Ye olde travel guide: Constantinople 976

Robert Low offers his advice to travellers heading for the buzzing capital of Byzantium as a new emperor prepares to be crowned

Illustration by Jonty Clark

This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When to go

Now. Don’t delay. It will take you a long time to get there from the west and you don’t want to miss the big parade, when Basil II becomes Byzantine emperor in his own right at 18.

It’s a huge event – not once-in-a-lifetime, admittedly, since it is perfectly possible that Basil will be blinded or dead in a month and someone else elevated – but still a spectacle concerning the ruler of a superpower. Don’t be put off by rumblings from the neighbouring Bulgars, or rebellion in the east.

What to take with you

The biggest blade you can find and your most trustworthy friends. The journey is dangerous, even on the most well-travelled route – because of the Bulgars, it is now safest coming down through Kiev and the lands of the Rus. You can, if Christian, rely on God’s grace, but the Pecheneg of the steppes haven’t heard of it and may laugh.

Make sure you have an interpreter, preferably one who speaks Greek and Arabic. The best ones to get are the slave dealers, who can tally without having to take off their boots and count toes.

Costs and money

This is Constantinople, known as Omphalos, the Navel of the World. Or Miklagard if you are from the far north. All the world’s minted money circulates here – the Saxon penny, the Rus silver grivna, the Arab dirham. The grivna might get you 25 Arab dirham and the dirham is roughly equivalent to the Byzantine milaresion… now you see why you need a skilled local.

Prices will amaze you. Silk is remarkably cheap, for example. The price of bread will astound you, both if you have to buy it as a visitor and when you see it doled out FREE to citizens.

It is best not to use hacksilver bits, or torcs or ring money here – the merchants will cheat you with dodgy scales. Wear a pouch on your belt with just a few coins in it to foil the cutpurses. Keep the bulk of your money fastened under your armpit or between your legs, where it is not so easily stolen.

Sleeping/accommodation

The city will be teeming. It already has a population of around 800,000 people (when London, biggest city of Saxon England, boasts about 12,000 and Rome 35,000) and this will swell for the Big Day.

You have to pay for accommodation here, unless you are Christian and can beg hospitality from the churches. Expect to share beds and fleas with strangers no matter what.

Drinking/entertainment

The people here eat lying down, old Roman style – which is a strange thing to good bench-sitters. Drink is nothing like decent ale or mead, but the wine is remarkably cheap.

Food is made with spices as pricey as gold dust back home – but you can buy it cooked in the street quite cheaply and eat it there, too.

Sights and activities

For some it will be as simple as seeing houses with more than one floor, or a device for throwing water in the air just for amusement. For others it will be the Hagia Sophia, the great Church of Holy Wisdom, the focus of the crowning of Basil II.

Then there is the great chain across the Golden Horn, protecting the inner harbour (it kept out the raiding Slavs in AD 969) or the huge double walls, as tall as ten men.

For excitement, go to the Hippodrome where they race horses and chariots and take bets on who will win. The factions – you can tell them by their scarves of blue, green, red and white – often get so heated they cause riots so, for some, it will be just like home.

Emergencies

If faced with the loss of your money by a thief, or sharp dealing by a local merchant, or a tavern owner with no sense of humour, there is one important point to bear in mind… Do. Not. Kill. Anyone.

The custom in your own land won’t stand here and the Romans-who-are-really-Greeks take a dim view of practices they account ‘barbarian’ (a barbarian is anyone who is not a Byzantine Greek and so speaks with an incomprehensible ‘bar-bar’ noise). They don’t, however, use the death penalty, considering it more humane to cut off hands or feet or ears, or blind by gouging out the eyes. Which is no way to have to go home.

Robert Low is a journalist and historical novelist. His latest book The Lion Wakes was published this year by HarperCollins. Visit www.robert-low.com

Istanbul today

Though no longer at the heart of a great empire, or even the capital of modern Turkey, Istanbul (was Constantinople) continues to straddle Europe and Asia with grace and purpose. If you ascend the Galata Tower across the Golden Horn the view is dominated by mighty mosques dating from after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The Golden Horn and Bosphorus are as packed as ever with craft, much of it zipping over the water from the European to the resurgent Asian side of the city. Behind you, a funicular rides up to Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s great thoroughfare and shopping street, where modern Istanbul zings with energy.

The city is as sought-after as ever, even if it is cruise ship passengers and tourists on city breaks who throng the streets of Sultanahmet, the tourist hot spot that covers what was the old city of Constantinople. They find some things the same as our tenth-century traveller: Hagia Sophia still stands sentinel over the city, though its soaring interior is covered with Islamic decorations. The ancient Basilica Cistern is a popular, quirky attraction nearby. The Hippodrome can still be strolled, but is a shadow of its former self. Byzantium’s great palaces seem mythical now, with the colossal Topkapi Palace offering more recent decadent splendour.

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But Constantinople, as was, retains a sense of history, and a jaw-dropping setting that few cities can match. Grab a table, order a tea in Topkapi Gardens overlooking the water and soak it up.