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ISTANBUL by Thomas F. Madden


City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World

by Thomas F. Madden

Pub Date: Nov. 22nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-670-01660-0
Publisher: Viking

The author of Venice: A New History (2012) returns with the astonishing and sanguinary story of the iconic city on the Bosporus.

Madden (Director, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies/St. Louis Univ.) begins by noting the obvious: no text can possibly contain the sprawling story of Istanbul. Undaunted, he begins in 667 B.C.E. and whisks us along through the centuries, ending with current times, “still a city at the crossroads of the world.” Dominating the text are tales of empire, war, commerce, and religious strife and wrenching accounts of brutality: ambitious family members murdering one another in the quest for power; invaders slaughtering others by the thousands, raping, looting, and sacking. Madden is fond of the city, however (he has been there numerous times), and generally reserves judgment as he soars along, only occasionally bogging down in detailed accounts of battles and internecine nastiness. He does spend time telling us about the design and construction of some buildings that remain—and some that do not. We learn about the lack of urban design that characterized the city for centuries and its once-hopeless infrastructure; about the voice of Mark Twain saying that the city was best when viewed from a distance; and about customs occasioned by location and religion. (The author offers an enlightening section on harem life.) Madden, who prefers description and explication and narration to judgment and condemnation, explores the religious conflicts—e.g., the split between Christianity (East and West) and the rise of Islam. We also witness the extraordinary, even grotesque, lengths to which men have gone to achieve wealth and power. In our own day, Madden views the rise of nationalism as a new worry for the city, as well as the enduring religious conflicts that seem likely only to intensify.

An illuminating journey through the history and culture of the metropolis that “still towers over all other cities in Europe and the Middle East.”