ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler‘s book, Ghost Empire is an intriguing and entertaining mixture of a travel story, history and commentary on current world affairs.
In 2014 Fidler and his fourteen-year-old son, Joe, journeyed to Istanbul and Rome to explore the ancient city of Constantinople. Fidler is an enthusiast for the history of Byzantium and he wanted to share this with his son as part of a father – son bonding experience. Fidler makes the distinction between himself as a history enthusiast and an academic historian, although the book is obviously well researched with an extensive bibliography and index.
Byzantium/ Constantinople/Istanbul is at a crucial geographical position in trade and military and naval significance and has been for centuries. This position has influenced its history.
Fidler tells the story of his trip with Joe and explains the history in chronological order. He comments along the way on current events. Despite its heavy subject matter at times, I would find myself intending to read for half an hour, only to find an hour had gone by.
The early citizens of Byzantium saw themselves as Romans and part of the Roman Empire. The history of this place is a bloody and violent one down the centuries with intrigue and betrayal being the order of the day. Fidler gives interesting accounts of well-known emperors such as Constantine, who renamed the city in his own honour and Justinian, famous for codifying Roman law.
The Christian church split into the Catholic and Orthodox strands and Fidler explains this in detail. He also explains the evolution of the Orthodox saints including Saint Nicholas, who, Fidler is pleased to note, is, among other roles, the patron saint of broadcasters.
In 641, Arabs, espousing a mystifying faith, that was mainly personal and family, defeated the Christian Romans. Fidler gives a clear explanation of the development of Islam. The undertow of violence and hatred we see in this area in 2016 can be traced back to that of Justinian the Slitnose.
In 717 another Constantine held off the Arabs, who then turned to Persia and India. Constantinople entered a dark age while the Eastern civilisations flourished with a cultural richness.
There are many fascinating historical tidbits such the spread of the use of the fork to Germany by a Princess from Constantinople, thence conveniently to Italy just as the Italians discovered a love of pasta. Another symbol, that of Starbucks, is based on a pagan goddess, Mesuline, of the Byzantine area. Of particular interest is the fact that Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims began fighting in 1071. And are still at it.
On 27th November 1095 Pope Urban made what Fidler describes as “one of the most incendiary speeches in the history of the world.” This speech, full of fictitious atrocities said to be perpetrated by Muslims, launched the Crusades.
In the twelfth century, Venetian Crusaders sacked Constantinople and the famed four horsemen taken back to Venice. Constantinople was the scene of murder, rape and pillage.
In 1453, after a long siege, Constantinople was taken by Arab forces and became Istanbul.
At one stage Fidler writes of the people of Constantinople, “They were just as we are – bewildered people living through tumultuous times, trying to make sense of the world with limited information.
While I have skimmed over the site’s bloody history, Fidler has not. He has explored some of its major tourist sights such as the Hagia Sophia –its history and current status. Richard and Joe’s adventures are through the book – the food they ate, their encounters with cats, their interactions with locals, taxi trips, and the ordeal when Fidler left his son behind at a team stop.
The book is written with the compassionate gentle humour and human understanding we have come to expect from ‘Conversations’.
While the Roman city of Byzantium and Constantinople no longer exists the ghost of this empire is evident in our current life.
This is an engagingly written book that sheds light on the past and illuminates the present.
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