What does that song mean?

Song Analysis Corner: Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Posted Feb 23rd 2023, 15:30 by Penguin Pete

What better candidate for lyrical analysis than a song about history? And boy, what a history lesson! Strap in for a deep rabbit hole dive going back about 570 years, which nevertheless has ramifications still playing out today. We of course know this song from its modern popularity, the They Might Be Giants hit from their studio album Flood. Let's get that out of the way:

For the first surprise, this song was a cover version! The original "Istanbul (not Constantinople)" was by a Canadian male quartet called The Four Lads, first released in 1953. It's a slower-tempo song than the TMBG version, but is equally catchy:

While this is a playful novelty song, it is perhaps a tad dismissive of the momentous event the song commemorates.

The Fall of Constantinople

Picture it: April thru May, 1453, the official historian-agreed end of the Middle Ages. The city of Constantinople, straddling the Bosporus strait, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which had been basically the eastern wing of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, which had been in the empire business since the year 330. However, by the 1400s, the Byzantine empire was mostly in rags, still healing from an internal civil war, its borders shrunk considerably from Muslim and Turkish invasions chipping away at it. Constantinople was pretty much the last stand.

And here comes the Ottoman army! Ottoman forces outnumbered Constantinople considerably, so it was a fairly easy victory for the Sultan Mehmed II, then just 21 years old. Since Constantinople was already reduced to a few kilometers of farmland and a big walled city, the Ottomans had little problem taking the city, which was promptly declared the new capital of the ottoman Empire, and subjected to the subsequent name change.

Constantinople was just about thoroughly sacked, suffering all the indignities that a typical Mediterranean city could expect from a sacking. Churches burned down, homes destroyed, women raped, bodies piled in the streets, riches looted, and wanton destruction everywhere. By accounts, the Sultan Mehmed II himself was moved to tears when he saw the glorious history his army had desecrated. But war is hell and all that jazz, onward.

We Forgot the Ottomans Too Soon

In attempting to understand our modern world history, you're likely to be left with a lot of unanswered questions until you find out about the Ottomans AKA "the Turks." As of this writing, it has only been just one year over a century since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which had stood nearly four centuries. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire (centered in modern Turkey) covered the northern coastline of Africa, most of what we know today as Saudi Arabia, the neighboring regions of modern Syria and Iraq, and most of the Balkan peninsula, including everything from modern Greece to some of modern Ukraine, the very dirt which Russia's president Putin covets today (and still, as of this writing, has not won… because most of the world opposes him).

It was the Ottoman Empire that prevented Europeans from visiting the Orient by land, driving the age of exploration and the eventual founding of the New World in North and South America.

If you've ever wondered "why is the Balkan region so messed-up?" the answer is that they were controlled by communist governments with support from Russia, and occupied by the Ottomans before that, and part of the Byzantine Empire before even that. You can hardly find any period in history where some conquering army wasn't riding through the place, or preparing to. Not incidentally, World War I was spawned here from the boiling-over tensions in the region. By this time, the Ottoman Empire was already winding down, earning its nickname as the "sick man of Europe."

You Can't Go Back To Constantinople

Istanbul today is very securely held by Turkey, for better or for worse. Were it not for the song "Istanbul (not Constantinople)," its original name would have been forgotten except by scholars. But as it is, this cute little song has been covered several times, but none so vibrantly as by They Might Be Giants, a geek-rock band with a flair for the educational.

How's that for a song meaning?



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