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CONSTANTINOPLE: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924
By Philip Mansel
St. Martin's. 528 pp. $35

Go to the first chapter of "Constantinople"

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Gateway to Byzantium

By John Ash

Sunday, February 2, 1997; Page X07

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire had already embarked on its long decline, so it comes as a surprise to learn that its capital, Constantinople, was larger than London or Paris and fully six times the size of Vienna. It soon began to fall behind, however. By the end of the 19th century, it still had virtually no modern industry, and only the imperial palaces, the embassies and grand hotels had electricity.

In the 1990s Istanbul has once again taken the lead, at least in terms of population growth, but in the opinion of many it is advancing toward chaos. The official population figure is an approximate 12 million, but everyone "knows" (Turkey being one huge rumor-mill) that it must be at least 15. This represents an increase of seven million in the last six years. Much of this population consists of rural migrants who live in illegal housing known as gecekondu (literally "built overnight"). Entire populous districts are simply off the map. The city's already inadequate infrastructure is hopelessly overtaxed, and power and water cuts are commonplace. Istanbul resembles New York in that it is a city people love to complain about (the traffic, the overcrowding, the pollution, the cuts), yet it remains an astonishingly beautiful and vital place, and no one seems to be in a hurry to leave. Like New York, it is a city that should not work but somehow does.

The rapid transformations that are taking place here are important for the future of Europe and the Near East, but no one in the West seems to be paying much attention. For that reason, Philip Mansel's engaging and richly detailed account of the city's history from the Turkish conquest to the end of the Ottoman dynasty is to be welcomed. Secular inhabitants of Istanbul may pride themselves on their modernity, but they cannot escape history, and their city is incomprehensible without it.

"Constantinople: City of the World's Desire" is the story of a city and a dynasty. From the first moment of conquest in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II had clear plans for his new capital. It was not to be an exclusively Turkish or Muslim city. It must reflect the enormous racial and cultural diversity of his expanding empire. Mehmet II was himself of mixed race and liked to see himself in the image of Alexander the Great. He didn't merely encourage Greeks and Armenians to settle in the city; on occasion he forced them to do so. His son and successor, Bayezid II, saw the expulsion of Jews from Spain as a splendid opportunity and sent ships to transport them to his capital. As a result there are still Jews in Istanbul who speak Ladino, the Jewish dialect of Spain. The sultans consistently protected Jews from Christian attacks and never gave the slightest credence to blood-libels. As Mansel remarks, "In Constantinople the words pogrom, ghetto, inquisition had no meaning."

Rather than impose uniformity, the Ottomans gloried in the fact that their empire gave shelter to people of some 72 races or nations, and they made inspired use of the varied talents at their disposal. Take the case of Mimar Sinan, an architect the equal of any that has lived. Though nationalistic Turks insist that he was Turkish, he was of Christian origin and is claimed by both Greeks and Armenians. My vote goes to the Armenians, but the dispute would have been meaningless to Sinan, who was proud to be a Muslim and an Ottoman.

It would be wrong to portray the Ottoman period as an unalloyed golden age, however. There were riots, revolts, fires and famines, and in the 19th century the old traditions of tolerance began to break down under the pressure of military defeats and Balkan nationalist movements. In 1821, when he learned of a Greek revolt and the seditious activities of a secret society in his capital, Sultan Mahmud II turned on the Greeks of Istanbul. Many were slaughtered in the streets, churches were looted, and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was taken out and hanged from the gates of the Patriarchate. (To this day they remain closed in protest.) Despite these horrors, Mahmud II cannot be dismissed as a reactionary. He was committed to reform, and in 1830 he issued the following statement of principle: "I distinguish among my subjects, Muslims in the mosque, Christians in the church and Jews in the synagogue, but there is no difference among them in any other way." For the rest of his reign he was as good as his word, and the Greeks were soon flourishing again.

One does not have to look far to find the reasons for Sultan Mahmud's ruthlessness in 1821: Nationalism of any kind was inimical to the nature of his empire and his capital. Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) was so acutely conscious of the threat that he seems to have succumbed to paranoia, and the Armenians became the particular focus of his fears. His oppressive policies towards them produced precisely the outcome he wished to avoid: They began to form revolutionary societies and resorted to terrorism. The result was the terrible massacres of 1895-96. Because of them Abdulhamid is remembered in the West as a monster of intolerance and inhumanity, yet, according to Mansel, this monster "employed the most international bureaucracy that existed prior to the European Commission," and, throughout the period of the massacres, one of his most trusted advisers was a patriotic Armenian named Artin Pasha Dadian. These paradoxes and contradictions and periodic outbreaks of violence were and remain typical of the city.

It was inevitable that the Turks would eventually respond to the nationalist movements that were tearing their empire apart with a nationalism of their own. It was equally inevitable that this would change the status of Istanbul. For nationalists who gloried in the idea of the "pure" Anatolian Turk, cosmopolitan, multinational Istanbul was no longer "the refuge of the world" but the "whore of the world." Ataturk saw quite correctly that the old, imperial city could not be the capital of his new nation-state, yet it remains a capital in a broader, economic and cultural sense. It may be very different from the Ottoman city Mansel describes (it is certainly much less ethnically diverse), yet it has retained its unique character. Where else, for example, could you find a luxury hotel housed in a former prison that stands on the foundations of a Byzantine palace? Or visit a vast, state-of-the-art shopping mall and see recently arrived immigrants from Anatolia taking their first, hesitant steps on an escalator?

Mansel fears that uncontrolled development threatens the city's survival, but it is still very far from unlivable. I a.m. convinced that it will continue to perform its historic role as "a door in the wall between Islam and Christianity" and, more generally, between East and West. It is a place we need now more than ever.

John Ash is the author of "A Byzantine Journey." He lives in Istanbul.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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