BOOKS:Turkey shoot

BYZANTIUM: The Decline and Fall by John Julius Norwich, Viking pounds 25
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ON Easter Sunday last year I was in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul when a terrorist bomb exploded, killing at least two people and injuring many others. The atmosphere in the city was tense, with soldiers patrolling the streets and shopkeepers warning tourists to stay away from the city's best-known landmarks in case of further explosions - a potent reminder that Istanbul remains, to this day, both an icon and an ideological battleground.

Its startling metamorphosis - from the capital of the Roman Empire of the East to the glittering prize of the Ottoman Empire - is reflected in its changes of name: Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. When Constantinople finally fell to the army of Sultan Mehmet IX in 1453 after a siege lasting 55 days, it put an end to an empire which had lasted an astonishing 1,123 years. The empire had shrunk dramatically in the previous two centuries until only the city, bounded on two sides by sea and the other by its famous Land Walls, was left but Constantinople was still celebrated for its art, its churches and its learning.

The invading Turkish army, infuriated by the city's stubborn resistance, embarked on the three days of looting to which they were entitled with such gusto that, according to John Julius Norwich, "by noon the streets were running red with blood. Houses were ransacked, women or children raped or impaled, churches razed, icons wrenched from their golden frames, books ripped from their silver bindings'. The destruction was on such a scale that the Sultan called it off later the same day, riding into the smoking city and heading for the great church of Saint Sophia, where he instructed the senior imam present to proclaim the name of Allah.

Later that day, Mehmet visited the Palace of the Emperors, founded by Constantine the Great. As he wandered through the ruins, he is said to have murmured these lines from an anonymous Persian poet: "The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab." His achievement, as Norwich points out, was breathtaking: "Constantinople was his. He was just 21 years old."

Although the news of the city's fall caused consternation and horror in the Christian West, especially when refugees began to arrive with eye- witness accounts of the slaughter, its rulers had done little to avert the catastrophe. While the Greek inhabitants of Constantinople regarded themselves as Romans - they were the descendants of the emperor Constantine - they had long been regarded with suspicion and envy by the West; indeed, the city had been sacked before, in 1204, when the organisers of the Fourth Crusade decided to back one of the contenders for the city's throne against another in return for a promise that the young king would finance their subsequent conquest of Egypt.

The Crusaders, led by Doge Enrico Dandolo of Venice, were astounded by their first sight of the city. According to the evidence of a contemporary chronicler, Geoffrey de Villehardouin, "they never thought that there could be so rich and powerful a place on earth." This being their first thought, their second was to ransack it, with no regard for the traditions of people who were, in theory at least, their co-religionists.

Nicetas Choniates left a first-hand account of the smashing of icons and relics, and the way in which the Crusaders dragged horses and mules into Saint Sophia to carry off whatever treasure took their fancy. The looting ended with a deliberate act of sacrilege, on a par with anything the Turks would do 250 years later. According to Nicetas, "a common harlot was enthroned in the Patriarch's chair, to hurl insults at Jesus Christ; and she sang bawdy songs and danced immodestly in the holy place."

A theme of Norwich's book, the concluding section of a trilogy which traces the city's history from its foundation to its capture by the Turks, is that the envy and broken promises of the West towards its supposed ally made that fall inevitable. The present volume opens on a sombre note, with the young general Alexius Comnenus ascending the throne of "a sad and shattered Empire" in 1081, ten years after the Byzantines suffered a dreadful but not irreversible defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Manzikert. Norwich's story is, for a while, one of hope and renewal as Alexius rebuilt the city's confidence and restored its territorial possessions.

Scarcely had he achieved this, however, when the bad news reached him that Pope Urban II had made an impassioned appeal for Western Christendom to march to the rescue of Christian pilgrims who were being robbed and persecuted by the Turkish rulers of Jerusalem. The advance guard, an enthusiastic and indisciplined rabble led by Peter the Hermit, passed rapidly through Constantinople and settled down in nearby countryside, raping and killing the local inhabitants until they were roundly defeated by the Seljuk Turks.

The next contingent was even more trouble. "Over the next nine months," writes Norwich, "Alexius Comnenus was to find himself the unwilling host to perhaps another seventy or eighty thousand men, and a fair number of women, led by some of the richest and most powerful feudal princes of the West." A baleful precedent was set by which the rulers of Constantinople, already threatened by the Turks in the East, would have to deal with a succession of Western armies which regarded the city as at best a useful staging post and at worst - in 1204 - a tempting source of loot. Ironically, it was the greed and envy of successive waves of Crusaders which weakened Byzantium until it could no longer defend itself against their common enemy, the Turks.

John Julius Norwich tells this dark, intricate and tragic story in a fluent and accessible way. His Byzantine trilogy is a superb achievement, rescuing the Eastern Empire from the contempt of Edward Gibbon and other historians who, unable or unwilling to grasp its complexity, dismissed it as "without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form civilisation has yet assumed". Insisting instead on the "immeasurable cultural debt" the West owes to "a civilisation which alone preserved much of the heritage of Latin and Greek antiquity" during the dark ages, Norwich has done much to restore its reputation among the descendants of the very people who connived at its destruction.