Bettany Hughes
Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2017
ISBN-13: 9781474600323

 Istanbul

 

"Evocative of the colour, life and, yes, mysteries, of this at times great metropolis, Hughes manages to convey an adequate sense of the grand sweep of history while at the same time not being afraid to spend time among the details."

An ambitious rendering of a complex and, for many of us today, little known, story, Bettany Hughes’ Istanbul traces the history of a city which, for much of the last two millennia, has occupied a unique position at the nexus of East and West and which was known for much of its history simply known as ‘The City’.

While it's a sizeable tome, Hughes – an award-winning British historian, author and broadcaster - has nonetheless managed to break down the story of Istanbul into a series of bite-sized pieces. Starting with its pre-history - in which legend has it founded by King Byzas, son of the Greek god Poseidon, the reader is taken through the rise of the Byzantine Empire and the city of Byzantium, its reinvention as the Christian city of Constantinople, subsequent conversion into the Ottoman city of Kostantiniyee or Islam-bol and, finally, the creation of the modern Turkish city of Istanbul.

Evocative of the colour, life and, yes, mysteries, of this at times great metropolis, Hughes manages to convey an adequate sense of the grand sweep of history while at the same time not being afraid to spend time among the details. We learn, therefore, of the key position religion has always occupied in city life, of the role eunuchs long played in the city’s government, and of the European fascination with the idea of the harem as well as how one sultan's wife asked England's Queen Elizabeth I for tips on make-up.

Among the book’s strengths is the focus on those who peopled the city and how they shaped it both through their works and their rule (sometimes unintentionally). Key here were the likes of the Christian Emperor Constantine, who first fused Christianity with the Roman state, later emperors Theodosis and Justinian (and the latter's wife Theodora), the great Ottoman sultans Mehmed II and Suleyman I ‘The Magnificent’ and, of course, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who went on to become the president of the Republic of Turkey.

Hughes also spends time on the city's built environment, its great monuments and their sometimes unfortunate fates – the reuse of buildings such as the great hippodrome and the famous Hagia Sophia, why the Ottoman sultans abandoned the Topkapi Palace and how monuments such as the triumphal quadriga of horses from Chios ended up adorning Venice's St Mark's Basilica.

Rich and well-drawn, this ‘biography’ isn’t simply a look back at a long-lost world. With the ramifications of events from the city’s rich history still being played out today, this is a valuable read for those seeking a greater understanding of the shape of the world in which we live. And, as a bonus, the book comes with ample maps and there’s some beautiful colour plates within its pages depicting scenes relevant to the city’s storied history.

A sweeping and entertaining story which should appeal to those with an interest in the early history of the Christian church as well as in the broader history of one of the most interesting and exciting cities the world has ever seen.