The city haunted by ghosts of its enemies
Non-fiction: Istanbul, Bettany Hughes, W&N, hdbk, 832 pages, €34.95
Byzantium became Constantinople, then Istanbul. But the city's layers are all jumbled up together, finds Sameer Rahim.
During the Gezi Park anti-government protests in 2013, some unusually precise graffiti was scrawled on a broken shop window: "Byzantium - Constantinople - Istanbul - is ours!" The protester was laying claim to the full range of the city's historical traditions: Roman, Christian and Islamic. As the various names for the city suggest, these traditions cannot wholly be encompassed by one nationality or language, much less one emperor, sultan or president.
The Turkish republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in typically autocratic fashion, decreed in 1930 that Istanbul (Islam-bol) was the city's sole name, and forbade the post office from delivering letters addressed to Constantinople. As the novelist Orhan Pamuk relates, although nationalists were convinced that anyone who used the old name "was an undesirable alien with irredentist dreams of the day when the Greeks who had been the city's first masters would return to chase away the Turk", in reality, "many Ottomans were content to call their city Constantinople". One of the pleasures of wandering the city today - whatever you call it - is in recognising that its layers of history are so enfolded with one another that they are impossible to separate.
This is also the pleasure of Bettany Hughes's highly readable jaunt through its past 2,500 years, Istanbul: a Tale of Three Cities. A classical scholar and archaeologist, Hughes is familiar from many a documentary on the ancient world, and through this book she delights in pointing out Greek or Roman monuments hidden in plain sight. I must have walked past the twisting column in the hippodrome opposite the Blue Mosque a dozen times, but only thanks to Hughes do I now know that it was once part of a larger monument commissioned by the Spartan Pausanias to commemorate his victory against the Persians at Platea in 479 BC. Its first home was Delphi - Byzantion being, in Pausanias's day, merely a "confident little settlement". The monument was only brought to the hippodrome by Constantine 800 years later. Its three serpent heads, now missing, can be seen in an Ottoman miniature of 1582, as servants shuffle around it with brooms. One object, three entwining histories.
The crescent moon and star on the Turkish flag (and before it the Ottoman) are usually taken as emblems of Islam and have recently been taken up by other Muslim states such as Pakistan and Tunisia. But its origins are pagan: the star and moon, symbols of the witch-goddess Hecate, were found on Byzantine coins in gratitude to her for defending the city against warlike Macedonians.
As Hughes notes, Istanbul has always needed to import sacredness. Although it was called the "city of the world's desire", neither Jesus nor Mohammed visited it. Dubbed "New Rome", it couldn't match the eternal city's classical pedigree. So it was fortunate when Constantine's mother, the fervent Christian Helena, returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land laden with pieces of the cross and a nail from the crucifixion (made into a bridle for her son's horse) to consecrate the newly renamed city.
It was convenient, too, that Mehmet II, after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, discovered there the grave of one of the Prophet's companions, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who had died during one the earliest attempts by Muslims to take Byzantium in 672. Subsequently, a mosque was built on the site, Eyüp Sultan Camii, and the sultans began to be crowned there. "Constantinople had an urgent need for hallowed gewgaws such as these," writes Hughes, "objects with a kind of radioactive spirituality that would mutate and heat up the city's narrative. Without a headline-grabbing religio-historical past, the city had to manufacture her own significance."
Hughes isn't averse to heating up her own narrative with the salacious stories that dot the city's past. The most infamous couple in Byzantine history, Justinian and Theodora, are given their due - especially Theodora. Hughes warns us to take the testimony by contemporary historian Procopius "with a large amphora of salt", (he wrote a fawning account of the royal couple and then, in The Secret History, a damning one). But what he tells us, she says, "rings true both for the age and for the backstory to the remarkable life of this girl from Constantinople".
The low-born Theodora used to perform erotic dances in the hippodrome, re-enacting classical scenes. Her most popular turn was dressing (or undressing) as Leda, leaving a trail of grains up to her nether regions for a swan playing Zeus (in reality a goose) to peck. Her distinctive talents were brought to the attention of Justinian, who became so infatuated that he made her joint emperor. Theodora, shrewd and intelligent, then embarked on a series of social reforms that helped prostitutes. A grumpy Procopius complains that she removed harlots in the marketplace to a convent of repentance, where some - unable to adjust to their new life - committed suicide.
But at least someone was thinking about women's welfare. In Constantinople, sexual exploitation was endemic, a dark flip side to the fiery polemic poured out by St John Chrysostom, the fourth-century preacher called "golden-mouthed" for his eloquence: "What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil - a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a detestable detriment, an evil nature painted with fair colours."
When the Ottomans took over, the possibility of a female ruler ended. Instead, the many wives and concubines of the sultan - captured as slaves and trafficked from what we now call eastern Europe - competed behind the scenes to promote their sons as the next sultan. Some of these women became extremely powerful, and paid for as many as a third of the city's mosques, as well as a host of schools and seminaries. Even so, the harem was a far cry from the sensual fantasies of European visitors such as Ingres. A captured girl hoping to become the sultan's next lover was more likely to end up the slave of another slave - or to die from tuberculosis, endemic in the crowded Topkapi Palace.
The Turkish takeover in 1453 has become fixed in the European mind by Edward Gibbon as the moment the Roman Empire was finally extinguished. And indeed, much of what remained of old Byzantium was dismantled then, and the grand Hagia Sophia church turned into a mosque. But the real destruction of the eastern empire had been done by the crusaders, when they sacked Constantinople in 1204; by 1453, only 20,000 people were left in the city, and its significance was mostly symbolic. The Ottomans liked their titles and in 1517 declared themselves to be caliphs as well as sultans - taking on leadership of the Islamic world; but Suleiman the Magnificent also called himself kaysar or Caesar, and thought of himself as breathing life into the imperial city.
Racial interlopers themselves, and mindful of the Koran's guidance to treat People of the Book respectfully, the Ottomans were fairly tolerant of the people they conquered. Each community was allowed to make and police their own laws. (Still, Christians and Jews were distinguished by the colour of their clothes and could not build houses higher than a Muslim.) When Granada fell in 1492, and Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or flee, both groups were welcomed by the sultan. The story goes that when the last caliph, Abdulmecid II, was forced to flee Istanbul by train in 1924, the Jewish stationmaster wept in gratitude for his ancestors' generosity. During World War II, the Turkish Embassy in Paris issued 35,000 passports to Ottoman Jews, disguising them as Muslims, which saved their lives. Today, Syrian refugees flee to the caliphate's old capital, hoping for a safe haven.
Istanbul, writes Hughes, is a melancholy place haunted by the "ghosts of the city's enemies who were burnt to death in the public squares or blinded in the corridors of the Great Palace". Pamuk writes that he felt like he grew up in a huge museum, the place weighed down by former glories.
But what a museum! You could lose yourself exploring the mosques of Sinan of the Architect, the Armenian or Greek genius who worked for Suleiman; or in the Hagia Sophia, where the wonderful golden frescoes of Byzantium have been preserved; or the nearby fragment of the Milion, which was erected by Septimus Severus in the second century BC as the place from which all distances in the Roman Empire would be measured.
Istanbul is still living history. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tapped into the country's "Ottomania" and begun greeting dignitaries with a parade of guards dressed as Turkish warriors, complete with swords and chain mail. Isil, which has been carrying out terrorist attacks in the city, calls its Turkish magazine Konstantiniyye. Clearly, some are still dreaming of a greater Constantinople in the future.
But most are mourning lost dreams. Perhaps the most moving moment in the book comes when Hughes goes looking for the song of the Janissaries. In 1826, the crack troops made up of converted Christian slaves from the Balkans revolted against the sultan's proposals to regulate their power. They were nearly all killed apart from a few who escaped to work in the baths.
Hughes tracked down one of their descendants on the Asian side of the city, a religious man working in a shrine. Could he remember one of the Janissaries' famous old songs? "Yes he could - and out came a fluid, mellifluous prayer, a song from the religion of the road, a song of hope and revolution, of piety and of cosmopolitan human heartedness."