Building Medieval Constantinople

Building Medieval Constantinople

By Robert Ousterhout

Proceedings of the PMR Conference, Volume 19-20 (1994-1996)

Introduction: The visitor to modem Istanbul is often struck by the dramatic contrasts of the city: ostentatious displays of wealth appear side by side with poverty and squalor; the decrepid hovels of the poor lie in the shadows of monuments of past glory; at the same time, a new city rises amid the ruins of antiquity. How much has the character of the city changed since Byzantine times? Odo of Deuil, who visited and disked the city in 1147, described elegant palaces with lavish decoration, but noted:

The city itself is squalid and fetid and in many places harmed by permanent darkness, for the wealthy overshadow the streets with buildings and leave these dirty, dark places to the poor and to travelers; there murders and robberies and other crimes which love darkness are committed.

He could be describing just about any inner city today. In spite of the vividness and conternporaneity of this and similar accounts, we know precious little about the medieval city of Constantinopleat is, not the Late Antique city built by Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian, with which we are more familiar, but the city into which it evolved following the Dark Ages of the seventh to ninth centuries. Indeed, when the urban history of Constantinople is discussed, most I scholars make a quanhun leap from the sixth to the fifteenth century. But it is I themedieval city that so impressed visitors.

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