Muslims in Byzantine Constantinople

1. Introduction

Muslim presence in Constantinople probably go back to the first period of the spread of Islam during the 7th century; it would mostly have to do with the presence of Arab merchants converted to the new religion, who continued the pre-Islamic tradition ofArab commercial activity in the area. Constantinople’s function as a commercial capital of the whole Mediterranean and the countries of the wider region already from the early Byzantine period, led to a constant presence of merchants of various nationalities, including many oriental people. In addition to these, another kind of foreigners often present in Constantinople were the delegates of the rulers of other states.

2. The Arabic presence in Constantinople: the Muslim mosque

At some later point the Muslims were regarded as a quasui-community and appropriate institutions emerged, probably in the context of some treaties that had temporarily suspended the constant confrontation between the armies of the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate. Among the provisions for the comfort of the Muslims in the Byzantine capital, the foundation and operation of a mosque for the practicing of the Muslims seems to be most characteristic. The earliest information on the existence of a mosque dates to the early 10th century and can be collected from letters of patriarch Nikolas Mystikos to the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, which date more precisely in the period of the patriarch's regency, after the death of the emperor Alexandros (913) until the enthronement of Romanos I Lekapenos (920). This correspondence, where the mention to the mosque of Constantinople is to be found, took place on the occasion of the closure of Christian churches within the Abbasid territory, which we are informed that was due to rumours circulating in the Abbasid capital, concerning the alleged closure of the mosque in Constantinople. The patriarch denied these rumors, and at the same time he protested for the closure of the Christian churches.1 The date of the composition of these letters constitutes a terminus ante quem for the foundation of the mosque of Constantinople, which however cannot be determined more precisely. But, since it is mentioned that the mosque was intended for the practice of Islam by Muslim captives, who had been transported to the Byzantine capital, it is probable that it was presicely on the opportunity of their presence there that the mosque had been founded; and this must have taken place not long before the date of the correspondence between the patriarch and the caliph.

Naturally, apart from the need that the mosque was founded to fulfill and its relation to the presence of captives in Constantinople, which was just a conjucture, the mosque would be associated in the future to a more general and long-term Muslim presence in the city, which was mainly related to the arrival and settlement of Muslim merchants in the city. But there were also political implications, rather the aspirations of Byzzntine diplomacy that were manifested through the operation of the mosque, since the Byzantine authorities would be the ones to decide which leader of the Muslim forces would be commemorated in the prayer of Friday; naturally, this was usually the sovereign of the power whose relations with the Empire were of high priority for Byzantium. On the other hand, the commemoration in the mosque of Constantinople was a source of prestige for the Muslim sovereign as well, since it was perceived as a recognition of his state as a leading power in the Islamic world. For example, while the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad was commemorated up to the beginning of 11th century, from 1027 onward the name of the Fatmid caliph of Cairo was commemorated instead, and from the mid-eleventh century on that of Seljuk sultan.2

3. Turkish presence in Constantinople

The presence of Muslim merchants in Constantinople was continuous at the city's heyday, from the 9th century (if not earlier) up to the 12th century. Whether the presence of Muslim merchants was accompanied by a permanent installation of some of them (as it happened with the Venetians and the Genoese) is uncertain, but even their transitory presence was continuous and regularly renewed. Moreover, apart from the Arab merchants, by the 11th century the Muslim presence of Constantinople also comprised the Turkish element. A poem in the vernacular by John Tzetzis (mid-12th century) is indicative regarding this element, since it mentions that a great number of languages spoken in the markets of Constantinople, including the Arabic and the Turkish.3

The serious crisis and decline of the city after the fall of 1204 and under Latin rule, characterised by demographic decrease and the serious debasement of the economic and commercial importance of city, must have had its effect on the Muslim presence; in any case, its continuance through the period of the Latin rule, perhaps even in the period of first Palaiologoi, is doubtful.4 Gradually, however, the Muslim presence must have resumed, though this time its main element would be the Turkic. The Turkish expansion from the mid-14th century onward had resulted in the expansion of the Ottoman territory at the immediate precincts of city. The proximity with Turkish populations facilitated its access for the Muslims to an almost daily basis. The Turkish presence in Constantinople in the late 14th- and during the 15th century until the Ottoman conquest, can be distinguished in two categories: the Turks that were permanently living in the city, literally forming a community, and those who went there temporarily from the nearby Ottoman territory, in order to arrange their affairs, usually within few hours. The presence of the first category is implied by the demand of Sultan Bayiazid to appoint a Turkish judge in the city, who would attend to the judicial affairs of Turkish residents (a form of immunity); the second category is implied in the description of the defensive measures taken by the Byzantines before the siege of 1453, when they sealed the gates of the walls and arrested any Turks who were caught inside the city.5

1. Jenkins, R.J.H.- Westerink, L.G. (eds.), Nicholas I. Letters (Washington DC 1973), no. 102.

2. Ζακυθηνός, Δ.Α., Βυζαντινή Ιστορία, 324-1071 (Athens 1972), pp. 386, 488.

3. Cited by Mango, C., Βυζάντιο. Η Αυτοκρατορία της Νέας Ρώμης (Athens ²1990), p. 105.

4. Matschke K.P., "The late Byzantine urban economy, Thirteenth-Fifteenth Centuries", Laiou, A. (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, Washington, D.C. 2002, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 39, p. 479

5. Bekker, Ι. (ed.), Michaelis Ducae Nepotis Historia Byzantina (Bonn 1834), ΧΙΙΙ p. 49, XV p. 56 and XXXIV pp. 244-245.