Too Important to Abandon

Review of Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World by Thomas F. Madden

/ by Maria Eliades

There are many books out there about the history of Istanbul. Anything from titles on Byzantium (John Julius Norwich's three-volume bonanza comes to mind) and the Ottoman Empire, to works on the Turkish Republic, can help one grasp this city’s long history. If one has been lucky enough to have lived in this chaotic, beautiful, and difficult city, one is struck by the sense that, beneath the everyday, and even the visible layers of history, there are more layers.


I lived in Istanbul until recently. While walking in Beyoğlu, I often had the sense that, beyond my family's own history in the city, that if I only had the knowledge of what went on before even them, I could envision ghost cities as I walked. Like the iterations of the city of Troy, the ghost cities in Istanbul’s past lay one beneath the other, but wholly intact with their monuments and curiosities.


During my time in the city, I had read many books on Istanbul's history, to help me visualize it over the past hundred years, but there was never a title quite like Thomas F. Madden's sprawling Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. He puts together the history of the various empires that have passed through the city, to create a unified vision of its topos. While the closest work to this one is the picturesque travel guide, Strolling Through Istanbul by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, or even The Owl's Watchsong by J.A. Cuddon and The Lycian Shore by Freya Stark, from the same timeframe, Madden refrains from merely delivering highlights of the city's history. His work, instead, aims to give a full-bodied vision of what the city has been, from the Classical period through today. One could, of course, use his book to experience the various versions of the city, while walking around. However, it would be advised to take the book along for a leisurely read in a tea garden in Sultanahmet, or a cafe in Galata, where much of the city's history takes place.


Madden rightly notes, in his introduction that, since “Modern histories often privilege the modern,” he has tried not to do so in this work. Instead, he writes that, while the gift of hindsight reveals the effects of the 532 CE Nika Riots, we are not distanced enough for the coup attempt of 2016 to judge its long-term impact. This long view of Istanbul is a wise approach to a city that has existed for millennia. Madden begins with the founding of the city as the Megaran colonies of the 8th century BCE inched closer and closer to Chalcedon (present-day Kadıköy), before settling there around 667, and thus beginning the city as Byzantion. From then on, what starts as a trading outpost ebbs and flows in its development, in tandem with the greater political game playing out from the Mediterranean to the Middle East. Readers familiar with the Greek city-states will be pleased to connect that narrative with what was happening in Byzantion at the time. This feeling will continue with Madden's narration of the rise of Philip and Alexander the Great's empire, and perhaps pause with the Roman and Byzantine periods. During that latter period, Roman expansion, particularly in Sicily, was not due to a sense of a Magna Roma, but rather because they were called upon to prevent Greek city-states from attacking each other.


The Ottoman and post-Ottoman Republic period are made to seem much simpler than they are in this work, if only due to the briefer time-span, compared to their predecessors, and occasionally this leads to errors, such as the claim that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki was bombed on September 5, 1955, which it never was. Despite having read Spyros Vryonis's encyclopedic work on the topic, The Mechanism of Catastrophe, Madden seems to have skipped reading that the bomb was a fiction, created to excuse the anti-Greek and anti-minority riots – a pre-internet fake news item. As a non-specialist for that period, he can also be excused for not mentioning the impact of the Wealth Tax of the 1940s, or the “Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş” (Citizens, Speak Turkish) campaign of the mid-to-late 1950s, that began the Greek exodus from the city in connection with Cyprus, though the true exodus would occur with the deportations of 1964. Another problem with the text is the inconsistencies with contemporary Turkish orthography, such as “Çemberlitas[sic]” and facts like the third bridge's opening date, that could have been avoided with a fact-checker.


Despite these errors, what Madden's work gets right is its appreciation for change in Istanbul, and its attention to the concept of a metropolis across each period. For the Romans and the Byzantines, this meant that the public space of the city was one in which residents could live and prosper, as well as mix with the State, but Madden later notes that this was not the case for the Ottomans, who “had no such concept,” and indeed did not believe they had an immediate relationship with their rulers:


Sultans, therefore, did not beautify the streets or adorn open areas of their capital with colonnades and artwork. They did not build streets at all. The notion of city planning was alien to them. Ottoman Constantinople's only straight road was the Divan Yolu – the ancient Mese, which was itself the end of the Roman Via Egnatia. Everything else was a snarl of dirt backways and a few cobbled wider streets that snaked through the city.


One can attest to this difference in attitudes in Istanbul even today. While the metropolitan municipality does engage in beautification projects, such as complex flower plantings across the city and along its highways, the majority of the residents do not take the urban space as an interactive area, in which they too are responsible for its upkeep, nor where they can interact with the authorities – with the exception of course, of protests. Anyone who has had the misfortune of a garden around their apartment that becomes a receptacle for everything from used toothbrushes to vegetable scraps can attest to the lack of respect for common space: There is the unspoken belief that the only place one should be concerned with cleanliness is inside one's home. Therefore, any public space is someone else's problem and responsibility.


Overall, reading Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World made me proud to have lived in the city, and I wished that I could have known more of its pre-modern past when I had lived there. For anyone looking for a work that will give a good overview of the many pasts of the wondrous city, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World, is among the works that I would recommend that has been written with a true love of the place in mind, and a real understanding of what the city has been.

Maria Eliades

is a freelance journalist who writes about Turkish and Greek culture, politics, and history for a variety of publications. Her other work has been published in PRI's The World, the Ploughshares blog, Gastronomica, EurasiaNet, and The Guide Istanbul, to name a few. For six years, Maria lived in Istanbul, where she taught at Boğaziçi University. Her essay, “Roots Like Museum Pieces” is forthcoming in the collection, Expat Sofra: Recipes of Foreign Life in Turkey. Maria received her MSt in Modern Greek from the University of Oxford, and her BA in English Literature from Drew University.