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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
Kildonan by the sea
― George Orwell,
This is the history of a city that is placed on the crossroads of continents and ideas, a place that absorbs all the gods and despots that carry the standards of these gods to rule over the citizens, slaves, minds and the flow of monetary power that being at the center gives, but in the end this desirability is the undoing, the curse that defeats all mortals and Gods into the sediment and detritus of a city that is more immortal than all of them.
A panoramic historical view of a place that is just as important today as it was to Greeks and Persians, a book that moves through time and rivers of blood as potent as the Bosphorus, as horrible as the bombs and terrorism that seeps into its modern streets as the Ottoman empire tries to reawaken.
If you love history this book is a delight, but be aware that it concentrates in the city and sometimes you feel like a little more explanation of external influences would have helped to explain some events with more depth, also some aspects of social practices are not described as thoroughly as others; we expend a large amount of time on eunuchs but the enslavement and commerce of slaves till very recently feels like it almost to controversial a subject. Apart from that, this is a fantastic read that exposes humanity as much as a city.
Of Gods and men, war and commerce, suffering and delight, of desire and want we build the cities we inhabit that inhabit us.
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.
The author does a fantastic job retelling a long period of history that has often been neglected from history classes and books. Enticing and hard to put down this a must read for any lover of history
"Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and the World's Desire"
Bettany Hughes' Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities (2016) enthusiastically relates the three main manifestations of the Queen of Cities: Greek Byzantium (c. 679 BC to AD 330), Roman Constantinople (c. AD 330-1453), and Ottoman Istanbul (c. AD 1453-on). She's written "A personal, physical journey. . . to comprehend both the city and ourselves." She succeeds by covering the major internal and external historical and cultural forces, events, and figures related to the city over the eras (e.g., the wars between Greece and Persia, the development of the Roman Empire, the rise and spread of Christianity and Islam, the route of the Silk Road), as well as by incorporating recent archeological finds (e.g., a 2015 shopping center construction near Vienna revealing a well-preserved camel from the Ottoman siege of 1683) and contemporary developments (e.g., Syrian refugees walking the ancient Roman Via Egnatia). She vividly presents exotic past cultures, events, artifacts, and people and connects the history to our own lives here and now. For Hughes, Istanbul is "A place where stories and histories collide and crackle; a city that fosters ideas and information to spin her own memorial. A prize that meant as much as an abstraction, as a dream, as it did as a reality. A city that has long sustained a timeless tradition as old as the birth of the modern mind--where past narratives are nourished that tell us who we are in the present."
She provides numerous interesting details: ancient Greeks having no word for religion, early Christians getting baptized right before death rather than right after birth, eunuchs seeming to be liminal beings with a sublime hotline to god, Janissairies serving as firemen, executioners, butchers, and entrepreneurs as well as elite soldiers, the Sultan's harem being both a political power source and a "Petri dish" of cholera, TB, small pox, and syphilis, Stalin's firing squads executing painted icons--and much more.
She's quite good with charismatic figures like Theodora and, here, Alcibiades: "Born an aristocrat, with a Spartan wet-nurse, Alcibiades tore a strip through the classical world as he has done through history. The mess-mate of the philosopher Socrates, his would-be lover, he was everything the Athenian thinker was not. Feckless, over-sexed, immoderate, dazzling, raffish, louche, Alcibiades would be described by ancient authors as 'the adored tyrant of Athens.'"
Her imaginative, sensual writing puts us physically in a distant time and place, as when she explains the power of ancient statues: “They were thought to be psycho-physical parcels; an incarnation of both the rational and irrational. These images were painted, washed in softening milk-lotions, dressed in clothes, garlanded with flowers, perfumed with rose-oil. Their metal hair was so fine it lifted in the breeze and their rock-crystal eyes followed you as you walked past.”
She writes with appealing wit:
-"For fifty years, Athena's city became adept at exporting democracy across the Mediterranean at the point of a sword."
-"Stand next to these massive stones and you can virtually smell Constantine's ambition."
-“The Christ-cult genie was out of the bottle.”
-"Men beat their chests, and kept their swords in their scabbards."
-"And yet there are no true caesuras in history: there is always some kind of continuum."
Throughout her book Hughes sprinkles neat etymologies: guest and host (and ghost) derive from the same root; the root of nemesis means give and take; slave comes from Slav (choice commodities for Vikings); soldier comes from Latin solidus (a Roman coin used to pay soldiers); hermit comes from the Greek for desert; tulip derives from the Turkic word for turban; and so on.
Hughes is no military historian, being uninterested in battles (armies, arms, tactics, actions, etc.) which other histories go into great detail about. Whereas entire books are devoted to the siege of Constantinople in 1453 or that of Vienna in 1683, or to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, she gives them the briefest of coverage to focus instead on cultural trends before and after the battles.
If I had to criticize the book, I would mention that after 1924 she largely stops her history. Despite several brief, interesting mentions of recent contemporary developments relating to the city, like Syrian refugees or the foiled-coup, most of the 20th century is missing. Also, she almost seems more sympathetic with the Caliph and his family living in exile than with Armenians dying in genocide. A stylistic criticism is that Hughes at times tries to make her book too accessible via contemporary idioms (e.g., "up their game," "had their backs," "to the max"), which connects the history to us but also dates it as being told now. Also, perhaps to make her book more user-friendly she writes 77 short chapters, many of which could have been combined into longer ones, and tends to end them with provocative one liners foreshadowing the next chapters like "Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Byzantion, Byzas' City was on the Persians' list."
As for the audiobook (which comes with a pdf file full of color plates, notes, and annotated timeline), Hughes has a clear and pleasing reading manner and voice. She enhances the mood or agenda of the many apt quotations she incorporates into her history. At times, however, she does assume the overly-dramatic delivery of a BBC documentary narrator who's trying too hard to spice up already fascinating material, especially at the near cliffhanger ends of chapters, like, "Whatever its political or personal motivation, Constantine must have known that this fight for territory and for the control of the idea that was Rome, would also [pregnant pause] be a fight [pregnant pause] to the death."
Anyway, really anyone interested in Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul or in well-written, thoughtful, informative, and interesting histories should like Hughes' book.
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