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Professor Carole Hillenbrand

 The Byzantines have been defeated in the nearest land. (But) after their defeat they will prevail within a few years’.


This resounding pronouncement in the opening verses of Chapter 30 of the Qur’an, Surat al-Rum (the Chapter of the Byzantines),is a very unusual reference in the Qur’an to particular historical events outside Arabia during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. News of momentous events in Christian Byzantium – Rum - had reached distant Arabia and were deemed to be of enough significance to deserve mention in the Qur’an itself. What do the verses mean? Qur’anic commentators over the centuries have tended to see them as referring to the defeat of the Byzantines by the Persians in the years 613-14 and to the subsequent victory of the Byzantines under Heraclius in 624.  Such commentators argue that this Byzantine victory in 624 over the Zoroastrian Persians was pleasing to the early Muslims, as shown in the verse that follows:

‘On that day believers will rejoice in God’s help to victory. He helps to victory whom He will’.

 But what did the Arabs in pre-Islamic times really know about the great Byzantine capital? Even before the coming of Islam in the early seventh century, the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula had heard of the distant city of Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor and the vast realms he governed. Embedded in the oral traditions of pre-Islamic tribal culture, whose principal artefact was poetry, are stories of visits made by semi-legendary Arab rulers and poets to the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople.  They include two of the sixth-century Bedouin poets, ‘Adí b. Zayd, and the celebrated ruler, ‘Imru’l-Qays. Then came Islam and the whirlwind conquests of the seventh century which saw the Arab Muslim armies destroy the great Sasanian Persian empire and seize the Byzantine territories of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa.   By 711 the new Islamic empire stretched from Spain in the west to northern India and Central Asia in the east.  Yet a much reduced Byzantine empire, and above all Constantinople, were still there, and would survive for another seven centuries or more.


    First a brief word about sources for this article. They are almost entirely in Arabic. The relevant works are historical chronicles, travel accounts and geographical writing. Amongst the latter, the richest in information about Constantinople is probably the geographical works of the tenth-century Persian scholar Ibn Rusta, whose Arabic text contains an allegedly verbatim account of the city narrated by a Syrian prisoner of war called Harun b. Yahya who was captured by pirates off the coast of Palestine and taken to Constantinople. This account became the canonical text about Constantinople used by later Muslim writers, whether they had been there or not, for many centuries afterwards.  However, this widespread plagiarising tendency in Muslim geographical writing did not preclude new material being added to later Muslim geographical and ethnographical sources right up until 1453.  These works include rich strands of fantasy and legend about the great city, written to excite the imaginations of the ‘chattering classes’ of Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Cordoba and other Muslim cultural centres.


 The four major themes of this article will be:


1.     What do the medieval Muslims say about the history of Constantinople?


  2. The Muslim apocalyptic view of the city


  3. Constantinople: fact and fantasy


  4.  1453: the fall of the Great City


1. What do the medieval Muslims say about the history of Constantinople?


 Given the enormous size of the Muslim empire in its heyday, and the great self-confidence that accompanied such an empire, it is not surprising that the lands beyond their borders receive scant attention. That said, neighbouring Byzantium figures prominently as the major Christian polity known to the Muslims, especially in the context of border raids. However, little is said about Constantinople itself. Nevertheless, the foundation of the city, its political and cultural importance and the vicissitudes that befell it are mentioned by medieval Muslim authors.


  The great Muslim polymath al-Mas‘udi (d. 956) gives several names for the Byzantine capital – al-Qustantiniyya, Buzantiyya (to indicate the environs of the city), ‘the queen of cities’ (malikat al-mudun) and simply ‘the City’ (tés pólis). In his World History al-Tabari records the establishment of the city by Constantine, ‘the first to embrace Christianity’ but he gives no date for this event. He writes too that Constantine had found the wooden cross on which Christians believe that Jesus had been crucified and notes that ‘they placed it among their treasures where it remains until this day’.


   Muslim naval attacks on Constantinople were especially important from 661 to 750. Despite their signal failures, these regular expeditions are often mentioned in Arabic historical sources, geographical works, tradition literature, popular stories and outright legends. There were five major attempts made by the Arabs to take the city. The Umayyad caliph Sulayman b. ‘Abd al-Malik may have been inspired to send his brother Maslama on campaign to Constantinople because of an alleged saying of Muhammad which predicted that the city would be taken by a caliph bearing the name of a prophet (Solomon).  Maslama began a siege of Constantinople on 25 August 716; this lasted a year before he was forced to retire.


   With the advent of the ‘Abbasid dynasty in 750 and its new capital in Baghdad, warfare between the two super-powers continued almost annually but it became ritualised as border campaigns and did not involve attacks on the Byzantine capital. Moreover, despite their repeated failure to take Constantinople and their publicly trumpeted anti-Byzantine polemic, Muslim caliphs and governors clearly admired the city. Constantinople epitomised imperial power, pomp and ceremony: it was a yardstick by which Muslim rulers everywhere could measure their own greatness.  It was a model to emulate, refine and surpass.  The great capital cities of the medieval Islamic world, Damascus, Baghdad, Cordoba and Cairo, gauged their prestige, above all, by embassies to and from Constantinople, and by the exchange of elaborate gifts and splendid luxury goods with the Byzantines. So the Muslims competed to outdo Constantinople in grandeur and magnificence. Diplomatic, commercial and cultural exchanges between Baghdad or Cordoba and Constantinople are recorded in the Arabic sources.  One famous instance involved the ninth century ‘Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun asking the Byzantine emperor Theophilos to send Leo the Mathematician to his court, and the same Theophilos built a palace with Arab features, for example in its garden.


 From the coming of the Crusades in 1099 until Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem in 1187, the   attention of Muslim historians is diverted from one great centre of eastern Christianity to another. But they do not forget Constantinople. Indeed, the famous Arab chronicler, Ibn al-Athir (d. 1233), records the horrific sack of Constantinople   in 1204 and the capture of the city by the Crusader forces; an infamous episode which pitted Christian against Christian. His is a rather rare account of the Fourth Crusade, and it mentions three Crusader leaders – the Count of Flanders, the Marquis of Montferrat and the blind Doge of Venice, casting lots for possession of Constantinople. Given the usual predictable concentration of medieval Muslim historians on matters which affect their own world, it is rather surprising that Ibn al-Athir should include this account at all.  But he can use the sack of Constantinople in 1204 to make a few telling points of his own.  Perhaps the most important section of his narrative concerns what happened in Haghia Sophia:


‘A group of the notables of Byzantium entered the great church which is called Sophia. The Franks (the Crusaders) approached it and a group of priests, bishops and monks came out to them with the Gospel and the Cross in their hands to entreat them  thereby to spare them. They (the Crusaders) did not heed them and they killed (them) and plundered the church’.


 This account resonates with the same anti-Crusader invective that Ibn al-Athir uses when he describes the horrific massacre of Muslims and Jews who had also taken refuge in a sacred monument – the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem  - a century or so earlier, in 1099 when the Crusaders sacked that city.  Now the usual tirade against the Byzantines is directed against a far more barbaric and devilish Christian enemy, the Crusaders. So it is as if the Byzantines, at a moment when their beloved capital city is being ransacked and wrenched from them, are being treated sympathetically by Ibn al-Athir.


2. The Muslim apocalyptic view of Constantinople


   It must be emphasised that by the ninth century, despite their deeply held ambitions, the realisation had dawned on the Muslims that they were simply not going to take the Byzantine capital in the near future. So, in the Muslim consciousness, in popular religion and legend, another dimension to their perspective on Constantinople becomes ever more apparent, as they relegate the ambition of conquering the city to a distant, indeed messianic, future. A group of eschatological   traditions going back to the Prophet Muhammad put the conquest of Constantinople forward to the end of time and associate it with the Last Day and the appearance of Dajjal (the Antichrist). One such saying is:


‘Four cities in this world are from Paradise: Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and Damascus; and four cities are from the Fire: Constantinople, Tiberias, Antioch and San‘a’.


 This apocalyptic perspective of Constantinople remained an important strand in the Muslim perception of the city right up to its eventual conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. According to the great Sufi author Ibn al-‘Arabi (d.1240), the Day of Judgement will be preceded by the Mahdi marching with ten thousand men to take Constantinople. He will invite the Byzantine emperor to embrace Islam. When he declines to do so, the Mahdi will kill him, the riches of the city will be seized, and the news of the coming of the Antichrist will be announced.


 In the meantime, whilst awaiting the Last Day, Muslim   popular imagination enshrined different memories of the Muslim ambition to conquer Constantinople in another more immediate scenario.  Oral tradition kept alive stories of the Muslim attempts to take the city and pseudo-historical romances then followed. In The Thousand and One Nights, for example, the sons of ‘Umar b. al-Nu‘man undertake an expedition to Constantinople: in a sea battle they are victorious against the Byzantines, but an unsuccessful siege of the city then follows. These legendary elements also infiltrated Turkish folk tradition long before the Ottomans appeared on the scene.


3. Constantinople: fact and fantasy


    A few general remarks and warnings first. The descriptions of Constantinople found in many medieval Muslim geographical and travel writings should not necessarily be taken at face value. A long and sustained set of standard elements, frequently in exactly the same phrasing, are to be found in Muslim sources from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, and often enough the authors are describing monuments and locations that they themselves have never seen. Side by side with this tradition of plagiarised accounts of the topography and buildings of the city and the court ceremonial that took place there, Muslim accounts of Constantinople are infused with another popular cultural characteristic: the literature of marvels and magic. The medieval Muslim scholarly world was interested in ‘aja’ib literature – geographical and cosmographical works focussed on real or imaginary phenomena   evoking wonder and amazement. The occult and miraculous ‘information’ for such books came from Hellenistic learning, Middle Eastern folklore and myth, and other diverse sources; these cultural influences effortlessly infiltrated medieval travel and geographical writing from the tenth century onwards. This tradition of marvel literature continued in later works of natural history and in the voluminous encylopedias of Mamluk Egypt from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.  


  Predictably, Muslim writers like to record a small but longstanding Muslim population resident in Constantinople over many centuries.  They also describe diplomatic visits made by Muslim envoys to the city. Two Islamic monuments in Constantinople are regularly mentioned by Arab authors. The legendary figure of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad who went on campaign against Constantinople in 668-9, is mentioned as being buried in a tomb by the city walls. According to several sources, the Byzantines visit the tomb in times of drought to pray for rain. A second building, a mosque in the city associated with the Umayyad prince Maslama, is also of interest to Muslim writers. Maslama’s campaign to Constantinople left behind numerous legends and stories and his name became attached to a mosque which he had allegedly built there. It is, however, far more likely that it was constructed by the Byzantines in response to the needs of many Muslims living there - prisoners, exiles, merchants and travellers. According to Ibn al-Athir, in the mid-eleventh century the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos repaired the mosque in Constantinople in honour of the first Seljuq Turkish sultan, Tughril.  The emperor then allowed Tughril’s envoy to hold the Friday prayer there and he placed a symbolic Turkish bow and arrow in the niche of the mosque. In the twelfth century Saladin asked for permission to repair the mosque but was refused. This prestigious task fell to the Mamluk sultan Baybars in the following century. Whether it had been damaged in the sack of the city in 1204 is not mentioned by Muslim authors but it seems highly likely that this was the case. The existence of these two monuments, the tomb and the mosque, represents for Arab writers a Muslim historical past and present within the city long before 1453.


  There are frequent references to Muslim prisoners of war being held in Constantinople, and the Muslim envoys sent to negotiate their release record their experiences of Byzantine ceremonial. Thus al-Tabari records a meeting in 860 between Nasr b. al-Azhar, the envoy of al-Mutawakkil, the caliph in Baghdad, and the Byzantine emperor Michael III. Nasr takes up the tale:


‘I visited Michael’s palace with my black robe, sword, dagger and cap. I had a discussion with the maternal uncle of the emperor, Bardas. …. They refused to let me enter with my sword and black robe, whereupon I said I was leaving, which I did. But I was brought back while I was on my way. I had gifts with me, including about a thousand bags of musk, silk garments, a lot of saffron, and some exquisite pieces.The gifts that I brought were carried in to the emperor.


When I was admitted into his presence, he was on an elevated throne, with the courtiers) standing around him.  I greeted him and then sat down at the edge of a large dais where a seat had been prepared for me. I placed the gifts before him’.


Nasr goes on to say that the three interpreters present asked him how he wanted them to translate his words.  He said in response “Don’t add anything to what I say to you’.  So the interpreters did as he asked. The emperor then accepted the gifts and ‘did not hand them onto anyone else.’ He treated Nasr kindly and prepared a house for him to stay in.


 Further evidence of the commercial importance of Constantinople is provided by a Damascene merchant ‘Abdallah b. Muhammad, who fled in the thirteenth century from the Mongol invasions of Syria to Constantinople where he lived for twelve years. He describes a quarter of the city which was about two thirds the size of Damascus – in other words, a huge space- which was walled with a gate, and which was reserved exclusively for Muslims, as well as a similar area for the Jewish quarter.


   Other Muslim observers of the last era of Constantinople, such as Ibn Battuta of Tangier, are also very impressed by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city. He notes especially its bustling bazaars in the Latin quarter where diverse groups of Franks - Genoese, Venetians, Frenchmen and others - ply their trade. However, Ibn Battuta cannot resist the temptation of commenting snidely on Europeans as being filthy and unwashed; this attitude had become a cliché since the coming of the Crusaders and  he says patronisingly of Constantinople : ‘The bazaars are good but overlaid with filth’.


   The seminal account of Constantinople by the prisoner Harun b. Yahya recorded by the Muslim early tenth-century geographer Ibn Rusta juxtaposes allegedly precise measurements of buildings with flowery descriptions of Byzantine luxury that are clearly in the realm of fantasy. Pride of place in any Muslim description of Constantinople is consistently given to Haghia Sophia.  It would appear that Harun witnessed personally a royal procession to the ‘Great Church’ on Ash Wednesday.

 The grandeur of the emperor’s retinue and procession deeply impresses him. One  procession – which, we are invited to believe, comprises 45,000 people (where in the world was there space for them in the church?) - culminates, of course, with the emperor himself. He wears a tiara and two boots, one red and one black.  He carries in his hands a gold box and he goes on foot. Harun also speaks of a cistern in Haghia Sophia from which water is raised to statues on top of the columns:


‘On the festival day it is filled with around ten thousand jars of date-wine and one thousand jars of white honey.  Then this mixture is perfumed with lavender, cloves and cinnamon…When the emperor… enters the church, his glance falls on those statues and he can see this liquid flowing from their mouths and ears…Each of the courtiers who escort him in honour of this occasion drinks a mouthful of it’.


 It is obvious that Harun’s narrative is a mishmash of fact and fiction, the grossest exaggerations alongside quite precise details. But the atmosphere of the fabled splendour of Byzantine ceremony is vividly recorded here, with the aim of entertaining and titillating the imagination of Muslim readers. Thus this canonical Muslim account is embellished with legendary flourishes that place it firmly in the tradition of Islamic ‘marvel’ literature.



4. The fall of the Great City in 1453


     Unlike the Arabs, the Turks came into the Muslim world with no nostalgic baggage of memory and myth about Byzantium and its legendary capital city.   It is an irony of history, perhaps, that the long-cherished Muslim ambition to capture Constantinople should have been the achievement not of the Arabs but of the Turks.  But, like it or not, The Arabs and the Persians were forced to accept in the fullness of time that this great coup would be achieved by the inexorable movement of the Turks across Anatolia, and through Turkish military supremacy. After the successes of the Ottomans in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries it became imperative for them that Constantinople should no longer remain under the authority of a Christian ruler, let alone the Byzantine emperor himself. The momentous fall of the city on 21 Rabi‘ I 857/ 29 May 1453 represents in many respects the high watermark of medieval Turkish military achievements.


   There is an interval of time before the Ottoman historiographical tradition extracts the maximum propagandistic worth from this seminal victory. By the sixteenth century, the vision of the long-awaited conquest of Constantinople given by the Ottoman historian Sa‘d al-Din in his Taj al-tawarikh (the Crown of Histories),  is painted on a grand canvas as a cosmic conflict between Islam and the infidel. Mehmet II, fighting with ‘heaven-assisted troops’, erects the standard of jihad to conquer the city so that he may  ‘protect the prosperity of the people of Islam, and break the backs of the wretched unbelievers’.


  There is an apocalyptic tone to many of the Ottoman Turkish accounts of 1453. The sultan is shown to have been blessed with divine approbation. His actions are given religious legitimacy by the memory that the Prophet himself is said to have foretold the conquest of Constantinople. Evliya Chelebi, writing in the late seventeenth century, also hints at ethnic triumphalism and the ancient Turkish world of the steppes,reminding  his readers that when Mehmet II made his entry into Haghia Sophia:


‘in order to leave them a memorial of his skill in archery, (he ) shot a four-winged arrow into the centre of the cupola, and the trace of his arrow is still shown there’.


  And to be sure, even for the Arabs, now under unwelcome Ottoman Turkish rule, the taking of Constantinople was not just the conquest of a key city. The possession of it had tremendous symbolic significance: in the grandiose words of Joseph Fletcher, ‘the Ottoman ruler now adorned himself with the symbols of Caesar’. The Turkish Grand Khan assumed the mantle of the immemorial emperor of Rum, while simultaneously becoming the prime promoter, upholder and defender of the whole Sunni world.  And thus the centuries-old conflict between the Muslim and the Byzantine worlds had come to a definitive end.




As I hope I have demonstrated here, the image of Constantinople presented in medieval Muslim sources is multi-dimensional. Much of this image of the city remains constant, set in stone as it were, essentialised in a timeless vacuum, although evolving circumstances do change certain perceptions. It does not matter whether a Muslim writer has actually visited Constantinople or not. Each generation of authors perpetuates the same image of the city, drawing on a limited number of landmarks and symbols to evoke its unique aura.


Muslim travel and geographical writers wax lyrical about the city’s diverse curiosities, such as its awe-inspiring monuments, statues and mechanical devices and thereby showcasing the high level of sophistication in Constantinople, an achievement which the great Islamic centres such as Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba should aspire to emulate.  When the imaginations of Muslim writers take them into the realm of fantasy, as they often do, they seize the chance to revel in the exotica of the ‘Other’. So they embellish their descriptions of Constantinople with legendary elements and fantastic wonders. They do not dwell on the city’s misfortunes in the thirteenth century, let alone gloat on them.  Indeed, the image of Constantinople remains rosy in their imagination, nor, interestingly enough, is it belittled at the expense of the great Muslim  capitals.  It remains in a category of its own.  This is the city that dazzled Muslims for centuries whose glamorous existence stays embedded in their psyche as if it were an ‘eternal entity’, even as the size of the Byzantine empire dwindled inexorably in the long twilight before its capital fell to the Ottoman Turks. 

By Professor Carole Hillenbrand


Special to the Arab Times

By: Professor Carole Hillenbrand

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