Brazen and brainless in Byzantium

Istanbul: the Imperial City by John Freely, Viking, pounds 22.50; Philip Mansel on a city that hosted high life but no high thought

Geography and history make Istanbul unique. No other city bestrides two continents. No other city has a longer or more continuous imperial past: capital of the Byzantine Empire from 330 to 1453, and the Ottoman Empire from 1453 to 1922. Writers have responded with apropriately deferential epithets: "the city of all cities", "the Queen of cities", or simply, as it is still called by many Greeks, "the City".

John Freely has lived in Istanbul during its transformation from a relatively forgotten city of a million, as it was when he arrived to teach in 1960, into today's commercial metropolis of more than 12 million people. Having written guide books to Greece, Athens and the Cyclades, as well as four books about Istanbul itself, Freely has an especial sympathy for the Greek heritage of this Turkish city. He notes that liturgies are still celebrated on their feast-day for the city's founder the Emperor Constantine, and his mother Helena, at the church of Saints Constantine and Helena in Samatya. Every Feast of the Annunciation, and during the following Lent, both Turks and Greeks drink the sacred water at the fountain of the Virgin of Blachernae, in commemoration of her success in saving the city from besieging Avars in 626.

Freely abounds in colourful details about, for example, the lovers of the Empress Zoe or the laments composed by the last Janissaries after their corps' destruction in 1826, while hiding from the Sultan's forces in the chambers used to heat the baths of the city. He is especially eloquent on the physical setting of the city, on the varieties of winds, boats and fish which crowd into the Bosphorus, the tavern-lined waterway separating Europe and Asia.

Some winds are named after roasting walnuts, the Pleiades or cuckoos. According to Freely, one or two caravels - ships of the type in which Columbus sailed to America - still use the Bosphorus. At the end of the book there is a gazeteer on the monuments and museums of the city, such as the great Sultan Ahmet mosque with its "graceful cascade of domes and minarets".

However, his book is essentially a gallop through 1600 years of imperial history (the periods preceding the foundation of the city and following the end of the Ottoman Empire are also covered). Constantius succeeds Constantine, Mehmed succeeds Murad. The city expands, contracts, and after the Ottoman conquest, expands again. For a time, it becomes, as in its Byzantine heyday, the largest city in Europe. Yet its way of life and culture, at once creation and creator of the rulers in the palace, are neglected. Readers learn more about the events of their reigns - many of them well outside the city - than about the laws, food and clothes prevalent in Istanbul.

Freely does not address the central paradox of the city. According to one Byzantine writer, Constantinople gleamed with gold and porphyry. An Ottoman poet claimed that it made heaven itself gasp with envy. However, one characteristic of the city, in addition to physical beauty and imperial tradition, is an absence of creativity and intellectual curiosity. They were less apparent, on the seven hills of Byzantium and along the shores of the Bosphorus, than religious fervour or desire for power.

Istanbul produced few, or no, geniuses comparable to those who flourished in Baghdad, Vienna or Paris. The published diaries, letters and memoirs of its inhabitants are often less revealing than those of foreign visitors. For an international metropolis which was the focus of pleasure, ambition and trade for millions, and gloried in the epithet "Refuge of the Universe", this is bewildering.

Possibly, personal creativity was crushed by the repressive weight of the state. Perhaps residence in the capital of a state without fixed frontiers, constantly attacking or attacked, made the government and inhabitants particularly reserved. John Freely should write his own explanation - and his predictions for the future of this city which is now, for the first time in its history, ruled by a fundamentalist Islamic administration.

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