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blue mosque istanbul
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Photo credit: Critical Lens Media

Book Review: ‘Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities’ by Bettany Hughes

A sprawling one-volume survey of the history of one of the world’s most consequential cities, Bettany Hughes’ Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, like its subject, captivates from beginning to end. Written with verve and color, its short, easily digestibly chapters pulse with the author’s enthusiasm.

For anyone who has traveled to what was once Constantinople and Byzantion/Byzantium, Hughes’ artful marshaling of archeology, literature, and cultural history offers a fascinating portrait of this city at the nexus of East and West. From its start as a Greek settlement through its establishment as the New Rome and subsequent transformation into the seat of the Ottoman Empire and then the tremendous 20-million-strong metropolis of the 21st century, Istanbul has occupied headlines, never more so than today.

To the reader who hasn’t visited The World’s Desire, the book is likely to stir hopes of a pilgrimage one day. Hughes’ own fascination with the city prompted her peregrinations far and wide to track down its influence. She has investigated archeological remains in Istanbul’s neighborhoods and under its legendary waterways (the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara) and in distant regions that bear witness to the reach of the city, its culture, its rule. Along the way she describes the machinations of the ancient Greek general Alcibiades; Christianization under Constantine the Great; the social reforms, both enlightened and cruel, of Justinian and Theodora (“the peasant farmer and the prostitute”); the centuries of Ottoman rule with its sultans, harems, and frequent welcoming of refugees from other lands; and Istanbul’s place as the cultural capital of modern secular Turkey and hotbed of political protest, crackdowns, mushrooming tyranny, and Islamic revival. And much, much more.

Just 40 pages into her chronicle, much fascinating history has already flowed by.

After a century as a trading chip in the power-play between Persia and Greece, thanks to her strategic position on the Bosphorus, useful for interests operating north to south as well as east to west, Byzantion was now a pawn in the game of chess between Athenian and Spartan ambition.

The ancient Greeks’ conflicts with each other and with the Persians, the history of the classical Roman Empire – these remain current in popular culture (the Socratic method, Spartacus, the Olympics, 300). Yet we know so little of the marvels and the history of the less ancient Byzantine Empire, the heir to Rome. The book’s exploration of these violent, glittering centuries is one of its great virtues. For over a thousand years the Christian-ruled but furiously cosmopolitan city of Byzantium exerted influence well beyond even its empire’s widest borders, entangled with Italian city-states, Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Vikings, Crusaders – the list could go on.

Hughes has the knack of assembling wide-ranging detail with the focus needed to sustain a narrative of such sweep. One of her entertaining and effective techniques is to open and close her chapters with evocative images and well-earned generalizations. Chapter 21, “Battles in Heaven and on Earth: Gaza and Alexandria,” begins: “On the banks of the river Ilissos in Athens (hidden under tarmac since 1956) where Socrates once dangled his toes while perturbing Athenian youth, there sits a little chink of gold that speaks volumes.” A thousand years later she ends chapter 53, “The Abode of Felicity”: “Whatever the faith of its ruler, pagan, Christian, or Muslim, Istanbul has consistently encouraged whoever commanded it to believe that they had both earthly and sublime potential.”

istanbul a tale of three cities bettany hughesBetween such felicitous sentences we find an enormous trove of knowledge. Most chapters cover specific time periods or events. A few detail ongoing topics over longer periods (the Crusades; the Varangian Guard; Byzantium’s relations with its Muslim neighbors). In just one volume, of course, Hughes can go only so deeply into each era and topic. But she always provides enough detail and analysis to bring the characters and their circumstances alive, whether the subject is eunuchs or gardens, Janissaries or Jews, massacres or mastic, Greek fire or Byzantine silk. Enlivening the narrative further are many illustrations, color plates, and historical maps of the city and region (though the maps can be hard to read).

Aside from a penchant for dangling modifiers (“Drama struck during [Edward] Lear’s visit when a raging fire took hold – with its narrow streets, wooden buildings and open braziers it was little surprise that conflagrations were so frequent”), the writing shines, illuminating the perspective of the populace – soldiers, women and young people, slaves – even as it recounts the actions and attitudes of great personages.

The chaos in the city had been exacerbated by a punishing campaign, in the winter of AD 602, against the Slavs, a ‘new people’ and a new enemy of Byzantium. The Slavs were a worryingly amorphous menace…This was still an age in which unknown tribes could suddenly emerge from the miasma of unfamiliar lands. We need to appreciate how psychologically challenging all this would have been. Add to this the climatic changes that had pulsed through the region over the previous century and it becomes easier to appreciate that Constantinople’s wider world was not sure, not charted, not settled, but rather a vale of tears full of sinister threats. Nothing could be taken for granted.

Just so. Indeed, one can hardly look at Turkey today and take anything for granted. The book does make it easy to believe, though, that should human civilization persist another thousand years, Istanbul – by whatever name it may go at that time – is likely to remain central to its region, and even the world.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities is published by Da Capo Press and available at Amazon.com.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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