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


i had to read parts of this book for a class, but i chose to read it all because i find the history of Constantinople interesting. i have never been there, but hope to visit it one day. this book would be a good one to read before travelling there to get a sense of the city. it's not a guide book, but could be one!


You have to have at least a slight interest in history to enjoy this book. It tells the story of rulers and important figures of Byzantium -Constantinople - Istanbul, blending facts with legends and myths. I bought the book while I was visiting the city, but I got to read selected chapters while I was there and finished the book after I got back home. As soon as I finished I wanted to go back :)The book helped me imagine the monuments of Istanbul in different times through history, particular attention is paid to Hagia Sophia, the central worship place of Christians, Christian-Orthodox, Christian-Catholics and Muslims across 1,500 years (most buildings of the same age are ruins!). The book is also full of anecdotes that humanize the figures or legendary rulers such as Justinian, Mehmet II (Fatih) and even Ataturk.If you enjoy reading the history of a place when you visit it, if you find it fascinating to understand how the monuments you see have been built or how they survived the ages and what purpose they played, if you like to imagine what was and is no more in a city - the book is must read. Freely's style is cursive and engaging, making the book a fairly quick read for its size.

Andrei Zamfirescu

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


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.

Mark Rossiter

This book about Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, by the American teacher John Freely, is a curious read. It purports to be a chronological history of the city, yet is in fact mostly a string of anecdotes about the doings of its sometime rulers interspersed with the odd undigested gobbet of political history. It has none of the contextual depth or atmospherics required to really understand the place, in the way, for example, that you can almost walk the streets of Victorian London in Desmond and Moore’s incredible biography of Darwin. So the first 300-odd pages skate unsatisfyingly over the surface of their subject – and then the final 60-odd, footnotes to the main text, consist of detailed architectural descriptions (with sketches) of the remaining monuments of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras which would no doubt be illuminating if you were examining those places with the book in your hand, but are really just annoying when you have to flick back and forth.Perhaps I’ll pack it next time I go – it might change my mind.


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.


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.


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.

Catherine Woodman

informative yet dry


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.

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 Süleyman 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.

Michael Scott

I bought this book on the road back from Istanbul, a city I enjoyed very much during a week-long visit. Istanbul: The Imperial City by John Freely is exactly what I should have been reading before visiting: it is a history of the city sprinkled with descriptions of the buildings and landmarks still visible at the middle of the 1990s. We are also given excerpts from some of the most important writings on the topic of Istanbul, especially from the old writs.In active, somewhat repetitive prose, Freely exposes the two and a half millenia of the wonderful city of the Golden Horn, Istanbul, or Constantinople, or Byzantium. Founded by the colonist Byzas of Megara around 660BC, Byzantium made use of advanced military engineering to protect itself for centuries from a large number of wannabe conquerors: Persians, Thracians, Scytes, Macedonians, Athenians, etc. It is early in its history the Byzantium inaugurated its infamous treasonous behavior, with switches of allegiance and murdered leaders common. For example, around 440BC Byzantium revolts against Athens, to whom it was paying tribute, and is besieged by troops from the Athenian League; the siege ends when the pro-Athenian faction lets down ladders from the besieged walls. (The Byzantine generals agreement is, today, a famous and difficult problem of consistency in distributed systems/computer science. In this problem, the goal is to agree on the order to either attack or retreat, assuming that one or several of the generals, but not all, are traitors.) This book raised a lot of memories from my history classes. Here ... We learn about the establishment of Constantinople (in Greek Constantinopolis, or the City of Constantine), the town that effectively quadrupled the size of the ancient Byzantium while maintaining its core in the Golden Horn. We read about the long internal struggle for power of a dying Roman Empire; names like Theodosius, Julian, Justinian, and others. We see how Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofia, Hagia Sofia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom) gets built and repeatedly rebuilt. We observe the Cristian Church being split into Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox. We conquer the city with the Crusaders (the first fall) and the Ottomans (the second fall). We understand the Dark Ages and the medieval world. Overall, I loved reading about the places I've just seen. I felt at home with many of the names, peoples, and places. I was tested thoroughly on my knowledge of history, and I was not disappointed to see what has left from my gymnasium lessons. I was delighted to observe how many words I knew from childhood were of Greek or Turkish origin (ayazma, kestane, kadin, ...) If it wasn't for the rather long and somewhat unintelligible list of names, the rather superficial analysis of the causes of various events, and the too long excerpts in the latter parts of the book, it would have been a 5-star. Thumbs up, recommended reading for visitors of Istanbul!

Blair Kauffman

Good travel history to have along while touring 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.


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.

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