A few descriptions of Constantinople in the 15th century, none accessible to us

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks drew a line under the history of the eastern Roman empire.  The buildings and monuments of the city, already badly damaged by time and the Latin occupation of 1204, now suffered the fate of being irrelevant and inconvenient to the city rulers, and much was lost.

The most conspicuous example of this is the demolition of the church of the Holy Apostles, and the mausoleum of Constantine and the emperors who followed him.  But this was perhaps mainly an example of “marking your turf”, familiar to teenager gangs everywhere.  However much else that still survived vanished around the same time.

It would be very interesting to have a list of primary sources describing the city in the 15th century.  The dying empire still attracted visitors at the start of the century; and in the early years of Ottoman rule, there are descriptions of events that reflect the state of the city.

Sadly I do not know of such a list, nor any easy way to obtain one.  But today I came across a preview of a volume online which mentions a number of such items.

The work in question is Cigdem Kafescioglu’s Constantinopolis / Istanbul: Cultural Encounter, Imperial Vision, and the Construction of the Ottoman Capital, Pennsylvania State University, 2009.

On page 136 we find the following fascinating statement (sadly Google blanked out the diagrams):

What remained of the ceremonial arteries of Byzantine Constantinople at the time the Ottomans captured the city is not known precisely (fig. 104). What is known suggests that fragments and traces of a former monumental layout remained, rather than an intact complex of streets and fora. In his “Comparison of Old and New Rome,” which he wrote in Rome in 1411, Manuel Chrysoloras, referring to the Golden Gate and the southern branch of the Mese, mentions the “former city gate which is on the same road.” His emphasis, however, is on what remained of the city’s monumental columns, statues and pedestals “wallowing in mud and mire, having fallen into ruin,” rather than the urban spaces that bore these.233 Early Ottoman land surveys suggest that colonnaded porticoes were partly standing on the eastern portion of the Mese. The “shops called kemer (arch)” near Hagia Sophia, recorded in 1489, were possibly the last remnants of the porticoed city streets aligned with shops. These were either shop/stoa combinations, as described by Marlia Mundell-Mango, or former porticoes transformed into shops by the Ottomans.234 Ceremonial use of the arteries had similarly declined. In a study of imperial and ecclesiastical processions in Byzantium, Albrecht Berger has noted that urban ceremonial in the last centuries of Byzantium used only fragments of the city’s former ceremonial map. Rather than traverse the whole expanse of the Mese, later Byzantine emperors, in their increasingly infrequent visits to the city center, more often used a sea route from the Blachernae to the Seraglio Point and only there disembarked for a land-bound procession to theHagia Sophia or the Hippodrome.235 Accounts such as Gilles’s description of the Hippodrome as overgrown with trees at the time of the conquest and Ottoman concerns with security in these spaces point in the same direction.

Sparse yet significant information on the Hippodrome through the early years of Ottoman rule in Constantinople survives. In the image by Vavassore published around 1530, based on an original dating to the late fifteenth century, the sphendone and the entrance complex, the latter to be spoliated in the construction of the Suleymaniye mosque and complex in the 1550s, are still intact. A hagiography completed in 1484, the Velayetname-i Otman Baba, indicates that the open space of the Hippodrome—or, in its translated name, the Atmeydani—was already a central spot in the city by the end of Mehmed’s rule. In this account, the heretic dervish Otman Baba and his followers rather narrowly escape being brought here to meet their end at the stakes and hooks awaiting them.236 An opposition between the city’s center and edge, a metaphor also for proximity and distance vis-a-vis the state, is articulated here through narration of the steps taken to convey the dervishes to a convent near the Silivrikapi/Pege Gate along the land walls, and not to the Hippodrome. The Velayetname, by an author at the margins of the emerging Ottoman order, does not grant a more precise view into the events regarding the dervish’s trial. It does nevertheless provide a glimpse of the Hippodrome as one of the sites where the conflict between the heretic leader and the palace was acted out within the capital city, foreshadowing its centuries-long use as the stage where palace and city would meet for the administration of justice…

233.  Chrysoloras, “Comparison of Old and New Rome”, 211, 214.
234.  BBA (Basbakanlik Arsivi = Archives of the Prime Ministry) MM19 (Ayasofya vakfitahrir defteri, A.H. 895), fols 24a-25a. On emboloi in the Byzantine city, see Mundell-Mango, “The Commercial Map of Constantinople,” 194-97, 203-4 (JSTOR).  Information on the Mese in the Palaeologan era suggests that commercial activity was focused on particular locations rather than stretching alongside it.
235. Berger, “Imperial and Ecclesiastical Processions in Constantinople,” 83-85; 86-87, for a map of processions in the Byzantine city.
236. Kucuk Abdal, Velayetname-i Sultan Otman, 94v-97r, 117v-118v.

It is sad to see that the Turkish sources are only listed in manuscript; that is, remain unpublished.

The work by Manuel Chrysoloras, the Byzantine diplomat who taught the world how to read Greek, during three short years in Florence at the end of the 14th century, ought to be accessible.  It may be found in PG156, cols.24-53.  But Kafescioglu indicates (p.267) that an obscure English translation does indeed exist:

Chrysoloras, Manuel. “Comparison of Old and New Rome.” Translated and edited by Christine Smith. In: Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Eloquence, 1400-1470,171-215. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

That it is obscure may readily be discovered by anyone searching Google for a translation.  Sadly the paper is inaccessible to me too!  But at least it is good to know that it exists.

Why doesn’t someone create a website dedicated to 15th century Constantinople?  It would be so very useful!

2 thoughts on “A few descriptions of Constantinople in the 15th century, none accessible to us

  1. Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World -Hardcover – November 22, 2016
    by Thomas F. Madden
    Not precisely what you were looking for, but it is an informative and interesting book with descriptions of the architectural rise and fall of Constantinople. .

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