Magazine article The Spectator

'Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities', by Bettany Hughes - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities', by Bettany Hughes - Review

Article excerpt

I was a young, aspiring writer when I decided to leave everything behind and move to Istanbul more than two decades ago. I rented a tiny, dingy flat at the bottom of the Street of Cauldron Makers not far from Taksim Square, the heart of the modern city. That first night, I sat by the window under the anaemic light from a streetlamp, and wondered what this urban sprawl held for me. At midnight, I heard a loud voice from outside, full of anger and emotion. A transvestite was walking down the street, her miniskirt glittering in stark contrast to her raven hair.

She was limping furiously, holding in one hand a shoe with a broken heel. The other shoe she insisted on wearing. She was swearing at someone called Kareem, swearing and weeping, but soon her fury was directed at all men and then, suddenly, at the city of Istanbul itself. I opened the window and said a few friendly words, trying to communicate with her. She waved her hand dismissively. As I watched her disappear down the street, I remember thinking to myself what a terrific city this must be where not only exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke but also profanities reached the skies; and what a painful place, too, this must be where transvestites cried alone at night.

There is no Istanbul. There are Istanbuls -- plural, competing, coexisting, clashing. The complexity of the city's story is revealed in mesmerising detail in Bettany Hughes's new book. At times her writing feels like a love letter, or a eulogy to what has been lost. Her compassion for the city and its millions of inhabitants, past and present, comes across from the very first pages. It is quite rare to read a historical book that weaves research and insight with understanding and love: here is a book written as much with the heart as the mind.

Hughes embarks on a Heraklean task, 'using clues in the landscape to tell a story of this city from prehistory to present'. Like a magpie, she collects facts and stories, giving voice to the forgotten, the silenced, the excluded. The book focuses on the three main phases of the city's turbulent history: Byzantion, in the ancient past; Constantinople, when it became the capital of the Byzantine empire; and Istanbul, dating from the Ottoman era. It is a bit of a pity that the narrative largely ends as we reach the beginning of modern times, though there are a few important references to contemporary developments.

Straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a city of multiple names and endless disguises. It is the longest-lived political entity in Europe; a kaleidoscope that changes shapes and patterns; a bridge between cultures which, like all bridges, draws anxious attention to the void beneath. With its natural resources and fascinating cityscape, it has been likened to 'a diamond set between two sapphires', envied by people East and West. But its history is full of ruptures. In 1204 it was ransacked by the Crusaders. In the 15th century it was captured by the Ottomans -- a story we Turks memorise at school, through the lens of national pride and patriotism. We like to think that it always belonged to us, this city of marvels.

Asking that very question -- to whom does the city belong? -- Hughes gives us an impressive narrative that celebrates diversity and continuity. …

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