923, though it would continue to live on in a new form and under a different name—Istanbul (the name derived from a Turkish hearing of a Greek phrase meaning “in/to the city”).

Madden has comparatively little to say in this final part of the book, due principally to a reticence for speaking on (unfolding) current events. Perhaps this is a good thing, since there’s so much information packed into the previous three parts of this comprehensive history. As a very short precis of this section, one might say that modern-day Istanbul is a city of staggering size—a population of 15 million in 2015—with the potential for a huge economic boom and prosperity, but nonetheless mired in a host of tensions—cultural, political—that could keep the city from flourishing. Only time will tell.

For a book this ambitious and covering so much history (far more than has been touched on here), it contains very few shortcomings, though two are worth noting. The first is that Madden does not quite fulfill his aim of telling the story of Istanbul through a wide range of characters. Emperors receive the vast share of attention—
rightly so, given their enormous influence—but more detailed attention to the average citizen would have been much appreciated. To be sure, Madden does give extensive attention to the harems in the Ottoman Empire, illuminating the vital role they played. There are other examples like this. But these are not quite ordinary citizens, and the range of “human stories” conveyed throughout the book is relatively limited.

Another weakness is of an entirely different nature. The book has a bewildering lack of maps. Though not an unforgivable detraction, its scarcity of maps and the two limited ones it does provide temper what would otherwise be a more enriching experience for many readers. Indeed, it’s a shame that Madden’s competent prose is not supplemented by such a simple addition—one that would help the reader attain a better grasp of the myriad places discussed. 

That being said, none of these weaknesses lessen the book’s overall standing as a comprehensive and illuminating account of this remarkable city. Madden successfully outlines Istanbul’s long history while frequently zooming in on important events, ideas, and figures. There’s a great deal to gain from reading this book—not least the sense of awe one is likely to have for how much of the human experience is on display in this one city. 

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