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.

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