Constantinople: City of the world's desire, 1453-1924

Constantinople: City of the world's desire, 1453-1924

William Armstrong -
Constantinople: City of the worlds desire, 1453-1924 ‘Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924’ by Philip Mansel (John Murray, 2006, 30TL, pp 528)

As Philip Mansel writes in this vivid skip through 500 years of history, “multiple identity was the essence of Constantinople ... [Its] chief legacy to the world was its role and example as a great international capital, which ignored rigid boundaries, national, cultural, social and religious.” When that multicultural essence disappeared, the city itself changed fundamentally, along with its official name. The use of “Constantinople” for the title of this book was therefore a deliberate decision, the traditional name for the city evoking historical cosmopolitanism to a far greater extent than “Istanbul.”

Essentially a work of popular narrative history, the book doesn’t really seek to break any new intellectual ground. What is distinctive, however, is its emphasis on the dynastic nature of the Ottoman state, the crucial importance of which is often overlooked today. For Mansel, dynasticism – far more than Islamic religious supremacy - was the glue that was able to hold such a diverse empire together for so long. Indeed, faced with the reality of an empire of so many religions and languages living side by side, a fundamentally multinational and dynastic understanding was really the only realistic way that the Ottoman state could survive, “realpolitik” in Mansel’s words. He goes to some length to stress how this multinationalism infused the highest seats of imperial power, quoting the words of a horrified poet condemning the court of Constantinople’s conqueror Mehmed II: “If you wish to stand in high honor on the Sultan’s threshold / You must either be a Jew, a Persian, or a Frank.”

Related to this, the book’s description of the conflict between religious and dynastic power is particularly striking. Unlike other Muslim dynasties, the House of Osman could not claim long established right, or the blood of the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe. The solution to this “legitimacy deficit” was to try to multiply connections between Islam and the Ottoman dynasty in a variety of different ways. Nevertheless, Mansel maintains that “the imperial palace ... was governed by the requirements of the dynasty, not the law of Islam,” and a puritan religious constituency was always ready to criticize the authorities’ apparent interpretive flexibility, of which pragmatic multiculturalism was just one example.

With such an emphasis, Mansel perhaps inevitably succumbs to the temptation to over-ascribe events to the empire’s dynastic character. For example, we’re told that it came close to falling apart at the end of the 16th century simply because Selim II was “too busy enjoying life on the Bosphorus.” Not unrelated to this is the more general lack of historical background to events. We’re introduced to all the colorful figures plotting against the empire in its final years in the name of various nationalisms, but Mansel never really gives a deep impression of the underlying intellectual undercurrents that were leading to these phenomena.

The reigns of Abdulmecid I (1839-1861) and Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) represented two very different attempts to hold back that rising tide of Europe-inspired nationalism. Abdulmecid sought its suppression by initiating the “Tanzimat” modernizing reforms, “to create one people out of diverse races and religions: ‘in one word to nationalize all these fragments of nations who cover the soil of Turkey, by so much impartiality, gentleness, equality and tolerance … in a sort of monarchical confederation under the auspices of the Sultan.’” Abdulhamid was equally aware of the existential danger that nationalism posed, but his rule had a considerably darker hue, seeking to hold the empire together through arbitrary, autocratic rule, suppression of industrial development, and a self-conscious emphasis on the “Islamic” aspect of the Ottoman state.

Judged by the eventual fall of the empire in 1923, both reigns were ultimately unsuccessful. While the city was once a “heroic contrast to the strident nationalism which dominated … other European capitals,” in the end it succumbed to what were perhaps irresistible forces. In Mansel’s terms, “Constantinople” became “Istanbul” with the transformation of the old, imperial, multinational capital into a new, officially monocultural, provincial, republican city.

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William Armstrong,