'Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities' succeeds as both vibrant history and personal tribute

Bettany Hughes wonderfully tells the story of a city that has been many things at many different times.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities By Bettany Hughes Da Capo Press 856 pp.

All great cities are shape-shifters, and only shape-shifting cities have any chance of lasting long enough to be great. Cairo has been a hovel, a backwater, and a glittering citadel; Chengdu has been a cattle market, an imperial capital, and a sprawling transportation hub; New York City has been a debt-ridden nightmare (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”!) and the fulcrum of the world's super-wealth; and in all cases, the vast resources of these great hubs of humanity were matched by resourcefulness, as cities desperately adapted to changing times in order to survive. 

More emblematic of this intense struggle than any other city is the beautiful, atmospheric place now known as Istanbul, the subject of the terrifically rewarding new book by Bettany Hughes, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, a place, as she writes, “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, is it did a reality.”

As its title implies, "Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities" looks at this storied place through the eras of its three distinct identities, first as Byzantion, a Greek city dating back to circa 667 BC atop archeological evidence reaching millennia earlier; then as Constantinople, a metropolis taking shape around AD 330 and famously changing hand often between Christian and Ottoman masters; and Istanbul, Stimboli, the identity adopted after the Turks took the city from the Christians in 1453. “Istanbul often lives outside of time,” Hughes writes. "For this reason, this settlement was also called the New Rome, the New Jerusalem, Allah's Eternal City.”

Hughes concentrates her account on major personalities and what she refers to as “game-changing events,” so anyone who's ever read any comprehensive narrative of the city, whether it be the long and acerbic sections devoted to it throughout Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" or modern works such as Thomas Maddens's excellent 2016 book "Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World," will encounter some familiar names. 

There's Julian the Apostate, the emperor who tried to turn his kingdom back to the worship of Rome's old pantheon of gods. “Brainy, brave and bullish, Julian was in many ways out of step, because Christianity was no longer an exotic, plucky outsider but the future,” Hughes writes. “Even the fringes of empire were now dancing to the Christian tune.”

There's the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his fierce empress Theodora, both of them “drunk with ideas and adventure and lust, partners in both justice and crime,” who faced down popular riots and natural disasters while pursuing an imperial agenda in which Hughes sees no small amount of a megalomania perhaps fueled by their ardent Christianity. “While under Old Rome the emperors may well, in their darkest moments, have admitted that they were not really part-divine, the Christian message said, with comforting clarity, that each and every human was just that,” she writes. “That was a handy backstory when you also happen to be the most powerful human on earth.”

In sure, gripping prose, the story moves steadily forward through violent clashes between Christian and Turkish forces vying for this city which, as Hughes correctly points out, is equally well-served by land and sea and therefore an inevitably sought-after prize for expansionist kingdoms. Readers are taken through the dramatic high points of these clashes and all the city's later phases (during the Russian domination of Catherine the Great, it was called Tsargrad), right down to the equally-contentious modern era and the failed Gallipoli campaign in 1915 in which the ambitious British goal was the taking of Constantinople itself.

“The seas, whipped into a shape-shifting furnace of angry white by eastern Mediterranean winds, were soon to be broken by the warships of foreign nations,” Hughes writes, painting a typically vivid picture. “In the photographs of the time you see them – those tall-masted merchant ships bustling along Istanbul's waterways.” 

It's a spellbinding performance from start to finish. Hughes insists that she doesn't intend her book to be “a catch-all catalogue of Istanbul's past” but rather something at once more personal and impressionistic, but she easily accomplishes both; her presented bibliography is enormous, but always the narrative itself is infused with an obvious love for the city that Hughes first visited when she was 18. 

That real, messy, living, contemporary Istanbul – the place so memorably captured in Orhan Pamuk's memoir of the place, "Istanbul: Memories and the City" for example – regularly peeks through the historical tapestry Hughes is weaving, a mega-city of mind-boggling size and population. The Dardanelles Straits over which Istanbul still presides are the world's busiest waterways, the nexus of sea-lanes and world commerce – and, occasionally, headline-grabbing unrest. In "Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities," Hughes has written a big, gorgeously-written reminder that this has always been the case.

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