NR Digital

A Megacity Old and New

by Claire Berlinski

Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World, by Thomas F. Madden (Viking, 400 pp., $32)

Historian Thomas F. Madden begins his story in 667 b.c. or thereabouts, when, legend has it, Megaran colonists under the command of King Byzas sailed from the Bosporus into the world’s largest natural harbor, an estuary they were to call the Golden Horn. They were ravished by their discovery: There was a verdant peninsula from which Asia and Europe could be seen, with natural defenses of hills and water. The promontory allowed them to survey and dominate the strait that linked two continents and the Black and Mediterranean Seas. The climate was temperate, the water so abundant with fish they could catch them with their hands. Just beyond was the fertile soil of Thrace. It was the ideal site for a trading city.

Byzantium has been known by at least ten other names. (“Istanbul” is a Turkish corruption of the Greek for “to or of the city,” in the local dialect — with the p in “polis” pronounced as a b.) The Megarans could not have imagined their city’s future. In 1203, a dumbfounded Crusader, Robert de Clari, tried to describe the size and splendor of Constantinople and its treasures to Western audiences but at last gave up: “If anyone should recount to you the hundredth part of the richness and the beauty and the nobility that was found . . . in the city, it would seem like a lie and you would not believe it.”

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