An excerpt from Bettany Hughes’s entry, Istanbul: a Tale of Three Cities


Though all other cities have their periods of government and are subject
to the decays of time, Constantinople alone seems to claim a kind of
immortality and will continue to be a city as long as humanity shall live
either to inhabit or rebuild it. Pierre Gilles, ad 1550

On 4 February 1939 the BBC transmitted an audio-recording of W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. This was the broadcaster’s tribute to the firebrand Irishman who had died seven days before. Crackling and hissing, the clipped, RP Queen’s English hangs somewhere between the sublime and the sinister, the recording itself a broken reminder of what the great city of Byzantium had and has become. A sonorous male voice intones Yeats’s lines, telling of a place that lived in the poet’s head and lives still in our imagination: carnal, splendid and ineffable – charismatic in the true Greek sense of the word, full of an otherworldly grace which ignites an earthly desire.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

It is Istanbul’s multi-dimensional nature, past, passing, to come, that fanned my own love affair with the city, a relationship that has endured over four decades. Th e history of this place with three names – Byzantion or Byzantium (c. 670 bc to ad 330), Constantinople, al-Qustantiniyye then Kostantiniyye (c. ad 330 to 1930), Istanbul or Stimboli (c. ad 1453 onwards) – is often isolated into discrete blocks: ancient, Byzantine, Ottoman, Turkish. But, for me, Istanbul’s cultural, political and emotional strength comes from the fact that the city’s narrative is not confined by lines in time. It is a place where people are connected across time by place, which is why I embarked on the Heraklean, sometimes Augean, task of using clues in the landscape to tell a story of this city from prehistory to the present.

Chance historical survivals around the modern metropolis – the bases of late antique columns in shopping streets, springs next to mosques (ancient pagan shrines that would become Christian churches and then Muslim sanctuaries) – endure today as touchstones for the city’s variegated populations. Istanbul often lives outside time; for this reason this settlement was also called the New Rome, the New Jerusalem, Allah’s Eternal City. Over 8,000 years, over 320 generations’ worth of humanity have lived, worked and played here. It is a continuum that has left behind some frustrating gaps, but also a rich trove of archaeological and literary evidence, much of which is emerging only now from the earth and from the archives, and around which I have centred this book. Istanbul has been a host to grandstanding historical characters, but in addition to focusing on those with overt power, on these pages I have tried to appreciate the lived experience of others who may not have realised they were history-makers. Etymologically, aspirationally and philosophically, a city is the people who live within it. So in this book you will find women as well as men. You will find the poor as well as the rich, and the weak as well as the strong.

What follows is not a catch-all catalogue of Istanbul’s past. It is a personal, physical journey – an investigation of what it takes to make a city: in particular an examination of the new evidence on off er that speaks of the global nature of Istanbul’s backstory – a means, perhaps, to comprehend both the city and ourselves. Istanbul has always been a critical station in a temporal and a neural network. A city is an entity that is not self-sufficient – it survives and indeed thrives both on specialisation and on the connections it enjoys beyond its boundaries. So I have focused on game-changing events or ideas which shaped Istanbul or thanks to which she won influence elsewhere. I have tried to understand in what ways the settlement (and its population) has had to adapt and evolve to endure across the millennia, and how that crucible of fervent activity has then sparked out to fire the wider world.

Byzantion comes into focus in the lines of Herodotus in the fifth century bc when the Father of History commemorates a pontoon bridge built by one of the most powerful men on earth to link Asia to Europe. As I was working on this book, 2,500 years on, the first underwater tunnels between continents, championed by Turkey’s President Erdoğan, were completed in Istanbul. An attempted coup by factions of the military to overthrow Erdoğan and his government on 15 July 2016 saw tanks parked on the Bosphorus Bridge connecting the Asian and European sides of the modern city. Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Atatürk Airport were occupied and the cross-continental Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was also blocked. During the night, citizen-protesters on the Bosphorus Bridge – since renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge – were grazed by gunfire. By dawn young rebel soldiers, hands raised, surrendered above the waterway that breaches Eurasia;
some were then lynched. Istanbul is a protean, pyretic place whose mood and modus operandi could determine the future security of East and West.

Because Istanbul is uniquely well served by both land and sea, she has long satisfied our philosophical and physiological drive as a species to travel, to explore, to connect and to control. A rhino-horn of land that juts into the Sea of Marmara, 1,700 miles east of Paris and 1,400 miles north of Baghdad, Stamboul proper, which was founded at the very edge of Europe and within eyeshot of Asia, comes into her own in the classical age when boat technology developed to allow more people, trade goods, armed troops and novel ideas to travel. She flourished when men and women acted on a prehistoric word-idea that, I would argue, kickstarts civilisation. Th is Proto-Indo-European term ghosti (from which we get the words guest, host and ghost) referred to a kind of unspoken etiquette, a notion that on seeing strangers on the horizon, rather than choose to fell them with spears or sling-shots, instead we should take the risk of welcoming them across our threshold – on the chance that they might bring new notions, new goods, fresh blood with them. Over time this word-idea evolved into the Greek xenia – ritualised guest–host friendship, an understanding that stitched together the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Th anks to new DNA skeletal evidence we now realise that ancient peoples travelled far greater distances and more systematic ally than we once thought. If civilisation is about reaching out beyond the horizon to embrace the unknown, about making connections, about working out how to live with ourselves and with others, then for both East and West alike Istanbul is perfectly placed to satisfy that urge. And today the need to understand the narrative of what one Byzantine called ‘the city of the world’s desire’ is ever more urgent. Istanbul’s story is racing up the modern political agenda. As well as the recent drama of civil strife and terror attack, her influence goes a long way to explain the geopolitical shape of all our lives. Th e city has supported the world’s most tenacious theocracies, she sustained the domination of Christianity as a world religion, she frustrated caliphs and then embraced the longest-lasting Caliphate in history. Next to Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Istanbul is considered by many to be Sunni Islam’s holiest place. Middle Eastern identities, Balkan confl ict, the split of Croatia and Serbia, the role of Turkey in the European Union, an expansionist Russia, confl ict in the Holy Land, holy conflicts in the US and Europe, the contested borders of the states of Iraq and Syria (and Israel) and the stateless refugees who flee them: all have their roots in the history of the city of three names. If you like, Istanbul is a Rosetta Stone for international affairs. Her rulers’ hotspots across time – Damascus, Libya, Baghdad, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Cairo, the Caucasus and Crimea – are our own. Many of our ancestors in Europe, the Near East, the Middle East, the Far East and North Africa were allies or subjects or citizens or slaves of either the Greek, the Roman, the Byzantine or the Ottoman master. Currants and cotton, bathmats and ballistics, as well as human traffic– travellers, captives and refugees – have long been traded from the ports and highways of the ‘Queen of Cities’.

Istanbul’s topography might have moulded her history, and her story the landscape of our lives, yet the physical scale of the city has rarely seemed to deserve the magnitude of the fabled enemies and heroes that she has attracted: Constantine I, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, the new army of Islam, Tamerlane, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, the British Empire, Islamic State (IS). But of course the idea of Istanbul is
exponentially bigger than her footprint. As a metaphor and a location the city appears in Greek drama, in the Qur’an, in Shakespeare; there are Turks in Molière and Ottomans in Machiavelli. Istanbul is there in the 007 film franchise – the ultimate Bond backdrop in the inter-continental mind’s eye. The Turks use a special tense when describing the legends of their city – ‘as was remembered’. Istanbul is a place of business and pleasure, a place where stories match their weight to histories. In ways both great and small we owe more to this city and to the culture that she sponsored than we might know: the term lingua franca, the Adoration of the Virgin Mary, the Nicene Creed, the name of the Roma, passports, the fork, jingoism, the fact that some call themselves White Caucasian, the basis of modern Western law – all were forged in Istanbul’s furnace. Greek dramas, Roman philosophy, Christian texts, Islamic poetry – many world-class examples were preserved only thanks to the work of the men (and sometimes the women) in the city’s scriptoria (workshops established for the copying, translating and analysis of manuscripts) and libraries, madrasas and monasteries; Istanbul has done much to furnish civilisation’s shared memory bank.


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