In Rumelia

Power and the Ottoman Empire, Part 2

Map of Constantinople (Istanbul), designed in 1597 by the Venetian Giacomo (Jacomo) Franco (1550-1620) for his book Viaggio da Venetia a Constantinopoli per Mare.

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[Constantinople’s] climate, its two seas protecting it on both sides, the beauty of its neighbouring lands, give this city what is thought to be the most beautiful and most favoured site not only in all of Asia but in all the world.

Andrea Gritti, written in 1503

{In Istanbul/Constantinople] we are in the presence of the consecration of the most sacred political soil in the history of the Near East and Europe from the period of 324 to 1821.

Speros Vryonis, Jr., “Byzantine Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul” (1991), 18.

Istanbul (Constantinople), according to the 16th century Austrian diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, was “created by nature to be the capital of the world” (45). Busbecq had his reasons–Europe had been fascinated with the city for many centuries, having had been the center of Byzantium for many years and sitting at the juncture of two lands (Asia and Europe) and two seas (the Aegean and Black Seas). Actually, you can still read articles in The Economist and Financial Times today that romanticize modern-day Istanbul in the same light–and much in the same way as it is perceived today, Istanbul/Constantinople became the central hub for trade between Europe and Asia for many years.

However, the longing for this “capital of the world” was not entirely “European” or “Western” (these terms are used very lightly considering that we are talking about the 15th century here). Constantinople was also on Sultan Mehmed II’s mind in the middle of the 1400s–he saw it as the center for the expanding Ottoman Empire, a fortified city that would serve as the model for all of the other urban locations that encircled the Golden Horn (such as Varna, Salonica, and Smyrna, all of which had already been captured).

Engraving of Constantinople by Konstantinos Kaldis (1851)

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The power of The City–i.e., the central space from which the Ottoman Empire made its decisions and constituted its image–was displayable and replicable in the urban architecture and design that the Ottomans created. Other cities–especially Salonica–gazed upon Istanbul/Constantinople as an image to follow and replicate. Istanbul was more than a city–it was a superstructure that imposed its image upon the rest of the empire that surrounded it.

However, before its conquest by the Ottomans, Mehmed II told his men that Constantinople was “no longer a city but in name, an enclosure of plants and vineyards, worthless houses and empty walls, most of them in ruins; it was living on ceremonial and borrowed time. There were sixty churches in Constantinople on the eve of the conquest [by the Ottomans in 1453], from the still magnificent cathedral of St Sophia [Aya Sofya] to roofless chapels in half-abandoned parishes in remote corners within the walls, where once teeming streets were turned under the plough.” (30)

Both political and military power had to transform Constantinople into a city that fit the mold of Ottoman imperialism. Even before the city was conquered, Mehmet II had in fact already begun modifying the urban character of Constantinople–in 1452, he began building a castle close to the Bosphorus, “on land that was technically still Byzantine, designing it and even helping the workmen build it himself” (31). This fortified castle was named the “Rumeli Hisar” (English: “Strait Cutter”). A year later, the city was completely taken over by Ottoman rule.

Illustrated by Edmund Spencer (1855)

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A shot of Istanbul today, close to Sultan Ahmet.

Speros Vryonis, Jr. writes of a nine-fold integration of power that takes place in Constantinople, which in turn renders it as the “great” city of the medieval and Ottoman era. These nine things are described as:

  1. Imperialization – “the final localization of the head, heart, and sensory nerve system of empire” in one city (Vryonis 19).
  2. Sanctification – Gods and saints alike became “residents of the city themselves,” prospering under the fold of a central urban space (19).
  3. Mandarinization – the bureaucratic hub of the empire began to take shape in Istanbul and spread to other neighboring cities
  4. Literalization – “functioning through the written word,” according to Sryonis (this led to the creation of schools and libraries, making the city the center of knowledge and education. Another example could be Topkapı Palace, where Christian boys were converted and educated in a Muslim setting).
  5. Militarization – we shouldn’t forget the strategic importance of Istanbul/Constaninople, which is surrounded by sea on three sides. Those in the city also placed massive walls along the land side so that the city “remained throughout most of its history an impregnable fortress” (20).
  6. Demographization – turning the city into a “megalopolis” (a network of cities and neighborhoods) that allows easier access to trade and bureaucratic action between urban spaces. This also gave Istanbul more clout as the “ultimate” imperial city that reigned over “lesser” cities in the Ottoman Empire.
  7. Thesaurization – Continuing off of demographization, this includes accumulation and centralization of the Ottoman Empire’s economic wealth–i.e. the “transformation of the eastern world from polycentric to monocentric life”–to one “super city” to which other cities such as Antioch, Rome, Damascus, Baghdad, etc. would bow down to.
  8. Monumentalization – celebrating imperium through the physical (re)creation of the city, mainly “in the creation of the palace, sanctification in the erection of churches, mosques, monasteries, tekkes and shrines” (22).
  9. Sacralization – “the process or taxis by which the monuments of this land were infused with their sacred power,” often realized by time-honored and annual celebrations. The naming of the city was also important in its sacralization; for instance, “the Greek authors most often refer to it as The Queen of Cities, The Ruling City, the Second Rome, the New Rome, The City Guarded by God, Eye and Heart of the World, or Fortune of the Christians; most commonly, however, it was simply called The City” (24).

In addition to the Greeks, “the Ottomans used two names derived from Greek usage, Kustantiniyya and Stambul. Occasionally the Ottomans called it New Rome, but they more often referred to it as Paytakht-i Saltanat, Dar al-Khalifa (capital city of the sultanate, Domain of the Caliph), Madinat al-Muwahhidin(City of the Believers in the Unity of God), Islambol (Full of Islam), Al-Mahrusa (The Well-Protected), or simply şehir (The City).”

Here the power of the city (as well as its sanctification) is very clear–in many ways as to how people refer to major cities today (I’ve heard central New Yorkers refer to New York City as “the city” many times), Istanbul/Constantinople also became the center of many things, but first and foremost the root of the empire’s power and strength. The urban plan of Istanbul has therefore just as much to do with the psychological and social structures of the city as it has to do with architecture and physical details of urban space.

Nicolas de Fer, "Veue de Constantinople" (1696)

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Istanbul (as seen from the Boğaziçi University campus, 2012).

Further Reading

Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998).

Vryonis, Jr., Speros. “Byzantine Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul.” In The Ottoman City and its Parts (New York: Aristide D. Caratzas, Publisher, 1991), 13-52.

This entry was published on January 15, 2012 at 17:26. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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