istanbul -- 3/21/23

Today's selection -- from A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire by David Fromkin. Istanbul in 1914 on the eve of the First World War:

"Constantinople -- the city originally called Byzantium and today known as Istanbul -- was for more than eleven centuries the capital of the Roman Empire in the East, and then for more than four centuries the capital of its successor, the Ottoman Empire. Like Rome, Constantinople was built on seven hills and, like Rome, it was an eternal city: its strategic location gave it an abiding importance in the world's affairs.

"Constantinople is a collection of towns located principally on the European side of the great waterway that links the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, at a point where the channel separating Europe from Asia narrows to widths of as little as a half-mile. The site is a natural fortress, difficult to conquer or even to attack. A bay some four miles long, known as the Golden Horn, forms a magnificent natural harbor that provides shelter and protection for a defending fleet.

Stamboul (the old walled city), around 1896

"In 1914 the population of Constantinople stood at about a million. It was a cosmopolitan and polyglot population: most residents of the city were Moslem, Greek, or Armenian, but there was also a con­siderable colony of European and other foreigners. A European influence was evident in the architectural style of the newer buildings, in the style of dress, and in such innovations as street lights.

"Rudimentary modernization had only just begun. In 1912 electric lighting had been introduced into Constantinople for the first time. A start had been made toward constructing a drainage system for the city's narrow, filthy streets; and the packs of wild dogs that for centuries had patrolled the city were, by decision of the municipal council, shipped to a waterless island to die. Some work had been done on the paving of roads, but not much; most streets still turned to mud in the frequent rainstorms, or coughed dry dust into the air as winds blew through the city.

"Violent alternating north and south winds dominated the city's climate, bringing sudden changes of extreme heat or cold. The political climate, too, was subject to sudden and extreme changes at the beginning of the twentieth century; and for many years prior to 1914 British observers had shown that they had no idea where the winds were coming from or which way they were blowing. Political maneuverings at the Sublime Porte, the gate to the Grand Vizier's offices from which the Ottoman government took its name, were conducted behind a veil of mystery that the British embassy time and ad failed to penetrate.

"The British embassy, like those of the other Great Powers, was located in Pera, the European quarter of the city, which lay to the north of the Golden Horn. Foreign communities had grown up in proximity to their embassies, and lived their own lives, separately from that of the city. In Pera, French was the language of legation parties and entertainments; Greek, not Turkish, was the language of the streets. Three theaters offered revues and plays imported from Paris. The Pera Palace Hotel offered physical facilities comparable with those available in the palatial hotels of the major cities of Europe.

"Most Europeans succumbed to the temptation to live in the iso­lation of their own enclave. Few were at home in the narrow, dirty lanes of Stamboul, the old section of the city south of the Golden Horn, with its walls and fortifications crumbling into ruin."



David Fromkin


A Peace to End All Peace


Holt Paperbacks


Copyright 1989 by David Fromkin


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