Saturday, January 27, 2018

Istanbul: a tale of three cities, by Bettany Hughes

Back in the fall I promised somebody that I would review this book. Even when it arrived on my doorstep, all 800 pages of it,  I thought I would have no trouble finishing it up in time for people to buy copies of it for their historically minded friends before Christmas.  I soon found that I had mistaken the nature of the book. As I sank deeper and deeper into it, I realized Istanbul is not a book you read, nor digest quickly. It is a book you immerse yourself in. Quite a few readers will lack the patience for such a work. But for people who want a book that reflects the size and variety and significance of the city of Constantine (and so many other more interesting residents),  this may prove to be a treasure. It certainly is both well-written and well-thought out.

Hughes shows us Istanbul as many different peoples living together in cooperation and rivalry on a landscape and seascape that is equally varied.  She knows the city neighbourhoods and surrounding districts, the people who have lived there, the agriculture, fishing, industry that have characterized the place over the last 8000 years.  (Indeed at one point she takes a story back 800,000 years, something I thoroughly approve of.)  The network that holds place to together is network of stories and customs, many of which have been around for very long time, and indeed seem to have it originated or developed in Istanbul.

Take for instance the production and use of eunuchs for specialized political and cultural functions. No historian would argue that eunuchs were "invented" in the city. But for very long time they were an important factor not only in the practical workings of the capital of the Eastern Mediterranean, but part of its image abroad, an image that it was by no means solely negative. This is part of the complex nature of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, that it can be and has been simultaneously a symbol of luxury, imperial power, religion and vice.

Constantinople/Istanbul also had periods of vulnerability and at times it has almost been a backwater.   It might be said that Istanbul is only now emerging from its long twentieth-century period of isolation, and isolation that Hughes clearly thinks is quite atypical of Istanbul's history.  The theme of this book is the cosmopolitan nature of the city, its capability to learn and invent and absorb elements from a variety of cultures, and to use and transform those elements into a city culture that has often been predominant in the eastern Mediterranean basin.  But since World War I the Republic of Turkey has not been a great power, and Istanbul has not been a world city putting its own unique stamp on much of the rest of the world.  It is quite possible, however, that this period is coming to an end. 

But what kind of city may today's Istanbul be?  The Great War destroyed empires, which nationalists of many stripes tried to reorganize as national states, where one history, one religion, and one ethnicity asserted its unique  legitimacy by expelling many of the historic "minorities"  from the "national homeland".  One of these empires became a Turkish state, while the imperial city lost its status as  a great eastern capital.  It is only in the last two decades or so that Turks have come to reconsider the role of their relatively new republic and its  greatest city.  This book is a cautious  argument in favor of remembering that the most important role that Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul have played during the long history of the city, has been to teach people how and why to be citizens of the world. 

Did I say that Hughes was cautious?  In today's Mediterranean region, this is a radical thought indeed.

Image:  A "Grand Turk" (Mehmet).

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