Istanbul: A brief tale of many cities

Posted on 21 January 2014

Watching the visually stunning “Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities”, first screened on BBC 4 towards the end of 2013, makes for a better introduction than most to one of the world’s most compelling cities, Istanbul. Its presenter, the erudite historian and writer Simon Sebag Montefiore, is an engaging companion, carefully unravelling the past of a city founded in the 7th century BC, right through to its demise as capital of the sprawling Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th century.

For the Istanbul novice there’s clearly much to be learned from the programme. Even the knowledgeable will be impressed, however, as BBC clout takes the indefatigable Montefiore to parts of the city other visitors cannot reach. First he delves into the usually locked tunnels beneath the Roman-era chariot racing track, the Hippodrome. Later, he expounds to the camera in what was once the city’s most cultured Byzantine monastery, St John of Studious, today so sadly decayed it’s deemed too dangerous for the average visitor to enter.

Were he still around, Dickens may not have been amused at the BBC distorting the title of one of his greatest works to come up with the name of their programme, but he may have been impressed by its clever use to introduce viewers to the three major guises the city has assumed during its long history. Named after its legendary founder, Byzas, the city we know today as Istanbul began life in 667 BC as Byzantium, a Greek colony situated on the narrows of the Bosphorus. This strait famously separates Europe and Asia; more importantly to the sea-faring ancient Greeks it linked the Aegean and Black seas, a trade route of crucial importance.

Historians and travel writers (and I hold up my hands here!) often unwittingly make it seem that Istanbul’s rise to super-city status was inevitable. This is understandable, as not only is it ideally located on an easily defensible peninsula, flanked to the north by one of the world’s greatest natural harbours, the Golden Horn, it’s also brilliantly positioned to control trade both up and down and across the Bosphorus. Despite its unparalleled location, however, for many centuries it was just another city, known more for the drunken debauchery of its inhabitants than as a major player in the ancient world.

In fact it wasn’t until the Roman emperor Constantine decided to make the place chief city of the Roman Empire in AD 326 that it literally ‘capitalised’ on its advantages. Better located than Rome to control the more prosperous eastern half of the empire, the city expanded rapidly. Now known as Constantinople after the man who re-founded it, and firmly Christian in nature since his conversion from paganism, both the city and the empire it controlled reached their apogee under Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. One of the world’s greatest buildings, the domed cathedral of the Haghia Sophia, still stands at the heart of today’s Istanbul, a fitting tribute to its patron, Justinian.

Over the next few centuries the fortunes of Constantinople waxed and waned. It took the treachery of fellow Christians to irrevocably weaken the city, though, when in 1204 it was captured and looted by soldiers of the Fourth Crusade. By the time the Moslem Ottoman Turks, who had slowly encircled the city over the course of a hundred and fifty or so years, set to seriously besieging it Constantinople was but a shadow of its former self, its population shrunk to a paltry 50,000.

Following its capture by a triumphant Mehmet the Conqueror, Constantinople became capital of a new empire, both Moslem and Turkish. Remarkably tolerant, Mehmet re-populated the city with Christians from all over the empire; a little later Jews expelled from Spain were welcomed with open arms. Cosmopolitan capital of a multi-faith, multi-ethnic empire stretching from the Balkans to Arabia, Crimea to North Africa, the city was enriched with the magnificent domed mosques, covered bazaars and bath houses which still give the city an iconic skyline.

The Ottoman Empire ossified over time, a decline symbolised by the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ tag given it by Czar Nicholas in the 19th century. Fatally wounded by the disastrous decision to enter WW1 on Germany’s side, by the war’s end the Ottoman Empire faced annihilation, with Britain occupying Istanbul and the Greeks invading Anatolia. The stubborn heroics of Atatürk, leader of a nationalist resistance to Greek and Western imperialist machinations, rescued the heartlands of the empire for the Turks. Saved too, was Istanbul, though this most cosmopolitan of cities was mistrusted in an era of uber-nationalism, and the capital of the new country of Turkey became land-locked Ankara.

Istanbul then, is very much the three cities of Montefiore’s programme. And perhaps more, as artefacts uncovered during the construction of the city’s ambitious new metro system have revealed a sizeable Neolithic settlement dating back some 9,500 years. Today, gazing out from a vantage point like the landmark Galata Tower, it’s hard to imagine that this mega-city of fifteen million plus inhabitants once comprised little more than a scatter of rude Stone Age huts. In this vibrant, fast-growing, ever changing metropolis, every scratch beneath the surface reveals something new and unexpected.

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