Istanbul is, for the adventurous, one of the best cities in the world. Bettany Hughes’ book about the “Three Cities” of the book’s title is a delight to anyone who has enjoyed visiting that wonderful city straddling Europe and Asia. It has successively been known as Byzantium, Constantinople and finally Istanbul: the three cities of the book’s title.
Hughes describes how settlements of sorts have existed on the site of Byzantium, otherwise known as Byzantion, for some 8,000 years. By 670 BC it was a recognisable part of the wider Greek world, and by the fifth century BC was mentioned by Herodotus as the site of a pontoon bridge linking Europe and Asia.
She tells the story of how Byzantium became increasingly linked to Rome as the centuries passed and was formally incorporated as a province of the Empire in AD 73 by Vespasian. Constantine’s victory at the battle of Milvain Bridge in AD 312 was a turning point in its history. By 330, it had become Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and subsequent seat of the Orthodox Christian church. Its empire went through complex and brilliantly outlined cycles of growth, decline and humiliation before its final conquest by the Turkish Emperor Mehmet in 1453. However, throughout all its travails it preserved a remarkable Imperial court, distinguished by amazing and complex ceremonial.
She analyses the process by which Byzantium’s Turkish conquerors brought not just death and destruction but new vigour to the fallen city, so, as Istanbul or Stimboli it became the centre of another great power. The Ottoman Empire at one stage was so powerful it threatened the existence of the entire Christian West before it gradually decayed until its final defeat and dissolution as a consequence of the First World War. Modern secular Turkey, under the leadership of Gamal Ataturk, emerged from its ruins after even more appalling bloodshed and hardship. Only thereafter did Turkey’s administrative capital move to Ankara, an efficient modern city, albeit one that has never had the slightest impact on the human imagination.
The book relishes not just the history of events in Istanbul but the enduring myths of which it was the subject: their imaginative strength inspired W B Yeats to write Sailing to Byzantium, “Into the artifice of eternity..” to “become a golden enamelled bird, in preference to any natural thing” singing “to keep a drowsy emperor awake of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
Hughes is a serious academic, a successful television historian and vastly experienced as an archaeologist. These qualities help her make sense of a city where numerous different physical remnants and cultural symbols and signifiers lie jumbled over, above and alongside each other in great confusion. She records, explains and popularises the long and eventful story, and the enveloping myths, of a city that has been a key element of world history for most of recorded time. She writes “But, for me, Istanbul’s cultural and emotional strength comes from the fact that city’s narrative is not confined by lines in time. It is a place where people are connected across time by place, which is why I embarked on the Heraklean, sometimes Augean, task of using clues in the landscape to tell a story of this city from prehistory to the present”.
She dissects the Roman Via Egnatia from the debris of time. From its construction in the second century AD and running from Dyracchium on the Adriatic (modern day Durres in Albania) to Istanbul the road, now often hidden or buried, has survived as a trade and invasion route for nearly two millennia. The Milion, that old milestone, that still, just, survives in central Istanbul, marks its eastern end as a mere historical curiosity and indicator of distances in the fallen Empire. More importantly it is an enduring symbol of continuing trade, invasion and change over nearly two thousand years.
Istanbul fascinates us not only because it is beautiful and wonderful to visit, but also because it continues to be filled with events and personalities that are at the centre of Middle Eastern life and politics. Bestriding two continents, and straddling many different nations, beliefs and ways of living, Istanbul is certainly not going to go quietly into the night as President Erdogan of Turkey tries to enforce an increasingly hard political, religious and cultural line on what has for much of its life been seen as a liberal and inclusive city. Hughes’s achievement is to make sense of the ways in which Istanbul’s past and present, like Yeats’s verse, elide, conflict and influence the future of what is very much a continuing work in progress as well as home to many millions of people and a source of fascination and pleasure to all those who have visited it or know it in their imaginations.