Book Review: Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924

By Philip Mansel

Publication Date: 2006
ISBN: 0719568803
Price: £9.99

Buy this book

Constantinople was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I on the site of the already-existing city of Byzantium which had been settled in the early days of Greek colonial expansion, probably around 671-662 BC.
Since then it went on to become the imperial capital city of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, the Latin Empire (the feudal Crusader state founded by the leaders of the Fourth Crusade on lands captured from the Byzantine Empire) and the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city, if ever there were a place more worthy of attention it is gigantic metropolis.

I'd like to think it was a hidden romantic in me that has always preferred the name Constantinople to Istanbul, and even in the title of this book there is something of a promise of indiscretion ever hanging in the air. Which is probably what made it stand out for me. For the reader this book will clear up, once and for all, why all the great European powers throughout history wanted to control Constantinople and its hinterland. Their motives were, as ever, not only military or political but economic and religious as well.
The book is sizable in both scope and weight, there's a wealth of vivid detail and an array of attractive illustrations. Mansel primarily addresses the development of Constantinople into an Islamic city, covering the five-century dynasty of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire in 1453, converting the city from the capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to the home of sultans, eunuchs, and Janissaries. Mansel's attention falls particularly on the palaces and the political history of the capital, as well as the great architectural works which still constitute the city's skyline. By giving numerous quotes from contemporary diplomatic correspondences, accounts of travel writers and historic works; he shines much needed light upon the apparent power struggle within the city amongst its ruling families. This leads to a dramatic and often depraved narrative of an extraordinary dynasty unfolding in endless amounts of, almost cliched, palace intrigue.

The book also gives a good example of the modernization and democratization efforts in the Ottoman empire, these efforts to try to catch up with Europe and the forces opposing it was, for the most part, what I found most interesting whilst reading this book, but (and taking the book as a whole this is a small 'but') it left me wanting a wider picture. The author hints at having extensive knowledge of other European powers and contemporary rulers but there is no comparison whatsoever, which I feel would put Constantinople's story in a greater position to be appreciated somehow. 

Thought provoking, imaginative, -makes you want to go to Istanbul, this book is recommended bedtime reading and definitely get some Hob Nobs to accompany.