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Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany…

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities (edition 2017)

by Bettany Hughes (Author)

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1215141,744 (4.11)6
Title:Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities
Authors:Bettany Hughes (Author)
Info:W&N (2017), 832 pages
Collections:Guardian reviews

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Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes



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Overall, the main problem with this book is that it is far too long. I read many long books; I am an ardent lover of history, a student of the ancient world and the eastern Mediterranean. What is wrong with this picture? The amount of information contained in it is enormous; but the story it imparts is fragmentary and incoherent. Part of the problem – and one that contributes to its excessive length - is living up to its clever title; the tale of the “first” city of Istanbul is a rather thin one, and the connections that the author tries to make between then and now are far too tenuous. Nothing much happened in ancient pre-Constantinople Byzantion that didn’t happen in 50 other ancient Greek cities. One of the few securely historic figures from this period with a connection to this city, is the Spartan general Pausanius, for whom Byzantion was just one short episode in a checkered career. But even that connection is somewhat tenuous; there is a “strong possibility” that he built the city’s first walls; the Serpent Column at Delphi, on which Pausanius had inscribed his name, was moved to Constantinople 800 years after his death, a development for which Pausanius might have been “secretly pleased”. Byzantion was one of many cities that changed hands during the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, but the fact is that Chalcedon and Chrysopolis – two cities on the Asian side of the Bosphorus – were far more important at that time. Byzantion seems to have consistently missed its opportunities to make history; although his father Philip of Macedon tried besieging Byzantion, Alexander the Great apparently bypassed the city on his way to conquer the east. At the end of the second century AD, a challenger to the Roman emperor Septimus Severus made Byzantium his center of operations; the ruling emperor swiftly put an end to both the upstart and his putative capital. Severus did at least later rebuild Byzantium, preparing the way for its next more significant reincarnation as the city of Constantine.

The second part of the book consists of a series of portraits – roughly chronological in order – of Constantine and his successor emperors, of the city, and its inhabitants. It is occasionally interesting, but not compelling. Even if the formidable city walls were often all that stood between Byzantium and its extinction, the story of Constantinople is not a match for the really fascinating story of the Byzantine empire; how the sprawling, essentially indefensible collection of territories, of which Constantinople was the center, twisted and turned, and managed to negotiate its – sometimes tenuous - survival for over 1,000 years despite the assaults of Persians, Goths, Vandals. Avars, Slavs, Huns, Muslims, Mongols and Crusaders. In fact the most interesting chapters are the ones where the author ventures outside the city - describing the multiple trade routes to and from Constantinople, or the implications of the Byzantine artifacts discovered at Anglo-Saxon sites in England. The author’s knowledge of the city – ancient and modern – is encyclopedic; but somehow the constant referral back - to what or who might have stood on this very spot in ancient Byzantion - and forward to what district of modern Istanbul now covers it, becomes tedious. It is almost like reading the script of a future Istanbul BBC series.

I am afraid that – after several attempts to reengage – I only skimmed though part three, dealing with the city's final incarnation; maybe I will read it again carefully before visiting Istanbul, as it does have more of the feel of a guide book than anything else. ( )
  maimonedes | Apr 11, 2018 |
“But of course, the idea of Istanbul is exponentially bigger than her footprint.”

4.5 Stars

Coming in at 800 pages (although the last chunk is notes and the bibliography), this comprehensive history book may seem daunting, but it reads well and details so many fascinating things that it feels half as long. Bettany Hughes delves into the deep, rich history of Istanbul chronologically, mixing culture, religion, and war to create a vivid picture.

“In terms of both historical fact and written histories this place reminds us why we are compelled to connect, to communicate, to exchange. But also to change.”

I read books like this and realize how ignorant and little I know of the world and its history (and geography). Istanbul (nee Constantinople, nee Byzantium) took center stage many times over history:

“The Milion marks out distance, and it marks the moment when Byzantium truly becomes a topographical and cultural reference point shared by East and West.”
“And so the city of Constantinople was founded on dreams, faith and hope, but also on ambition and blood.”
“Istanbul is not where East meets West, but where East and West look hard and longingly at one another, sometimes nettled by what they see yet interested to learn that they share dreams, stories, and blood.”

I highlighted many portions of this monograph; it is so rich in information and much of it beautifully written (especially for nonfiction). This is definitely a book I’ll refer back to and re-skim.

“Istanbul is a settlement that, in her finest form, produces, promote and protects the vital, hopeful notion that, wherever and whoever we end up, we understand that although humanity has many faces we share one human heart- to know Istanbul is to know what it is to be cosmopolitan- this is a city that reminds us that we are, indeed, citizens of the world.” ( )
1 vote Kristymk18 | Jan 11, 2018 |
Skip the Prologue.
  rakerman | Nov 28, 2017 |
Skip the Prologue.
  rakerman | Nov 28, 2017 |
Istanbul, initially through its location and later through the strength of its political, military, religious and artistic cultures, has dominated the growth of civilisation in the European and Eastern worlds at least and has had a profound impact on Asia as well. This book traces the history of the city from its very earliest times in the anthropological and archaeological records through to the creation of the Turkish republic in 1924.

Bettany Hughes writes well and is clearly someone who knows and loves Istanbul. This book is less about the development of Istanbul as a physical city (we learn very little about the geography, layout and daily life of the city) and much more about the impact and influence that the city had and has on the rest of the world. This story is primarily told through the leaders of the city and the key institutions they established.

The 600 pages of text contain 78 chapters, some only a page or two long. I felt that chopping the book up in this way impacted the narrative flow and did not seem to serve any great purpose; some chapter breaks seemed very arbitrary to me. There are several very welcome maps in the book, but these are not always well-related to the text. For example, Hughes mentions places that are not on the relevant map.

This is grand and epic history that attempts to, and succeeds at, presenting the vast sweep of human history that has centred on this one place. Excellent stuff. ( )
  pierthinker | Jul 26, 2017 |
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For Jane and Karl -- who sustain me body and soul. For Robin Lane Fox who gave me hope. And for those who can no longer walk the streets of Istanbul.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0297868489, Hardcover)

Istanbul has always been a place where stories and histories collide.

From the Koran to Shakespeare, this city with three names--Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul--resonates as an idea and a place, real and imagined. Standing as the gateway between East and West, it has been the capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. For much of its history it was the very center of the world, known simply as "The City," but, as Bettany Hughes reveals, Istanbul is not just a city, but a story.

In this epic new biography, Hughes takes us on a dazzling historical journey through the many incarnations of one of the world's greatest cities. As the longest-lived political entity in Europe, over the last 6,000 years Istanbul has absorbed a mosaic of micro-cities and cultures all gathering around its core. At the latest count, archaeologists have measured forty-two human habitation layers. Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews, Vikings, and Azeris all called a patch of this earth their home.

Based on meticulous research and new archaeological evidence, this captivating portrait of the momentous life of Istanbul is visceral, immediate, and scholarly--narrative history at its finest.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 03 Feb 2017 17:08:52 -0500)

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul-- one city, where stories and histories collide. The gateway between East and West, North and South, it has been the capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. Hughes takes us on an historical journey from the Neolithic to the present, exploring the ways that Istanbul's influence has spun out to shape the wider world. This is the story not just of emperors, viziers, caliphs, and sultans, but of the poor and the voiceless, of the women and men whose aspirations and dreams have continuously reinvented Istanbul.… (more)

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