Istanbul – European Capital of Culture

I’ve known for some time that Istanbul would be ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2010. What I didn’t know was that it will, in fact, be one of three European Capitals of Culture this year, the others being Pécs and Essen.
Now I don’t wish to in any way detract from the cultural significance of Pecs and Essen. I am happy to have been given the motivation to find out where Pecs is – and I can tell you (in case you are as ignorant as I was) that it is the 5th largest city in Hungary, and home to the country’s largest university. Of course I knew where Essen is. I can’t tell you if it is the 7th or the 8th largest city in Germany, but I can assure you that it was formerly one of the country’s most important coal and steel centres.
I’m not sure exactly who decides, from year to year, which cities will be designated European C of Cs. However, since the decisions are made by a committee of the European Union, I guess Turks, as non-members, should be grateful that one of their cities made the cut at all.
Nevertheless, the decision having been taken to grace Istanbul with the title, I can’t help wondering whether the honour has not been a little diluted by including it as a member of what can only be considered a fairly humble triumvirate. If you glance, as I did, down the list of previous title-holders, you will see that such relative metropolitan minnows as Cork (2005) and Patras (2006) were deemed to have no competition in their respective years; while Luxembourg (2007) was given a second bite of the cherry twelve years after its first chomp.
Well, I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to bitch about other culturally worthy European cities. After all, there’s a lot of culture in Europe – undoubtedly enough to provide the gnomes of Brussels with cities for their list into the foreseeable future, even at the rate of two or three a year.
In fact, the spark that ignited this particular blog was a table I came across recently in a Turkish newspaper, which I am appending for your edification. It shows the population figures for Istanbul over a period of 1,677 years. Well, of course, it hasn’t been known as ‘Istanbul’ for all of that time – only for the last 554 years. Prior to 1453, as Constantinople, it was the capital of the Roman Empire for 1,123 years – a title it shared with the actual city of Rome for a relatively brief 146 years, before that city, as is well known, was overrun by barbarians.
You’ll notice, as you look at the table, that it hasn’t been all beer and skittles for the imperial city over that millennium and a half. Periods of dramatic growth have been followed by equally dramatic periods of decline. Given the exponential growth of the population in the last 30 years, it’s not easy to graph the figures in order to convey the fluctuations that took place at various periods of the city’s history. However, it’s obvious that those numbers want to tell us a story, and so I’ve decided to help them do it.
One point that should be made at the outset is that the very existence of these figures is a statement in itself. Clearly we would like to compare them with comparable figures for other major European and world cities but we can’t. The reason is, of course, that either the figures don’t exist – or the cities themselves didn’t. Istanbul / Constantinople has been around for a very long time; and it has been capital of civilisations that have been sufficiently organized and self-aware to be able to compile reasonably accurate population statistics. Excavations currently being carried out as part of the Marmaray Metro System have found evidence of a Neolithic settlement at Yenikapı, dating back to around 8500 years ago.
The ancient city of Rome is held by some to have attained a population of up to two million at its peak in the 2nd century CE; but declined to a tiny fraction of this after a series of disasters lasting close to a thousand years. It probably didn’t reach 100,000 again until the 17th century. It is nigh impossible to find figures for European cities to be able to compare them with Constantinople/Istanbul. London, for example, is estimated to have had a population of 60,000 in the 2nd century CE at the height of its Roman period – but by 500 CE, to have declined to 5,000. Estimates of its population in 1066, when the invading Normans put an arrow through the eye of English King Harold, range from 5,000 to 40,000. It perhaps hit 100,000 when it became the mercantile centre of England in the age of Chaucer, but declined again, and didn’t reach 200,000 till Guy Fawkes narrowly failed to incinerate King James I at the beginning of the 17th century.
Paris was probably the largest city in Europe in medieval times, apparently growing to 200,000 in the 14th century, then remaining fairly static until the 16th century. By 1700 it had managed to top half a million for the first time.
Apart from those cities, what can we find? Undoubtedly there were cities in ancient China that were home to very large populations. Moscow is said to have reached 100,000 in the 16th century, before being attacked and sacked by the Crimean Tatars and falling on hard times. Italian stars of the Renaissance, Venice, Naples and Milan, hovered around the magic 100,000 mark in the 16th century, as did Hapsburg Vienna. Madrid hadn’t even become the capital of Spain at that stage – the largest city being Toledo, with an estimated population of 65,000.
So let’s return to Istanbul, or rather, to the 4th century CE when the Roman emperor, Constantine I decided to establish a second Rome on the site of the small Greek city, Byzantium, on the triangular peninsula at the southern mouth of the Bosporus Strait. Reasons given for his decision are: the new city stood at an important point on the trade routes between east and west; the eastern parts of the empire were more urbanized and civilized than those in the west; the western empire was increasingly under threat, and the wealth of the East allowed it to buy off aggressors as well as hire mercenaries to assist in its defence. Whatever the reasons may have been, it is clear that Constantine was serious about creating a capital city: the population grew tenfold to 400,000 within 70 years of its foundation!
If you want to read a history of the Eastern Roman Empire, you will need to look elsewhere. However, historians seem to agree that there were two ‘Golden Ages’, under the Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, and again, after a period of decline, in the 9th and 10th centuries. At this latter time, the Emperor ruled what could still reasonably be considered an empire, with its western possessions stretching through the Balkans, Macedonia, Greece and southern Italy; its armies holding their own and even making ground in the east against the forces of Islam. As John Julius Norwich, noted historian of Byzantium has claimed, if not for this resistance in the east, Muslim armies would likely have swept into Europe by the shortest route, rather than having to take the longer road, via North Africa and Spain. In that case, the history and culture of Western Europe could well have been very different. It might, for example, have been Christians asking the Muslim government of Switzerland for permission to build a church, rather than the other way around.
Anyway, we can see these two peaks of success reflected in our figures for the city of Constantinople, with the city having a population of 400,000 in 950 CE. Not long after that, however, the tide turned against the eastern Romans. In 1071 the Seljuk Turks defeated the army of the Emperor Romanus Diogenes, sealing the fate of Asia Minor/Anatolia for the next millennium, and inspiring a succession of Popes to launch their crusading hordes into the east. When the zealots of the Fourth Crusade sacked and pillaged the city of their Christian brethren in 1204, the population of Constantinople had fallen to 150,000. Although the Byzantines regained their capital 50 years later, their empire was doomed. When the Ottoman Conqueror, Mehmet II hammered the final nails into its coffin in 1453, the mighty Rome of the East had fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, and the conquest was probably more symbolic than real.
But what happened next? A further slide into an under-populated, godless dark age? On the contrary, we can see from the table that, within little over a century, the population of the new Ottoman capital (whose rulers, incidentally, claimed for themselves, with some justification, the title of Roman Emperor), grew more than tenfold, to 600,000. At the peak of the Empire’s power in 1566, the ‘Magnificent’ Süleiman’s dominions stretched from the mouth of the Arabian Gulf to Algeria; from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Vienna in an arc passing the shores of the Caspian Sea, taking in the Crimea and Hungary.
After the conquest, Ottoman Sultans, from Beyazit II on, encouraged the repopulation of the imperial city, and not just with Muslim subjects. Jews and Arabs, fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, were offered safe haven. Greeks were encouraged to return, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate being allowed to remain in the city, where it can still be found today. Armenian Christians were given the same special status to use their language and practise their religion. We may take such freedoms for granted today – but in the 16th century, Western Europe was rather less tolerant. Apart from Spain, the French were beginning their religious purification, leading to the massacre and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Protestants. England may have adopted a less ‘final’ solution, but Acts of Parliament prevented nonconformists (i.e. to the Church of England) from holding civil or military office, or being awarded university degrees until the Catholic emancipation of 1828. The first English immigrants to North America were, of course, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland.
But I digress. Another glance at our table shows that there was a decline in Istanbul’s population after its peak in 1566 – followed by a slow rise until it topped one million around the turn of the 19th century. This certainly reflects the decline in the Empire’s fortunes, which resulted in Western leaders’ inventing the term ‘Sick Man of Europe’. No doubt the glee with which they employed this term was in proportion to the humiliation their predecessors had felt in earlier times when their ambassadors were obliged to learn the Ottoman language and seek the grace and favour of the Grand Turk on his home turf.
Istanbul/Constantinople was still a grand city – the British Consular building, built in 1844, is testament to this, perhaps the premier posting for a British diplomat of the day. The Dolmabahçe Palace on the European shore of the Bosporus, and a host of other lesser seaside palaces further testify to the city’s continuation as a major world city. Nevertheless, its stagnation is especially stark in contrast to the rapid growth of European cities in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. London, for example, grew from a city of one million, to 6.5 million from 1801 to 1901. New York City, still hovering around the half million mark in 1850, had increased tenfold to five million by the beginning of the First World War.
Alongside these figures of enormous growth, Istanbul’s figures are unspectacular. However, we can see that the population did increase 48% to over a million in forty years to 1897. The exact reasons for this growth can be debated, but one possible explanation has been documented: according to the historian Justin McCarthy, Muslim refugees amounting to 10% of the population flooded into the Ottoman Empire as a result of ethnic purification and state terror conducted by the Russians as they expanded into the Crimea and the Caucasus. Far from contributing to its economic growth, these homeless, penniless refugees were a drain on a government already struggling to maintain solvency.
From here, further reference to our table will show another fairly spectacular decline in numbers. In the 30 years to 1927, the population declined 36% to under 700,000. Correlating this to events in history, we see that, in 1912, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The First Balkan War broke out, followed by a second a year later. In 1914 Europe exploded into the Great War, in which the Ottoman Empire, after fighting on at least three separate fronts, ended up on the losing side. The consequence of the harsh conditions imposed by the victorious Allies on the Ottoman Empire was the Turkish War of Independence, in which hostilities dragged on for a further three years until 1922. After ten consecutive years of war, it is not surprising that the numbers of Istanbul-dwellers declined.
After the declaration of the Turkish Republic, the city’s population began to increase slowly in time with the gradual recovery and economic development of the new nation. Istanbul passed one million inhabitants in the early 1950s, two million in the late 60s, and three million in the early 80s. Since then the growth has been exponential. The figure for 2007 includes the city proper, and doesn’t include the wider urban agglomeration. Whichever measure is used, various sources place Istanbul among the ten largest cities in the world. None of these sources, incidentally, ranked even the largest cities of Germany or Hungary in the top fifty.
Of course, size isn’t everything. But I can’t help feeling Istanbul deserved a ‘Cultural Capital’ year to itself.

2 thoughts on “Istanbul – European Capital of Culture

  1. Wow! I didn't know about the other cities that were selected at the same time as Istanbul… This is an excellent article, chock full of info.

  2. We just had a music festival in Central Park called Istabulive, where they announced the Eu capital of culture thing… it made me think of this post://

    Got to see Sukriye Tutkun in your honor though. Left after Ilhan Ersahin and before Duman and Kenan Dogulu, because I'm cool that way.

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