Istanbul by Thomas F. Madden

Of all the places that I have visited, Istanbul almost certainly heads the list of those I would like to return to. Arriving in April of 1993, at the beginning of what I thought was six months of travel before going broke in Ireland, I was struck by how European the city was. This despite what sticks in my mind as the most terrifying taxi ride I have ever had, not excepting the one in Rome that followed the question, “What do you mean your train leaves from the other train station?” Perhaps because of that shaky start, I was enthralled and a bit overwhelmed by Istanbul. No pedestrian street crossing has intimidated me since I made my way across a couple of the city’s larger boulevards. No place was as organizedly chaotic as the city’s main bus departure area, just outside the protective walls built by Emperor Theodosius in the early fifth century.

Which is to say, I am squarely in the target market for Istanbul, a one-volume history of the “City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World,” as Madden’s subtitle has it. I have even read and reviewed both books mentioned in the blurbs on the back of Istanbul. Madden knows his potential audience, but he also knows what he is up against in trying to tell the history of Istanbul in about 350 pages.

The purpose of this book is to bring together the history of this urban marvel into one enjoyable and clear narrative. It is, from the outset, an impossible task. The history of Istanbul is so complex, stretching across so many cultures, events, and lives, that a library of books would not suffice to capture it. Yet if the entire story cannot be told, at least the most important episodes and broadest vistas can be sketched. The overarching goal here is to open up the rich history of Istanbul to any interested reader, while offering guideposts along the way for further exploration. … It is impossible to study antiquity, the Middle Ages, Christianity, or Islam without sailing past Istanbul’s shores, visiting its academies, poking one’s head into its churches and mosques. Then as now, it remains “the City.” (p. xvii)

Madden fist saw the city in person seven years before I did, and he fell in love with it. One of the ways that love shows in the book is how he occasionally notes the contemporary fate of an area or landmark; he also notes how modern changes and construction have often led to archeological discoveries that have deepened present-day knowledge of the city’s history. For Istanbul has had periods of destruction and loss every bit as profound as its periods of glory, and much of what once was has now been lost. He makes another structural point in his introduction: “Modern histories often privilege the modern. I have worked hard not to do that here.” (p. xviii) Thus the time in which the city has been officially known as Istanbul receives one chapter at the end of the book, which covers less than a century. Each of the preceding three parts of the book covers roughly a thousand years, though they do not each have an equal share of the book. Part II, on Byzantine Constantinople (330–1453) is the longest, nearly half of the book.

Nor does Madden shy away from the occasional acerbic judgment. “With the defeat of the Persian Empire the people of Byzantion faced a new era. The fierce wars that had so long raged across Asia Minor and Greece were over. Without the Persian threat, the Greeks were free to pursue their own interests, choose their own governments, and make war on their Greek neighbors at will. This was their way.” (p. 16) The chapter that describes how the Greeks encountered a rising power from the peninsula across the Adriatic is titled “Romans Bearing Gifts.” (p. 30) One of the gifts, at least initially, was protection without rulership. The Romans genuinely admired Greek achievements, and withdrew after they had defeated Philip V of Macedonia’s efforts to conquer Greece. Within a decade of Rome-enforced peace in the Greek lands, “in mainland Greece, however, anti-Roman parties dominated. Roman officials were routinely jeered, even by children in the streets. The Romans remained enamored of Greek culture and proud of their role as the protector of Greek liberty, but they were becoming very tired of the Greeks themselves.” (p. 40)

The history in Istanbul is mostly a political history, but Madden takes care to situate the situation in the city within larger contexts, and to give a taste of the flavor of everyday life during parts of each period. He is particularly strong in description, and he draws on the archeological record to give readers a sense of the city’s changing appearance. His links to modern locations or contexts also help to make the picture of long-ago times clearer, as in this passage about the role of water in the life of the city around the fourth century.

Half a million people require a great deal of water, both for their own personal consumption and for a sewer system. … As a general rule of thumb, ancient Romans in the elite cities required approximately 265 gallons per person per day. (By comparison, modern Americans use approximately 100 gallons per day.) Multiply that by 500,000 people, and the amount of water required by Constantinople was truly staggering. …
So extensive a network of aqueducts could pose a strategic risk should an enemy discover their locations and cut off the supply. The Romans responded to this risk in innovative ways. Large underground cisterns were dug in Constantinople to hold water for easy retrieval from wells and for use in times of drought or danger. The most famous of these is the Basilica Cistern … To visit that hushed space today is to step back into another age, far removed from the noisy Turkish city above. Its arched brick ceiling is supported by 336 columns that collectively prop up the buildings above. This one cistern could hold more than 100,000 tons of water, yet it was just one of many midsize underground cisterns scattered across the vast city. The columns themselves, so serene today, illumined by colored lights and accompanied by the sound of dripping water from above are justifiably famous for their diverse shapes and designs. Yet virtually all of them were recycled from older buildings. Indeed, as beautiful as the Basilica Cistern is today, it was never meant to be visited on foot, with but a few inches of water along the floor. All the columns that inspire such wonder among modern tourists were for centuries under water. The purpose of the cistern, after all, was to be full.
It is still not known how many underground cisterns were built in Constantinople. Fewer than a hundred are known, but there were undoubtedly several thousand. … These underground cisterns were only part of Constantinople’s water storage strategy. There were at least three massive open-air cisterns as well. … The open-air reservoirs were so large that one of them, the Cistern of Aetius, is used today as a soccer stadium (modern-day Vefa Stadyumu). (pp. 80–81)

Cisterns rise, empires fall, and the citizens of Constantinople see each other through it all. The city was Greek, then Roman, then what modern readers call Byzantine but whose emperors still styled themselves Roman, then under the thumbs of Latin Crusaders, then Byzantine again, and then Ottoman before empires seem to have passed away for good. (Though Madden acknowledges is may be too soon to tell.) The city prospers when it can draw on the resources of a vast area of support. Its rulers engage in building programs that are still marveled at centuries later. Yet that very extravagance strains the supporting realm, increases the disparities between capital and provinces, and sets forces in motion that eventually bring down the empire. Suleiman surely earned his sobriquet, “the Magnificent,” but in Madden’s telling, he also changed the Ottoman Empire away from expansion and focused politics so relentlessly inward that palace intrigues eventually lost real connections to the lives of the empire’s subjects.

Madden also sketches some of the vivid personalities who played a role in the city’s history. Andronicus Comnenus, for example, had a notorious career of intrigue and seduction (including a cousin, the daughter of the Crusader Prince of Antioch, and the young widow of the previous Crusader King of Jerusalem). In his mid-sixties, he seized the imperial throne in 1182, leading, unfortunately, to massacres of western Europeans in the capital and war against Genoa. He also made a hash of ruling, losing Dalmatian territories to the Hungarians, much of mainland Greece to the Normans and, in due course, his throne to the mob.

As he moves closer to the present, Madden weaves in the increasing importance of technology, and the Ottomans institutions’ inability to incorporate that kind of change into the empire’s life and culture. The western Europeans whom the Ottomans had so readily overcome grew in power until the East was regarded as the sick man of Europe, and the only diplomatic question was how to let the empire fall apart without the other powers in Europe getting into a major war over the remains. Several sultans attempt westernization, but none are fully able to overcome entrenched powers within the Ottoman military and other state institutions. Like any monarchy, it also proved vulnerable to reversals brought about when the ruler changed. (A comparison with westernization in Russia is beyond the scope of Istanbul, but would be instructive.)

In the end, the western Europeans got their major war, and it brought not only the end of the Ottoman Empire, but of the Russian, Austrian and German Empires as well. The Great War raged on in Asia Minor long after November 11, 1918; the treaty ending hostilities in Turkey was signed in July 1923. Republican forces under Mustafa Kemal had defeated a Greek invasion and abolished the office of sultan. By the end of that year, they declared that the great city on the Bosporous was no longer the capital.

For the first time in sixteen centuries, Constantinople no longer ruled an empire. It remained a city of palaces and monuments, but had no government or ruler to fill them. It was also becoming less cosmopolitan. The victory of the nationalists led the triumphant Greeks of Constantinople to pack away their flags and hastily don their fezzes. [The fez, a symbol of modernization in the 19th century as it replaced turbans, would soon be banned in favor of western headgear for men.] The Treaty of Lausanne included the largest forced repatriation of people in modern history. Greece was to send some 500,000 Turks to Turkey and accept 1.5 million Greeks, mostly from Anatolia. … Hundreds of thousands of Greeks, whose ancestors had settled Asia Minor in 1000 BC, were sent “home,” leaving their villages, businesses, and lands empty. (pp. 336–37)

The modern era saw Istanbul once again become one of Europe’s largest cities, driven by migration to the commercial capital by people from Turkey’s rural areas. Yet history is never far away. “Between 2005 and 2013 excavations [for a subway tunnel under the Bosporous] at Yenikapi discovered thirty-seven perfectly preserved vessels dating from the fifth to the eleventh centuries. … Below the Byzantine seabed, the archeologists then found something even more surprising. During the Ice Age, the sea level was lower at Istanbul, making the Byzantine harbor dry land. Human settlements dating back to around 6000 BC were uncovered, the earliest ever found in the region.” (p. 352)

Old and new, east and west, with many more pairs and paradoxes, Istanbul fascinates and captivates, and Madden’s book provides a deft, colorful, situated guide to the city and its centuries.

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