Beneath the walls of Constantinople

Several lecture cruises have recently allowed me to return to my ‘favourite’ city…istanbul…..and so a little history..

Beneath the walls of Constantinople

In 1453 the walls of Constantinople fell to a combination of cannon fire – courtesy of a mysterious Hungarian who went under the name of Orban or possibly Urban –  and the thousands of Ottoman Turks under the control of Mehmet II, ruler of all lands surrounding this last bastion of Christianity in the Middle East.

The siege had been brief as far as sieges go, only 6 weeks, and the defenders, who numbered at best 7,000, had done their best to defend their city against the several hundred thousand besieging it. Calls for help to the outside world had largely been ignored and the religious schism that had set the Byzantium Empire of Constantine apart from the church of Rome was to be its undoing. Apart from a few Venetian soldiers the aid offered to Constantine was far too little, and not just too late, but non-existent.

A certain irony exists in the role of Mr. Orban! Anticipating a conflict between the two sides, like a vendor of football scarves, he had offered his services in the first instance to Constantine – possibly Orban was at heart a Christian. Urban would make cannon fit to defend the walls of this great city – but at a price. It was a price that the near bankrupt Emperor Constantine could not afford. Orban was not one to miss a good opportunity. He took his skills as the best cannon maker the world had yet seen up the road and presented his credentials to Mehmet. Here was a man with a plan, the desire and above all the money! Orban set to work and created a set of guns fit, not to save, but to destroy the ‘greatest city on earth’. It is also an irony that Orban probably never saw even one of the gold pieces he had been promised for although he was a great gunsmith his guns were not entirely flawless. He was blown to pieces when one of these ‘flaws’ happened to occur when he was standing next to it!

So it was that the only capital city to straddle two continents became a bastion of Islam. Mehmet went on to conquer further afield, but he set up the capital of his empire firmly in the city on the Golden Horn. Whilst ironies are around, let me mention another one. Such was the slaughter of the ‘westerners’ in the aftermath of the siege that Mehmet found himself with an almost empty city devoid of the necessary skills in trade, engineering and so forth to make the place work. He had to resort to encouragement and bribery to entice more westerners back to the city, under the promise of protection and freedom of religious expression. Thus were the seeds set for the growth of a secular society which survives to this day.

Constantinople had fallen. The modern Istanbul was to rise and with the demise of the Sultanate after the First World War, the popular and almost benign dictatorship of Kemel Ataturk achieved its re-naming (officially) in the 1930’s. (istanbul, with a small ‘i’ had been the common way of referring to the city for many a long year – meaning ‘to the city’. Ataturk merely confirmed the practice. In the Turkish language the ‘i’ is still used to refer to the city).

Napoleon Bonaparte once opined that if the world was to a have a capital city it would have to be Constantinople. This is an amazing statement given that he had never (as far as I know) been there. True, he had sent many emissaries and diplomats to deal with the ‘Grand Porte’, whilst he was busy trying to conquer and control Egypt, so must have been guided by their views during their ‘de-brief’.

I have been fortunate to visit the place many times, most recently several times by cruise liner – and believe me, this is the best way to enter into the ambit of this most interesting and exciting of cities. I am not going to list the sites as they are too many to describe and too well known to waste precious words on, other than referring to two of them! Hagia Sophia – St Sophia – is a building that inspires wonder and an overwhelming sense of history. For this was the church of Constantine, that became the mosque of Mehmet and is now a secular museum showing clearly to all how it is possible to reach an accommodation between east and west, between the Christian and the Muslim which, unfortunately cannot be replicated further afield. The Turks, at least in Istanbul, seem pretty much content with their lot. As I write they are at a crossroads. The politicians are courting admission to the European Economic Union. This application is opposed by many key players in the west. France and Germany oppose it on the basis of the perceived problems of having a ‘Muslim’ state in the union and presumably their fears of further immigration from the east to the west. Somewhat ironic as both states have a pretty large Muslim population already and Germany has ‘used’ the Turks as ‘guest’ labourers for years. And of course Turkey is already a member of NATO, and has proved very useful as a bridge, and indeed a bridgehead in dealing with places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever I visit the city I arrange to have ‘chay’ (tea) with my friend Aydogan (who we met years ago when he had a sailing ship on the south coast of Turkey), and he is an active man on the political scene. His concerns are around how the government seems to be selling out to the west. Whilst they protest to be a Islamic government, he says, they are in league with the capitalists, selling off pieces of the country for profit to no benefit of the people. He despairs for the lot of the poorer country people. He is a man of the people, for the people and for their employment in supporting themselves. Our tea-times are interesting and stimulating sessions!

The other site worth a special mention is the Basilica Cistern. This underground water depository once was fed by the giant aqueduct which straddles the main road through town and supplied the Topkapi palace where the sultans and caliphs head sway over their subjects. Under the streets of the old city is another world of dripping water, soft lighting and sensual music. This is a world of pillars and reflections, of finding the carved head of Medusa and escaping from the hubbub of the world above. But back to the walls…..

Any visitor coming over by air and landing at Ataturk international airport and then taking a bus or coach to the city centre – the old city that is – Sultanhamet – is most likely to be taken one of two ways. It matters little. The bus may take the slightly more scenic route and enter the city under the walls of the Topkapi Palace, high on Seraglio Point, dominating the entrance to the Bosphoros. In which case the latter stages of the journey will be along the coastal road abutting the Sea of Marmara. Here in the small parks and walkways the locals ‘strut their stuff’, entertain their girlfriends and make their weekend barbeques. Behind them, often secreted between the houses, garages, hotels and bars, can be seen pieces of the ancient walls that held many a would-be invader at bay. They are crumbling now, but in their decay they maintain an aura of strength of times gone by, as they sit there, with still a trifle of menace, like a retired and aged weightlifter, leaving us to ponder and gauge if he could still ‘do the business’.

Should the bus take the more inland route, then the eye is treated to a show of mural strength of some magnitude. The Theodosian walls, to the west of the city, stretch out, dominating the houses and hotels of this somewhat shabby part of town. The red and white brickwork looks of a more modern era, (and where some renovation has taken place this does seem almost too new-looking), but where the damage caused by Orban’s guns remains, the piles of rubble and the remaining walls stand testament to the resilience of the building works that put them there in the first place.

Constantine had only 7,000 soldiers to defend the entire city. Where he had sailors he left them to defend the sea walls, but to the west, where Mehmet concentrated his army, and the cannon, he put his best fighters, under the command of a famous Genoese knight, by the name of Giovani Guistiniani. This man not only had a great reputation for defending walls, but he was one of the very few who came east to help in the defence of the city – and he brought with him 700 fighting men. Had there been a few more like him the world as we know it might be very different. The siege took its course with mass infantry attacks, tunnelling under the walls and counter mining to combat the threat, siege towers and of course the relentless cannonade  (in the absence of the physical presence of Orban).

Mehmet was becoming frustrated. He was losing too many soldiers on the walls. He devised a plan to by-pass the wood and chain boom defence at the entrance to the Golden Horn. A road of greased wood allowed him to drag ships from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, by-passing the boom, and thus he was able to threaten the northern walls, stretching Constantine’s man power even further. And then disaster struck. Mehmet launched his big attack – and it proved pretty disastrous for Giovani. He was wounded on the walls above the Adrianople Gate. He demanded to remain at his post, but his loyal followers dragged him off the walls, through a gate and into the safety of the city itself. But one version of history tells us that these loyal men failed to close the gate behind them. The outer walls were attacked and breached. The Turks found the gate open in the secondary defences and poured into the open spaces behind. The fate of Constantinople was sealed. Murder, rape and mayhem ensued and Mehmet made his triumphal entry into the city and on to the entrance to Hagia Sophia. He found a Janissary attempting to remove some gold from one of the pillars with his sword.  Far from disciplining his soldier, he is reported to have said to him ‘ The gold is yours – the city is mine’. And so the last bastion of Christianity in the ‘east’ had fallen. Contantine had taken to the walls with his soldiers and was never seen again – some say he was taken away by angels and will return when he is needed most – but we are still waiting for King Arthur under the same promise, but no sign of either gentleman as yet!

The new owners of the city set about making some architectural changes and the Topkapi Palace and the numerous huge mosques are but a small part of the new developments they orchestrated, leaving the skyline of the city (at least if viewed from east to west) as one of the most enthralling views that the world has on offer. (From the west the skyline is unfortunately blotted by the hotels and business buildings which seek to demean the very essence of this city, dwarfing the Galata Tower and the mosques that surround it.)

To walk the streets of this throbbing metropolis is a pleasure. Everywhere is a bustle and hustle of people going about their business. Down by the ferry terminal – perhaps one of the busiest in the world where millions of people are transported each day – you can watch the hundreds of fishermen lining the Galata Bridge. Each man has his rod and a bucket and each seems to be catching a variety and sufficiency of fish at all hours of the day and night. Are there that number of fish in the Golden Horn? There are certainly enough fishermen! Just around the corner is the Spice Market and close by the ‘New’ Mosque. No need to ask for directions, the smell will guide you there. And everywhere the sense of history, and a sense of ..well I don’t know what, but maybe that’s what makes this place my favourite city (of those that I’ve visited so far). If I ever fully understand the attraction of the place it may be time to move on.

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