Bettany Hughes' 'Istanbul' Evokes the Past and Compels the Future

by Brett Miller

21 September 2017

This learned and lively book by award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster Bettany Hughes offers a riveting biography of a city that has remained relevant for well over two millennia.
cover art

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

Bettany Hughes

(Da Capo)
US: Sep 2017

Bridging the worlds of East and West—both figuratively and literally—the city of Istanbul has more dynamic events packed into its long life than nearly any other city in the world. From the time of its beginnings in the 7th century BC (with legendary King Byzas as its supposed founder), to the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, it is a place whose people and whose ideas have never been quiescent. Humanity flourished here, and it also floundered; but the city always maintained a salient presence in the world, just as it does today.

It’s fitting, then, that the always engaging Bettany Hughes has written this electrifying book on Istanbul. The city has been known by dozens of monikers, but Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul are its most well-known names—and it’s the tales of these three incarnations of the ever-present city that Hughes brings to life.

One of the unique strengths of this book is the attention paid to the numerous archaeological finds in the environs of Istanbul over the past 30 or so years. In the 2000s, for example, human remains were found near the Black Sea which date to around 6000 BC. Other kinds of remains have also been found, like the whopping 37 boats recovered from the Theodosian Harbor. Not only are these archaeological finds interesting in their own right, but Hughes often imbues into the discussion a sense of immediacy and relevance, presenting the history of Istanbul not merely as a thing of the past, but something that is very much here and now.

This strength of Hughes shows itself in other aspects of the book. In the many well-done portraits of a variety of figures—from prominent emperors and empresses to stylites, eunuchs, knights, medics, and janissaries—she goes beyond just the biography and facts and often imparts some of the relevance of their actions and ideas. It was Justinian in the 6th century AD, Hughes informs us, whose decision to codify a cluttered and confused assortment of laws helped provide the basis for many Western legal systems. This is but one of innumerable influences stemming from a city that was home to the diverse, but also intertwined, cultures flowing from a Christian and Muslim occupied Constantinople. 

There is relatively little in the history of Istanbul that one won’t find in this book. While some events receive disappointingly brief coverage—the Armenian genocide is a case in point—this is a weakness that by and large can be overlooked. Indeed, what Hughes does discuss is generally done in a way that’s thorough, informative, and well researched. Upon closing the book’s cover a reader will have received a rich and in-depth experience of this grand city. 

Istanbul, however, does have a serious detraction, which is the writing style. While there’s no doubting that Hughes can enliven nearly any discussion, the prose is too full of clichés, inane descriptions, and attempts at catchy phrases. At times this results only in some unclear or unhelpful sentences. But more often, and more unfortunate, is that over the course of some 600 pages the reading experience can become an unpalatable one. It should be noted that this review is from an advanced reading copy of the book (its release date in the USA is 12 September) and some changes may be implemented before the final copy is released. It’s unlikely, though, that any major overhaul of its style would take place.

While this characteristic of Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities is a weakness of the book, it should not discount its many strengths. Hughes’s zest, knowledge, and nearly lifelong interest in this city shows itself on every page. That in itself is a major reason why many readers of this book might just find themselves desiring to experience Istanbul in person.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities


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