Turkish Imperial Capital – Constantinople


There are four cities in the world that belong to the whole world rather than to any one nation, cities that have influenced the whole world, or round which its history has at one time or another revolved, cities in which students and philosophers from every country are equally interested. These four are Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, Contantinople. The first has given to civilized mankind their religion; the second has been our great instructress in literature and art; the third has spread her laws, her language, her political and ecclesiastical institutions over half the globe. And tho Constantinople can lay no claim to the moral or intellectual glories of these other three, tho her name does not command our veneration like Jerusalem, nor our admiring gratitude like Athens, nor our awe like Rome, she has preserved, and seems destined to retain, an influence and importance which they have in great measure lost.

They belong mainly to the past; she is still a power in the present, and may be a mighty factor in the futnre. For fifteen hundred years she has been a seat of Empire, and for an even longer period the emporium of a commerce to which the events of our own time seem destined to give a growing magnitude.

If you look at the map you will see what a remarkable, and indeed unique, position Constantinople occupies. It is on the great highway which connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, and separates Europe from Asia. Thus it commands at once two seas and two continents. All the marine trade, both export and import, of the vast territories which are draincd by the Danube and the great rivers of Southern Russia, as well as that of the north coast of Asia Minor, and of those rich Eastern lands that lie round the Caspian, must pass under its walls. When the neigh-boring countries are opened up by railways it will be the center from which lines will radiate over European Turkey and Asia Minor. With a foot, so to speak, on each continent, the power that possesses it can transfer troops or merchandise at will from the one to the other, and can prevent any one else from doing so. Then consider how strong it is against attack. It is guarded on both sides by a long and narrow strait—to the northeast the Bosporus, and to the southwest the Dardanelles—each of which can, by the erection of batteries, possibly by the laying down of torpedoes, be easily rendered impregnable to a naval attack.

In the year 667 B.C., not a hundred years after the foundation of Rome, and about the time when King Esarhaddon was attacking Manasseh, son of Hezekiah, at Jerusalem, some Greeks from Megara, a little city between Athens and Corinth, came sailing up into these scarcely explored seas, and settled on this tempting point of land, where they built a city, which they called Byzantium, and surrounded it with walls to keep off the wild tribes of the Thracian mainland. They were not, however, the first settlers in the neighborhood, for seventeen years before another band of Greeks, also from Megara, had established themselves on a promontory opposite, on the Asiatic side of the strait, and founded the town of Chalcedon, which still remains there, and is now called Kadikeui.

The city soon grew and throve, not only because it was well placed for trade, but on account of the shoals of fish—a fish called pelamys, which has been conjectured to be a kind of tunny—that used to come down from the Black Sea, and which were attracted into the harbor by the stream of fine frcsh water which flowed into the upper end of it. Whether the fresh water brought down insects or other tiny creatures on which the fish fed, or whether it caused the growth of beds of sea-weed which served as pasture, is not clear, but at any rate it was the stream that lured in the fish, and the fish that made the fortune of the place. For the Byzantines drove a roaring trade in these fish—the name of Golden Horn, which the harbor still bears, is said to be derived from the wealth they drew from this source. They also raised a large revenue by levying a tax on the corn ships that passed out through the straits from Southern Russia; for that region, then called Scythia, had already become, as it is now, one of the greatest grain-producing countries in the world. With this command of a main artery of trade, Byzantine had grown by the time of Herodotus to be a considerable place, whose possession or alliance was thenceforward very valuable to the great powers that disputed the control of these countries.

Having submitted, like other cities of that region, to the Persians, it recovered its independence after the defeat of Xerxes, and became a member of the Athenian confederacy, till the Athenian power was in its turn overthrown. In the days of Philip of Macedon, it was again an ally of Athens, and stood a famous siege from that prince, a siege whose happy issue was due to the energy with which Demosthenes prest the Athenians to send succor to it when it was on the point of yielding. It is related that during this siege a bright light in the form of a crescent was seen in the sky, and accepted by the Byzantines as a sign of deliverance; and that after Philip’s repulse, they took the crescent to be the device of the city, which it continued to be till the Turkish con-quest. Some hold that this is the origin of the crescent as the Ottoman badge.

Many another attack it had to resist, both before and after it submitted to the dominion of Rome. But whatever misfortune might befall it at the hands of enemies, it always recovered its wealth and consequence. The inhabitants are de-scribed as a race of well-to-do, luxurious people, much given to good eating and drinking, since they had abundance of fish, and the neighboring country produced excellent wine. It was a story against them that when a Byzantine officer ought to be at his post on the walls, he was generally to be found in a cook-shop or tavern. In A.D. 330, Constantine the Great, who had then become sole emperor at Rome, determined to found a new capital, which would be a better center of defense for the part of his empire which seemed most threatened by the barbarians of the north, and made choice of Constantinople as the spot. His practised military eye saw its wonderful strength, which had enabled it to resist him for some time in his great war with the Emperor Lieinius, and every traveler had long admired its advantages for commerce. Besides, he had just embraced Christianity, and as Rome was full of the majestic monuments of paganism, he thought that the new religion would rise faster and flourish more freely in a clear field, where it would not be confronted or corrupted by the passions and prejudices of the past. He called it New Rome, but his court and people called it the City of Constantine; and the name of Constantinople at once superseded that of Byzantium.

Under his hands it sprung at once into greatness. The old Greek colony had occupied only the extreme point of the peninsula between the port and the sea of Marmora; the new city filled the whole of it, covering almost the same area as Stamboul does now; and was probably built a good deal more densely, since a considerable part of that area is now wasted in gardens or ruins. He brought some distinguished families from Rome, and allured settlers from all quarters by the offer of privileges and exemptions; as the seat of government it attracted many more, so that the population had risen in a century from his time to more than two hundred thousand. Immense sums were spent in the erection of palaces, law courts, churches, and other public buildings; and the cities of the AEgean were ransacked to furnish masterpieces of Grecian art to enable its market-places and porticoes to rival those of Italian Rome. One such work of art has survived till our own day, and may still be seen in what was the hippodrome or race-course of the city. It is a brazen column, consisting of three twisted serpents, which was brought from Delphi, where it supported the tripod which the victorious Greeks dedicated to Apollo after the great Persian War. The tripod has long since vanished, and the serpents have suffered much-one of them had its lower jaw smitten off by the mace of Mohammed II., and have lost their heads, but the venerable relic probably the most remarkable relic that the world possesses—still keeps its place, and may, perhaps, witness as many vicissitudes of fortune in the future as it has done in the three and twenty centuries that have passed since it was set up in the Pythian shrine.

From A.D. 330 to A.D. 1453, Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire of the East; and its history may almost be called the history of that Empire. It had many a siege to stand, sometimes in civil wars, sometimes from barbarian enemies like the Persians, who encamped for three years over against it at Scutari, or the Arabs in their first flush of conquering energy, or the Russians, who came across the Black Sea in huge flotillas. All these foes it repelled, only to fall at last bcfore those who ought to have proved its friends, the French and Venetian Crusaders, who in A.D. 1204 turned aside hither from their expedition to Pales-tine to attack it. They drove out the Eastern Emperor, and set up a Frank in his place. They sacked the city, and wrought more ruin in a few days than all previous enemies had done in as many centuries. The Eastern Empire never recovered this cruel blow, and tho after a while these Franks were expelled, and a native prince again (1261 A.D.) sat on the throne of Constantine, his territory was now too small, and the organization of the state too much shattered to enable any effective resistance to be offered to the progress of the terrible foe who advanced first from Asia Minor, then on the side of Europe also. In A.D. 1453 the Turks took Constantinople, and extinguished the Eastern Empire. At that time Constantinople was sadly shorn of its glories. The public buildings had fallen to decay; war and poverty had reduced the population to about one hundred thousand, and these inhabitants had so little martial spirit that the defense of the city had to be intrusted to Western mercenaries. Of this scanty population the majority were slain or led captives by the conquerors, so that Mohammed II. found it necessary to re-people his prize by gathering immigrants from all quarters, just as Constantine had done eleven hundred years before. Small, indeed, can therefore be the strain of old Byzantine blood that runs in the veins of the modern people of Constantinople. Mohammed transferred his government hither from Adrianople, and since his day this has been the center of Ottoman dominion and a sacred city, hardly less sacred than Jerusalem or even Mecca, to the Mohammedan world.