Excerpt: New Rome
Part 2, subchapter 29
Here I am, like a dream: Istanbul – not just any city, but for 2,000 years a key theatre for the drama of the human race and a central nexus around which the story of our species has flowed.
It was originally Greek. The legend goes that, two and a half millennia ago, the Oracle of Delphi told King Byzas of Megara to found a city on the Bosporus where Europe touches Asia. Byzas, being a king, named it Byzantium after himself.
The Romans conquered the city in 196 CE back when they ruled this half of the world, but the foundations for its pivotal role in history were laid 100 years later when the emperor Diocletian declared the empire too big to be ruled as a single state and split it into east and west.
After single-handedly redirecting the development of a continent Diocletian retired to grow cabbages (I’m serious – apparently he really liked cabbages) but, 40 years later, his successor, Constantine, established the future capital of the eastern of those two empires at Byzantium. He named the re-founded city New Rome, but to posterity it would always be known as Constantinople.
Within two centuries the Western Roman Empire had descended into anarchy and the Dark Ages. The Eastern Empire (also known as The Byzantine Empire) was to rule the Mediterranean and Middle East until the emergence of the Arab Caliphate in 636 CE. Constantinople, the empire’s beating heart, was the most coveted city in the world.
As Islam rose, the fortunes of Byzantium were eclipsed by those of the Caliphate, which devoured its Middle Eastern possessions. However, it remained the richest and most civilised part of Europe for a further eight centuries. That era was brought to a close in 1204 when Constantinople was sacked by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, leaving it an impoverished shadow of itself and the crippled Byzantine Empire a weakened target for the rising power of the Turks.
They came from the steppe: that vast expanse of grass and scrub, stretching between China and the Black Sea, from which – since man tamed horse – nomadic warriors have periodically poured forth. The Turks emerged in the eighth century, arriving first in Persia then, generation by generation, picking their way across the Islamic civilisations of the Middle East. By 800 years ago they’d reached the Mediterranean.
That was just as another wave of plainsmen – the Mongols – were turning Asia on its head. Osman, a Turkish king, took advantage of that chaos and the refugees fleeing west, to found a new empire: an Ottoman Empire. It was well placed to envelop the crumbled ruins of Byzantium and, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks.
For the great metropolis this brought repopulation and another wave of fabulous buildings. With the city as their base, the Ottomans conquered vast swathes of Europe, Asia and North Africa, becoming lords of the Middle East and building an empire that stretched from Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf. Constantinople became the centre of the richest and most cosmopolitan empire on Earth. As pogroms and inquisitions gripped Europe it was the ‘haven of the universe’ and dubbed ‘the city of the world’s desire’. Of course, the Turks had always had their own name for it: Istanbul.
Suns always set on empires and heroic periods are universally followed by lulls and stagnation. The Ottomans were not immune to this historic pattern and, as the second millennium reached its closing centuries and Europe rose up to rule the world, they went from Lords of the Horizon to the sick men of Europe. Their empire was finally brought to its close in 1922, and a Turkish Republic declared by the legendary war hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In the twentieth century Turkey had its ups and downs, but in this opening decade of the third millennium, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, (which is mildly Islamic and very effective) presides over low inflation, robust growth, stable macroeconomics and an ever more dynamic society. One of his policies is to make Turkey a part of the European Union. The future is bright.
Atatürk moved the capital to Ankara, in Turkey’s Asian hinterland, but Istanbul remains its most important metropolitan centre, the country’s cultural, economic and intellectual hub and the largest city in Europe. After arriving three days ago, Nelly and I have taken a room in the shadow of the Blue Mosque.
An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.