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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.
Hughes covers a vast amount of information with deft skill and with a delivery that is both scholarly and captivating. The way she weaves the snapshots of modern Istanbul Into her narrative is also a nice touch. Thoroughly recommended.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Brilliantly read, comprehensive research and a very engaging story. Loved it! An absolute audio book.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful