Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

‘The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know. I wanted my son to have that story too .’

In ‘Ghost Empire’, Richard Fidler and his son Joe take a trip through Constantinople’s history and touches on Istanbul’s present. Constantinople’s history is long: the western Roman empire came to an end in about 476 CE but the eastern Roman empire lasted until 1453 CE, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and was renamed Istanbul. Like Richard Fidler, I find the Byzantine Empire fascinating. Why, I wonder, weren’t we taught more about this in school? Here was an empire that flourished for centuries, straddling Asia and Europe, an empire of contradictions. How was it formed? What were the secrets of its success, the causes of its failure?

‘Constantinople was an old and exhausted city. It had served as the capital of the eastern Roman empire for eleven hundred years, but by 1453 this was an empire in name only .’

This book is part history, part travelogue, and part reflection on a father-son relationship which (in the way of all such relationships) changes as child moves towards adulthood. These three components complement each other, and the book is more engaging as a consequence. I was reminded that while Notre Dame took more than a century to build, the Hagia Sophia was completed in five years and ten months . Richard Fidler’s descriptions and reflections may be as close as I’ll get to the Hagia Sophia, and I enjoyed reading them and imagining myself there.

‘A love of history can sometimes come across as a distraction from the more urgent business of the here and now. But without a grasp of the flow of events that have carried us to the present day, we are all a bit untethered from our place in time and space, condemned to live in an eternal present .’

At the end of their journey, Richard and Joe Fidler walked along the Theodosian Walls. The remains of these walls are reminders of both the might and the fall of Constantinople. While cities evolve, and empires rise and fall, children grow to adulthood and relationships change. At some stage, the present becomes the past.

Richard Fidler may not be an historian, but he is a very engaging storyteller. I enjoyed this book, with its history and anecdotes. Fascinating.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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