Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25
‘Rome never fell, it simply moved 854 miles east,” is just one of the many startling ideas that pepper Bettany Hughes’s fiery and magnificent new biography of Istanbul. It is a testament to the city’s importance that the book’s 600 pages are teeming with kings and sultans, priests and relics, riots, coups and wars. At times, it can seem as if the whole of history has happened within its imposing walls, while at others, Istanbul appears a unique hybrid of East and West, Christianity and Islam, the debauched and the sacred.
Istanbul was founded as early as 11,000 BC on the banks of the Bosporus, the sliver of water that separates Europe from Asia. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks established the city of Chalcedon on the Asian side and in the following century colonised the European shore. “Byzantion’s geographical blessings have sometime seemed a curse to those who lived there,” Hughes says, and the city’s history has indeed been one of conquest and re-conquest, both geographically and spiritually.
In AD 73, Byzantion – the Greek for Byzantium – was formally incorporated into the Roman Empire by Vespasian and roads such as the Via Egnatia were constructed so that the city could serve as Rome’s power-base for her Middle East holdings.
But Hughes’s story is about much more than territory. Philippi, on the road to Istanbul, is regarded as the first town to convert to Christianity, as attested by St Paul’s letter. But it was Constantine’s conversion and his renaming of the city as Constantinople that set it at the heart of Christianity. Byzantines called the Virgin Mary the “commander in chief” of the city and religion was taken very seriously there. The basic doctrines of the Catholic Church were all hammered out in Constantinople or its environs: the Council of Nicaea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric and his Goths fundamentally changed the geopolitics of the Christian world, shifting its heart from Rome to Constantinople. Hughes is great at describing the city’s churches and festivals, the stylites and worshippers that flocked to the “new Rome”.
Constantinople was also where Mary was enshrined as Theotokos (“God-bearer”) and where the production of icons and relics became a thriving industry. The first European university was founded in the city and, even more surprisingly, we are told that “it was in Constantinople that the book review was invented.”
The city’s walls kept it safe from perennial attack but sometimes the enemy slipped through the gates, as in the first Viking incursions in 860 or the shameful episode of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. But the city stood up to the more tangible threat of a Muslim invasion for centuries until, in 1453, Mehmed II took the city and turned it, in 1517, into the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate, an empire that would last until the 1920s.
We whiz through the fascinating and frightening world of the Janissaries, the harem, the white slave trade and the cult of Orientalism, finally arriving at the shores of Gallipoli for the death knell of the Ottoman Empire. Hughes does a fantastic job of cramming all this history into a fluid and engaging narrative. She also possesses a great turn of phrase, such as when she describes Haghia Sophia as seeming “to be suspended by a golden chain from heaven”.
I would have liked more on modern Istanbul – perhaps the “fourth” city – a secular, upwardly mobile metropolis racked by recent terror attacks. But that’s a minor quibble for such a gripping and erudite book.
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