Philip Mansel, author of several acclaimed books on the Ottoman Empire and revolutionary France, is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Society of Literature, and the Royal Asiatic Society. In this interview, we probed beneath the books to find the essence of the Ottomans' power and appeal. His books are available in Turkish through the Everest publishing house, or in English through John Murray.
Having written on the sultans of the Middle East in your book 'Sultans in Splendour', what would you say were the Ottoman Empire's unique features in comparison with other powers of the time?
The Ottoman Empire contained as many different peoples as the Habsburg monarchy, and more different religions. What made it unique were its efforts to make them live together, and after 1908 to combine a traditional dynastic structure with a parliamentary regime, to combine Islam and modernisation.
The subtitle of 'Constantinople' is 'city of the world's desire'. What are the reasons for this desire for Constantinople / Istanbul?
It had a superb geographical position and unique imperial glamour, having been the capital of an empire, without a break, since its foundation by Constantine. Also it acquired a religious aura, by association, for both Sunni Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
While Istanbul has always been multicultural, I have the impression that the various communities were quite distinct in terms of their status, professions, neighbourhoods, and so on. Was this the case? If so, how did they manage to live in relative harmony with each other?
That was probably the case for most of the time in most districts. But there were exceptions, particularly at the beginning and the end of the empire. The communities probably interacted most at the top and the bottom of the society. Yıldız Palace under Abdulhamid employed Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Poles, Italians, and Armenians. The quays and taverns were probably very interesting – they leave less of a written record. The multiplicity of legal systems operating in the empire was probably a safety valve.
In your book 'Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean', one of the cities you focus on is İzmir (Smyrna). This city was famous for its prosperous European families, which have since largely disappeared. How does this compare with the fate of Istanbul?
Both cities still have a few hundred inhabitants of Western European origin whose ancestors arrived before the foundation of the Republic. Istanbul's demographic transformation was far less violent, with no fire, massacres, and expulsions like those which devastated İzmir in 1922. However many Levantines, as west Europeans in the Ottoman Empire were often called, chose to leave Istanbul after the riots of 1955 attacking Greek shops. There is tremendous interest in them now. I helped found the Levantine Heritage Foundation, which is researching these families' contributions to modern Turkey and the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. We had a fantastic conference in the British consulate in Istanbul in November 2014.
Can you briefly describe the research process for your book 'Constantinople'? Were the materials hard to access?
Thanks to great libraries in London, Paris, Athens, and Istanbul it was a pleasure. Many colleagues were extremely helpful. And I had great translators.
How would you characterise the Turkish identity, if there is such a thing?
I think it is very varied, more like a continent than a country: the Black Sea area is quite different from the Aegean, Edirne from Gaziantep. The faces on the Istanbul tram, or the family backgrounds of a group of friends, can link Bokhara, Yemen, Algeria, and Croatia. I would say that despite recent developments, the Kemalist structure based on Western European laws, alliances, and economic links persist. [Mustafa] Kemal was building on solid foundations. Five thousand French words had entered the Turkish language before 1914. Kemal was inspired by some of the French books he read. One of Turkey's many identities is European. Kemal was born in Salonica.
Finally, what are the most interesting sites in Istanbul that you could visit again and again?
My favourite sites which I could revisit time and again are the cemeteries and Eyüp. And the great 19th-century palaces Dolmabahçe, Beylerbeyi and above all Yıldız and its different pavilions. And of course İstiklal Caddesi for its varieties of 19th-century architecture and echoes of Cairo, Paris, Rome, and Vienna.