John Freely, Istanbul: Imperial City ( 1996, Penguin 1998)
On a friend’s recommendation, I borrowed this from the library as preparation for our trip to Turkey. As it became clear I wasn’t going to finish it in time, I also bought an eBook, which I finished on the plane. I’m jabbing this entry on the iPad keyboard in the air.
The book is a bit of a hybrid – a biography of the city from 658 BCE to 1995, and a guide to the monuments and relics of that long history. It doesn’t aim to make sense of the history so much as to help reader–travellers understand what they are seeing. Istanbul is not the capital of modern Turkey, but it was an imperial capital for many centuries, so perhaps it’s inevitable that the book’s backbone is a chronology of a series of rulers – of Greek and then Roman antiquity, Christian Nova Roma / Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire and finally the Turkish Republic. We are told the name of each new Augustus/Sultan, how many relatives he killed on his way to power or after getting there (one new Sultan killed a record nineteen younger brothers), his age, and what monuments he left. Court intrigue, exile, mutilation, assassination and heroic exploits in war may make for high drama in close up, but in a narrative that covers more than 1500 years in 300 or so pages, they become a bit of a slog. Freely does his best to keep it lively. The quotes from contemporaries over the ages bring welcome insight into the look and feel of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul at a given time, in particular the substantial passages from the fabulous seventeenth century writer Evliya Çelebi are just fabulous.
I’m glad to have read it and I’ve probably retained enough to enrich my impending visit, but I found myself constantly asking why – why did the populace sometimes support an invading leader, and why did they often turn against him soon after his coronation, how come a section of the army could just decide to make their leader the emperor, and so on. I would have appreciated a little discussion of, say, the relationship between secular and religious authorities in both Christian and Muslim empires, or the status of women, or the lives of everyday people. Without such discussion, a lot was left mysterious.There are plenty of events that raise questions about these issues. For example, though Turkey had its first woman prime minister when the book was being written, the Byzantine Empire had more than one Augusta and some women seem to have wielded enormous powered behind the Ottoman throne.
So I’m not sure I’d recommend the book but I wouldn’t recommend against it. Now our German pilot is telling us to prepare for landing, so I’ll stop poking at keys and switch off my electronic equipment.