ISTANBUL: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

  • Written by  Jon Wright
  • Published in Books
ISTANBUL: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes
26 Jan
Bettany Hughes describes Istanbul as a ‘place where stories and histories collide and crackle.’

The city has taken so many forms and witnessed so many extraordinary events and transformations that only a brave scholar would dare tackle all the competing narratives and interpretations. Hughes succeeds triumphantly and, while avoiding a ‘catch-all catalogue of Istanbul’s past’, produces a cogent, passionate survey ‘fanned by my own love affair with the city’ and bolstered by staggeringly wide-ranging research.

She does get unhelpfully sidetracked every once in a while, much like any visitor to the labyrinthine city, but, my goodness, she has the measure of the place, not least its sense of flux and mystery. Here was a city in which, from the earliest times, ‘events became legends before they were history’ and which has always lived ‘a double life – as a real place and as a story.’ The interplay of those two identities is at the heart of Hughes’ captivating book.

One of the most pleasant surprises is the amount of attention paid to the city before its emergence as Constantine’s glittering capital during the 4th century. It is wonderful to hear tales of ancient Byzantion, with all those clashing Persians, Athenians and Spartans, and the emerging, if always overstated, reputation as a ‘city of spirit and pleasure and sin.’ Once we arrive at the birth of Constantinople, Hughes does an excellent job of exploring Constantine’s ‘mind and mountainous vision’: what were his motives for converting to Christianity and why did he lavish so much time, energy and money on his Nova Roma?

A recurrent theme emerges in these sections: it is still so easy to glimpse the past in contemporary Istanbul. ‘The stumpy remains of Constantine’s porphyry column,’ Hughes writes, ‘now fight to be noticed against the cheap mobile phone and tawdry lantern shops that guide visitors to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.’ But this is a city where ‘chance historical traces abound.’ Better yet, new vistas on the past are opening up all the time and Hughes is on excellent form as she describes the many archaeological discoveries of recent decades.

From these rich beginnings, she takes us through the city’s subsequent eras with great aplomb. We learn all about the heated theological debates that shaped Christianity, the iconoclastic frenzy that wreaked havoc during the 8th century, and the parting of the ways between the Western and Eastern Christian churches during the 11th. Protected by the Virgin Mary, Constantinople was utterly convinced of its eternal role as a Christian heartland but today the mighty Hagia Sophia, the largest religious building in the world for more than a millennium, ‘sits like a species of megafauna that has survived some distant Ice Age.’ As things turned out, another monotheism had its sights set on the city and, after the ravages of the crusades and a period which had seen Constantinople’s prestige and importance plummet, it was left to the Ottomans to reinvent the city.

Long before the conquest of 1453 the city had lost much of its glamour. Perhaps the West knew what was coming since, as Hughes explains, Italian scholars rushed to Constantinople to scoop up manuscripts ‘as if it was an international charity shop sale.’ The Islamic centuries would bring their own wonders, of course. Building projects matched anything achieved by the ancients and Istanbul continued as a hub of diplomatic, intellectual and economic verve. The new tenants were also, lest we forget, considerably more tolerant of rival religions than their predecessors. Many churches morphed into mosques but the rituals and devotions of Greek Orthodoxy were able to endure.

By the 19th century, Istanbul was being caught up in the era’s messy geopolitics and the 20th century would see the end of empire and the subsequent blend of political dynamism and chaos. Hughes, well outside her usual scholarly bailiwick, captures all this with great skill and concludes that, for all the change, ‘there are no true caesuras in history: there is always some kind of continuum.’

Istanbul, a place where the past is impossible to miss, is certainly testimony to that and few have told its enchanting story with Hughes’s blend of precision and panache. 

Click here to purchase Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

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