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Istanbul has always been a place where stories and histories collide and crackle, where the idea is as potent as the historical fact. From the Qu'ran to Shakespeare, this city with three names - Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul - resonates as an idea and a place and overspills its boundaries - real and imagined. Standing as the gateway between the East and West, it has served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires. For much of its history, it was known simply as The City, but, as Bettany Hughes reveals, Istanbul is not just a city but a story.
In this epic new biography, Hughes takes us on a dazzling historical journey through the many incarnations of one of the world's greatest cities. As the longest-lived political entity in Europe, over the last 6,000 years Istanbul has absorbed a mosaic of microcities and cultures all gathering around the core. At the latest count, archaeologists have measured 42 human habitation layers. Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews, Vikings and Azeris all called a patch of this earth their home. Based on meticulous research and new archaeological evidence, this captivating portrait of the momentous life of Istanbul is visceral, immediate and scholarly narrative history at its finest.
©2016 Bettany Hughes (P)2016 Orion Publishing Group Limited
Writer and audiobook reviewer.
The three cities within the one are Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul - 8000 years and 320 generations of humanity (as Hughes says) from Byzantium to the departure of the last Ottoman sultan in 1924. And what a tale it is! The history itself is dramatic and multi-layered, but Hughes brings a great deal of herself into the telling as she draws on her extensive travels (not just in Turkey), and impressive research. What makes this history particularly hers are her myriad of references to the rich archaeological finds mainly in Istanbul (a wonderful seam from the recently completed Tunnel under the Bosphorus) which she uses to illuminate and interpret the past - for example the pots of cherries found in the 37 boats unearthed in the Theodosian harbour.
The history itself is a superb source for an historian and Hughes keeps a brisk pace, writing with absolute clarity and infectious enthusiasm and brio. She has known Istanbul for more than thirty years and describes every corner so that you are actually there seeing the remains of a past civilisation. She's particularly good at creating through detail modern everyday Istanbul: gypsies selling fluorescent underwear; stray dogs; Irish pubs and fast food joints - all part of the teeming, vital humanity which she creates as part of the continuum of the story started 8000 years ago and detailed so competently throughout. Today's Syrian refugees traipsing along the Roman road and the 2013 riots are all part of this.
The history is immensely varied and full of detail: the Goths strapping their boys' skulls to make their heads cone-shaped and frightening; the unmanned boat-loads of plague victims pushed out to sea as 900 a day died. She gives us the reality of the Sultan's harem, soft porn for the European artists, but in fact cold, TB-ridden and filled with intrigue. There are massacres and atrocities a-plenty but also high culture, such as artefacts, silk production (silk worms had to be fed diced leaves night and day), perfume and spices all beautifully detailed.
The 24 hours listening took me nearly three weeks and Hughes' very pleasant voice never palled - she has that gift for making you think she's sharing her passion for her subject with you. Good value for one credit too!
Bettany Hughes at her finest.
A great historian who can think outside the box &, in doing so, create a definitive work.
Utterly fascinating & informative - completely relevant.
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