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Istanbul
City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World
Thomas F. Madden
read on October 18, 2017

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. In reading Madden’s Venice book, I was facinated by the mentions and history of Constantinople, of which I knew almost nothing. By the time I had finished that book, the seed had been planted that I needed to go and visit Istanbul “someday”. Eventually, that turned into me taking a month off work, and including a trip to Turkey (with 4 days in the city). Istanbul was incredible, a facsinating place. Below are some notes and highlights from the book - though not so much from my trip.

  • Emporer Constantine I of Rome in 300s had fever dream that Jesus told him to put iconography on his armies. C then replaced his standard with the Chi Ro symbol. This was at a time when Christianity was a minor and ostricized religion. C won major battles, convered to CC, and the rest is history. This guy basically made Christianity.
  • Theodocian Wall - 3 tier wall system. 60 ft, 30 ft, 10ft. Then huge moat, all around the city. Inpenetrable.
  • 400's - Attila & the huns sack Rome, it falls. "Roman Empire" alive and well in Constantinople. Attila makes his way in that direction. In Northern Italy sacks Aquielia, driving refugees and escapees into the marshlands. They establish a village that later becomes Venice.
  • 400's - Council of Calcedon. Christianity going through a lot of changes and interpretations at this point, many open questions on the nature of Jesus (man vs God). This is ultimatly settled  at this council, convened in Constantinople, where they declare the holy trinity to be a thing. This is still what most Christians believe in. Nuts.
  • 450s - Justinian and Theodora, the peasant and prostitute emperors of the Roman Empire. Beset by riots, are prepared to flee the city. Theodora calls everyone in the room a coward, says she'll die on her throne. Ends up swinging the fight, they retain power, kill 30,000 rebels in the hippodrome. Grisly. Justonian goes on to create the Ella Sophia (?) church. Incredible. 
  • The One True Cross was housed in the Church of the Holy Sephulchure in Jeuruselem.
  • Around the 550's/600, history begins referring to the people of Constantinople as Byzintines, and it as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Which is odd, because they still see themselves as Romans, and Byzantium is looong gone. That finally fills in the gap of what the Byzantine Empire was though, interesting. Just Greeks and Romans that went northeast.
  • The original black rock at Mecca was "from the heavens", a likely asteroid, that the pagan Arabians worshipped long before Islam.
  • 600s. Emperor Leo fends off the Arabs, just barely. The Black Death hits. He thinks god is pissed, and blames it on worshipping idols. Goes full on iconoclastic, bans/burns every single religious figure/art. No religious art from prior to this exists today.
  • In 600s first empress of Rome/Byzantium comes to power, repeals iconocylsm, commissions portrait of Mary in Hagia Sophia. It is still there. Wow.
  • Most of the best remaining art from Constantinople was lost in 1204, when the 4th crusades (led/financed by Venetians - Henrico Dandolo) invaded and conquered the city. They sacked the whole thing. The city had been in decline for a while already (otherwise would never have lost to the crusaders) but this was really the beginning of the end. The crusaders did an awful job administering the ruined city for about 60 years, until the Byzantines were able to take power again.
  • Muhammad prophecized in the 600’s that Islam would conquer Constantinople, and that the person that did it would be richly rewarded - and so, the city had been a target of the Muslims/Ottomans for forever. They attacked it many times, but it took almost 1000 years of effort, until 1452, for them to succeed. The night before the invasion (when the outcome was obvious), Constantine XI held a final Christian mass inside Hagia Sofia, knowing it would likely be the last mass in the church for a long time. The next day the victorious Sultan converted the church to a Mosque, which is was for about 500 years. Today, it is a museum, though fundamentalists in Turkey want to convert it back to a Mosque today. The church has stood for nearly 2,000 years. It’s interesting to imagine if/when another Christian (or other religion) mass would be held there. Such an interesting history inside that building.
  • Instructive moments Teaches me to be better prepared, resourceful, teaches me humility and to be gratefulAfter Ottoman conquest, I lost a lot of interest in the book. Partly because the Ottomans themselves lost a lot of interest in the city. Other than build large, beautiful mosques (of which there are many, though none larger than Hagia Sofia), the Ottomans didn’t really do anything to the city. They weren’t interested in civic life or urban planning the way the Greeks and Romans were, and so the city, its art, statues, icons, history, and infrastructure, all pretty much deteriorated after 1453.
  • After WWI the Ottoman empire fell apart (having sided with the Germans), and was dissolved after internal revolution within Turkey. After almost 2,000 years with the same name, Constantinople was changed to Istanbul (a term already in use, derived from the Greek term “the city”). In the last 50 years or so, the population there has exploded, primarily due to unregulated urban sprawl (shanty towns that are built overnight and eventually incorporated into the city limits). This method of growth has left the city feeling especially chaotic and unplanned. While we didn’t spend any time out in the subburbs, it didn’t look like an organized or nice plae to live.

 

Author Bio:

Thomas F. Madden (born 1960) is an American historian, a former Chair of the History Department at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Director of Saint Louis University's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. A specialist on the Crusades, he has often commented in the popular media after the events of September 11, to discuss topics such as how Muslims have viewed the medieval Crusades and their parallels to today's interventions in the Middle East. He has frequently appeared in the media, as a consultant for various programs on the History Channel and National Public Radio. In 2007, he was awarded the Haskins Medal from the Medieval Academy of America, for his book Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, also a "Book of the Month" selection by the BBC History magazine.