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A teeming, enthralling and storied city: Michele Magwood reviews Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

Published in the Times

IstanbulIstanbul – A Tale of Three Cities
Bettany Hughes (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

As any visitor to Istanbul will tell you, the past lies very close to the surface of this storied city. There are the dreaming spires of the vast mosques and sites such as the Hippodrome, setting for frenzied chariot races from AD 200, city walls standing since the 5th century or simply a blazing gold frescoe in a church in a run-down suburb. It is nigh impossible, though, to imagine the myriad incarnations of the city, with its convoluted history of warfare and stunning architectural and engineering achievement, of sackings and sieges but of high art and exquisite culture too. Archaeologists have measured more than 40 human habitation layers in the settlement, including Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews and Vikings.

The award-winning historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes has written a majestic biography of the first truly global city, where East meets West and North meets South. She has the exceptional skill of leavening meticulous research with vivid anecdote and atmosphere as she guides us through its three phases: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.

So, while the historical events are recorded, she also segues into such detail as the silk trade. A stinking business and the city smelled of sea snails boiling in urine and the faeces of silkworms. It took 12000 snails to colour the hem of a single purple robe. “Medieval Constantinople must have been rank,” she observes.

There was a zoo at the Kynegion, an amphitheatre that was at times used for public executions, but where battles with animals provided entertainment.

“When we think of Roman Byzantium, she notes, “we should conjure the cityscape punctured by the yowl of big cats and the screech of distressed elephants – animals imported to satisfy a gruesome Roman pleasure in live-action death.”

The pages are stuffed with memorable characters, such as the Athenian general, the wide boy Alcibiades of the 50th century BC, who she describes as “feckless, over-sexed, immoderate, dazzling, raffish, louche”. There’s the proto-feminist Empress Theodora, exotic dancer and daughter of a bear tamer, who caught the eye of the Emperor Justinian and who reformed women’s property rights, built safe houses for prostitutes and upped the punishment for rape – as well as helping to design the staggering Hagia Sophia.

It’s a teeming, enthralling book, written with verve and a reminder that the Queen of Cities has endured much worse in her history.

Follow @michelemagwood
 

Istanbul

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