Expert Spotlight: a Q+A with Dr. Thomas Madden

Dr. Thomas F Madden

Dr. Thomas F Madden, a leading scholar in medieval Mediterranean history and the author of Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking, 2016),

About Dr. Tom Madden

Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University.  As an author and historical consultant he has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and The History Channel. Dr. Madden's most recent book is Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World, published by Viking/Penguin.

What people are saying about Dr. Tom Madden: 

I cannot keep count of the number of courses by Prof Madden that I've attended. Here is an unassuming guy who takes you by the hand and Takes You There, on the spot, in the seats in the Hippodrome. Forget the Room Where It Happens. How about the city, the fortified walls of Istanbul, the triple-headed snake column? Constantine to Suleiman the Magnificent parade before your eyes, crowns to towering turbans. Madden places you there, not only in locale but in time and in character. A master storyteller. If you're thinking about taking his series on Istanbul, do it. And then take it again. Wow. And I thought the history of Venice was good. Istanbul is wicked fine.

We sat down with Dr. Tom Madden to talk about his background, his passions, what inspired him to teach and travel, and what he's most excited about on his upcoming journey: Istanbul Through the Ages with Dr. Thomas Madden - 7 fully-planned days in Istanbul, including luxury hotel accommodation

What made you want to become a teacher and a writer?

I wanted to be a researcher, studying the documents and monuments of the medieval past to learn more about the people who lived then and their fascinating world. That rather selfish motive is what really drove me. To support that research, I had to get a Ph.D. and then an academic appointment at a research university. Teaching for me, therefore, was always a secondary pursuit -- something that I did to sing for my supper. I surprised myself when I discovered that I truly enjoyed explaining complex historical events to people. That is not why I started all this, but it has greatly enriched my life. As for the writing, my popular books are just an extension of the teaching -- attempting to explain historical subjects in an approachable way. I also write a great deal of scholarly work, but I don't recommend it for light reading!

Briefly tell us how you became interested in Istanbul and its history.

When I was an undergraduate student, I majored in Astrophysics and Computer Science and learned that I was not very good at either. Searching about for something that I could do with my life (besides bartending, which I did for many years), I took a course on medieval history. The textbook, written by C. Warren Hollister, had one paragraph on the Fourth Crusade that took place 1202 to 1204. That crusade was supposed to go to Egypt to fight Muslims, but instead ended up at Constantinople, the largest Christian city in the world, which it destroyed. My jaw dropped. I could not fathom how something this large could go so awry. I had to learn everything possible about the event. And I have been doing that ever since. It was the Fourth Crusade that led me to Constantinople/Istanbul. I became fascinated by the before and after of 1204. What did this magnificent city look like in its glory days? What did it look like amid the ruins? Ultimately, I did a minor doctoral field in Ottoman history, so I also learned much more about the history of the city.

What inspired you to write your book, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World?

It is a city that I love and that led me to become a historian. I wanted to bring together that vast history into one, easy to understand volume to help others to share my own fascination.

When did you first visit Istanbul and what were your first impressions of the city?

I first visited in 1986 as a student traveler. I had already studied the city's medieval past extensively, so I had good familiarity with its topography one thousand years ago. But I knew nothing about the modern city. When I landed at the airport, I went to the tourist services desk (a regular thing in the old days) and asked them to find me a place to stay. They showed a map of the city to me and asked where I wished to stay. All I could see was the medieval city. I thrust my finger down onto the map and said, "There. Somewhere near the Hippodrome." Once I arrived in the city, though, I was in for a shock. The medieval beauty of Istanbul still exists, but it is hidden, and one needs to know how to find it. Instead, I was presented with a very modern Middle Eastern city. Today, the old city is beautiful. But in 1986 it was loud, dangerous, and very smelly. I still loved it. I used to go to Hagia Sophia almost every day just to soak in the beauty and history. I was there when I learned that I had been accepted into doctoral studies in medieval history. I remember going back to Hagia Sophia just to tell myself, "I am no longer a tourist. This is my life."

What are 3 things that would surprise a first-time traveler in Istanbul?

  • The name Istanbul comes from the Greek words for "the City." That was its nickname for more than a thousand years.
  • The city's name did not formally change from Constantinople to Istanbul when the Turks conquered it in 1453. It changed in 1923.
  • Chai (tea) cups have no handle. Get used to it.

What are your favorite parts about the Istanbul Journey itinerary?

I enjoy meeting people genuinely interested in this fascinating city and explaining to them its remarkable history.

What's your favorite memory in Istanbul?

The first time I entered the magnificence of Hagia Sophia. It is breathtaking. One can almost see Emperor Justinian, who built it fifteen centuries ago, as he strode inside and proclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone you."

Where are you planning to go first, as the world reopens?

I am on my way to Venice as I type this. Aside from Istanbul, Venice is the other city that drove my scholarly career. I have spent years there working in the archives, so it is very much my adopted second home.


Get to know Dr. Tom Madden in his upcoming seminars and courses before joining him on his Istanbul Journey in October 2022. Don't forget to check out our other Istanbul tours as well! 

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