Saturday, April 29, 2017

Book Review: Istanbul

Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World
Thomas F. Madden

The place that's now Istanbul has been a city, continuously, since 667 BC. That's a lot to fit into one 300-page book. Thomas Madden approaches the problem by paring down his focus. Istanbul is almost entirely about a few topics: politics, in the form of influential individuals rather than movements; building(s); and violence.

Authorial focus is good, except where it isn't. Istanbul is curiously blinkered. The Byzantine-Bulgarian wars, for example, lasted for over half a millennium, by most accountings, and were hugely consequential. Their page count in Istanbul: zero, because they didn't much impact the city of Constantinople in these very specific ways. There's an extremely good, extremely revealing account of how the Fourth Crusade ended up conquering the city--an event that, out of context, seems inexplicable--but to give it, Madden has to use up something like 10% of the book. Any larger sense of social evolution is only brought in where it involves a change of dynasty, an edifice, or a riot.

Also, there are some things that are just plain irritating. Over and over and over, Madden explains that ancient thing X still stands in Y Street, or was where the Z Building is now. This would be useful to a person intimately familiar with the city (as Madden is). It might be useful if there were, say, more than three small maps. Lacking either case, it's merely vexing. Madden also has an annoying habit of repeating the exact same fact twice, thrice, or more. These aren't just reminders; Madden obviously forgets, or doesn't care, that he's already said these things.

Within its limitations, Istanbul is useful enough. Those limitations, however, are pretty severe.

Justinian's Flea is outstanding, though it only deals with a short time period. For a longer view, Lost to the West, by Lars Brownworth, is a good synopsis of Constantinople's role in the transition from Roman antiquity to and through the Middle Ages. 


  1. You may have known this, but I didn't -- Justinian's Flea gave me the answer to Bing Crosby's question: the Turks didn't really change the city's name. "Istanbul" is just the Turkish pronunciation of 'Stamboul, Greek for "the city", which was what everyone called it for most of its history.

    1. It's a factoid that Istanbul the book makes much of. It also alleges that even the Turks continued to refer to the city more-or-less-officially as "Constantinople" until the 1920s.

  2. A propos of nothing, when I was an undergrad the UMass theater department put on a performance of a play called Messiah, which I think was an adaptation of a play by Sholem Asch, about the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi who was prominent in Turkey in the 1660s. One night during the run, the cast played the then-new They Might Be Giants' cover of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" during the curtain calls at the end, and the director -- an immensely self-important man with no sense of humor -- threw a five-star tantrum about it.