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Imperial melting pot: how a new book reveals the remarkable history of Istanbul

A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes shows how kings, emperors and sultans have been fighting over the city for millennia.

Eight thousand years ago, the Black Sea was a lake and the land on which Istanbul now sits was not where Europe ended and Asia began. In its place was a ribbon of land, fed by springs and dotted with Neolithic settlements that may have farmed as well as hunted. Around 5500BC, however, a rapid melting of the ice sheets led to a rise in sea level of up to 238 feet. The waters surging in ran right over those coastal settlements, cutting through to the Black Sea to create the deep and fast-moving waterway we now call the Bosphorus.

Although Istanbul is best known today for dividing two continents, its significance across the millennia originates from its maritime position, because (together with the Dardanelles) it also links the countries of the north to the Mediterranean. Little wonder that kings, emperors and sultans have been fighting over it for the past two and a half millennia.

When the Persian armies of Emperor Dareios I built a pontoon bridge across the Bosphorus in roughly 513BC, there was already a Greek settlement on the peninsula overlooking its southern entrance. The settlers in those days called the place Byzantion. In 330AD Constantine I renamed it Constantinople. From the arrival of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 it became known as Kostantiniyye or Islam-bol. Its tenure as an imperial capital ended in 1923 when the Ottoman empire gave way to the Republic of Turkey, whose founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, moved his government to Ankara. Seven years later the city he left behind was renamed Istanbul. For more than half a century, it seemed to accept its role as a fledgling nation’s second city, but recently it has grown to become one of the world’s great commercial centres and now stretches more than a hundred miles from end to end.

The story of Istanbul is one whose overlapping parts have been told many hundreds of times, by scholars and memoirists, biographers and hagiographers, novelists and liars. So numerous and bewildering are its twists and turns that most chroniclers to date have chosen to limit themselves to a single figure or period, or, at the very least, a single empire. Not so Bettany Hughes, for she wishes to show how the city’s topography shaped the civilisations that grew from it – and how the many peoples that have passed through its walls went on to shape the lands and seas and trade routes of their known world. And so she sets out to cover the full eight thousand years.

The result is a brick of a book, thick with timelines, indices, references, illustrations and maps. But the style is breezy, sometimes disconcertingly so. Hughes is always in a rush. After all, there is not just the city to explore, but the empires over which its various incarnations presided. The thrill the author takes in her discoveries is infectious. There is the Neolithic woman, still curled up in her coffin, who emerged during excavations for the new Bosphorus tunnel. There is the unearthed segment of the Via Egnatia in Thessaloníki, and the hoard of coins and sacred objects uncovered near Harrogate in 2007. There are the broken walls, abandoned forts, struggling monasteries and endangered icons that bring the outer edges of lost empires back to living memory – even as they succumb, one by one, to the bulldozers of the global age.

Far from weakening her case, Hughes’s breathless travels inform her understanding of Istanbul. It is a place of unfixed identity, as it pulls in all that its empires have sought to embrace. Friends are always turning into enemies and enemies into friends, as traders, crusaders and invaders wash through. For much of its existence the city’s walls have enjoyed no more than a season or two of peace and quiet. There were the Persians, Greeks and Romans bearing down on them, followed by the Vandals and the Vikings, the Huns and the Visigoths, the Venetians and the Ottomans, the Russians and the Balkan League, and (during the First World War) the British. One after another, armies set up camp outside the walls. Chains are stretched across the waterways to protect the city from invaders or to block its trade. Inside the walls, there are catastrophes both natural and made-made – earthquakes and tsunamis, frequent fires and plagues. There is, in all of its incarnations, astonishing ­social mobility, with orphans, errand boys, slaves and prostitutes reaching the very highest ranks, though their ultimate reward is often to be stabbed or beheaded.

Throughout all this, the city’s dwellers retain some sense of public spirit, bending to the times but never bowing. Even in periods of xenophobia or enforced purity they remain stubbornly diverse. Jewish communities were already extant in Byzantion. The Genoese were granted the right to settle by the emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, just five decades after Venetians’ infamous sacking of the city in 1204. In the Christian and the Muslim eras alike, women were active, if sometimes invisible, participants in civic life. Female slaves shipped in from the Ottoman empire ended up in the harems of Constantinople, to give birth to children who were ever less ethnically Turkish.

Some of the greatest Ottoman architects were Armenian: Sinan, who built the Süleymaniye Mosque and more than a hundred other monuments of unsurpassed beauty, and the Balyans, who helped to define the city’s westward turn in the 19th century, most notably with the waterside mosques and palaces along the Bosphorus.

For the first three and a half centuries of Ottoman rule, the empire’s elite soldiers were drawn from its Christian provinces. Taken as boys, they were educated in Constantinople and converted to Islam – but it was a version all their own, merging Sufism with elements of Anatolian shamanism and Christianity. At their height, these Janissaries were the city’s firefighters, butchers and bakers, running their own economy and accounting for a tenth of the population. Until their brutal suppression in 1826, they were a powerful political force, taking to the streets whenever their rulers aroused their displeasure. The tradition continues, as we saw most recently in 2013, when protests against plans to develop Gezi Park evolved into nationwide demonstrations. Hughes witnessed these events. Keen as she is to identify a past that is still omnipresent, she does not just liken the city to a “historic millefeuille”: time and again, she proves it. Along the way she sometimes overeggs. She has a bad habit of breaking up sentences set in antiquity or the Middle Ages with clauses that take us to the tawdry present:

The windy islands of Andros, Serifos and Paros fell to the assault of his boats. Lampedusa and Montecristo were raided. Ios, now known as Greece’s party island, even Ischia, one of the first islands to be colonised by the Greeks before even those Megarians had set out for Byzantion (and the glamorous location of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s love affair on the set of Cleopatra), could not resist. Barbarossa swept them up like mullet in a net.

The intimate slanginess that some of the prose offers is refreshing, and it is certainly in keeping with Istanbul’s hybrid and irrepressible spirit. But when the time comes for the revised edition that will give this heroic work the longevity it deserves, it might still be an idea to do a cliché check. For now, though, despite its quirks, this first edition is the perfect thing to read if – having noticed that Istanbul is increasingly in the news these days – you wish to know its place in the scheme of things, and what light it may cast on the uncertain future we shall most certainly share.

Even in the sleepy city of my childhood, it was one of those places where things happened first. The Soviets were sending troops and military hardware through the Bosphorus for many months before the official beginning of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. After sailing past my home, their heavily disguised ships would have passed a coal depot, where the men who later became Germany’s first Muslim guest workers queued up for their health checks.

A few hundred yards further south was a swimming club called the Lido. I spent many happy days there as a teenager. In the last years of the 20th century, when Istanbul was well into its boom, it became a swanky nightclub called the Reina. Most of the 39 people who were killed there by an Isis gunman on New Year’s Day were tourists from North Africa and the Middle East. The gunman was Uzbek, and if it took the security forces a long time to find him, that was because Istanbul is now home to a huge and not entirely legal community of migrant workers from central Asia. The old Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Levantine communities might be dwindling, but in their place have come Russians and Ukrainians, Turkmens and Azeris. Syrians have now joined the millions of displaced Kurds.

At the same time it is awash with global money. With Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm, it has never been easier for the favoured rich to skirt regulation. Skyscrapers continue to shoot up out of nowhere, as do new airports and bridges. There is even a plan for a second Bosphorus: an artificial waterway, cutting through the city’s Euro­pean side. No one is shouting about the ecological disasters it will bring because no media outlet exists that dares air such views.

Like all others who love this city, I grieve for what we have lost in recent years and what we still stand to lose. And that is why I have found Istanbul: a Tale of Three Cities so cheering. Of the 320 generations that have lived on its shores, scarcely one has known lasting peace. Equally, there can be no city on Earth with as long a history of surviving dictators and disasters, absorbing refugees, and bringing warring cultures into har­mony. So we shall see.

Maureen Freely is a translator of authors including Orhan Pamuk. Her novels include “Sailing Through Byzantium” (Linen Press)

Istanbul: a Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (800pp, £25​)

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon