Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks'
“Istanbul not Constantinople” lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy, music Nat Simon
“I am ever haunted in my sleep by this vision which is always the same. My ship puts into Stamboul, a hurried, stolen visit; this Stamboul which I see in my dreams is strange to me, bigger, distorted, sinister … Oh, that strange Stamboul, the oppressive spectral town which I have seen in my dreams! Sometimes it was a long way off, only just its outline to be seen on the horizon; I would land upon some desert shore in the twilight, seeing in the distance its minarets and domes. Heavy with sleep I would make my way across great melancholy wastes full of graves.”
Pierre Loti, Phantom of the Orient
Flaubert contracted syphilis in Constantinople, which gave the disease an exotic lustre when he returned to Paris. To Pierre Loti the city was a seductive but cruel mistress (He was French.). It was inevitable that Madame Blavatsky would turn up in Pera. No 19th century seeker of spiritual truth could leave the city off their itinerary. For these travellers, highly educated and modern thinking, the fractured wail of the muezzins offered a metaphysical awakening. In Constantinople Christianity, a religion most of them had grown up with and reviled, still had an ancient demeanour, as though its essence survived intact. Talmudic scholars sat in doorways running their fingers over ancient texts. Armenian traders offered rugs and silverware from distant places whose uttered names conjured images of desert cities and caravans winding along the Silk Road. The few Muslim women they saw on the street were hidden behind veils, which only added to their allure.
Naturally, the natives of the city had a different perspective. The facts regarding the political health of the empire may not have been on public record but they were apparent. The squalid chaos that excited foreigners was a symptom of imminent collapse. Constantinople’s position at the point where east met west meant that cholera always announced its entrance into Europe by decimating one or another quarter in the city. If by the 1890s the European enclave in Pera was beginning to look somewhat Parisian, it was because a succession of fires had razed the area. Once masters of architecture, the Ottomans had to rely on European skills and money to rebuild. This dependence gave Europeans licence to cheerfully slap the city on the back one minute, kick it the next.
The London Times was particularly adept at urging the Ottomans to sign treaties and engage in peaceful solutions in its editorials while printing articles that depicted a filthy and dangerous city inhabited by cutthroats. The descriptions of Turks with hooked noses and hooded eyes bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Arabs. Meanwhile the Arab states regarded the Ottomans as colonial overlords. Pan-Arabism was a cogent idea in the late 19th century, pan-Islamism not so because it would have necessarily involved an alliance with the Ottomans.
A story from the New York Times, September 26, 1880, condenses European attitudes in one paragraph. A young Frenchman catches sight of a veiled beauty and falls for her. He attempts correspondence, eventually succeeds and heads off one night for a rendezvous. Following the directions she has sent in a letter, he goes to a cemetery where he meets an enormous black servant. He is led to a doorway. A friend watches him step inside. He is never seen again. There are no names, dates or any other evidence to give the story substance, most likely because it never happened. It is a moral fable: beware of those veiled women, and beware of the Turks; they cannot be trusted. Still, there is just the chance he survived and the reason contact can’t be made is because he doesn’t want it.
There was nothing enviable about Constantinople’s geographic position. Both Europe and Asia yet neither, it was trapped on the fence. Meanwhile, to the north, Moscow repeatedly made clear its intentions to invade. One of the enduring positive images of late Ottoman Constantinople is of Muslims, Christians and Jews cohabiting peacefully. This isn’t entirely true. There were several religious riots in the city in the 1880s and ‘90s, not to mention a popular opinion in Greece that, having thrown off the Ottoman shackles, it could one day reclaim the jewel that was originally its own. Surrounded by enemies, Constantinople was under theoretical siege. Given these conditions, choosing friends becomes a luxury and cultural differences lose their significance. One has to make do with what one has.
The foreigners returned home with tales of Sufi magicians and other mysterious encounters in the labyrinthine streets of the European quarter. They filled their poems and travelogues with images of minarets and harems. It’s a fair bet the locals would have been bemused by their city’s reputation as a mystic melting pot. For them religion would have been one of the few constants and probably the only thing that offered hope of salvation.
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