Once upon a time, this city was a rival of Rome. As if hanging on a heavenly balance, the star of one city fell as the other rose on the ever-changing firmament. Commanding the narrow straits between Europe and Asia, Byzantium was the key to the gateways between east and west.
A melting pot of countless nationalities as capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, it was only after the Moslem conquest that the population became sharply divided on religious lines into Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Racial intermarriages, often with western Christians, produced the superficially Europeanized, cosmopolitan Levantines who dominated trade but were despised by the "pure" races.
Stripped of political power, modern Istanbul, after a temporary eclipse between the two world wars, has found a new role. Factories have spread along the approaches on the European side right to the crumbling city walls, into which gaping holes have been torn to allow for the flow of traffic to the airport on wide but featureless avenues; industries are also encroaching on the Asiatic shore, contributing to the prosperity and Pollution but hardly the beauty of the town, whose site the 19th-century raveler Alexander von Humbolt ranked second only to that of Rio de neiro. Inevitably progress was achieved at the expense of the idyllic countryside where shepherds grazed their flocks below the ramparts a mere thirty years ago. Though the glory that was Constantinople is faded, the innumerable mosques, palaces, churches and fortifications still combine in an unique and unforgettable setting.
Turkish Street Life A thousand and one sights will catch your eye and stir your curiosity. Why do the shoes upcurve at the tipa leftover from the old Turkish slipper? And why are almost all publicity posters and billboards given over to banks?
The sellers of simit, a doughnut-shaped bread sprinkled with sesame seed, push through the crowds, followed by sweet peddlers. The wares look tasty, as they do on the makeshift stalls selling peanuts, pistachios, roasted marrow seed and chick-peas, almonds and hazelnuts. And there is the sherbet vendor, with his leather bottle wrought with brass, chrome and ironwork, who pours the iced fruit drink or serbet (from which European languages obtained "sherbet" and "sorbet"). And the small boys hurrying to and fro with endless cups of coffee or tea on brass trays swinging on chains.
After school hours, the children run out into the streets, chattering and giggling, looking touchingly old-fashioned in black pinafores and white Peter Pan collars.
At a bus-stop, shaded from the sun by an awning, a crowd waits patiently, straggling across the pavement like a string of ants. The boya-cis (shoeshine boys) swarm about with their kits (there is an entire fraternity of them on Taksim Square).
You'll find Istanbul different, fascinating, very alive; the sights are as much in the streets as in the museums.
A Capsule History of Istanbul
In the haven of some deep inlet, a Greek navigator called Byzas anchored his ship in the seventh century B.C., and founded the town which bears his name: Byzantium. Consulted about the site of the new colony, the Delphic oracle indicated "opposite the country of the blind", which Byzas rightly interpreted to mean the European entrance to the Bosphorus, opposite Chalcedon, whose earlier Greek settlers had been blinded by the fertility of the Asian shore. The splendid natural harbor of the Golden Horn brought about a far greater commercial prosperity, with its inevitable outcome: the greed of neighbors. The Persian king Darius having taken it by force of arms, the Spartan regent, Pausanias, "liberated" it in 478 B.C, only to enter into treasonable negotiations with Darius' successor Xerxes till driven out by the Athenians. Independent once again, Byzantium held out against Philip of Macedoniafather of Alexander the Greatand against the Gauls.
The sign of the Crescent dates from these battlesit was the light of the moon that betrayed Philip's movements to the besieged townsmen.
As to the war with the wild Gallic hordes, it ended in a commercial agreementtribute from Byzantium, to be levied by payment for each crossing of the strait. This high-handed procedure did not at the time go by the respectable name of toll tax.
Weakened by unceasing warfare against invaders, Byzantium fell at last to the Roman legions. Here again, its craftiness came into play making the best of a bad bargain, it threw in its lot with the conquering enemy. Though the city prospered in the long centuries of the Pax Romana, in the struggle for the empire between Prescennius Niger and Septimus Severus, Byzantium was luckless enough to back the wrong horse. After a long and bloody siege, Niger's rebel town was taken by the forces of Severus at the end of the second century.
The Birth of Constantinople
Severus, who prided himself on being a just man (once he had safely got rid of his enemies), rebuilt Byzantium, adding theaters, archways, and baths to mark his victory, as was the way of Roman conquerors. He even gave it a Latin nameAugusta Antonia. Later, in 324, when Con-stantine made of it the capital of the Empire, it became Nea Roma. Newly converted to Christianity, forewarned by his endless troubles with barbarian forays into Italy, Constantine built strong new walls, together with palaces and churches (among them, St. Sophia).
For the most part, however, the people remained pagan until forcibly enlisted into the new religion by Theodosius the Great (378-95), a Gali-cian from Spain. In spite of this high-handed act, this ruler was renowned for his clemency. Two of his sayings are known to us: "Would God I had it in my power to raise the dead!"a praiseworthy statement for a soldierand another, giving his reasons for not punishing those who plotted against the king: "… if they act unthinkingly, they are to be scorned; if through madness, pitied; if through ill-will, forgiven".
The end of the fourth century saw the division of the Empire. Theodosius had two sons, Honorius and Arcadius, who split the heritage between them. The former went to Rome, to rule the western empire; the latter mounted the golden throne of the eastern empire, in the city to be known henceforth as Constantinople, the city of Constantine. During the reign of Theodosius II, named the Younger (408-50), a strange happen-Wg took place. In 421, the armed forces of Byzantium and Persia "were seeking each other out for battle". But, face to face at last, "they were both filled with fear and fled, each from the other".
The barbarian invasions spared neither Rome nor Constantinople. Rome fell in 476, leaving Constantinople sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Yet neither the official use of Latin nor of Roman law deterred the people from cherishing its age-old Greek heritage. The emperor was called the basileus. Constantinople was, in fact if not in name, the capital of the Greek world. Ephemeral emperors and short-lived dynasties rose and fell from Theodosius II to Justinian (527-65), the way to the throne often being cleared at sword's point. Throughout it all, the barbarians came, laid waste, left, and came back.
The priesthood, embroiled in a web of theology and busy splitting hairs, played a leading part in the troubles. In 513, one faction set fire to the city to spite the other. Forty years later, a civil war burned down the Senate and Constantine's St. Sophia. The city was saved from itself at last by a hard-headed union of blue blood and redJustinian married the beautiful and ruthless Theodora, an actress and harlot. Between husband and wife, they put down the so-called Circus uprising. They also rebuilt the whole city, and St. Sophia as it stands today. They defeated the enemyVandals, Goths, and Persians. It was, however bloodstained, the golden era of Constantinople and of the Byzantine Empire.
Having reached the zenith attained by Justinian and Theodora, the power of Constantinople began to wane. It was harassed relentlessly by hordes from the Urals, the Persians, and the Arabs. Moslem forces laid siege to the wicked city, but they were thrown back by a new weapon: Greek fire (with a petroleum base). It was later to be used in the clash between the Cross and the Crescent, Islam wielding it against Christianity. According to the singed Crusaders, it was a kind of firebrand that "burst into flames upon wetting"whether in oil or molten wax is not known.
During the ninth century, another Theodora ruled Constantinople as regent for her son Michael. She restored the cult of images. A chronicle of her time, listing her virtues and praising her piety, ends with the cold-blooded statement: "She ordered the hanging, decapitation, and burning of a hundred thousand Manicheans".
The second half of the ninth century witnessed a renewal of wealth and power under the rule of the Macedonian emperor, Basil I. Skillfully using religion as a tool for policy, he spread Christianity into the Balkans and into Russia. The next hundred years saw another golden age, under Constantine Porphyrogenitus. The far-flung renown of the extraordinary wealth, beauty, and pageantry of Constantinople became the waking dream of every adventurer. However, as often happens, the rise of the arts of peace was to lead to the weakening of ruling power.
The fruit was overripe, and ready to fall at the first onslaught, that of the Turksthe Seljuks. A misfortune never comes singly, and in mid11th century the Patriarch Michael Cerularius brought on the schism of Christianity. The dogmatic dispute over the provenance of the Holy Ghost became overlaid with frivolous bickering. For form's sake, the eastern church accused the western church of eating meat on Wednesdays, eggs and cheese on Fridays; of shaving the priests' beards; of wearing a ring "like a married man" when a bishop; of one dip into water instead of three at christenings. There was indeed something in all this pettifoggery of the Byzantine priesthood, who set great store by such quibbles; but, outside of a few holy and hidebound old men, there was more spite than saintliness in the quarrel. The fact was, Constantinople could not bear to let Rome have religious supremacy, after having wrested political leadership. There followed an outbreak of excommunications, from west to east and from east to west. Where there had been two Empires, there were now two Churches.
For some time past, the rulers of Venice, Amalfi, and Genoa had asked for, and been granted, free port for trade in Constantinople. The gold rush was on, and the end of the 11th century saw the beginning of the Crusades. The first two went off fairly well, in spite of the cold war between the Greek and Latin churches. Both Louis VII, the Pious, of France, and the German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, would gladly have razed Constantinople to the ground; but the wish turned out to be simpler than the deed. As for the third Crusade, it got around the difficulty by by-passing the city of "the wily Greeks".
When the fourth Crusade was under way, a palace revolution overthrew the throne of the basileus. The emperors, at that time, belonged to the Angelus family. Alexis III deposed his brother Isaac and, for good measure, put out his eyes. The blind man's son, also named Alexis, called on the Crusaders for help. With noble hearts aflame and "the chink of gold coins as sweet to the ear as the call of a trumpet", the Latin knights came rushing to the rescue. Put back in power, Isaac and Alexis IV made their peace with the Pope of Rome; and the Greeks rose against them in a body. A great many corpses later, an Alexis, by then the fifth, was crowned emperor, and broke with Rome. The Crusaders saw red. Taking Constantinople in 1204, they mercilessly burnt and sacked the one great city in Christendom. Most of the city's priceless works of art were stolen or destroyed. As for the people, the soldiers of the Cross had no foolish pity"man is as grass, and as grass he passeth away". Besides, wholesale slaughter had much to be said for it; for lack of Greeks, a Latin emperor, Baldwin, was put on the throne, and the empire itself split up into lots among the barons.
Not for long. In 1261, Michael VIII Paleologus recaptured Constantinople, or rather, what was left of it. The Venetians and the Genoese still shared a monopoly of all trade, which would not have mattered much had these blood brothers not also been at odds. War broke out again, Greeks against Latins, and Latins against Latins. Outside the walls of the city, the Seljuks had given way to the Ottomans, who laid siege to Constantinople. One way or the other, ancient Byzantium was destined to fall into the hands of the Turks.
Fate was to give the city a breathing-space. Tamerlane and his Mon¬golian hordes swept through the Middle East, and defeated the Turkish Sultan Bayezit in bloody battle, under the walls of Ankara. What fol¬lowed is one of the unaccountable freaks of history; in a thunder of horses' hooves, Tamerlane galloped with his men back to his barren plains, without troubling to exploit his victory. Both east and west breathed a sigh of relief.