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Love for a city - Deccan Herald
Love for a city
A.V.S. Namboodiri,
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History has often been seen as a history of class struggles, of economic forces, of kings and governments, of subaltern movements, of ideas and as an interplay of various other forces. It can also be seen as a history of cities. Cities have been at the heart of human civilisation and culture, and the growth and decline of many of them may be identified with movements of history. Among such great cities of the world is Istanbul, which has been an active setting for momentous changes of history in the past 2,000 years.

Few other cities can claim such an unbroken tradition of imperial power and culture. Bettany Hughes’s history of the city traces that tradition with great elan, scholarship, sensitivity, and an eye for human details that often get lost in big narratives. It is a tale of three cities which Istanbul has been and is: Byzantine of the ancient past, Constantinople that was the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire, and Istanbul of the Muslim Ottoman empire. It was once the eastern Rome, the seat of the Roman empire, and was later the seat of the caliphate, and had no rivals, at its peak, in power, riches, splendour and culture.

Istanbul had great natural and locational advantages. It sat at the geographical point where two happening continents met. It had a vast and fertile hinterland, and the Bosphorus made it accessible by water. Many empires met one another there. Two great religions, Christianity and Islam, interacted with each other, colliding often but also absorbing elements from each other. Many races and cultures intermingled, like the Persians, the Arabs, the Turks, the Jews and the Kurds. It has been a melting pot.

Hughes stops her account in 1923 when Turkey’s capital was shifted from Istanbul to Ankara. The city has changed much since then under Kemal Pasha, who tried to westernise the city and the country, and most recently under President Erdogan. Istanbul has changed with every wave of history that swept it, but has also remained essentially unchanged.

According to the legend, Byzantion was founded by King Byzos. Roman emperor Constantine went there, 'led by the hand of God’, and transformed it with palaces, temples, churches and monuments. It thrived under later emperors like Justinian’, and monuments like Hagia Sophia, 'a church of indescribable beauty’, came up. Its sophistication and wealth attracted traders, visitors, pilgrims and marauders. The Ottomans tried to take it many times and finally succeeded in 1453. The city was reinvented again and again, but it retained it mystique through centuries.

Hughes’s account is comprehensive. She has well described the important turning points like the wars that brought new rulers, given interesting accounts of personalities like the harlot-turned-empress Theodora, cast her eyes wide on the lives of people and even has space for topics like sex and eunuchs and white slave trade. She covers everything from the rise of and the schisms in Christianity and the Crusades to the caliphate and its fall, and all that happened in the unquiet centuries. She could have given more details of some events like the massacre of Armenians, which is dismissed in one page in a book of about 800 pages. She is a historian, broadcaster, filmmaker and teacher. Sometimes the descriptions come from the broadcaster and the filmmaker, making the account visual and immediate, and the better for it.

Istanbul was always a place for exchange of ideas, art and culture, as well as goods. The sack of Constantinople in 1453 has been seen as a trigger for Renaissance, which later changed life, society and politics in Europe in elemental ways. Hughes puts Istanbul in perspective when she says that it is a place where stories and histories collide and crackle. She calls it a city 'that has long sustained a tradition as old as the birth of the modern mind.’ The large material she has amassed from previous histories, original sources, archaeological findings and many visits to the city has given a vivid picture, which will be very useful for historians, students and ordinary readers. She worked on it for a decade.

It is also a personal account of love. The chapters are short and the story is told in chronological order, and the language is simple and uncluttered. The account is brisk and even breathless, perhaps because the story of a few thousand years had to be told in a few hundred pages.

Istanbul is still a happening place. It has seen a coup attempt, a counter-coup and terrorist attacks in recent months. It remains as a traffic point between the East and the West even now. Much of the traffic of refugees from the trouble spots in West Asia to Europe passes through Istanbul. That shows that its historical role has not changed. In spite of the unrest and unsettled conditions, it continues to be a magnet for visitors from all over the world. They can get a good insight into the city’s past with this detailed account.

Istanbul’s most famous resident and Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk wrote an evocative account of his life in the city where he was born and brought up in Istanbul: Memories and the City. He mixed memory with melancholy and spoke of the sense of loss after the disappearance of the empire, of the clash between secularism and political Islam, and other concerns and conflicts. His picture of the city is personal but real and haunting. The story has been told by many others too. Bettany Hughes’s account validates the many accounts and possibilities of Istanbul - the writer’s, the historian’s, the common man’s and all other versions - because the great city, which they say is the centre of the world, appeals to everyone in very many ways.

A Tale of Three Cities

Bettany Hughes
2017, pp 800
Rs. 1,067