A Talk with Bettany Hughes, Author of ISTANBUL

How did you first become interested in Istanbul?

I first traveled to Istanbul over thirty years ago. Immediately I was enraptured with the place—a truly cosmopolitan city where history constantly breaks through to the surface of the modern metropolis. As a historian, I was in love! This is a city that has been central to Greek, Roman, Muslim, Turkish, Armenian, Azeri, Jewish, Viking, and Colonial powers, to name but a few. Follow the story of Istanbul and you understand the story of the world. Its history plays out in China, India, the Middle East, Britain, Central Europe, France—and even in the U.S.


Can you explain the significance of your book’s subtitle, A Tale of Three Cities?

The city starts out as a lush, prehistoric settlement, then is founded as the Greek city of Byzantion (Roman Byzantium), becomes Christian Constantinople under Constantine the Great, and is then called Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest of 1453. So telling the story of the city becomes a biography with different ages. It is such a buzzing hub in terms of trade, culture, politics, religion, and art for East and West, for North and South, for Asia and Europe. If you understand the story of Istanbul you begin to understand the story of global geo-politics through time. But no one has ever written a story of this city from prehistory to the present—so I launched myself at the task ten years ago!


Which of those “three cities” was the most interesting to research and write about, and why?

I love all the ages of this great city. It was a real challenge to write in detail about the early period as few people have done this before. I have a soft spot for the wonderful Empress Theodora, who starts out life as an erotic street dancer in the city and ends up ruling a million square miles as Empress, helps to build the exquisite Haghia Sophia—for 1000 years the biggest religious building in the world—and promotes a series of social reforms including safe houses for prostitutes and homeless people, and increased penalties for rape and pimping. The Emperor Justinian was so enraptured by her he changed the law so an Emperor could marry an “actress.” She was born in 500AD so Theodora was not only a brilliant woman—she was remarkably ahead of her time.


What else did you particularly enjoy?

I’m a great fan of Spartan culture, so I never make life easy for myself! In the book I’ve tried to put brand new archaeology into every chapter. So I’ve had an incredibly exciting time—uncovering thirty-seven complete, mediaeval ships in a submerged harbour dating from 420AD (discovered during rescue digs as the metro system was extended and the tunnels under the Bosphorus were built), seeing whole bowls of cherries drowned in tsunamis 1600 years ago, listening to the engineering wonders the architect Sinan installed in the city’s mosques, observing a camel buried after the Siege of Vienna. I have tried to bring all this fresh scholarship to as wide as possible an audience.


How long did it take you to write this book, and how did you balance it with your television work?

I first started gathering material thirty years ago and have been writing this book for ten. My tutor at Oxford, Robin Lane Fox (author of Alexander the Great and advisor on Oliver Stone’s Alexander), said historians should never write history from their armchairs so I make a point of going everywhere I write about. So I’ve ended up in China, the Balkans, India, the Caucasus, the Middle East, even windy north England on the trail of clues. Fortunately my TV work takes me around the world so I sometimes sneakily use TV filming as a recce for book research!


What role did women play in Istanbul’s history?

From its beginning women have had a strong role to play—and this was something I have tried to draw out in the book. From potent classical goddesses to mediaeval empresses to Ottoman courtesans who end up holding the reigns of power (one, Safiye, strikes up a correspondence with Elizabeth I of England—they sort out international politics then exchange makeup tips), I have allowed women to walk the streets of Istanbul again.


What did you make of last year’s coup attempt in Turkey?

I have been caught up in riots and protests by chance in the city over the years and was due to be researching in Istanbul the week of the coup—but the news broke just before my plane left so very fortunately I wasn’t caught up in the crossfire. Istanbul has always been a protean, febrile place, a city of protest where the citizens’ voices can be heard on the streets. I went back soon after the coup and my favourite baker on the Asian side had gunshots around his oven and had lost a number of friends. Istanbul is an incredibly resilient city. The strength of its people never ceases to amaze me, and my heart goes out to everyone who is affected by the current storm of international politics the region is enduring.


When were you last in Istanbul, and what is it like today?

I was filming there last week! We should all go. I live in London and there are bomb threats every day. “To live is to fight”—we should never be cowed by fear. Go to Istanbul—the locals will welcome you with open arms!


Any tips for someone traveling to Istanbul?

Keep your wits about you, be respectful, and use the phrase “choc guzel” a lot. It means “very beautiful” and will prove to Istanbullus you are there to love their city.


What can the current U.S. government learn from studying Istanbul?

If you dive into the history of Istanbul you understand not just what it takes to make a successful city—Istanbul is the longest inhabited polity in Europe; its story starts 8000 years ago—but how as a species we can best work out how to live together. Of course there are troubles, but Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul is one of civilisation’s greatest success stories. Istanbul teaches us what it is to be truly cosmopolitan. It teaches us how, as a species, across time and space, we can live peacefully and productively together.