Istanbul Through the Ages, a Six Part Course with author Thomas Madden - Context Travel

Istanbul Through the Ages, a Six Part Course with author Thomas Madden


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“Though all other cities have their periods of government and are subject to the decays of time, Constantinople alone seems to claim a kind of immortality and will continue to be a city as long as humanity shall live either to inhabit it or rebuild it.” - Pierre Gilles, The Antiquities of Constantinople (1548)

Today we call it Istanbul. Yet it has had many names: Constantinople, New Rome, Byzantion, Stamboul, Islambul, Queen of Cities, City of the Sultans, and, perhaps most eloquently of all, “The City.”

For more than two millennia Istanbul was at the center of events that shaped the history of the West.  It was a seat of wealth and power, a den of intrigue and betrayal, a place of vibrant commerce and enduring faith.  Its streets were packed with multitudes of people from all over the world, some enjoying the rarest luxuries, others mired in the deepest poverty.  Today Istanbul is often thought of as a “middle eastern” city, yet it is in every way a daughter of the West – born a Greek, raised a Roman and converting to Islam in its middle age.  For centuries it was the largest and most powerful city in the Christian world, before transforming itself in the sixteenth century into the capital of the Muslim East.  It remains a city in both worlds, perched at the very tip of Europe, gazing across at the shores of Asia.

In this course, Thomas F. Madden, a leading scholar in medieval Mediterranean history and the author of Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking, 2016), will guide us through the places and people of this city from its foundation as Constantinople to its grandeur under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Each lecture will introduce the historical city alongside the sights of modern Istanbul while bringing to life the stories of those who lived there across the ages. The lectures are weekly on Tuesdays at 5pm ET.

Lecture 1: From Byzantion to Constantinople: The Genius of Constantine the Great

The ancient Greek city of commerce found itself at the center of the Roman world. Destroyed and rebuilt, it was refounded by Emperor Constantine I as New Rome – new capital for an aging empire.

Lecture 2: Justinian and Theodora: The Imperial Age

Laid waste by riots and civil unrest, the city was again remade on an even grander scale. Among Emperor Justinian’s building projects was Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), an architectural achievement that still inspires awe today.

Lecture 3: At the Games: Blues, Greens, and the Chariots of the Hippodrome

Still discernible (if one knows where to look), the monumental Hippodrome of the city could seat 100,000 spectators around chariot races and other attractions. Its history of splendor and ruin closely mirrors that of the city that it entertained.

Lecture 4: The Coming of the Crusaders: Enrico Dandolo and the Fourth Crusade

In one of the most bizarre incidents of the Middle Ages, Crusaders bound for the Holy Land to fight Muslims instead detoured to Christian Constantinople, which they conquered. The deep wound that the Crusaders inflicted on the city would not easily heal.

Lecture 5: Changing Empires: Constantine XI, Mehmet II, and the 1453 Conquest of Constantinople

In 1453 one world was ending and another was born. As the Middle Ages came to a close, Sultan Mehmed II extinguished that last ember of the Roman Empire and transformed the great city into a new capital of an Islamic state.

Lecture 6: The Ottoman Golden Age: Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem/Roxelana

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent ruled the vast Ottoman Empire from his palace in Constantinople. Yet not alone. Defying convention, he married Hurrem, one of the women of his harem. Both enriched Istanbul in ways still prominent today.

Thomas F Madden is a Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. As the author of the book Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World and historical consultant, he has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and The History Channel.  He is a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Medieval Academy of America, and he is a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar.

How does it work?
This is a six-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?
No. Participants do not have to have any significant prior knowledge of Istanbul to attend this course.

How long are the lectures?
Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How long is the course?
The course is 6 weeks long, with one lecture each week.

What is the cost?
$210 per person for the full course.

Is a recording available?
In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages

Each lecture is 90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.