When Istanbul Was “a Place of Tolerance and Enlightenment”

(p. C7) In vivid and readable prose, Ms. Hughes tells the story of the three cities that succeeded one another on the Golden Horn. First came ancient Byzantium, “the armpit of Greece,” an “ethnically mongrel place” where Greek settlers mingled with native Thracians. Then there was Constantinople, the New Rome founded in 324 by the emperor Constantine, “a city with both Greek and Near Eastern genetic coding, strengthened by Roman muscle and sinew and wrapped in a Christian skin.” And at last there was Istanbul, the “buzzing, polyglot” capital of the Ottoman Empire, transformed by the architect Sinan (perhaps the greatest genius of the European Renaissance) into “one of the world’s most memorable and impressive urban environments.”
One of the leitmotifs of Ms. Hughes’s book is the cultural pluralism that has characterized Istanbul since earliest times. The 11th century saw the Viking Harald Hardrada and thousands of other “pugilistic opportunists” from the wild Baltic serving in the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian guard. In 1492, Sultan Bayezid II welcomed thousands of Jewish refugees who had been expelled from Granada by Ferdinand II of Aragon, making early Ottoman Istanbul “the largest and most flourishing Jewish community in Europe.” Although the Christian Greek population of the city has dropped from 240,000 in the mid-1920s to fewer than 1,000 today, Istanbul remains a true “global city.” Leaving aside the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees eking out a miserable half-life “on the sides of inner-city roads and trunk-route intersections,” perhaps 20% to 25% of the settled population of modern Istanbul is composed of Kurds from eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia, making Istanbul by far the largest Kurdish city in the world. Throughout its history, as Ms. Hughes writes, “Istanbul has been a city for the Cosmopolitan, for the World Citizen.”
. . .
Ms. Hughes doesn’t conceal the fact that Istanbul’s history has often been a bloody one, from the vicious Nika riots of 532 (when the emperor Justinian butchered some 50,000 civilians) to the dark spring of 1915, when “hunched groups of Armenians could be seen being frog-marched to the city’s police stations, and not coming home.” But Istanbul has also been a place of tolerance and enlightenment, and when one compares its recent history with that of the other great multicultural cities of the Middle East–Aleppo, Baghdad, even Jerusalem–Istanbul can still fairly be called, as it was in Ottoman times, “the Abode of Happiness.”

For the full review, see:
Peter Thonemann. “The Abode of Happiness.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 9, 2017): C7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 8, 2017.)

The book under review, is:
Hughes, Bettany. Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2017.

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