In hoc signo vinces

There are many ways to tell a story, as many as there are stories, I would say. There are many ways to describe a city, and many ways to describe the story of a city. And there are many stories of many cities. Each one is unique, and each means something. All stories are true, but not all are based in fact. But I have only read one book where the story of this Queen of Cities is told through its architecture. There are others that weave history in with the buildings, and certainly there are several virtuso books on Venice that do this, but none so blatant as ‘City of Constantine’ by John Hearsey.

εἰκώνThis, in hindsight, is a somewhat obvious ploy. From the beginnings of a city, though its trials and tempations, its joys and sadnesses, all these are reflected not only in the people, but the utility of the people who are the city. But Κωνσταντινούπολις was always different, always one step away from the East, and at least two away from the West. And as New Rome was founded to be the hub of a new Christian empire, the main slant of this book are its churches and monasteries. As those are what drove the city, and its people.

Set out in chronological order, from the foundation, to the fall, of the city, the buildings are used to tell not only the stories of the poeple and their enemies, but an underlying thread, connecting them. From hiding out-of-favour empresses in their own sections of the city, flourishing convents with their own rules and theological influences, to huge public displays, nowhere in the world is there such a continuous record of history through building. As the Byzantines, the last Empire of the old world, recorded a lot in their bricks, mortar, wood and bronze. And this was the end of the old world, as even though the Turks took her at last in 1453, the real end of them came forty years later, coincidently, or not, the founding of the New World.

Puncturated throughout with photographs, taken mostly by the author (and decently, do you hear me, Tom Holland and Alain de Botton?) and floor diagrams to help imagine what the ramshackle ruins that are left (and haven’t been altered by many generations of Turks), there is a sense of ‘how did they do that?’, with all the arrogance of our late 20th century viewpoint. Where is the modern hymn that is Ἁγία Σοφία?

Part travel, part history, all buildings, threaded together with the dry wit of an almost Victorian schoolmaster, this is another story of the centre of Byzantium. The recent ‘through the eyes of the common man’ trend for history somewhat misses the point, as interesting as they are. The common ‘through the eyes of the victor’ histories always slant our view, but also expand it. Looking at the city of Constantine from the bricks, listening to their journey as time ebbs along the Bosporus, the cosmopolitan stones from all parts of their empire and beyond, is fascinating. Never dull, this is what could quite easily be called a romp, a new story to add to all the others.

Photo source: Hello Ikon