The Second Rome

Posted by Tory Historian Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Russian myth of the Third Rome grew out of the fall of Constantinople to the all-conquering Ottoman army in 1453. In 1510 the monk Filofei wrote to the Grand Duke Vasili III: “Two Romes have fallen. The third Rome stands and there shall be no fourth.” Recently, during the usual falling out between various Orthodox priests and patriarchs, the theory was denounced but the Russians do not really care.

Moscow remains the third Rome. After all, the Russians never did get Constantinople though given the number of them who seem to be domiciled in Istanbul one wonders whether they are using a different method to the same end.

All this is a preliminary to a paean of praise by Tory Historian to the city of Istanbul, known for many centuries as Constantinople, the second Rome. It is not a city that buzzes nowadays though the melancholy mentioned by Orhan Pamuk is not exactly discernible. Quite simply, Istanbul is what Vienna was in the twenties and thirties – an imperial city that has lost its role.

When, in 1923, the Turkish Republic was formed, Kemal Atatürk was so anxious to break with the Ottoman past and to create a new, secular state that he settled on a new capital, Ankara. For the first time in many centuries Constantinople was not the heart of a great empire (though Byzantium was considerably less than great by the time of the final conquest in 1453).

It is taking a long time for the city to come to terms with that but it is also taking a long time for Turkey to settle down with its own Turkish identity, no matter how strongly people feel it inside them. The uncertainty over the mildly Islamist party taking power and the whole row over the Armenian massacre of 1915 are evidences of that uncertainty.

One must wish Istanbul well because it is such a glorious and fascinating city. Surely, it will reacquire a role for itself but there is no doubt that its role is tied in closely with Turkey’s ability to define more securely her identity and her own role in the world. In that, too, one must wish the country well. It is, at present, the one fully secular Muslim country and if that experiment fails, there is little hope for peace between Islam and the West.

Of course, one could argue that there was rarely peace between Islam and the West and why should there be.

In the meantime Istanbul is extraordinary in the way one can quite literally walk though several centuries in one afternoon’s progression through the city. There are slums of the kind one would see in Third World countries cheek by jowl with highly respectable middle class areas that remind one irresistibly of Eastern and Central Europe.

The public transport is excellent and the food is uniformly superb whether it is a borek-seller in a street or a restaurant that boasts of its “Ottoman” food.

Antiquities, whether Byzantine or Ottoman have not been well preserved though efforts at restoration are being made and clearly there is a renewed interest in the city’s pre-Ottoman history, which is all to the good.

Functioning mosques are beautiful and well-kept as well as surprisingly welcoming, something not a few tourists seemed to abuse. Courtesy requires that one obeys the rules of the place of worship one visits. If women do not like wearing headscarves they do not have to go into the Blue Mosque.

Tory Historian’s abiding memory is sitting outside a Greek monastery (not functioning but relatively well preserved, drinking coffee and looking at the Turkish flag flying proudly as at four o’clock the muezzins began their call for prayer (largely ignored by the population at large). Oh well, of course, there is the other abiding memory of discussing Anatolian rugs over a little glass of chai in the Grand Bazaar.


Powered by Blogger.




Blog Archive