PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


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

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.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

Publisher: Da Capo
Length: 856 pages
Author: Bettany Hughes
Price: $24.97
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-09

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.