Disentangling the myth of Istanbul from the reality

by Michele Hewitson / 11 April, 2017
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Bettany Hughes has written not so much a history book – although it positively bursts at its ample, bejewelled, boisterous, mad and murderous seams with history brought to life – as a biography. Or perhaps, as befits the title, three biographies: of Byzantium, which begat Constantinople, which begat Istanbul.

Like people, cities contain multitudes; Istanbul contains multitudes upon multitudes. The modern city’s family history, which this book is, is a palimpsest on which the traces of its earlier manifestations can still be read and, if you look hard enough – and Hughes looks very hard – you can still see those traces.

This is Turkey, so you do have to look hard. British broadcaster Hughes writes, and winces, with the historian’s regret for the ancient disguised by the neglect of the modern: the remains of important bits of history go mostly unseen by the tourists and, quite probably, most locals. Small wonder. A rusty red Fiat, for example, stood for years at the foot of what was once the 18.5m Column of the Goths, a giant “X marks the spot” where Iron Age Greeks first set up shop. Why bother having a rusty old car removed? It had become as much a part of the history of the city as the Topkapi Palace. Meet you at the rusty red Fiat before going to gawk at the mad jewels and holy relics within the palace? Why not?

The historian might lament. The true Turkophile, which Hughes is, can also applaud the quirks of the Turks in such a juxtaposition. Anyone who has been to Turkey will in turn appreciate that necessary approach. If you live every day surrounded by the ancient, you might get a little blasé and prop up a pile of stones that meant something in, say, AD516, with a few old iron bars. And if you need to dump an old Fiat, any empty space will do.

It is shocking to those of us from young countries, but you do have to laugh. A good biography should have its share of laughs and Hughes has an infectious sense of the ridiculous – along with a lively eye for the domestic, and for the place of some remarkable women who were warriors and strategists and the power brokers behind some of those many toppled thrones.

Bettany Hughes.

Like all biography, or family history observed from outside the family, interpretations depend on the observer’s perspective. It is the historian’s job to correct the lens. Hughes is particularly good on the myths and realities of the harem – which have long had and still have projected upon them “the idea of gorgeous, languorous women, available and yet exotic, from a remote Eastern land [who] promised good box office”.

“The harem,” she writes, “became symbolic of the Ottoman Empire itself – a wonderful place of promise, pleasure and confinement, an idea and a location that needed invading and then liberating.”

The reality of the harem was tuberculosis and pleurisy and contagion and, no doubt, boredom. But, as one Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an ambassador’s wife, discovered, they were also tamer than the popular fantasy: “In short, ’tis the woman’s coffee-house, where all the news of the Town is told, scandal invented, etc.”

Lady Mary (she “escaped engagement to an Honourable Clotworthy Skeffington”, Hughes writes, in a wry aside) lived in the city in 1717-18. She went to a women’s bathhouse, where she was observed by the Ottoman women and “there were gasps of horror”. Her stays were “thought to be a cage in which her husband had locked her.”

This is a small but telling anecdote: the observer observed. Such observations liven a history of which the first chapter is entitled “Bones, Stones and Mud: 800,000 – 5500 BC” and the last, “Global Futures: AD 1924”.

There are the Vandals and the Goths and the Christians and Muslims and the Pagans. The rusty cars and the crazy jewels. Istanbul’s story, Hughes writes, “is perhaps so complex, each chapter interwoven with the next, it does not satisfy our desire for unitary explanations of how the story of the world runs. As a city Istanbul is both ‘ours’ and ‘other’ …”

The common idea about Istanbul is that it is where East meets West. It’s not, says Hughes. Rather, it is “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”.

The French, she tells us, say, “C’est Byzance”, when they mean something is “excessive, luxurious, sumptuous”.

Her wonderful book, then, c’est Byzance. I have been to Istanbul and it nettled me, all right. I couldn’t get any sort of take on it. This story of three cities makes me want to go back and try it again, with the benefit of differently tinted lenses. That you can’t get any sort of take on it is Hughes’ alluring point.

A TALE OF THREE CITIES: ISTANBUL, by Bettany Hughes (Hachette, $37.99)

This article was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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