Europe's Muslim Capital
Philip Mansel explores the City of the Sultans from 1453 onwards, and finds it characterised by a vibrant multi-culturalism until the Ottoman demise of 1922.
States and nations have dominated the history books of Europe. Yet for many of its inhabitants, cities had a much greater impact on daily life. If we look at the cities of Europe, at their populations, economies and cultures, nationalism and the nation state appear less important and less inevitable.
No European capital was more cosmopolitan than Constantinople. Its geographical position across the main route between Europe and Asia, its port ‘the finest and most secure I have ever seen’, in the words of the Sieur de Combes in 1688, made it the natural capital of Anatolia, the Balkans and beyond. In its last centuries as capital of the Byzantine Empire, it was not only the holy city of the Orthodox world, dedicated to the Mother of God, but also a cosmopolitan trading centre, with Venetian, Genoese, Muslim, Jewish, Slav and Avar inhabitants.
Not content with conquering and sacking the city in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (r. 1451-81) also gave it a new population. By a deliberate act of imperial social engineering, to establish its new Ottoman character, the Sultan deported much of the remaining Byzantine population of about 30,000 people. He then, in the words of the Ottoman chronicler Ashikpashazade:
... sent officers to all his lands to announce that whoever wished should come and take possession in Constantinople, as freehold, of houses and orchards and gardens ... Despite this measure the city was not repopulated. So then the Sultan commanded that from every land families, rich and poor alike, should be brought in by force ... and now the city began to be populous.
Poems by Muslims still exist, lamenting their exile from comfortable homes in Konya or Bursa, to the alien shores of the Bosphorus.
Like the founder of the city, the Emperor Constantine, eleven hundred years earlier, Mehmet II personally supervised the creation of his new imperial capital. He commanded his pashas and viziers – ‘the pillars of the empire’ – to build houses and mosques in the capital: for example the mosque of Mahmud Pasha by the bazaar – which would be one of the centres of resistance to the British occupation four centuries later. Between 1463 and 1470 he built the great mosque and college of Fatih, on the site of, and using materials from, the burial place of the Byzantine emperors, the Church of the Holy Apostles. Constantinople was acquiring a Muslim character: it already had its great Muslim shrine, at Eyup outside the city walls near the head of the Golden Horn. The Sultan’s revered spiritual guide Akshemsedin had conveniently found there the grave of a companion of the Prophet, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who had died fighting in the Arab army besieging Constantinople in 669. The dynasty soon began to hold the inauguration rituals of a new Sultan – his ceremonial ‘girding with the sword of Osman’ – in this charismatic shrine, which is still a popular pilgrimage site for Muslims in Turkey today.
The city was not entirely Muslim, however, until the late twentieth century. Mehmet II was a ruler with an open mind. Interested in Greek as well as Ottoman and Persian culture, he was eager to present himself to posterity as the new Alexander the Great. Partly out of necessity, since he needed their skills, he imported Slavs, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, immigrants dependent on the Ottoman government, into his new capital. Known as alem penah – refuge of the universe – the Ottoman capital became an experiment in imperial multi-racialism. Mehmet II believed that a multitude of races increased the power of the monarchy, by enabling it to balance one against the other. Slavs who had converted to Islam came to compose the largest element in the Janissaries, the elite force of the Sultan’s guard. In the sixteenth century it was said that Sclavonian (Serbo-Croat) was the language most often heard in Topkapi Palace.
According to an official census of 1477, in the entire city there were 9,486 houses occupied by Muslims; 3,743 by Greeks; 1,647 by Jews; 804 by Armenians; 332 by Franks; 267 by Christians from the Crimea; and 31 by Gypsies. The total population may have been about 80,000.
The Sultan’s Greek chronicler Kritovoulos wrote:
He transferred with all possible care and speed people of all nations, but more especially of Christians. So profound was the passion that came into his soul for the city and its peopling and for bringing it back to its former prosperity.
Some areas of the city such as Psamatya in the west had surrendered separately during the siege, thereby earning the right to keep their churches. These districts remained mainly Greek in population until the 1920s.
Mehmet II, who collected Christian relics and occasionally watched a Christian service, even revived the Oecumenical patriarchate, the senior see of Orthodox Christianity. He sought out a famous Orthodox priest called George Gennadios, who had been enslaved after the siege. Although the exact circumstances are unclear, on January 5th, 1454, Gennadios was enthroned as Patriarch. Soon after a formula was devised for sultans appointing a new patriarch: ‘be Patriarch with good fortune and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the privileges that patriarchs before you enjoyed.’ It was a deal. The Patriarch received control of Orthodox churches throughout the empire, and an Orthodox legal system; the Sultan obtained taxes and obedience.
The Sultan also had Armenians brought to the city. Kritovoulos said he had
... transported to the city those of the Armenians under his rule who were outstanding in point of property, wealth, technical knowledge and other qualifications and in addition those who were of the merchant class.
This is the smooth official version. In 1480 an Armenian called Nerses wrote – and his words apply to other transported people – that the Sultan brought
... an immense storm upon the Christians and upon his own people by transporting them from place to place ... I composed this in time of bitterness, for they brought us from Amasya to Konstandnupolis by force and against our will; and I copied this tearfully with much lamentation.
In the eighteenth century, however, some Armenians became the Sultan’s bankers and lived in palaces on the Bosphorus. The catastrophes came later.
Hebrew poems also survive, lamenting the enslavement and deportation of Byzantine Jews and the cruelty of the Ottomans (they were, however, rapidly replaced by other Jews). Soon a rabbi wrote to some co-religionists:
... every one of us lives in peace and freedom. Here the Jew is not compelled to wear a yellow star as a badge of shame as is the case in Germany, where even wealth and great fortune are a curse for a Jew because he therewith arouses jealousy among the Christians and they devise all sorts of slander against him to rob him of his gold.
In Constantinople under the Ottomans there were no pogroms, ghettos or inquisition. On April 21st, 1810, Byron’s travelling companion in the city John Cam Hobhouse noted, in a phrase revealing the harshness of their treatment in the West: ‘the number of Jews everywhere immense – not insulted’.
An Italian, mainly Genoese, trading community had long existed around the Galata Tower which still stands today, opposite Constantinople on the north side of the Golden Horn. Wisely surrendering early, it had made peace with the Sultan and by a decree of June 1st, 1453, been allowed to retain an element of self-government, although without the right to ring church bells: no sound could be allowed to compete with the muezzin’s call to prayer. Catholic families from Galata, such as the Draperis, Fornetti and Testa, would supply generations of interpreters and diplomats for the powers of Europe. And until the mid-twentieth century Galata remained, for Muslim Turks, a synonym for sex and drink: ‘who says Galata says taverns – may God forgive us’. Mehmet II himself, in one of his poems, wrote:
Nobody would bind his soul to heaven after seeing Galata.
Nobody would think of a cypress after seeing that beautiful grace.
There I saw a Jesus of Frankish manners whom anybody having seen Christ would have said to be his living image.
The Sultan’s court included the Greek chronicler Kritovolos; the Genoese merchant Francesco Draperis; the Sultan’s Jewish physician Yakup Pasha, formerly known as Giacomo da Gaeta; the Grand Vizier Mahmud Pasha, of Serbian origin. Ali Kuscu of Samarkand, the last great Islamic astronomer, taught at the school attached to Hagia Sophia. The Doge of Venice’s official artist Gentile Bellini painted the Sultan and erotic frescoes for the inner rooms of his palace.
A Turkish poet complained:
If you wish to stand in high honour on the Sultan’s threshold
You must be either a Jew, a Persian or a Frank.
Known as Istanbul for Turks, Constantinople for Europeans, Tsarigrad for Slavs, polis for Greeks (the city – there is no other), Kushta for Jews, the new Jerusalem for Armenians, Asithane (house of state) for Arabs, Kostantinyye or Dar as-Saadet (‘house of happiness’ – since it had the happiness to possess the Sultan) for the Ottoman government, in later years the city was also called ‘Islambol’ or full of Islam by some Muslims. Following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, and the Sultan’s acceptance of the role of Caliph of the Muslims and ‘guardian of the two holy places’ (Mecca and Medina), the city acquired a new epithet as ‘seat of the caliphate’. Mosques built by Selim I (r. 1512-20), Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-66), his daughter Mihrimah Sultan, Sultan Ahmet (r. 1603-17) and Mahmud I (r. 1730-54) gave the city its incomparable Muslim skyline of domes and minarets. A growing number of government buildings, barracks, powder factories, a naval arsenal and palaces demonstrated the government’s mastery of the city. The government tried to regulate everything, from the colour of the slippers worn by minorities, to the angle of houses built along the Bosphorus.
Much of the time the different communities lived in introverted quarters, clustered around a mosque, a church or a synagogue. Constantinople bred hatred as well as tolerance. In 1521 and 1537 (at a time of war with Christian powers) there were proposals to destroy all churches and even, on the second occasion, to kill all Christians. Islamic extremism helped prevent the establishment of printing presses or an astronomical observatory.
Nevertheless, as the population of Constantinople rose to 300,000 in the seventeenth century, and 400,000 in 1800, the city became more cosmopolitan. The process was helped, after the mid-sixteenth century, by the arrival of a new foreign element. Embassies were established in les vignes de Péra, the vineyards north of Galata, by France, Venice, the Holy Roman Emperor, England and Poland (there were also regular, although impermanent, embassies from the Shah of Iran and the Moghul emperor in Delhi). In theory, European ambassadors were representatives of the Sultan’s vassals, lodged by his gracious permission, guarded by his Janissaries. Much of the ceremonial governing the ambassadors’ contacts with the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government) was humiliating. In the streets people sometimes called the ambassadors’ Janissary guards ‘swine herds’.
Nevertheless, Constantinople was the only Muslim capital to have permanent Christian embassies. They were a window between two hostile worlds. Their protection (and imperial decrees bought from the Ottoman government) enabled French and English merchants, priests and scholars to operate with relative freedom in the Ottoman empire. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Constantinople was, for many, a destination on the Grand Tour, visited by such travellers as Lords Sandwich, Charlemont and Byron, and Lady Hester Stanhope.
By its diplomatic and commercial ties, and geographical extent, the Ottoman empire, the supreme Muslim power, had become, as Lord Castlereagh said in the early nineteenth century, a ‘necessary part’ of ‘the system of Europe’, and Constantinople one of its diplomatic centres. This was a reality, not a pious hope.
Many critical events in European history were indirectly affected by decisions made in Constantinople. Ottoman pressure in the Mediterranean and the Balkans hindered the Habsburgs’ efforts to quash the Reformation and so helped the German Protestants to survive in the sixteenth century. Louis XIV, wanting to relieve Austrian pressure on the Ottoman Empire, sent his armies against the Holy Roman Empire in 1688 – thereby incidentally facilitating William of Orange’s invasion of England and the Glorious Revolution. The Russian victories over the Ottomans in 1768-74 gave them the opportunity to initiate the partition of Poland. Successive Russian emperors from Peter the Great to Nicholas II dreamt of seizing not only out-lying Ottoman provinces but also the sacred Orthodox city of Constantinople itself – though the other European Powers viewed this dream as a nightmare. In 1770 France sent military instructors under the Baron de Tott to help fortify the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles against the Russian navy. In 1829 France and Britain sent fleets to protect Constantinople from an advancing Russian army, as Britain did again in 1878.
Writing to Lord Aberdeen in the 1830s, Princess Lieven, wife of a former Russian ambassador to London, was correct to call the future of the Ottoman Empire ‘the great question of all Europe’. In 1840 war between France and the other Great Powers had been threatened, fanned by an eruption of popular nationalism in France over the ambitions of France’s ally Mohammed Ali, the modernising governor of Egypt, to rule the Ottoman province of Syria. By refusing to go to war for the sake of Mohammed Ali, Louis-Philippe kept the peace, but lost his popularity at home. Europe needed the Ottoman empire as a force for stability in the Balkans and the Middle East and as a barrier against Russian expansion. The Ottoman empire needed Europe to survive.
One of the few constant factors in European diplomacy from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries had been the de facto alliance between France and the Ottoman empire against the House of Austria. It had begun in 1525 after the battle of Pavia, when Francis I appealed to Suleyman the Magnificent for help against his conqueror, the Emperor Charles V. A French fleet was re-equipped in the port of Constantinople in 1538, an Ottoman fleet in Toulon in 1542. From 1539 there was a permanent French ambassador in Constantinople. In the Sultan’s letters, the king of France was called padishah or emperor, like the Sultan himself.
French ambassadors instructed Ottoman artillery during the Ottoman campaign against Persia in 1548-50, and organised joint French-Ottoman naval operations against Spain in the Mediterranean in 1551-55. From 1569 regularly renewed capitulations enabled French merchants to operate throughout the empire under the protection of their own laws. By the seventeenth century French trade with the empire was said to nourish all Provence and to comprise half of all French maritime commerce. One French noble, the Chevalier d’Arvieux, later consul in Sidon, called the Ottoman empire ‘our Indies’.
The European embassies also functioned as research centres. Books by ambassadors and their guests such as Nicolas de Nicolay, Ogier de Busbecq, Antoine Galland, Mouradgea d’Ohsson, and paintings by ambassadors’ artists like Vanmour, Favray, Cassas, Luigi Mayer, generated a volume of information about the Ottoman empire, unequalled for any other country except Italy. In the sixteenth century there was more curiosity about the Ottoman empire than about America. Thanks to Abbé Antoine Galland, who translated them into French in 1704-17, Paris read the tales from the Arabian Nights a hundred years before the plays of Shakespeare.
The embassies also functioned as vehicles of transmission for foreign ideas and techniques, especially military and naval, to the Ottoman empire, and for Ottoman techniques and fashions to Europe. In 1718, after her return from her husband’s embassy in Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, despite considerable opposition, introduced inoculation against smallpox into England. In the later nineteenth century the Ottoman, French and American schools and colleges of the city helped educate the elites that created the Turkish Republic and the new Arab states: Mustafa Kemal, Kings Faisal I of Iraq and Abdullah I of Jordan, three presidents of Syria, most early prime ministers of Iraq and the great Turkish feminist (and English-language novelist) Halide Edib were all products of such schools.
By then the Muslim proportion of the population of Constantinople, hitherto stable at around 60 per cent, had fallen to around 44 per cent. In 1900 the population of the city reached a million. While other international cities such as Vienna and Prague were becoming avowedly German or Czech, the balance of forces between the Palace, the Sublime Porte, the embassies, the mosques, the Patriarchates, the barracks, the bazaars and the port kept Constantinople a truly international city. Economically as well as diplomatically, it became part of the system of Europe. European banks were built in Galata, and took control of the government debt, the tobacco industry and much else. From the sultan down, the Ottoman elite wore clothes modelled on, and often made in, western Europe. Europeans even threatened some of the most sacred Ottoman buildings in the city. Panels of magnificent Iznik tiles were removed from imperial mosques, and sold to western museums such as the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum, while the last powerful sultan, Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909), was still on the throne.
In its last years as Ottoman capital, Constantinople, more than ever, became a world city. As the seat of the Muslim caliphate and capital of the last independent Muslim state to resist the advance of European imperialism, it captured the hearts and pockets of Muslims from Bosnia to Sumatra. However, in November 1914 the decision of the Minister of War Enver Pasha to take the empire into the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary led to defeat and foreign occupation. After the war, in 1919-24, the Khilafat movement, supported by Indian Muslims, Gandhi and some Hindus, developed as a mass nationalist protest, sometimes violent, against the occupation of Constantinople, the ‘seat of the caliphate’, by British, French and Italian troops.
In 1922 an invasion of Anatolia by the Greeks was defeated by Turkish nationalist forces; the last Ottoman sultan was expelled in the same year. The city began to lose its multi-national character. Mustafa Kemal, the saviour of Turkey from the Greeks, made Ankara the new Turkish capital. There was a mass exodus of Greeks and Armenians from Constantinople, as from the rest of Turkey. By varying doses of fiscal, police and popular pressure – including government-inspired riots on the streets in 1955 – the Turkish Republic has since encouraged the departure of the remainder.
The modern city of about 12 million is nearly totally Turkish, and Kurdish, despite an influx of traders from eastern Europe and central Asia. The closure of the last Orthodox seminary on Turkish soil in 1970 renders doubtful the survival of the Oecumenical Patriarchate and the minuscule Greek community. Its new and exclusively Muslim character, however, does not stop Istanbul and Turkey, as in the days of the Ottoman sultans, from yearning to be part of the ‘system of Europe’, and to join the European Union.
- Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and his Time (Princeton University Press, 1992)
- Halil Inalcik with Donald Quataert, An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1914 (Cambridge University, 1994)
- Cemal Kafadar, Between Two Worlds: the Construction of the Ottoman State (University of California Press, 1995)
- Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History (I.B.Tauris, 1994).
Philip Mansel is editor of The Court Historian, newsletter of the Society for Court Studies and author of Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire (Penguin)
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