Turkish delights

William Dalrymple on a stunning history of Constantinople; Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924 by Philip Mansel, John Murray, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
On 27 June 1530 Suleyman the Magnificent celebrated the circumcision of his three sons. The greatest of the Ottoman Emperors was at the climax of his reign, and as the most powerful man in either Europe or Asia, Suleyman was determined that the festivities should make Constantinople shine in a manner befitting the Refuge of the Universe, the capital of an empire which ruled from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf, from Poland to the Yemen.

As the Princes' foreskins were dispatched on golden plates to their mothers, the noise of celebration rang out over the Golden Horn. Tightrope walkers walked along cords strung between the obelisks of the Hippodrome, while below the keepers of the lunatic asylums led laughing and weeping madmen in gold chains through the crowd. Later, the rabble were entertained by fireworks of unicorns and Noah's Ark.

For 200 years, from the mid 15th century, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful force in all Eurasia, and Constantinople the Mediterranean's greatest port. From behind the Sublime Porte, the Sultan and his Viziers ruled a great glittering patchwork of peoples and languages and religions, an Empire comparable in size and importance to that of Rome, whose last capital it had conquered as its own.

Decisions made in Constantinople affected millions across the globe. From his palace on the Bosphorus, the 16th-century Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, simultaneously planned canals between the Don and the Volga, and the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. He ordered pictures and clocks from Venice, decorated the capital with one of the most beautiful mosques ever built, and commissioned an 11-arched bridge over the River Drina (destroyed by Croatian bombs only last year).

Yet for a power once so ominously familiar to the outside world - if only as the land of the "Terrible Turk", the turbaned, sabre-wielding dervish who haunted the nightmares of Europe for three centuries - the Ottoman Empire remains today one of the least explored fields in world history. The documents in the huge Ottoman state archives - only partially opened to historians five years ago and still vigorously censored - are written in a difficult clerical shorthand version of Ottoman Turkish (itself an extinct language) that can be read by only a handful of modern scholars. The Turks, taking their lead from Attaturk, deliberately ignore an Imperial past they tend to think of as decadent and embarrassing. Few American and European scholars have the necessary language skills to prove them wrong.

Hence the importance of Philip Mansel's Constantinople, an impeccably researched masterpiece of exquisite historical writing, without question one of the finest books ever written by an Englishman on the Turks. Not since Runciman put down his pen has the study of the East Mediterranean seen such authoritative history produced with such enviable elegance of diction and such polished richness of descriptive prose. There can be little doubt that this book will become a classic.

Mansel clearly loves his subject with a passion, and enjoys pointing out the extent to which Ottoman Constantinople surpassed all the capitals of early modern Europe. There was no crime: according to the 18th-century Irish traveller, Lord Charlemont, "a man may walk [Constantinople's] streets at all hours of the night, or even sleep in them with his pocket full of money, without the slightest fear or danger of molestation". The Imperial mosques of the city provided free food to 30,000 people a day, thereby preventing the hunger-riots that brought on the French Revolution. Yet these food kitchens did not have the effect of turning the mosques into slums. In the 18th century, St Paul's Cathedral in London swarmed with prostitutes and workmen for hire; but in Constantinople, "no one lounges or walks about a church [i.e. a mosque], no one chatters with one another and nothing is heard but fervent prayer!" Until the 20th century, there were fewer beggars in Constantinople than any other city in Europe.

Yet perhaps the single most surprising revelation contained in Mansel's book is the extent to which the achievements of Ottoman Constantinople were built on the foundation of religious and ethnic tolerance, not qualities one immediately associates with the Turks. When the Catholic Kings evicted the Jews from Granada, they were granted asylum within the Ottoman Empire, with the result that Salonica soon came to have a Jewish majority. Most senior Ottoman officials were not ethnic Turks but Christian or Jewish converts. At a time when every capital city in Europe was ablaze with burning heretics, according to the 17th-century Huguenot, M. de la Motraye, himself an exile from persecution, "there is no country on earth where the exercise of all sorts of Religions is more free and less subject to being troubled, than in Turkey".

It was the gradual erosion of that tradition of tolerance under the tidal wave of 19th-century nationalism that as much as anything finally brought down the Ottomans. The last Sultans condoned the anti-Armenian pogroms that culminated in the unparalleled horror of the massacres of 1916. Then, in the darkest moment in Turkish history, perhaps 1.5 million Armenians were starved, beaten or bayoneted to death in a campaign of genocide that is said to have inspired Hitler.

The result of that bigoted and violent nationalism, was that Istanbul, once home to an inspirational ferment of different ethnicities, is today a culturally barren and financially impoverished mono-ethnic megalopolis, 99 per cent Turkish. The Jews have gone to Israel; the Greeks to Athens; the Armenians to Armenia and the States. The great European merchant houses have returned home. For the first time in two millennia, Istanbul now feels almost provincial.

Who would now know, if they did not read Mansel's wonderful book, that it was once a city where the grandest European ambassadors once squabbled over the number of the kaftans they were presented with by the Sultan (the French generally received 21, the British 16 and the Dutch 12); where the level of intrigue was such that the Venetians tried no less than 14 times to poison Mehmed the Conqueror; where the passage of the seasons was marked by a strict sequence of different furs (ermine in Autumn, followed by an interval of squirrel, before moving on to sable in midwinter); and where, in the Slave Bazaar that once offered Pushkin's great-grandfather for sale, potential buyers were allowed to take female slave girls home for the night, on a sale or return basis, to make sure - so Mansel would have us believe - that the new purchases "did not snore"?