Ortakoy mosque and the First Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey. East and West have collided here for millennia.

Book review: Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities is a life-affirming history of the city that straddles the Bosphorus – and history

Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul – so much has happened here, from the Bronze Age up to the modern era, that a single volume can’t hope to encompass everything. But Bettany Hughes covers a lot of ground with verve

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

by Bettany Hughes

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

4/5 stars

For those who enjoy historical parallels, there was something particularly irresistible about the news in 2013 that the world’s deepest underwater railway tunnel linking Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus had opened beneath Istanbul.

The record-breaking continental connection recalled Herodotus’ description, two-and-a-half millennia earlier, of the Persian emperor Darius I ordering the construction of a mile-long pontoon bridge across the water sometime about 513BC, an act of imperial hubris that would, inevitably, result in the nemesis of the Persian wars and defeat at the hands of the Greeks.

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It is difficult to imagine the Turkish prime minister being gripped by such parallels. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, instead made disparaging comments about the long delays to the tunnel caused by “clay pots” and “other stuff”, such stuff including the largest remains of a Byzantine fleet ever discovered, among other important archaeological findings. The modern Islamist is not generally known for his interest in non-Islamic history.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Ottoman forces under Mehmed II ended Byzantine rule. This diorama can be found in Askeri Museum, Istanbul. Photo: Shutterstock

Fortunately for today’s readers, the historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes has a rather broader outlook, sufficiently wide to encompass everything from the earliest spear-carrying Bronze Age inhabitants to marauding ancient Greeks, Christian-slaughtering Roman emperors, pious Byzantine ascetics, world-conquering Ottomans and hatchet-faced 20th-century nationalists. She populates her three cities of Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul with a rich and dizzying cast of ordinary and extraordinary men and women.

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This is historical narrative brimming with brio and incident. Hughes’ portraits are written with a zesty flourish. The Athenian general, chancer and turncoat rogue Alcibiades of the fifth century BC is “feckless, over-sexed, immoderate, dazzling, raffish, louche”, remembered among other things for starting the regrettable trend of “peeing into a pot while still at dinner”.

The chapter on eunuchs – “Sex and the City” was by turns captivating, dispiriting and wince-inducing. Eunuchs roved far and wide beyond the narrow confines of palace slavery. They could be famous soldiers, fabulously wealthy art collectors, devout monks and, not least, patriarch leaders of the Orthodox church, guardians of the city’s spiritual DNA.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, father of the modern Turkish republic.

Given the landmark prominence of 1453 as a date in the city’s history that, depending on your perspective, lives on either in fame or infamy, it is a surprise that the calamitous fall (for Christians) or glorious conquest (for Muslims) of Constantinople in that year is dealt with relatively briefly. This is one of the great oppositional set pieces in its tumultuous history and one might expect Hughes to go to town on the confrontation between the youthful Ottoman sultan Mehmed II and the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos.

The grandest and richest city in Europe from the middle of the fifth century to the beginning of the 13th, the successor to Rome as imperial capital from the age of Constantine, a source of pride for Christians of the Byzantine empire – Constantinople had long attracted covetous Muslim eyes.

For Turks to this day, the iconic image of 1453 is the triumphant entry on horseback of Mehmed – from this moment basking in the sobriquet Fatih: “The Conqueror” – through the corpse-strewn Charisus Gate. He is invariably pictured striking a pose of indomitable power, raising aloft his crescent-topped standard with its green banner of Islam, towering above his turbaned officers who crowd around him on foot.

It was the modernising Mustafa Kemal – Atatürk, father of the Turks – who wiped out the 470-year-old caliphate, bundling off the last sultan and caliph, Abdülmecid II, into exile on a midnight train to Switzerland on March 4, 1924

Mehmed’s ruthless and brilliant conquest of a city that had resisted 12 Muslim sieges over nine centuries kick-started the world-changing Ottoman empire, which for the next five centuries wrote its destiny across the Middle East, north Africa and through the Balkans, right up to the gates of Vienna, with Istanbul as its dazzling Islamic capital throughout. It was the realisation of Osman’s famous dream in which the 14th-century founder of the Ottoman empire, a shadowy tribal leader, had seen the city as “a diamond mounted between two sapphires and two emeralds … the precious stone in the ring of a vast dominion which embraced the entire world”.

Competitors swim from Asia to Europe during the annual Bosphorus Cross-Continental swimming competition. Istanbul’s position makes it the conduit for traffic and commerce between the continents. Photo; Reuters

As for Byzantium, it flickered on in a fading afterlife in the Peloponnesian town of Mystras, beneath the sunburnt crags of Mount Taygetus. Today it is a ghost town attracting tourists, pilgrims and scholars such as Hughes, who summons up the spirit of the place with a few typically evocative lines. “Frescoes appear out of the dusk, unlikely survivors among the ruins. At dawn the mist can be so thick that there is no other world; cold air falls off the mountain. Martins in the palm trees squabble over the news of the day.”

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Greeks and philhellenes may still mourn the transformation of Christian Constantinople into Muslim Istanbul, but the city long remained a bastion of metropolitan cosmopolitanism. Expelled from Granada in 1492, the Camondo family of Sephardic Jews arrived in Istanbul in 1798 and wasted little time in establishing a business dynasty that came to be known as “the Rothschilds of the east”. By the 1860s, having helped finance the Bosphorus steam ferries and tramways, they had become the largest landowners in the city. It was the Nazis of Germany, not Ottoman Muslims, who wiped out the last of the family: in Auschwitz.

And it was the modernising Mustafa Kemal – Atatürk, father of the Turks – who wiped out the 470-year-old caliphate, bundling off the last sultan and caliph, Abdülmecid II, into exile on a midnight train to Switzerland on March 4, 1924, having moved the new republic’s capital from Istanbul to Ankara a year earlier. The once great Ottoman empire had collapsed and been dismembered. “Peace abroad, peace at home” was to be the mantra of the new state.

If Turkey’s latest drift into Islamist authoritarianism is dispiriting for many, one can perhaps take solace in the thought that Istanbul has survived successions of tyrants great and small for many centuries, and will surely live on as one of the world’s pre-eminent cities for many more. In Bettany Hughes’s life-filled and life-affirming history, steeped in romance and written with verve, it has found a sympathetic and engaging champion.