Collision of centuries: A Byzantinist’s conception of Istanbul.

hagia sofia by arild vagen 2

As many of you know, I am a fan (some might use the terrible word “buff”) of Byzantine history. I’ve written various articles on the history of Byzantium, I run (and will soon be giving up) a Twitter feed on Byzantine history, and I even wrote a book that takes place in Constantinople in the 8th century AD. When I get talking to people who know something about Byzantine history, a question I often get is, “Have you actually been to Istanbul?” I haven’t, but that rarely halts the conversation. Usually it launches into a discussion about all the wonderful Byzantine-era places and artifacts I’d like to see: Hagia Sofia, the Theodosian Walls, the Basilica Cistern, various tombs and crypts, etc. “I’ll go someday,” is usually the wistful end of this conversation. I have been saying this since 2005 when I first started to get into Byzantine history. Thus far I’ve never been. Unlike Rome, London, Hamburg and New York, other great world cities I’ve visited and loved in person, Istanbul is, for me, more of a concept than a reality. As much as I’d love to see it, I have to admit the truth: it’s probably not nearly as likely that I’ll visit Istanbul as I would like it to seem.

I’ve been thinking about great cities lately, especially those with long historical pasts–medieval or even ancient. For years I’ve wanted to write a novel set in modern (or at least since the beginning of the 20th century) Rome. Part of the appeal of Rome is that it’s a layer-cake of history, in which its ancient past is palpable and visible even in the 21st century. On this vein I recently re-watched Woody Allen’s wonderful 2011 film Midnight in Paris, in which a modern man, played by Owen Wilson, slips back in time to what he sees as Paris’s golden age, the 1920s, when writers, artists and expatriates formed a vibrant intellectual and cultural community. The punch line of Midnight in Paris, though, is that we should not let nostalgia blind us to the richness of the present. Paris is no less vibrant and cultural in the 2010s than it was 90 years ago. Rome, similarly, is thought of as being at its “height,” speaking in modern terms, in the 1950s, when films like Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita portrayed it as a modern romantic fairyland. But it’s still like that today. It’s easy to think of cities like Rome and Paris in terms of how their presents reflect their past. For some reason, though, it’s harder to imagine Istanbul that way.

This walking tour of a small section of Istanbul, captured on YouTube, is, I think, a fascinating look at what the real city is like.

I think it’s especially hard because I’m a Byzantinist. In talking to other Byzantine history aficionados, I have noticed a kind of strange “nationalism” that overcomes us, almost unconsciously, when we envelop ourselves in the wonderful rich history of the Eastern Roman Empire that existed from the 4th century AD to the final conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. When we see Hagia Sofia, we Byzantinists see it not as a mosque or a museum, which it’s been for the last 500 years, but as the spiritual center of the Christian Byzantine world. In our minds we automatically Photoshop out its minarets and minimize its heritage since 1453. I’ve encountered this “historic nationalism” toward Byzantium on many occasions, from those rather extreme buffs who refuse to recognize the word “Byzantium”–because the inhabitants of the empire itself stubbornly insisted on calling themselves Romans, even though they didn’t live in Rome–to those who even deny the word “Istanbul,” insisting on continuing to call the city Constantinople. I’ve even encountered a precious few who claim they literally believe the old Greek legend that the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, is “sleeping,” to be awakened when Christians supposedly retake Istanbul from the Turks and reestablish the Orthodox empire as it existed before 1453. This is, of course, utter fantasy.

Yet there is no doubt that modern Istanbul is every bit as rich and cultured as Rome and Paris. I’ve heard that Istanbul is dirty, smoggy, teeming, crowded, loud, dangerous and hostile. But people also say that about Rome, Paris, London and New York. Look at the video I posted in this article, involving a simple walk through Istanbul’s narrow cluttered streets. You might see junky kebab shops and noisy motorbikes, but look at everything else that’s there: the ancient cobblestones, the fantastic variety of diverse people passing casually by, and the ghostly images on the horizon of those ancient structures, some Byzantine, some Ottoman, that grace Istanbul’s skyline anywhere you look. Istanbul definitely has the same “layer cake” quality as Rome or any other modern city built on ancient foundations. Could you find the same romance somewhere in these streets as you could in Rome or Paris? Istanbul has not had a filmmaker come along and do a Midnight in Paris or a La Dolce Vita about it, but does that matter? Maybe someone should. To borrow a phrase used often about New York, I bet there are a million stories to be found in this ancient city. To be honest, very few of them have anything to do with Byzantium.

I say I would love to go to Istanbul. Someday perhaps I might. If I do, of course I will want to see Hagia Sofia, the Basilica Cistern and the Theodosian Walls. I may even say a little prayer at the Kerkoporta (I’m Jewish, BTW, not Orthodox) for all those lost in the final siege. But if I never do go to Istanbul, when I visit it in my mind I want to see more of it than just the ruins of Byzantium. We construct places in our mind long before we ever experience them in reality. I’d like to construct mine a little more broadly, and incorporate a few more centuries beyond the 15th.

The header photo is by Wikimedia Commons user Arild Vagen and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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2 Comments

  1. I must say that I love Istanbul. I’ve been about half a dozen times and each time I found it overwhelming with life, culture and history. I’ve always thought the people very welcoming for the most part, though of course it is a very big city with the usual issues. The major attractions are as good as one could imagine: Topkapi, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Spice Market – I stand inside the spaces and gape at their history and atmosphere. (And I have no words for the Cisterns. Just fantastic.) I do hope you go sometime. (And if you can extend the geographical range of that fantasy trip, go inland and do not miss Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys and underground cities. Talk about history…)

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