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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924”, by Philip Mansel


528 pages, St. Martin’s Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312145743

Anyone interested in Ottoman history in general and in in Istanbul’s history, social structure and architecture in particular must read Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924 by Philip Mansel. Mansel brings to light why all the great powers in the history wanted to control Constantinople and its hinterland, their motives ranging from the politic to the economic. By giving extensive quotes from contemporary diplomatic correspondence, accounts of travel writers, and history books written back in the day, Mansel is better able to explain the power struggle behind the scenes. But more than politics, strife and struggle, this book is principally a wonderful social and cultural history of the Ottoman Empire, the great bugaboo of Europe for at least four centuries. Mansel provides a great deal of fascinating tidbits about all aspects of life in the city and proves to be both enlightening and entertaining, all while making an important point: this is a place where East meets West, a place where (much of the time) different religions and different cultures have been able to live more-or-less in peace side-by-side under (mostly) benevolent Muslim rulers – who also never lost an opportunity to make sure that their other, non-Muslim subjects were second-class citizens, at best. This has obviously not always been the case, but when during human history can you cover a span of 500 years and not find conflict?

If this book has a weakness it is that, perhaps, at times it tries to cover too many topics; it works best as a cultural and social history. While Mansel manages to convey an obvious comprehension of detail of one of the world’s most intriguing cities, one would be forgiven for thinking that this tome was merely a weighty collection of a researcher’s private scribblings. Stylistically, Mansel seems more intent upon recounting every fact, relevant or otherwise, that he has gathered in an effort to seemingly demonstrate his undoubtedly extensive knowledge of his subject. The reader is accordingly left with a disjointed series of statements about the formation of Constantinople, a subject worthy of a good story. For instance, over the last 200 pages or so Mansel switches gears and the book delves mostly into the murky world of politics, both national and international; thus, the reader who is looking for a social history might be bored by the last third of the book while the political scientist might not enjoy the first 300 pages or so.

With that small criticism aside, Mansel picked a very difficult story to tell and he is to be congratulated for doing a very fine job overall. While he is somewhat dismissive of Fernand Braudel (inexcusable) and Edward Said (Thank God), he presents his material cogently and intelligently. One of the most enjoyable books I read in a while.

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