Sunday, June 16, 2013

Emperor Justinian and the Taksim Square Protests

The church that is now the Hagia Sofia was destroyed by fire twice during riots. As the front pages of the world's newspapers were plastered with violent images of the accelerating protests in Instanbul's Taksim Square last week, I wondered whether I'd be present as the protest transformed into a riot and watch as the church was destroyed a third time.

As it turned out, my visit to Istanbul corresponded with a lull in between the initial protests and the final square-clearing done by the government in mid-June. While in Istanbul, however, I did have an opportunity to learn about the Nika riots that caused the last destruction of the Hagia Sofia.

In the 6th century, Istanbul was called Constantinople, and it was the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. Chariot racing was all the rage in the city and a politically powerful system of demes (sports associations) had grown up around the different chariot teams. Imagine a combination of New York's Tammany Hall political machine and Oakland/LA's Raider Nation running around in tunics (is chariot hooligan a term?).

Resentment over high taxes by many and the peception of Justinian's illegitimacy by others increased in tension which came to a head in January of 531. Emperor Justinian had called a chariot race to placate increasing unrest among the city's populace. During the event, the crowd's cheers and jeers became increasingly political and the chariot race devolved into an anti-government riot that beseiged the royal palace and burned much of the city for a week.

How did Justinian react? He sent a popular eunuch to bribe one of the rioting demes, the Blues, and sow discord between them and another faction, the Greens. This divide-and-conquer strategy allowed Justinian to send in imperial troops and kill 30,000 rioters. While ultimately effective for the stability of the empire, one hopes that Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan weren't taking notes on this violent episode of the city's history.