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
2017
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

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Exhibitions

The Wellcome Collection continues with its year-long exploration of our…

Reviews

From the National Theatre, a trickster play that misses a…

Books

‘It is interesting and mind-stretching to make educated guesses,’ writes…

Books

China is currently undergoing ‘one of the great religious revivals…

Books

The world’s leading health organisations were not easily convinced that…

Books

The hunt for Sir John Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror…

Books

Since the 18th century, a white feather has been a…

Exhibitions

New exhibition highlights the ubiquity of plastic in the modern…

Films

Craving some non-fiction? Here are some of the best documentaries…

Exhibitions

A multimedia exhibition tackles the question of what it’s like…

Books

Jules Mountain was working as guide in the Alps until,…

Books

When making predictions about India’s future, the first step is…

Books

Many of us will be familiar with this run of…

Books

‘When the winds of change blow some people build walls,…

Books

Veteran traveller Stephen O’Shea takes the reader on a delightful…

Books

Turning each page of this sumptuous book is a constant…

Books

In her youth, Kapka Kassabova would spend family holidays on…

Books

In 2014, Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters embarked upon an…