Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World by Thomas F. Madden
Istanbul (AKA Byzantion/Constantinople depending on the era) is another city that I would love to see someday. Thomas Madden’s previous book on the history of Venice frequently references the strong connection that the Venetians have with the city of Constantinople. Therefore, I wanted to continue on and see what Madden had to say about “The City,” as it is often called. While it may not get the same attention as London, Paris, or Venice, anyone who knows their world history understands the importance of geography and location. No truer words have been spoken for a city that literally sits astride the continents of Europe and Asia. In many ways, Madden’s “Istanbul” serves as a sequel to “Venice” and provides much of the same sweeping and broad narrative that allows the reader to better appreciate the historical significance of the city on the Bosporus.
When compared with Bettany Hughes’ “Istanbul”, Madden’s narrative flows much better and is easier to make sense of. However, much like “Venice,” the book is aimed at a more casual audience and not the serious historian, although it does contain a few pages of endnotes and a bibliography, it’s not nearly to the extent of Hughes. As a result, it keeps the historical narrative moving and does not bog down too much in scholarly minutiae, for better or worse. Madden understandably evokes the image of Istanbul as romantic, hedonistic, and full of intrigue. Indeed, we do not describe politics as “byzantine” for nothing. Thankfully, Madden gracefully navigates us through the labyrinth of emperors, sultans, and conquerors that have ruled Istanbul over the centuries. We also get a very good picture of a metropolis that has undergone dramatic changes throughout its life. Where one regime has fallen, another, sometimes totally different, has risen in its place.
Most of the book is focused on Constantinople throughout the Middle Ages. Through the waning days of the Roman Empire to its dramatic capture by the Ottomans in 1453, and finally, through its transformation into modern Istanbul, we see a city that changes its geography as much as it does its rulers. Other reviewers have summed it up as, “some people came, built great stuff, other people came and destroyed it then built other great stuff. Unfortunately, not much of that great stuff remains, but you can see some of it.” This book is, in some ways, better than Madden’s previous work, “Venice” because I found the narrative to be more focused and flowing. Furthermore, the narrative retains its momentum as it moves into the post-WWI time period with the end of the Ottoman Empire and Constantinople transitioning into Istanbul along with Ataturk’s reforms to create the modern country of Turkey.
In terms of criticisms of the book, I wish there were more endnotes so I could pinpoint some of the details. However, bearing in mind that this book is written more for the casual historian, it is not a deal breaker. Another thing that I found odd was the lack of a more detailed discussion on the economics of the Black Sea, the Bosporus Strait, and especially, the Silk Road. Much is said about the strategic location of Constantinople, but little is mentioned of why that is and just how much trade went through the city on its way to and from Europe or Asia.
Istanbul would definitely be an interesting city to visit. Tourism comprises a substantial portion of its industry, but there are larger urban improvements in the works (some more controversial than others). It seems like the city has been torn up or burned down (intentionally or otherwise) and rebuilt for centuries. Seemingly every time they dig down to do construction, a new archaeological stratum is discovered. Istanbul’s history may very well rival that of Venice. Whether it is the changes in religion and ruler or the constant ebb and flow of European and Asian populations, Istanbul remains a city that has sat between two worlds its entire existence.
Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time.)
I was there in 1986, Istanbul was surreal. Every Mediterranean culture or civilization for the last 3,000 years has left a mark on that city. You can see Egyptian monoliths, Roman aqueducts, Islamic mosques, and Christian cathedrals all in the same afternoon. The cobblestone side roads were laid hundreds of years ago, and the sulfur from coal heating fires mixed with the leather tanning chemicals creates a unique ambiance. I imagine the Middle Ages would look like Istanbul.