1453, by Roger Crowley

So,  I think I dropped a hint here that I was planning to travel to Turkey this summer. Lily and I will be there from the end of June until the middle of July. (And I’ll be going back in October for the Tectonic Crossroads conference.) In preparation for a trip like this, I enjoy doing some research and reading some books. There are a lot of books about Turkey, and I’ve got at least two more I want to get through before I go, but I wanted to tell you about one that I just finished.

It’s called 1453, and the author is Roger Crowley. The book is a nonfiction account of the battle for Constantinople in the titular year, just one among many attempts by Muslims to conquer this Christian enclave in their part of the world. Situated on a triangle of land between the Bosporus and the inlet called the “Golden Horn,” Constantinople has fended off many attacks over the years. In a position to control commerce between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the city was a fabled jewel: it inspired some men’s covetousness and other men’s wholehearted defense.

istanbulImage modified from the NASA image (public domain) here

The geography of Constantinople protected it from assault on two sides due to sea (Sea of Marmara side + Golden Horn side), and the third side (facing west) was protected by several layers of defense: a moat, an outer wall, and a taller inner wall. For a thousand years, they had defended their city from outside aggressors. In the year 1453, the Byzantine empire (a.k.a. the “Greeks”) was defending Constantinople from the imperial advance of the Ottoman Empire (a.k.a. the “Turks”). Constantine XI was leader of the Byzantines; Mehmet II was sultan of the Ottomans. After a two-month siege, the Ottomans triumphed, and the city was sacked; its inhabitants enslaved or slaughtered. The city itself was transformed: The Cathedral of St. Sophia was remade as a Muslim mosque, the Hagia Sophia. The name “Constantinople” was replaced with “Islambol,” which became “Istanbul” with time.

It was a battle between two “great” world religions, with “great” in this case meaning “big.” Both prayed to their respective ideas of God, beseeching the deity that their cause triumph over their enemies’. Every time something positive happened to advance their cause, they sang the praises of their chosen deity. Of course, when things didn’t go their way, they did not infer that their deity had forsaken them (or that no deities were involved), but that they only needed to pray harder.

Powered by their deep religious faiths, they cut one another’s heads off, chopped one another into pieces, impaled one another on pikes. In addition, the raiding Muslims speared babies in Constantinople and raped women. (If it were Christians were to have attacked a Muslim stronghold instead, it seems clear that the “morals” would have led to similar depravity and atrocity in the other direction. That didn’t happen in 1453, since the Muslim army was all men, and the residents of Constantinople were mixed men, women, and children. For example, the Fourth Crusade, a group of warrior Christians, sacked Constantinople in 1204: this Christian attack on other Christians was the only previous occasion when the city had fallen to invaders. )

I came away from this book:

  1. …thinking “wow” — all this shit played out more than 650 years ago, and Constantinople was already a thousand years old when that happened! History is deep in some parts of the world. Even “civilized” history…
  2. …thinking “wow” — the siege of Constantinople is an epic saga, far more compelling than Troy. The back and forth, the ingenuity, the personalities involved in the 1453 battle: they are epic. This book would make an amazing movie. Read it to find out how Mehmet gets his boats into the Golden Horn, or how Constantine protects the city walls from Mehmet’s cannonfire. How does the Pope react to the Ottoman threat? How to the Genoese merchants on the north shore of the Golden Horn attempt to remain neutral while secretly pulling for Constantine? How close did Mehmet come to giving up?  I won’t reveal this wild stuff here but it’s a roller coaster ride.
  3. …thinking that Roger Crowley is an exceptionally talented writer, if he can make me care about these people, this event, lost in the netherworld between 10,000 BCE and the present. This man can write. What else has he written? Bring them to me!
  4. …thinking that I am very motivated to visit some of the critical locales mentioned in this book, where the battle for Constantinople took historical turns one way and the other. I’ll be in Istanbul a month from now; Stay tuned.
  5. …thinking how astonishing it is that people continue to think that their religion is the right one, in spite of being surrounded by other people thinking the same dang thing about different deities. This tribal thinking (“my people are the chosen ones; your people are infidels”) leads to tremendous suffering and bloodshed: people who don’t think the same things you do are by definition no longer people, and may be treated as non-human. [begin rant] I am reminded of a quote from Steven Weinberg: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” For thousands of years, our species has fought itself with tribal self-righteousness. It’s always “us” and “them,” and religion is the most frequently-adopted tribal cloak. In their own minds, religion absolves its practitioners from their atrocities;  by supplanting reason, it leads to unspeakable acts and horrific history. I am impressed by those religious individuals who think critically about their faith’s offerings, and apply the theological precepts with a modicum of common sense and an independent sense of ethics. But many religious people disappoint me deeply, with a series of actions that wreck the world along with any notion of consistency or moral “high ground.”  After reading about the battle for Constantinople, or experiencing the 9/11 attacks, or following the daily news, I can’t help but think the world would be a better place with a purely natural sense of ethics, and supernatural moral frameworks banished to the dustbin of thought. “Hypothesis not supported.” [end of rant]

If you are at all into history, or at all into Turkey, read 1453. As a rule, I’m not into history, but I am very grateful that fellow Turkey traveler Greg Willis recommended this book to me. In return, I loaned him Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. I look forward to offering my review of that tome in the weeks to come.

7 Responses

  1. Callan

    I would say you are definitely “into history”, except that it is about timelines and facts that are much deeper than the written records of human activity. :)

    In complete agreement with your “rant”

    Hope you enjoy Turkey. I was there in the late 70′s and visited Izmir and Ephesus

  2. For brilliant fiction, and a view on Turkish/Armenian relations, read Elif Shafak’s “The Bastard of Istanbul.” I was on a radio program with her (unfortunately, I was in London and she was in Istanbul) and she is fascinating and delightful – and a superb writer.

    Do not miss the spectacular Islamic calligraphy at the Topkapi Museum.

    This reminds me – I need to go to Turkey and see more than Istanbul!

    • Michael: come to Ankara in October for the Tectonic Crossroads conference!!

  3. Istanbul doesn’t come from “Islambol”; it comes from the Greek phrase “Is tin Poli”, which means “to the city”, the city being Constantinople. I wrote about this a while ago on my blog: http://snailstales.blogspot.com/2006/05/anatolian-toponymy-2-from.html

    You may also want to read “The Walls of Constantinople AD 324-1453″ by Stephen Turnbull.

  4. A “purely natural sense of ethics” is something that requires further elaboration. From what I see in animal, including human, behavior, if you classify something as prey, and you are hungry, you kill and eat it. If it is in competiion for a resource, you kill it (or if it is less risky, threaten to kill it). Religion and law tend to moderate those behaviors, even if they are imperfect solutions natural behaviors.

    • It’s a good point — thanks for asking for clarification. I can’t claim to have it totally figured out, but I guess what I mean is that our ethics should be based on tangible realities — avoiding physical suffering, maximizing satisfaction and comfort. I don’t mean “natural” in the sense of “ecological” (as your examples explore), but “based on reality.”

      Law is something I have no problem with at all. I definitely envision my idealistic “natural ethics” as codified in law, enforced by society. I see law as a secular construct which (as you point out) keeps in line those who wouldn’t keep themselves in line without it. Religion often makes law-like proscriptions, but while I agree with some (don’t kill people), I don’t agree with others (go kill people).

      The cool thing about law, at least in a democracy, is we can modify it if we see it isn’t working. With religion, the priests, prophets, or popes are the only ones who get to decide when the rules need to change. The main issue I have with religious thought isn’t that there’s no proof it’s true, it’s how it is manipulated by humans to produce malignant results.

  5. Steve,

    My interpretation is that civilization could effectively be guided by progressive and enlightened human rights policy, ethics and laws that have been developed and successfully utilized from the long natural cultural evolution of our species, instead of believing they are attributed as a revelation from an unverifiable supernatural source.

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