Istanbul: The Imperial City

ISBN: 0140244611
ISBN 13: 9780140244618
By: John Freely

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About this book

"Surrounded by a garland of waters" on the narrow straits of the Bosporus dividing Europe and Asia, Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, has been an unrivaled locus of cultural exchange since its beginnings as the Greek colony Byzantium. In its more than twenty-six centuries of existence the city has survived countless natural and political catastrophes, foreign conquests, and dynastic upheavals, enduring fantastic changes in religion, language, political status, and name. Despite these onslaughts of time, a vibrant local character and spirit have abided. This fascinating history of the city from its foundation to the present is a guide for the curious traveler as well as an evocation of an illustrious past. Also included is a comprehensive gazetteer of all major monuments and museums

Reader's Thoughts


Theodosius the Reluctant: "Before his accession Theodosius had been a tax-collector in Adramyttion. He was working in his office one day in the summer of 715 when the rebel soldiers who were about to overthrow Anastasius II passed through Adramyttion on their way to Constantinople. One of the rebel commanders asked what his name was, and when he replied 'Theodosius' he was told that this was good enough to qualify him as emperor. Theodosius protested vigorously, but the rebels took him away and brought him to Constantinople, where he was proclaimed as emperor after Anastasius II was deposed."Turkish proverb: When a man has his luck in place even a louse can bring him good fortune.The Procession of the Guilds 1638: including Fish Cooks, Sugar Bakers, Grave Diggers, Toy Makers, The Corporation of Thieves and Footpads, the Corporation of Pimps and Bankrupts, and the Corporation of Beggars.

Andrei Zamfirescu

excellent documented, a must read is you are planning to visit Istanbul


Given the age of the city of Istanbul I expected more commentary on the larger themes and patterns in the city's history. Instead this book read like a laundry list of emperors and sultans. That aside, it was very informative.


8/10A nice overview of the city and its long history. It's thin in parts due to the length of time it covers but it's a terrific read.


Byzantium, Konstantinopel, Istanbul, nama yang sama, diciptakan sesuai penguasanya. Telah berdiri tegak sejak 658 Masehi. Membaca buku ini membuat keinginan untuk suatu saat mendatangi kota ini kian berbuncah.

Cristian Planas

The extravagance, cruelty, glory and occasionally foolishness of the Byzantine emperors and the Ottomans sultans are infinites sources of delight for any reader. This is the main topic of John Freely's book, and the appealing subject is correctly transmited, even if in the last chapters the succession of sultans can get too mechanical and boring. This last flaw is in part saved by the many quotes that the author introduces in the book, which are surprisingly interesting, specially the ones by the great Turkish traveler Evliya. However, the book is supposed to talk about the city and not about the two empires which used it as their capital and unfortunately, when the author tries to share his obvious fascination for Istanbul, he fails, tangled by a bit of pedantry and a bit of exaggerated nostalgy.Anyway, it's a worthy and easily readable book.

Hans de Zwart

This book attempts to be a complete history of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul. By focusing on the "complete" it is unfortunately in many ways a very formulaic book. After a while it is not interesting to read that this brother of the Sultan stayed 42 years in the cage, whereas the other stayed 38 years. If you have a deep interest in history and have been or will go to the Istanbul, then I would still recommend it as some of the anecdotes are pretty amazing and so is the city itself of course!


It's already a part of tradition that I always find and buy a book about the places I visit - fortunately Istanbul have not one but two excellent english bookshops in the central area (same owner) that cater for tourists, visitors and diplomats - there is a nice selection of books about Turkey and Islam in english so I selected "Istanbul - the imperial city" by John Freely as my first introduction to this beautiful and exciting city, since I don't know much about its history except basic informations.So far I am really enjoying it - not too much space was focused on early settlers but very soon author moves on to explain it greeks and roman roots that have left much more traces than people who lived here before. Right now I am at the Chapter 12 and romans are in full swing - lots of interesting and brutal anecdotes about emperors being killed by mobs and queen mothers having their tongues sliced (!), noses cut off and such stories. We also get informations about all the important palaces,temples and public buildings built around this time as well as occasional story about ordinary people who lived there, famous courtesans, saints, priests and soldiers who were remembered in history. Very gripping story and I am truly enjoying it - and so far its still a roman city, at this stage of the book muslims are only distant treat from far away.

Winnie Tang

Interesting, descriptive account about the ups and downfall of Ottoman Empire.


This is not a book for casual tourists, or for those who are not really, deeply interested in the history and architecture of Istanbul. With that aside, it is rich and well written, full of insights.

Robert Morris

This is great man history and I love it. The book does deviate a bit from the old school "maps and chaps" approach, but it does so in a very old school way. Freely tells all the entire known history of the city, emperor by emperor, and then Sultan by Sultan. The added flair is a description of the noteworthy monuments that have survived from each of those eras. Gibbon would be pleased. I don't mean to sound cheeky, the book is quite an acheivement. It packs 2500 years of political history into an immensely readable 315 pages. The descriptions of each era managed to add significantly to this Istanbul history nerd's understanding. I've been stumbling around the town for most of three years, and I had no idea that the city's oldest monument is also one of it's best preserved and least visited. Every few pages of this book yielded a similar discovery. I recommend it highly.


I bought this book to prepare for a trip to Turkey. I was slightly familiar with history in the periods of Justinian and the Ottoman Empire, but wanted a comprehensive look at one of human civilization's historical epicenters.This book is heavy on dry facts and royal intrigue: who killed who's kid to take power at what date, who repelled what outside group from which set of city walls?In this sort of history, authors tend to compress the highs and flows, failing to properly relate the awesome accomplishments of civilizations at different points and terrible lows that often followed.This book is no exception. It could greatly benefit from short summary chapters every 500 or so years to provide more color, trends, and historical context.That said, simply squeezing in 3,000 years of history into a few hundred pages is quite an accomplishment. Comprehensive histories on Istanbul are hard to come by, and this serves its purpose. I would highly suggest augmenting this with Orhan Pamuk's memoir on 20th century Istanbul, Lord of the Horizons on the Ottoman Empire, and others on earlier history.

Blair Kauffman

Good travel history to have along while touring Istanbul.

Paul Haspel

Istanbul, where Europe and Asia meet, is a dazzling and magical city; and in Istanbul: The Imperial City, John Freely does a strong and skillful job of setting forth the city's unique history. Freely, an American-born educator who has lived and worked in Istanbul for over 40 years, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of, and an abiding love for, his city -- all of which comes through clearly throughout this well-written historical synthesis. The book's subtitle, The Imperial City, is more than suitable, since Freely's beloved city has served as capital of two great empires. First, from its foundation by the Roman emperor Constantine in 330 A.D. until the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453, it was Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, and later of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire; then, from 1453 till 1922, it was Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire. It is a capital no more -- the Turkish capital was moved to Ankara after the fall of the Ottoman Empire -- but with a population of around 13 million people, it is one of the world's great cities, a bustling and vibrant center of commerce and culture.To try to convey, in a 379-page book, the sweep of a history that begins around 658 B.C., with the founding of the Greek city-state of Byzantium by Byzas the Megarian, and goes up through 1995, is quite a challenge; but Freely meets that challenge with a storyteller's verve. The intriguing tales of important personages of Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul give life and color to the long procession of emperors and battles and sieges and treaties and the like.Istanbul's history makes for a sometimes bloody and difficult read. One learns, for example, that Byzantine emperors often blinded their rivals to make them incapable of challenging for rulership; after the Turkish conquest, newly installed Ottoman sultans customarily marked their rise to power by having all of their younger brothers executed. When I read that S├╝leyman the Magnificent followed up his victory in the 1526 Battle of Mohacs by ordering the massacre of thousands of surrendered Hungarian prisoners, I found myself saying, "Magnificent, my foot." It is also distressing to read about how often the Janissaries, the Ottoman sultans' hand-picked and specially trained infantry troops, rebelled and rioted and ran amok in Istanbul, killing any ordinary citizens unfortunate enough to get in their way. In short, one is not going to finish this book with feelings of nostalgia for either the Byzantine or the Ottoman Empire.And yet, while the history is sometimes ugly, the city is always beautiful; and Freely is at his best and most poetic when describing the beauty and grace of the city. In a passage toward the book's conclusion, Freely puts aside the historian's mantle and describes, in a moving and personal manner, his interactions with ordinary citizens of Istanbul. It was my favorite passage from the entire book.Istanbul: The Imperial City is well-illustrated, with helpful maps, photographs, line drawings, and even color plates, along with a glossary of Turkish words and architectural/archaeological terms. Especially helpful, for the Istanbul-bound traveler, is an extensive appendix of "Notes on Monuments and Museums," containing detailed descriptions of most of the sites that visitors are likely to want to see. For anyone with an interest in Istanbul, Freely's The Imperial City is a real find.


Lots and lots of information in this book so has taken me ages to read, every page seems to cover about 50 years of history. A fascinating and worthwhile read. It will be useful to dip back into and has a good reference system at the back.

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