On the last day of a wildly erratic year that saw Britons pushing themselves a little further away from the continent, where during much of the last century they engaged in some of the bloodiest conflicts in history, and, across the Atlantic the United States is plunging into perhaps an even more uncertain future.
But, this book is about Istanbul, Turkey, a city that in many ways faces an even more uncertain future than either the U.S. or The United Kingdom. Recently, the historic city was blasted by the latest bludgeon of terrorism leveled on unsuspecting nightclub revelers. The Uzbek national arrested for the massacre had ties to ISIS.
Within hours of that terrorist attack, the Russians bombed Al Bab east of Aleppo, Syria, a joint operation with Turkey, ostensibly to rout out ISIS, but perhaps also to punish Turkey’s nemesis, the Kurds, who have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against Islamic terrorists….
Throughout its long history, Istanbul has been at the cusp of clashes between the East and West, and long before Turkey was a nation, the city-state of Byzantium, and then Constantinople, during Greek, then Roman times, loomed large as a power in the Roman Empire.
It figured with the birth of and rise of Christianity that it became the seat the Eastern Orthodox church; it was to become a center of Islamic power, and, finally, became the most populous city in Turkey, part of a quasi-secular nation bridging East and West, Islam and Christianity.
The geographical centrality of Istanbul in the clashes of civilizations over millennia inspired W.B. Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium” to write of, “monuments of its own magnificence,” hearkening to “what is past, or passing, or to come.” Stretching back into antiquity it remains a place to be reckoned with even as the civilizations around it evolve and splinter through regime changes and eruptions that continue to reverberate around the world.
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon says that ancient Constantinople “appears to have been formed by Nature for the centre and capital of a great monarchy. Situated in the forty-first degree of latitude, the Imperial city commanded, from her seven hills, the opposite shores of Europe and Asia; the climate was healthy and temperate, the soil fertile, the harbour secure and capacious; and the approach on the side of the continent was of small extent and easy defence. The Bosporus and Hellespont may be considered as the two gates of Constantinople; and the prince who possessed those important passages could always shut them against a naval enemy and open them to the fleets of commerce.”
The city has been periodically reviled, sacked, coveted and worshipped, with successions of rulers building mighty walls to protect it from successions of attacks from land and sea.
The walled city-state that was later to become Istanbul was for centuries impenetrable to invaders, its narrow Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles affording the only connections from the Mediterranean to the west and the Black Sea to the north and east between central Asia and Europe. The city was and remains the gateway between East and West.
Given these geographical attributes it is little wonder that when Rome itself crumbled under its own weight, Byzantium, as it was originally called, became in the third century AD the capital of the Roman Empire. As Thomas F. Madden says in his indispensable new book Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking: 2016), while the “eternal Roman Empire was in utter disarray,” by the end of the century Byzantion (Madden prefers the pre-Latinate spelling) “had only begun to flourish.”
At the northern lip of Turkey and linked to the ancient Greek world by a strait now known as the Dardanelles (formerly Hellespont), Istanbul was at the very center of the known civilization of the West, and because of its strategic position, even in modern times it has been a key player in NATO (the alliance called into question by the new president of the United States), which long stationed American-made Patriot missile batteries on Turkish territory. The Turkish ambassador to the alliance, said “NATO is one of the essential dimensions of Turkish foreign and defense policy,” and it ranks second to the U.S. in size of standing armies within the NATO alliance.
Now the fragility of the alliance has been thrust into the news, while the Turks themselves seem to have tested its mettle in the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian Turkish leader and former mayor of Istanbul, who is being courted by NATO’s nemesis: Vladimir Putin. And, of course we now see that Putin has made a parlor game out of tinkering with carefully chosen and feckless leaders of Western democracies.
There has never been a time that Istanbul didn’t figure into civilization-shaking battles.
Founded as a Greek colony around 667 BC and coveted for its strategic geographical position, it offered lush pastureland, as well as abundant fishing—it was said that fish were so thick in the water that they could be grabbed by hand—and the protection of high sea walls. Though recent excavations have turned up rich new evidence for scholars, Madden says that there is scant information about early Byzantion until it figured prominently in the Persian Wars when in 512 BC the emperor Darius captured the city for Persia, only to revert to Greek domination when the Persians retreated in 478 BC.
The Greeks bound formerly independent clients including Byzantion into the protectionist Delian League. But, it wasn’t long before the Spartans overwhelmed Greece, forcing Athenian officials out of Byzantion and pulling it under its command.
When Athens ruled, there was a semblance of democracy, but the Spartans ran an oligarchic tyranny. Byzantion wouldn’t become independent again until 355 BC when the Athenians regained control. In the 330s BC, Philip and his son Alexander, waged a series of wars to pacify the wayward Greek city-states and subsequently formed what is called the League of Corinth for the chief purpose of invading Persia. Alexander, at the age of 20, after the assassination of his father, became the supreme ruler of Greece. The Byzantines feared even more oppressive control, but as it turned out Alexander’s army passed right by the city and, aligned with Macedonia, headed eastward to subsequently conquer Asia Minor and most of the territories up to and including Persia. (His armies deserted him as he pushed onward to India.)
The following era, known as the Hellenistic period, brought prosperity to the strategically situated Byzantion. By 323 BC, Madden says, the city’s influence “stretched far into Thrace to the West and into Bithynia in the East. The Byzantines, therefore, had a firm hold on the northern Sea of Marmara as well as both sides of the southern Bosporus Strait. This was an attractive position indeed.”
This was the beginning of the Byzantine power that Gibbon glorifies in his history, and though regimes would change, and the city would be challenged from East and West over the centuries, it would remain an outlying European powerhouse over the centuries until roughly World War I when Turkish leaders (called the Young Turks) made the strategic error of aligning the country with Germany.
Madden sets the fall of Rome in 476 AD, but he argues that the widely accepted date accounts only for the decline of the empire in West with its seat in Rome. Constantinople, as the city-state was named for the emperor Constantine in the third century, would flourish as the new capital of the territories to the East: Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor.
The magnificent Hagia Sophia, built by the Christian Emperor Justinian I in 537 would be of central importance to Orthodox Christianity and “the most important building in the Eastern Roman Empire,” Madden says. The cathedral would later become an Islamic mosque, and finally the secular edifice at the center of the modern city.
Madden marks the years 717-18 as epochal for the city and for the modern world. By 717, Suleiman, caliph of the Umayyad Empire based in Damascus, had long wanted to bring Constantinople into the Arab-Islamic orbit and to cut off the spread of the Christian empire. His brother Maslama led an attack on the city under the misapprehension that Byzantine Emperor Leo III would cave in exchange for a governorship in the new Arab government. As it turned out, many in Maslama’s own navy, who were mostly Christian, turned against him and threw in with the Byzantines. In the end, Constantinople preserved its independence and the Byzantine Empire.
Had the campaign gone the other way, Madden says, the caliphate would have pushed further west and met up with Spain, which was already Muslim ruled. The face of Europe would have surely changed and “the world would be very different today.”
By the 12th century, Constantinople had become a way station for the crusaders coming from the West to convert the Muslims in the east. And, Madden says, “The gates of Constantinople opened wide for the Crusaders, transforming the conquerors into tourists.”
This turned out to be deadly when the Crusaders turned on their hosts and after setting fire to an ancient mosque, then mounting several attacks at the heart of the city, Constantinople fell, bringing on nearly 60 years of Latin rule. The lofty Gothic cathedrals that Erdogan has transformed were a product of that time.
The city would be recaptured in 1261, but wrestled away from Rome until 1453, when Ottoman Turk forces battered the once thought to be impregnable walls of the city and declared it once more an Islamic state.
In one of the bloodiest passages of the book, Madden writes of the slaughter of the men and elderly and the selling of women and children into slavery. And then, like contemporary Islamic terrorists, the Ottoman forces tried to erase the culture, the history.
“Much was lost,” Madden says. “For centuries Constantinople had preserved the writings of Greek antiquity and still had a few libraries holding priceless worth. The imperial archives were destroyed, thus erasing the memories of more than a millennium.”
The architectural masterpiece, Hagia Sophia, was declared the imperial mosque for the Ottoman state. Constantinople would become the capital of the state, and eventually the capital of the state of Turkey (supplanted by Ankara in 1923).
The population and influence of Byzantion, then Constantinople, now Istanbul, has ebbed and flowed. It is the biggest city in Europe and the fifth biggest city in the world, with 15 million people. In modern times, it grew from just 1 million in 1950 to its present sprawling density for two main reasons:
After World War II there was a steady stream of migrants from the poor rural areas of Turkey looking for better jobs and living conditions—much as in the China today starving farmers have flooded Shanghai and Beijing.
Secondly, as these itinerant workers moved to the outskirts of the city there rose makeshift one- and two-room houses, called gecekondus, dwellings that hardly met the most rudimentary building standards. These clusters of houses formed villages that were eventually subsumed into Istanbul’s city limits and over time the houses were upgraded. “Squatter villages,” as Madden calls them, became the suburbs of greater Istanbul.
Madden’s masterfully comprehensive history of Istanbul ends with a brief chapter on present conditions in the country where he lived and studied for many years. He mentions Erdogan’s Islamic agenda, which many see as eroding the secular democracy of the last half century. During his decade in office he has brought Islam into greater prominence in public life and has overseen the reconstruction of Byzantine churches into mosques.
In March of last year his government police ransacked the offices of Zaman, Turkey’s biggest newspaper, accusing its corruption investigations of being a coup attempt. A real coup attempt in July was quickly crushed, and Erdogan proclaimed the defeat, July 15, a national holiday, calling it, Madden says, “the founding of a ‘New Turkey,’ one that embraced its modern democracy as closely as its Islamic, Ottoman past.” Concurrently, he has tightened the grip of his authority in ways that contradict his pronouncement.
Just a few days ago the New York Times announced that a veteran correspondent had been detained at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and refused entry into the country. It was the first time a Times reporter had been denied entry into Turkey, but Erdogan has been closing in on journalists since July. More than 120 journalists have been jailed—making Turkey the foremost jailer of journalists, surpassing the China—formerly in first place for that dubious distinction.
During its nearly 3,000-year-old history Istanbul has weathered countless tyrannies from East and West, and still endures and thrives—albeit being treated as a backwater by the major powers. Madden calls it a city “at the crossroads of the world.” Perhaps living at the crossroads has given the people a special resilience. Madden says that Erdogan “in many ways remains the mayor of Istanbul.” Maybe he thinks cozying up to Russia will help make Istanbul great again.
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