Constantinople, the Conquered City
In my mind, the single greatest building in the world is the Hagia Sophia – Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God – (the Temple of Wisdom). It is remarkable not only for its size, the complexity of its construction, the originality of its conception, but also the way in which it sits within its environment, seeming to be like a capstone for the hill it rests upon. It captures so much of what I would like to think of as the spirit of its city. In this essay, I would like to present a brief summary of the history of this city, and my first impressions and thoughts upon visiting Istanbul, despite their naivety and rawness. In a sense the Hagia Sophia embodies both of these ideas.
Arriving in Istanbul my mind was full of its rich history. It was founded through a consultation of the Oracle of Delphi, who is said to have given out the advise to found the village of Byzantium opposite from where the blind live. Blind, because living on the wrong side of the water, they were blind to the truly significant and strategic location that this site offered. From there it becomes a part of the Roman empire as it expands to the East, first with Sulla, until finally, Constantine designates this as the capital of the empire in 330CE. It then became commonly known as Contantinopolis (Constantinople the anglicised name) in honour of the founding emperor. It remained the capital of the Roman empire until it was conquered by the Sultan Mehmet in 1453 and renamed Istanbul (which translates literally as “The City”). It was then the capital of the Ottoman Empire until it finally fell after the First World War. With Ataturk, the modern Republic of Turkey was founded, however Ankara was chosen as the republic’s capital, and Istanbul’s role of “the capital city” passed on.
I say Roman empire because that is how its inhabitants saw themselves, as the natural descendants of the Romans. Rome as a city had become less relevant to the greater empire, and the East was where the wealth of the empire lay. Choosing a strategic location in this area, and there is none better than this, was critical, and Rome increasingly lacked in both wealth and location in comparison. Before the founding of Constantinople as the capital, Diocletian had already divided the empire into its East and Western parts, with Milan being the capital of the West, and the East the senior partner. The capital of the Western empire was to move to Ravenna, though Rome was always to assume some provenance as a city. As the West fell in the 5th century, the Eastern empire was to persist with an unbroken succession of emperors until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
It is common practise now to refer to the Eastern Romans, the empire consequent to the fall of the Western empire, as “The Byzantines” after the name of the original village. It has also become seen as a Greek empire, as the Greek influence grew after the West had fallen, and the use of Latin as the main language was slowly replaced with Greek. However, the Byzantines saw themselves as Romans, called themselves Romans, and Byzantines was a name given to them by outsiders.
The empire of the Byzantines at various times expanded and shrunk, but mostly the city itself remained as the capital of the Empire, the safe-house for the knowledge and culture of the Greco-Roman world. While the West descended into “the Dark Ages”, and the Arabic-Islamic empires expanded taking all before them, all, except for Constantinople, until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453.
The West slowly emerged from the catastrophe of the fall of the Western empire, and seeing the outside world again, the crusades begun. It is common for us in the West to think of “the ancient world” as distinctly separate and divided from the modern world by these dark ages; a civilisation lost to the mists of time. But this is a misconception, for “the ancient world” survived, as a high culture, with the Byzantines. The “mists of antiquity” are mists only through ignoring the existence of the Byzantium empire. This ignorance of the East is largely shaped by the heretic divide that arose in Christianity between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East.
Constantinople was a Christian city, an empire based around the Christian church as established by Constantine, the same founder as is credited by the Western church. The deep divisions of the Arian heresy still lay (as they do today), dividing the East and Western christian worlds. The crusaders, barely literate, historically ignorant, were uncouth barbarians compared with the sophistication of the Byzantines. While Charlemagne struggled learning to read, the Byzantines had women doctors, schools for their children, and so forth.
The Western distrust for the East ran deep, and with the 4th Crusade, the Doge of Venice was to lead a Christian army that was to sack Constantinople in 1204. For 3 days the city burned, with a sixth of the city damaged. One Frenchman supposedly remarked that even the burnt part of the city alone was larger than any existing western city at that time. The 4th crusade, and the 60 consequent years of the “Latin Empire”, though they were to eventually disintegrate and the city returned to the Byzantines, seemed to break the spirit of the people and was an event from which they seemed not to recover.
The Byzantines had as much to fear, if not more, from the western Christians as they did from the Islamic empire and barbarian hordes. Yet, it stood as a bulwark against an advancing Islamic tide for 800 years; the first attack on their city was to see a friend of Mohammed’s killed in 670 around the outskirts of the city, a death honoured with the Mosque of Eyup in the suburbs of Istanbul built in 1458. This was the first Mosque built after the city fell, built just 5 years later, so it gives you some idea of the significance of this event for the conquering Muslims.
Why? Constantinople, through its strategic location, was to stem the Islamic expansion in that direction and thus to protect most of Europe from the fate that was to befall the Middle East, Egypt, Northern Africa as they succumbed to the Arabic expansion. This breathing space allowed the rebuilding of the Western states, allowed them to emerge from the Dark Ages, and to gather enough strength to resist and ultimately survive and expel the Arabic muslims from the West.
By the time Sultan Mehmet arrived, the city itself was denuded of people, the palace and other buildings in disrepair. His battle with the city offered no quarter, and none was given, and eventually, finally, the city was to fall.
Sultan Mehmet saw himself, as did the other Sultans that were to follow, as great builders in the spirit of Constantine, and of Justinian (the emperor who over-saw the construction of the Hagia Sophia), as well as Theodosius II (he of the famed Theodiosian Walls, the walls the held all at bay for eleven hundred years). The Hagia Sophia, and other significant churches, were converted into Mosques, and minarets were to frame their boundaries. The Hagia Sophia was to become the inspiration, the template, for many of the Mosques of Istanbul; the Blue Mosque was built to rival it, to show that not only could Romans build such grand structures.
What struck me most about Istanbul today is how little its history seems to exist before the conquest. There is a sense of its history as events lost to the mists of antiquity, just as we have relegated this culture in the West. Even the use of the name “Constantinople” rates barely a mention, even in the main museum displaying artefacts of those times. There, as elsewhere, it is called Istanbul. So little of its rich past seemed to be remembered or honoured, but rather relegated to a corner of little relevance, of perhaps historical interest for a few scholars.
With the Crusades, as Westerners passed through the city, and with the sack of the 4th crusade where much of the wealth of the city was to make its way to Venice and other Western destinations, we must expect some of the ideas, the education and culture of the city to flow along with these riches. Ultimately with the fall of the city, and the escape of its inhabitants from its Islamic conquerers, Europe was exposed to the wealth of knowledge, of architecture, of art, of philosophy that was preserved in the Roman civilisation of the Byzantines: the statuary, the portraits and display of human forms (both male and female), the philosophical discoveries of the works of the Greeks, including the idea of scepticism, the questions of Socrates, reflections on the nature of knowledge itself.
As Constantinople fell in 1453, the Byzantines had appealed to the West for aid, but the cost of that aid was the renunciation of the Eastern (Orthodox) heresy and conversion to Catholicism. No aid was to be forthcoming. The West was to feel no obligation of protection for the city that had guarded their lives for centuries. Perhaps of an ultimate irony, the guns that were used by Mehmet, both in the forts controlling the flow of traffic along the Bosphorus, and the even larger guns that were used to break through the walls of Theodosius, were designed by an Hungarian, who obviously felt no sense of comradeship with his “fellow Christians” in the city his work was to conquer.
It is a strange experience to come to this city, to know something of its history, to have these ideas within one’s mind, and yet to see so little of it, and what there is, is covered and only recently exposed. Indeed, do the victors write history, and it remains a deeply moving experience to see this from the side of the losers, and to try to grasp what has gone before. This is not to devalue the tremendous energy that has gone into creating Istanbul, nor to deny the uniqueness of the Ottoman empire, but it was a surprise that so little is acknowledged of the past of what was, and still is, one of the world’s greatest cities.
While visiting the Modern Art Museum in Istanbul, I came across the following quote: “Nothing in the world can be as beautiful as the first moment you see this Muslim capital city from miles away. What you see as you approach Istanbul is beautiful beyond your wildest dreams. Only when you see this view, you can understand the thrill offered by Eastern cities” (La Baronne Durand de Fontmagne, 1856). Istanbul was the first destination, the first photographs of “exotic places”, the first time this new technology left France and was used to capture the strange and exotic of foreign lands.
What is strange to me is not the obvious truth of this statement, but the notion of Istanbul as “this Muslim capital city”. Perhaps I am putting ideas into La Baronne’s words, for indeed at the time it was the capital of the Muslim Ottoman empire. However, it seems deeply ironic that the West, who bears much of the responsibility of the East’s fall, would comfortably refer, would have deeply embedded in their mind, of the city in this light. Is there no understanding of this city as a conquered, as a city taken, indeed as a city with as much lineage, and historical significance, as Athens or Rome?
Throughout this essay I have pictures of the Hagia Sophia; to me this is deeply symbolic of the underlying currents that still pervade Istanbul and its place, the nexus between East and West, that raise questions about its role in the world today. The Hagia Sophia was built in just 6 years by the Emperor Justinian. It was the 3rd such church to bear this name on this site, the second was destroyed in a riot that occurred between those of the different sides of the “Christian heresy” (the Greens and the Blues) that took place in 532CE. So, at its foundation lay the conflict of these two fundamental divisions of Christianity. Justinian hoped that the church would unify the divided world, that its architecture, the sheer majesty of the building, would bring a sense of heaven to earth, that an experience of the divine would overwhelm the petty differences amongst us.
It was built in much the same spirit as Constantine’s view of Christianity, as he had attempted to dispel these division amongst the Christian sects: one religion for one empire. It was not to be. The Hagia Sophia served (except for the short period of the Latin Empire in the 4th Crusade when it was converted to a Catholic cathedral) as the central church for the Orthodox faith and seems to have had little meaning for the Roman Catholics. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it was converted to a Mosque, much of its interior either destroyed or concealed to fit with that use, and minarets were built to frame it as such a building. With the foundation of the modern Republic of Turkey, the Mosque was secularised in 1931, and since 1935 it has served as a museum.
As a gesture to honour the truly rich and diverse history that this city embodies I have a proposal to put forward. To restore the Hagia Sophia to something of its original state; for the minarets to be taken down, the conquering shields adorning its interior with their Koranic scripts removed, the mithrab and Koranic verses along the walls around what would have been the altar of the church removed. For the golden device that sits atop its roof, a simple globe, unadorned, to stand for the one world within which we all live; a symbol of the ideal of the secular, the non-denominational, non-religious ideal we have embraced as a means of organising political power in our societies. Still leaving some semblances of its religious past, but to restore its original architectural view, and thus its place within its environment.
I’m not proposing restoring the building to a Church, or in removing the trappings of its period as a Mosque, to replace those with Christian symbols. I would also hope that the West might contribute to this restoration, not as it imposing its view on the East, but as some recognition to the debt that it owes to the East, and to Constantinople in particular. It would also serve I would hope to remind the West of the existence of a secular society in the East; that this country is one that has such deep and abiding ties to the same roots as the West. Is it not significant that Turkey is a secular society of its own choosing and determination?
I am a secular Westerner, and I have no right to ask this of a country that I’ve barely visited and hardly know. I grasp at the tendrils of its history, the fragrance of its markets around the Galata bridge, the warm summer evenings and cool sea breeze wafting in from the Bosphorus; such a thin strip of water dividing Europe from Asia. Yet I do.