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Istanbul, The Imperial City

Istanbul, The Imperial City: John Feely, (Viking 1996), (Penguin Books 1998), 414 pp.


This book is intended to be a history of the city variously known as Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul and as a guide to its monuments and museums. As a history it must of necessity fail to be complete; a single volume does not suffice for the history of a city lasting 2700 years, a city which served as the capital of two great empires.

History, they (TM) say, is a social construct. The past sits there, replete with its millions who have lived and died (each with their own story), politics and political structures, arts and crafts, religions and gods, great and humble works, and endless stories. Indeed we cannot encompass history for we are within history; we can at best select which stories to tell, which grand summaries stand in for all of the endless variety of the past.

Feely states his intent in the preface:

This is intended to be a well-illustrated introduction to the history of the imperial city that has been known successively as Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul, capital in turn of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, but rather a biography of the city itself and an account of the social life of its people from the earliest settlements up to the present day. It is also a guide to the Istanbul's monuments, which are described in the context of the city's living history, particularly with regard to the role that they have played in its political, religious, intellectual, artistic, and social life.

The book is divided into four parts. The first three are respectively histories of pre-imperial Byzantium, the Byzantine empire, and the Ottoman empire. The final section describes many of the monuments, buildings, and museums in the city.

Feely uses an ancient and traditional mode of constructing history, the register of kings. He walks through the long list of rulers of the city and its associated empire, playing close attention to the court and the political maneuvers around the throne, giving tangential notice to the events of their reigns.

This is in sharp contrast to the treatment that the imperial city gets in usual accounts which emphasize a handful of notable events, e.g., the establishment of Constaninople as a capital, the stories of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius, the iconoclasts, Manzikert, the fall of Byzantium, the Ottoman empire at its height, Lepanto, "The Sick Man of Europe", and the establishment of Turkey as a modern nation.

The usual treatment identifies a few "key" events as being important and treats them in detail, leaving one with the impression that nothing of consequence happened in between. Feely gives us his take on the "in between"; the customary great events are there but they dwindle down to a handful of paragraphs.

We are given many interesting details, principally about the conduct of affairs of court. For example, in the early years of the Ottoman empire it was the custom to execute brothers of a newly ascended Sultan. In time the custom changed; the brothers were confined in seclusion. Upon need they came of seclusion to ascend the throne. It sometimes happened that a ruler would be deposed, placed in seclusion, and later retrieved to resume the throne. Those in seclusion were provided with women who were unfertile - Sultans were permitted to sire sons, rulers in waiting were not.

Feely means to provide a guide to the city for the visitor. In this he succeeds as well as can be done by any single volume. The city is littered with monuments to Emperors and Sultans, churches and mosques, and other relics of millennia of history. For the visitor his approach has the merit of providing background information on this plethora.

As a history the book has its faults. Despite its stated objectives it gives relatively little information about the political, religious, intellectual, artistic, and social life of the many peoples of the city. For someone wishing to learn about this great city and its history there is too much detail (and perhaps the wrong detail) and too little structure. A real merit of the book, though, is that its incompleteness is obvious; one is left wanting to know more. It is a great fault in works of exposition to leave the reader with the sense that they have the whole story.


This page was last updated September 20, 1998.
It was moved March 25, 2010

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