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Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World
by thomas f. madden
viking, 400 pages, $32.00

Thomas F. Madden’s history Istanbul answers the “if” in the adage, “If these walls could talk!”

The city walls were Istanbul’s first defenses against Thracian raiders in the seventh century BC. In the fourth century AD, Constantine’s walls quadrupled the city’s size. Twelve miles of Theodosian Walls protected the city for a thousand years. Sea walls along the Bosporous greeted a fleet of Crusaders in AD 1203, and land walls held the last of the Roman Empire until the fall of the city to Mehmed and the Ottomans in 1453. Some of these walls still survive: They now abut the highways traveled by Istanbul’s fifteen million inhabitants.

Yet Madden writes that the strength of the city “was never solely in its mighty walls or its well-trained militaries, but in the determination of its inhabitants to hold firm to it no matter the cost.” Istanbul is a history of the people who lived in and around the city walls. Madden’s narrative is driven by conquests and construction. It is punctuated by earthquakes, fires, and plagues, and shot through with religious fervor and political intrigue.

The book, organized chronologically, covers twenty-five centuries. This juxtaposition of ancient and modern names testifies to the dramatic transitions the city has undergone. The modern train station Sirkeçi stands near the site of the old Prosphorion Port. Gennadius II’s patriarchate, Theotokos Pammakaristos, is today the Fethiye Mosque.

Part I, “Byzantion” (667 BC–AD 330), begins with a small band of Megarans who established a city on the peninsula jutting into the Bosporous, a waterway that connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Byzantion, as it was called, was aptly located for intercontinental trade, and it prospered quickly. Madden describes this early prosperity, which is entangled with the history of burgeoning Rome. (And his is no dry recounting of facts. He makes time for the female Greek poet, Moero, and for Epigenes, an astrologer for whom a moon crater is named.)

The second and lengthiest part of Istanbul, “Byzantine Constantinople” (330-1453), spans more than a thousand years, from Constantine’s ambitious reign to Constantine XI’s demise in 1453, as Ottoman troops climbed over the rubble of the city walls. Madden continues an even-handed account; familiar historical points are judiciously animated. The Nika Revolt of 532 includes a description of Theodora’s impassioned speech to Junstinian’s inner circle. The construction of the Hagia Sophia is given its due, but so are Justinian’s other architectural endeavors.

A particularly interesting portion recounts the events leading up to the Crusaders’ sack of the city in 1204. This event transpired in part due to the bad blood between Alexius Angelus and his uncle Alexius III. Alexius Angelus escaped from Byzantion on a merchant ship in 1201 and convinced his sister’s husband, Philip of Swabia, that he was the rightful emperor. Philip and his ally Boniface entreated the leaders of the Fourth Crusade to reroute their march to Jerusalem via Constantinople, much to the distress of Pope Innocent III. The events that followed, including an anti-Western massacre under the reign of Alexius IV, and the Emperor’s inability to repay the Crusaders as promised, catalyzed the events of 1204.

The book’s third and fourth parts cover the reign of the Ottoman Empire into the present day. “Ottoman Constantinople” (1453-1923) depicts the establishment of new ways in ancient spaces. Soldiers pulled down the 900-year-old bronze statue of Justinian, a decisive statement of Ottoman victory. Yet vestiges of the past remained. Men played jereed (an equestrian sport) beside the ancient Serpent Column of Delphi, which Constantine had set in the Hippodrome. While new mosques were erected, other spaces, notably Hagia Sophia, were repurposed for Islamic devotion. In spite of these changes, the city’s leadership was as rife with hedonism and intrigue as previous generations had been.

Female leadership in the Ottoman Empire is a surprising and important aspect of this section; indeed, Madden credits the Sultan’s harem with the Ottoman Empire’s survival. Women wielded power from behind veiled garments and curtained rooms. We learn of the sixteenth-century Sultan Suleiman and his relationship with Hurrem, the daughter of a Polish Orthodox priest who had been sold into slavery. Suleiman married her, an unprecedented practice that granted Hurrem unprecedented power. Hurrem constructed a mosque and baths, possibly arranged the murder of the grand vizier, and orchestrated Suleiman’s suspicion against his firstborn so that one of her sons could inherit the sultanate. Hurrem’s leadership paved the way for other powerful women, such as Kösem Sultan, the first woman to become official regent of the empire.

While the Ottoman world struggled with the interplay of Islamic tradition and Western progress, part four, “Istanbul” (1923-2016), begins with Mustafa Kemal’s decisive efforts to Westernize the city. This narrative of progress takes us to the present day, in which Madden describes the rapid expansion of the city, from the ramshackle gecekondu villages to the ambitious construction projects of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Madden treats contemporary Istanbul with the same even hand he applies in the rest of the book; he reasons that one should not exaggerate the importance of current events without letting time determine their lasting effects. Still, this brief final section prompts curiosity about Istanbul’s current affairs.

A single-volume history of Istanbul from the seventh century BC to the present is an ambitious project, for no city has seen as much religious and political change over the course of its history. Yet Istanbul is clear and enjoyable, and exhaustive without being exhausting. More digestible and faster-paced than Judith Herrin’s Byzantium, it is perfect for the armchair historian, or for the specialist who wants to understand the broader context surrounding his or her interests. Readers will become invested in the characters, with perhaps Istanbul herself as protagonist.

Jane Sloan Peters is a doctoral student in historical theology at Marquette University.

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