Any first-time traveler to Istanbul quickly learns that this is a place with a challenging past. It was founded as a Greek city called Byzantium in circa 660 BCE. The Persians briefly occupied the area in the fifth century BCE and it adjusted to the domination of the Romans over the turning of the millennium leading to the Common Era. In the fourth century CE, it was renamed Constantinople by Emperor Constantine I who had embraced Christianity on behalf of the Roman Empire. As Western Rome fell, Constantinople endured as the capital of the Eastern Empire and seat of the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church. Under the rule of Justinian the Great in the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire expanded its territory around most of the Mediterranean. It continued its growth of more than a thousand years until 1453, when it was conquered by the Muslim forces of Mehmet II.

On the Internet, it is possible to find accounts of the fall of Constantinople that reflect the viewpoints of each side of the conflict. In Greece, for instance, Constantine XI is a legendary hero for his efforts to defend the city against the overwhelming Muslim assault. The opposing view is that he was a cruel and ineffectual leader who necessitated the rescue of his people by the divinely inspired Muslim army. The city was already surrounded owing to the penetration of the Ottoman forces into the Balkans and it only remained for the Muslims to plug this gap in their control of the area. The mission of capturing Constantinople had been ordained by Mohammed himself centuries earlier.

The conquest of 1453 significantly altered the balance of power in this region, but owing to the unification of European fighting forces brought about by the Crusades, the Ottomans were stopped at this point. In 1492, the Muslims were driven out of Spain and pushed back to Northern Africa. There is much speculation about what might have happened if the Muslim Conquest had overrun Europe from both ends and made the independent nations into Islamic vassal states. More than one site in my Google search speculates that if this had happened, the the modern West would never have thrived. I suppose it also means that the countries of South and Central America would today be Islamic. I am not the one to judge who is right and who is wrong, but I find it fascinating to take this opportunity to look at history through two different lenses.

Conquest 1453

Hagia Sophia approached from the Roman Hippodrome

Hagia Sophia approached from the Roman Hippodrome

There is a 2012 epic Turkish film called Conquest 1453 in English, Fetih 1453 in Turkish. Chronicling the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, it was hugely popular at its premiere in Turkey and other Islamic countries, but it has been difficult to find in the West. YouTube has various trailers that come and go. What I like best in the film are the computer graphics that imagine the city as it might have been in 1453. The skyline in that year is dominated by the Hippodrome for horse races and the Hagia Sophia, soon to be converted from a cathedral to a mosque. Both places can be visited today though there is little left of the Hippodrome. A less polemical version of the conquest story came up in the same Google search. Its an animated movie with English subtitles called Sultan Muhammad Al-Fatih (Mehmet II) – The Conquest of Constantinople. More of a middle school history lesson, I found it refreshingly clear and informative. It’s part of the story behind today’s headlines. No trailer is available for this one.

Istanbul from the sea, 1998

Istanbul, boat across the Bosphorus, 1998

Modern Istanbul

The city of Istanbul has provided a backdrop for adventure movies from the likes of James Bond and Agatha Christie. Here are those that I have viewed and reviewed. Not one of them comes close to conveying the full splendor of this city, but taken altogether, they are clues to an experience that can only be had firsthand.

Istanbul (1957)

A film with a traceable ancestry, it opens with Errol Flynn looking down on the city of Istanbul from his seat on a commercial airliner.  It quickly becomes apparent that this is a knock-off of Casablanca, and that Flynn is burdened with memories of an elegant blonde woman who slipped from his grasp in this city sometime earlier. Flashbacks to the love affair include Nat King Cole as the hotel lounge singer. His signature song is ‘When I Fall in Love.” The impetus for the intrigue in this drama is in the disappearance of a small trove of highly valued diamonds aggressively sought by evil men. Flynn’s love interest, a believable stand-in for Ingrid Bergman, has been afflicted with amnesia and does not remember him. Location shooting for the film was done in the city and it appears as a backdrop to various street scenes and skylines spiked by mosques during transitions. The story ends at the Istanbul airport with Flynn departing alone as his lost love, her memory now restored, watches in despair from the ground. Suddenly, it is announced that the plane must turn around. The film ends.

NOTE: There is another movie called Istanbul (1985), which we rented and did not enjoy.

America, America (1963)

Filmed in Turkey and Greece, this is Elia Kazan’s very personal film about his uncle’s difficult youth in Anatolia and eventual immigration to the United States. It is the time when the Turks have conquered this land and the resident Greeks and Armenians have become oppressed citizens. Turkish atrocities are given full attention. Young Stavros, a Greek, escapes the hopelessness of his village and makes his way first to Ankara and then to Istanbul. His family has placed all of their hopes and wealth in his hands. Along the way, he is victimized and arrives in Istanbul without funds. Hard work and hard times lead to his embarkation on an immigrant ship to America. He starts a new life, shining shoes, and dedicates himself to bringing each of his family members, one by one, to his new country. This film was a contender for major Academy Awards but took away only Best Art Direction.

From Russia With Love (1963)

This was Sean Connery’s second Bond film, a follow-up to Dr. No. It got a much bigger budget and some ambitious location shooting. Saturated with 1950s-style British-Russian espionage, the first action scenes were shot in Istanbul and surrounding areas. Here are the highlights of the operations shot in Turkey.

It opens with a shot of the Golden Horn waterway in Istanbul. A beautiful secret agent reports to a superior espionage officer, Lotte Lenya, and receives an assignment involving the seduction of James Bond. Lenya is called Rosa Klebb and she has little knives in the tips of her shoes. Bond is called away from the arms of an old girlfriend named Sophia, and instructed to report to the home office, where he is alerted to the situation. He gets a briefing on the uses of a briefcase loaded with lethal technologies. Then he is off on a plane to Istanbul, where he is driven to a meeting in the old bazaar. He checks into a fine hotel with a view of the harbor.

After a clandestine scene in the underground reservoir of Emperor Constantine, Bond is taken to a gypsy camp in a ruined courtyard. There are bow-top wagons, and a belly dancer. Two gypsy women are rivals for the love of the chief’s son. They must tie up their skirts and engage in a ridiculous girlfight, barely above the level of mud wrestling. Before the matter is resolved, the camp is invaded by paramilitary guerillas. There is a great deal of shooting and wagons are set on fire. The chief is grateful to Bond for saving his life, and awards him the two girls. Back at the hotel, the beautiful girl sent by Lenya crawls into Bond’s bed. They discuss espionage and plan to meet the next day at the “Saint Sophia Mosque.” Following a tour group through the Hagia Sophia (the narration of the tour plays as a voiceover during the scene), Bond finds a murdered agent. He meets the girl later on a boat crossing the Bosphorus. These scenes are punctuated with some very alluring vistas of the city, mostly featuring elaborately designed mosques. Things get hot in Istanbul and the two lovers board the steam-driven Orient Express for Trieste. There is the usual train intrigue. It ends in Venice with a hail of bullets, great balls of fire, and the defeat of a desperate Rosa Klebb. Note that the trailer cares very little for the scenery.

Topkapi (1964)

Jules Dassin made this film featuring his future wife Melina Mercouri, supported by Maximillian Schell, Peter Ustinov, and Robert Morley. It is set primarily in Istanbul where this gang sets out to steal an emerald adorned dagger from the museum at Topkapi Palace. They have found a traveling fair that exhibits replicas of Turkish treasures and the plan is to replace the real dagger with its replica and smuggle it out of the country with the fair. There are some very good establishing shots of the city, especially the environs of the palace. The staging area for the heist is the fairgrounds where a bunch of greased-up Turkish wrestlers are performing lewd pile-ups in a crude arena. When the thieves traverse the domed rooftops of the palace complex, there are some splendid views of the Golden Horn. The caper is filled with prototypical Mission Impossible tension and it goes superbly except for a couple of minor slip-ups. The whole gang ends up looking comically forlorn in a Turkish prison.

Murder on the Orient Express  (1974)

Albert Finney does a very fine job of characterizing the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in this all-star treatment of the famous Agatha Christie mystery novel. The full cast list is amazing.  The result, however, is not especially engaging.  There is a visual prologue detailing the kidnapping of a little girl from a wealthy home in Long Island.  She is found slain.  In the opening scene, members of the cast take the boat across the Bosphorus from the Asian side of Istanbul to the western shore, where the famed Orient Express railway station can be found.  The main body of the film takes place on the train.  A parade of recognizable faces climbs onboard.  There are some nice views of the train in progress.

Istanbul: Keep Your Eyes Open  (1990)

Timothy Bottoms is an American journalist who takes a pleasure trip to Istanbul with his young daughter.  He has left his wife and son at their home in Sweden.  The daughter is somewhat petulant and resentful.  At their hotel, they meet an attractive woman (Twiggy), and they do some sightseeing together. Timothy is on a secretive quest involving members of his extended family, while Istanbul provides a suitably convoluted backdrop for the unraveling of the mystery. The sense of danger here is similar to the Moroccan segments in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955). Both of these dramas involve the kidnapping of a child. Timothy manages to rescue his daughter from the kidnappers.  At the airport, Twiggy tells him what’s really going on, and that she knows too much. Michael telephone play play zero zero two two It ends tragically.

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