Turkey: Istanbul: The Imperial City

By Berry, Robert A. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Turkey: Istanbul: The Imperial City


Berry, Robert A., The Middle East Journal


Istanbul: The Imperial City, by John Freely. New York and London: Viking/Penguin, 1996. xviii + 316 pages. Notes to p. 379. Gloss. to p. 386. Rulers to p. 389. Bibl. to p. 395. Index to p. 414. S32.95.

Reviewed by Robert A. Berry

The reader who selects this work in the hope of learning something of significance concerning the history, society, and dynamism of Istanbul will be very disappointed. The author, in his preface, acknowledges that the book is not meant to be a formal history, "but rather a biography of the city itself and an account of the social life of its people from the earliest settlements up to the present day" (p. xv). In this objective, he does not succeed. However, as John Freely also indicates, he views his work as a guide to the city's monuments created over the centuries. Given that frame of reference, and the author's evident love for and deep familiarity with Istanbul, as evidenced by his numerous previous books on the subject, Istanbul: The Imperial City succeeds admirably.

The book is divided into four parts. Each of the first three is devoted to a major historical period of the city: Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul. The fourth part provides a series of notes and historical sketches on the various monuments, shrines, and holy places referred to in the text.

In tracing his historical account of the city's development, Freely relies heavily on standard secondary sources: occasional contemporary historical accounts, e.g., Herodotus; memoirs; travelers' accounts; and architectural studies. While utilizing such resources could have produced a fascinating study of the social, cultural, and economic development of the city, the actual product most closely resembles a political chronology in the style of the medieval chroniclers who noted facts and little else. Most of the accounts are accepted uncritically with no attempt to analyze them or to place them into context. The result, especially in the earliest sections, is a semilegendary tale of the founding and early development of a world city which, in the end, tells us little of significance.

As the author progresses further in describing the history of Constantinople as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, his writing style is essentially one which intersperses chroniclers' accounts of rulers, battles, and intrigues with stories of religious faith and miracles. A random example of this style, describing the reign of John II, is indicative:

John fought a war against Venice in the years 1122-5, and then in 1129 he defeated King Stephen II of Hungary. During 1137-43 he led a series of campaigns to recapture Antioch from the Latins. On the last of these campaigns he accidentally wounded himself with a poisoned arrow while hunting, dying on 8 April 1143. …

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