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.

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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