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ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Nadia Maria El-Cheikh


From : “Byzantium through the Islamic Prism from the Twelfth to the Thirteenth Century”, included in The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh, Dumbarton Oaks © 2001 - Here published with title and subtitles by Elpenor.

Historiography ||| The twelfth and thirteenth centuries ||| al-Rum ||| Byzantine skills ||| General character ||| Constantinople ||| Constantinople and Jerusalem ||| 1204 ||| Symbols of Constantinople ||| Islamic monuments of Constantinople 


Page 11

Such remarks were not unique to the Arab authors. Western authors were similarly bedazzled by the great city. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, writing on the conquest of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204, stated: “Many of our men, I may say, went to visit Constantinople, to gaze at its many splendid palaces and tall churches and view all the marvelous wealth of a city richer than any other since the beginning of time.“ However, the Western image of Constantinople, during the period of the Crusades, contains inherent negative components well reflected in Odo of Deuil who, after praising Constantinople’s richness and glory, draws a pejorative conclusion: “In every respect she [Constantinople] exceeds moderation; for just as she surpasses other cities in wealth, so too does she surpass them in vice.“

Unlike the Western view of Constantinople, which moves from praise to denigration, the Arabic texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries rarely, if ever, include negative comments. If earlier Arabic texts, dating from the ninth and tenth centuries, had accused Constantinople of arrogance and pride, twelfth-and thirteenth-century texts describe the city’s opulence without judgmental undertones. The only outright negative comments found in our sources are repetitions of earlier traditions which point to the city’s wretchedness: Ibn al-‘Adim cites a hadith from Abu- Hurayra: “Four cities in this world are from paradise: Mecca, Madina, Jerusalem, and Damascus. And four cities from fire: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and San‘a’.“ This hadith is also found in the bibliographical work of the Damascene Ibn ‘Asakir (d. 571/1176), although slightly modified: the four cities of paradise are Mecca, Madina, Jerusalem, and Damascus; and the four cities of hell are Constantinople, Tabariyya, Antioch, and San‘a’.

Aside from this tradition, the writings on Constantinople that we find in the twelfth-and thirteenth-century Arabic-Islamic texts describe the Byzantine capital either in neutral or positive terms. Politically, economically, and culturally, the Arab authors still hold Constantinople in the highest regard.

Al-Idrisi, writing in the mid-twelfth century, before the Latin conquest of the city, states: “Constantinople is prosperous, having markets and merchants, and its people are affluent.“ This impression of the city as prosperous and economically active continues to permeate our sources in the thirteenth century, that is, after the disaster of 1204. Al-Jazari mentions the arrival of the merchant ‘Abdallah b. Muhammad in Damascus in 692/1293.

‘Abdallah had lived in Constantinople for twelve years during the reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282–1328), having left Syria during the Mongol invasions. Asked by the father of the narrator whether it was permissible for a hajj, pilgrim, to establish himself among the Ifranj (here in the sense of Christian), the merchant answered: “My brother, if I were to tell you about this city, you will understand better, and you will realize that those who inhabit it have nothing to fear. They can do whatever they please and at the same time make considerable profit.“ Asked to describe it, he said:

It is a great city, comparable to Alexandria, on the seashore, and it takes one morning to cross it from end to end. There is a place as large as two-thirds of Damascus, surrounded by walls with a gate, which is reserved especially for the Muslims to live in. There is equally a similar place for the Jews. ... There are one hundred thousand minus one churches. ... When I asked I was told that the ruler of Constantinople had an equal number of kings at his service, each with his own church. He completed the number by building the Great Church. ... It is one of the most considerable and marvelous buildings that we can see.

‘Abdallah lived in Constantinople after the Byzantine restoration in 1261, when the city had regained some of its earlier opulence. Having made an extended stay in the city, he had the time and the opportunity to experience it as a reality. ‘Abdallah describes a wealthy, healthy, and powerful Constantinople, cosmopolitan, with a plethora of monuments and churches, and having recovered its important economic role. Nothing in his description accuses or condemns: quite the contrary, he divulges the pride of one who has lived in a great city. ‘Abdallah, like all our authors, has only praise for Constantinople. Indeed, in spite of the catastrophes that befell the Byzantine capital in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it remained, in our texts, a model of affluence and material magnificence.


Cf.  Christianity and Islam - Two related, yet different religions * Koran – the invention of an artificial religion * Turkey * The Orthodox Church * Byzantine history * On the Byzantine Military Strategy * Greek Language

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