Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

10,000 Years of Being at the Centre of Events

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

10,000 Years of Being at the Centre of Events

Article excerpt

Byline: ROBERT FOX

ISTANBUL: A TALE OF THREE CITIES by Bettany Hughes (Weidenfeld, PS25) OVER the past year, Istanbul has suffered eight major terrorist attacks the latest on New Year's Eve at the Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus, where 39 were killed and 70 were injured by a lone gunman, and claimed by Islamic State. Half of all the murders were by IS adherents, the others were the work of Kurdish militants, according to the Turkish authorities.

The Reina massacre was in revenge for Turkey's stance in the battle for Aleppo, according to IS propaganda, where, instead of being a bastion for Sunni Islam, it sided with the heretic Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies. Istanbul's newly revived status as perhaps the major centre of Sunni Islam in the non-Arab world, and a pivot to the current Middle East imbroglio, is underlined by Bettany Hughes in the introduction to her sumptuous urban biography. Modestly, she says the story covers 10,000 years, and is the product of nine years' research. A television series for the BBC, Turkish TV and the world is to follow.

The book is not a traditional history as such, we are told. It is more a personal journey, arising from a love affair with the place over 30 years. It is the tale of a city as the capital of three empires: the Roman Empire of Constantine the Great and Constans, the Byzantine Empire which ended with capture by Mehmet II in 1453, and the Ottoman Empire, whose Caliphate terminated in 1924.

Hughes is particularly good on women, with the harlot-cum-circus girl and empress Theodora and the eccentric Lady Mary Wortley Montagu taking centre stage. Much of the drama lies in siege, mayhem, pillage, massacre and riot. The city fell to Venetians and Franks in 1204, to the Ottomans in 1453, and came under allied occupation at the end of the First World War. In 717 the Byzantine Emperor managed to hold out just against a variety of marauders, Varangian Norsemen and levies led by Muslims among them. Poignantly, Hughes observes that most among the attacking and defending soldiery spoke Greek. …

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