Philip Mansel’s Constantinope City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924 (1995)
A gift from a friend has finally led me to read a book which I should have read ages ago. It covers the history of one of the world’s great cities from the time of its capture by the Ottomans till the fall of the last sultan. This is territory mapped out by the fiction of Ohran Pamuk, but here we encounter it as told by a very competent historian who has an enviable gift for integrating themes into narrative. There is an immense amount of thought provoking information in the book. ‘[A]fter the conquest of Constantinople, the rate of conversion to Islam in Ottoman domains declined.’ ‘More than any other dynasty, the Ottoman dynasty chose to reproduce itself by serial concubinage with slaves.’ ‘As late as 1869, during a visit of the Empress Eugenie, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire addressed her in her native Spanish.’ Wellington is quoted to good effect: ‘The Ottoman Empire stands for the benefit not of the Turks but of Christian Europe.’ But a couple of general themes that emerge from the book are particularly interesting.
The latter part of Mansel’s history describes an empire in process of becoming a nation state based on ethnic identity, from which other nation states had peeled off. It’s a familiar transition, one that was partially anticipated in the later Byzantine Empire and was occurring over a similar period in the ‘Holy Roman’ Empire in Europe. In a whiggish kind of way, historians have often seen such developments as inevitable and signs of progress, but it occurs to me that large multi-ethnic states in which people live in reasonable harmony may not be a bad idea. 115 deputies were elected to a parliament in Constantinople in 1877. ‘They included speakers of Ottoman, Persian, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croat, Bosniak (the form of Serbo-Croatian spoken in Bosnia), Albanian, Vlach, Kurdish, Syriac, Hebrew and Ladino. When one journalist told his neighbour that he was trying to work out each deputy’s race and religion, the answer was that they were neither Muslim, Greek nor Armenian but were all Ottomans.’ One places this against events that occurred during and after the breakup of Ottoman power. The independent states of the Balkans have not enjoyed great success; the megale idea of the Greeks quickly turned into their katastrophe; the experience of the Armenians has been termed a holocaust; Jews and Kurds have had to struggle. Was national self-determination worth all this?
There is another layer of complexity, that of Islam. It may be worth recalling that the Ottoman state was Islamic; modern Turkey is secularist. Contrary to what much reporting would incline us to take for granted, minorities fared better under the former than the latter. A census of 1881 showed that over half the Greeks in Constantinople had been born outside the city, many of them emigrants from the newly independent Greece. A set of statistics Mansel provides is arresting. In 1477 23% of the population of Constantinople was Orthodox, and in 1920 it was 20% (excluding those with passports from Greece, whose inclusion would have made the figure higher), but by 1995 it was .0001%. The great decline has occurred under secular, not Islamic governance. There is food for thought here.