Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities – Bethany Hughes
If I was pinned up against a wall and asked what was my favourite city break, I would probably say the one I went on to Istanbul about two decades ago. I fell in love with the city with its magnificent buildings – the wonderful Hagia Sophia is just breath-taking – and, as the Americans might say, you are surrounded by a sense of history. And it was fun walking over the Galata bridge from Europe into Asia and evading the attentions of the street sellers desperate to sell us carpets, plying us with fragrant apple tea, and the boot polishers offering us a ten year guarantee on the shine they would apply to our dusty shoes. Alas, I fear I will never return.
Still, as compensation you can immerse yourself in this lengthy but light history of a city that can legitimately claim to have been at the centre of the world. Hughes’ style is at times gushing but she has a wonderfully poetic, dare I say it, Homeric turn of phrase. The book book benefits from the latest archaeological finds following the construction of the Istanbul metro.
The site of the city, as any visitor will attest, has enormous strategic importance. The original settlement, founded in 657 BCE by Byza of Megara, from which its name Byzantion was derived, positioned between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, was easily defensible and the waters were full of fish. The Chalcedonian settlement built on the eastern side of the Strait of Bosporus was called the land of the blind by the ancients because they had chosen to eschew the obvious attractions of Byzantion. But, as Hughes reveals, a coffin with the remains of woman dating back some 8,000 years has just been unearthed – possibly the earliest ever found – which suggests that the site was already taken and the Chalcedonians didn’t fancy a dust up. The Megarians, fortified by an oracle from Delphi, according to Tacitus, were made of sterner stuff.
Byzantion was at the centre of many of the key clashes of the ancient world, being the point where the Persians sought to launch their invasion of the Greeks and the Greeks fought to hold them back. The citizens of Byzantion often changed sides, depending upon which way the wind was blowing. It was then absorbed into the Roman Empire and over time became the acknowledged capital of Rome’s eastern provinces.
The first major transformation in its fortunes was when Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor, declared it the New Rome and vowed it would become the greatest, wealthiest and most cultured city in the world. Justinian and Theodora took up the baton and some of their buildings, including the cathedral, now mosque, Hagia Sophia, still stand today. Remnants of less fortunate buildings can be found almost wherever you look. Hughes revels in describing the dowdy surroundings in which some of these marvels rest.
The growth of Islam meant that Constantinople, as it now was, was in their sights but such were the strategic advantages and the strength of the defences of the site that it took them 800 years to storm the city, convert the Hagia into a mosque and rename the city Konstantiye. It became the capital of the Ottoman empire and a magnet for European travellers keen to sample the exotica of the east.
One of the underlying themes that comes through the book is that following the collapse of the western Roman empire and the establishment of Constantinople as the head of what remained and even under Ottoman control, the city was just hanging on, waiting for the next crisis. There was little attempt to expand further and, indeed, the last 150 years or so of the Ottoman empire saw its territories whittled away. The empire collapsed after the First World War.
Oddly, Hughes finishes her story in 1923 when Kemal Ataturk established the neutral Ankara as the capital of the new republic of Turkey. I can see why. Its domestic influence had waned but to most non Turks the wondrous city of Istanbul has no peer.