A Tale of Three Cities


By Bettany Hughes

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Istanbul has long been a place where stories and histories collide, where perception is as potent as fact.

From the Koran to Shakespeare, this city with three names–Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul — resonates as an idea and a place, real and imagined. Standing as the gateway between East and West, North and South, it has been the capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. For much of its history it was the very center of the world, known simply as “The City,” but, as Bettany Hughes reveals, Istanbul is not just a city, but a global story.

In this epic new biography, Hughes takes us on a dazzling historical journey from the Neolithic to the present, through the many incarnations of one of the world’s greatest cities–exploring the ways that Istanbul’s influence has spun out to shape the wider world. Hughes investigates what it takes to make a city and tells the story not just of emperors, viziers, caliphs, and sultans, but of the poor and the voiceless, of the women and men whose aspirations and dreams have continuously reinvented Istanbul.

Written with energy and animation, award-winning historian Bettany Hughes deftly guides readers through Istanbul’s rich layers of history. Based on meticulous research and new archaeological evidence, this captivating portrait of the momentous life of Istanbul is visceral, immediate, and authoritative — narrative history at its finest.


For Jane and Karl – who sustain me body and soul.

For Robin Lane Fox who gave me hope.

And for those who can no longer walk the streets of Istanbul.


Jug from Fenerbahçe Yacht Harbour (Courtesy of Şevket Dönmez)

Engraving of Pausanias, c. 1880 (Alamy)

Top: the Serpent Column, c. 1752 (American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Gennadius Library); bottom: remains of the Serpent Column (Mary Evans)

Byzantine coin, c. first century AD (Classical Numismatic Group Inc., www.

Reconstruction of the Milion (Greek Strategos/Creative Commons)

The Arras medallion (British Museum)

Symbols used on the shields of northern European tribes c. AD 300 (Private collection)

Bronze medallion of Helena (Alamy)

Constantine crowned by Tyche, fourth century AD (Hermitage Museum)

Relief showing investiture of Ardashir II (Alamy)

Boats from the Theodosian harbour excavation (top: Institute of Nautical Archaeology; bottom: Istanbul University)

Bronze steelyard weight in the form of a bust (Met Museum)

Relief of a Stylite saint (Alamy)

Anatolian sun goddess (Getty)

Mosaic of Empress Theodora (Alamy)

Woodcut of the Haghia Sophia (Alamy)

Reconstruction of the Column of Justinian (Antoine Helbert)

The imperial district of Byzantine Constantinople (Cplakidas/Creative Commons)

Ivory diptych, AD 517 (Alamy)

Imitation Byzantine coins from Xinjiang, China (British Museum)

Engraving of the Nestorian Stele, 1887 (Alamy)

Byzantine copper coinage from Rendlesham, Suff olk (Suff olk County Council)

The Piraeus Lion (Private collection)

A Byzantine woman spearing a Varangian guardsman (Biblioteca Nacional de España)

Engraving of hippodrome and Christian monuments of Constantinople (Alamy)

Map of Constantinople from the Liber Insularum Archipelagi (Bridgeman)

Urban cannon in the Istanbul military museum (Alamy)

Gennadius II and Sultan Mehmed II (Getty)

Map of Topkapı Palace by Antoine Ignace Melling (Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, rfx DR724.M4)

The Sürre travelling through Damascus, c. 1895 (University of California/ HathiTrust)

Funeral procession of Joachim III, 1912 (Alamy)

Sketches for Galata bridge by Leonardo da Vinci (RMN/Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France)

Greek, Syrian and Ottoman women, engraving, 1581 (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Boats on the waterways of Istanbul (Alamy)

Süleyman the Lawgiver’s procession through the Atmeidan (British Museum)

The Great Comet over Istanbul (Topkapı Palace Museum Library)

Janissary soldiers (Getty Images)

The Slave Market, Constantinople by William Allan (Getty)

Photo card of ‘Zumiya the Egyptian’, c. 1870. (Greg French Early Photography)

Regency fashions, 1805 (Mary Evans/Alamy)

Tulip-patterned tiles (Alamy)

View of Constantinople by Antoine Ignace Melling (Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, rfx DR724.M4)

The Massacre at Chios by Eugene Delacroix (Getty)

Nusretiye Mosque, c. 1900 (Getty)

Galata Bridge, late nineteenth century (Library of Congress)

Top: Fishermen’s houses on the Bosphorus by Edward Lear (Bridgeman); bottom: Daguerrotype (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Cartoon of Catherine the Great (Royal Collection)

Royal Navy ratings at the top of Galata Tower (Imperial War Museum)

The future Edward VII near the Sea of Galilee (Royal Collection)

Submarines in Taşkizak dockyards (Smithsonian Museum)

German cruisers Breslau and Goeben in the bay at Constantinople, c. 1915 (Getty)

Anzac Beach, Gallipoli, by Charles Snodgrass Ryan (Australian War Memorial)

War orphans sheltering in a mosque (SALT Research)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, c. 1915 (Alamy)

Map of the Sykes-Picot agreement (The National Archives)

Hunger map of Europe, 1918 (Library of Congress)

Greek refugees leaving Istanbul, 1922 (Getty)

The Princess of Berar (Imperial War Museum)

A master working on the dome of Süleymaniye Mosque (SALT Research, Ali Saim Ülgen Archive)

Graffiti on a shop window (Author’s collection)



Neolithic footprint from Yenikapı excavations (Istanbul Archaeological Museum)

The fishermen of Constantinople, Codex Matritensis of Skylitzes (Alamy)

Tondo portrait of Septimius Severus (Bridgeman)

Christ depicted as the sun god Helios (Alamy)

Constantinople as Tyche (British Museum)

Illumination said to show Julian the Apostate’s flayed body (British Library)

The Peutinger map (Bridgeman)

Mosaic portrait of Emperor Justinian (Getty)

The Desborough necklace (British Museum)

Mosaics from the Great Palace (Alamy)

Illustration of the interior of a synagogue in Constantinople (Alamy)


Greek Fire, Codex Matritensis of Skylitzes (Bridgeman)

The burial shroud of Charlemagne (Bridgeman)

A panel commemorating the end of iconoclasm in Constantinople (Bridgeman)

A philosophy school in Constantinople, Codex Matritensis of Skylitzes (Alamy)

Siege of Constantinople from a chronicle by Jean Chartier (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Seated Scribe by Giovanni Bellini (Bridgeman)

Miniature of Istanbul by Matrakci Nasuh (Alamy)

Ottoman troops laying siege to Vienna (Getty)

Ali Pasha depicted in a German newspaper (V&A)

Feast for the Valide Sultan, Ottoman watercolour (Bridgeman)

Parade of Confectioner’s Guild and the Parade of Road-Sweepers, from the Surname i-Vehbi (Topkapı Palace Museum Library)


Western visitors to Constantinople (Walters Art Museum)

Hilye by Yahya Hilmi (Sakıp Sabancı Museum)

Panorama of Constantinople by Henry Aston Barker (Alamy)

Le Bain Turc by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (Alamy)

Women in an ox-drawn cart (Gülhan Benli)

Ortaköy Mosque (Alamy)

Battalion divers at the Imperial Naval Arsenal (Library of Congress)

Trackside simit sellers (Alamy)

The Golden Horn (National Geographic)

The Theodosian Walls in modern Istanbul (Alamy)


Designed by Jamie Whyte

Prehistoric sites around the Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara and Black Sea

Early Greek settlements along the Bosphorus

The Classical City, c. fifth century BC to third century ad

The Via Egnatia

Constantine’s Constantinople, c. AD 337

Theodosios’ Constantinople, c. AD 450

‘Barbarian’ tribes, c. AD 350–450

Golden Age Constantinople, c. AD 565

The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent

Trade routes to Constantinople, c. seventh to eleventh century ad

Conflict with Constantinople, c. seventh to eleventh century ad

Eleventh-century Constantinople

The Crusades

The Byzantine Empire, c. AD 1050 and 1204

Constantinople after the Crusades

Ottoman and Byzantine territory in the east Mediterranean, c. AD 1451

Sixteenth-century Istanbul

Expansion of the Ottoman Empire, AD 1300–1683

Attacks and blockades, AD 1624–c. 1900

The Ottoman Empire, AD 1566–1923

Ottoman involvement in the Crimean War

The First World War

Expansion of Istanbul, AD 1807–2000


AD 632–718


Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will he be, and what a wonderful army shall that army be!


The wind of death grabbed them… The Romans were besieged, but the Arabs were no better than them. The hunger oppressed them so much that they were eating the corpses of the dead, each other’s faeces and filth. They were forced to exterminate themselves, so they could eat. One modius of wheat was worth then ten denarii. They were looking for small rocks, they were eating them to satisfy their hunger. They ate rubbish from their ships.


We do not know the name of the messenger – but we live with the fallout of his message.

The Byzantine Emperor Constans II was a twenty-five-year-old ruler in his capital city of Constantinople in the high summer of the seventh century ad.3 News arrived that a ferocious force of Arabs, many of whom called themselves Muslims – ‘the ones who submit’ 4 – with a pine-fresh navy of 200-odd ships, had attacked the islands of Cyprus, Kos, Crete and Rhodes. Constans and his Christian court knew that these Muslims, adherents of a religion not yet a generation old, were a desert people – men so ginger about the sea that a popular Arabic street phrase whimpered, ‘The flatulence of camels is more pleasing than the prayers of the fishes.’ 5 With his superior numbers and a maritime tradition stretching back at least to the city’s celebrated foundation by sailors from mainland Greece 1,400 years before, Constans sailed out from his glittering, gold-domed city, praying that this would be a ritual humiliation for his Muslim foe.

Yet within just a day of fighting Constans would be the one degraded – jumping overboard dressed as a common sailor and crouching on the deck of a regular boat, desperately fleeing the slaughter between modern-day Cyprus and Turkey.6 The casualties in this Arab–Byzantine, Muslim– Christian conflict were so great it was said that all around the sea was stained red, flushed with human blood. Muslim sources called this the Battle of the Masts; new models of boat, the dromons and shalandiyyāt,7 forced hand-to-hand fighting as Byzantine and Arab vessels were roped together. And, disconcertingly for Christian Constantinople, against all the odds, it was the followers of Muhammad that won.

For a fat half-century the city of Constantinople, credited as God’s earthly home, would find herself both physically and psychologically besieged. This was a city that believed she was divinely favoured and that she would remain unconquered until the end of the world. Just a century before this New Rome, the wealthiest city on earth, had been the Christian capital of an empire of a million square miles. The people of Constantinople had such faith in their protector the Virgin Mary that the Mother of God would come to be called the city’s ‘commander in chief’.

Fleeing the scene of the battle, the Byzantine Emperor Constans had returned first to Constantinople, but eventually travelled on to the security of Sicily, leaving his mother city exposed. Those abandoned in the historic centre of the city itself, above what had once been an ancient Greek acropolis looking out over the Sea of Marmara, or sitting scattered along the shores of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, offered nothing like a united front. To some, Arab conquest seemed a certainty. Within just a few years of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in AD 632 (year 10/11 in the Islamic calendar), Muslims had looked set to rule much of the known world. In 632 Arab forces had conquered Byzantine Syria, in 636 a Byzantine army was beaten back in Yarmuk, in 640 the capture of Heliopolis had allowed for progress into Byzantine Egypt, in 641 Alexandria had fallen, in 642/3 Tripoli was captured, and now this advance nudging north. If events had followed what seemed to be their natural course, Istanbul would have become the seat of caliphs fifteen centuries ago.

But immediately after the Battle of the Masts there was a lull. The fledgling Muslim community was weakened by a succession crisis and by internecine strife – eventually resulting, from AD 661, in the world-shaping split between Shia and Sunnis that still endures.8 In Constantinople life continued, if a little anxiously. Many left the city, unsure whether she could feed or protect them. The imperial dynasty had recently introduced a mutilating form of punishment – rhinotomy – when the noses of disgraced emperors would be split (and the tongues of their wives). The golden nose-cover would become a feature of the Byzantine imperial palace and of places of exile. In outlying territories Byzantine populations hunkered down in fortified settlements such as Monemvasia in the Peloponnese, or physically buried themselves, their homes, their churches and their granaries into the soft rock in Cappadocia, Asia Minor. Emperor Constans had even tried to move the capital to Syracuse in Sicily.

The anxiety was justified: first in AD 6679 and again in 668 and 669, the Arabs would be back, bringing an army right up to Constantinople’s Golden Gate. Still using the Greco-Roman boats and those Greco-Egyptian boatmen whom they had pressed into service after conquering the port-city of Alexandria in 642; lowering at the settlement of Chalcedon, just one thousand metres from Constantinople across the Bosphorus straits and within clear sight of the city, the Muslim Arabs teased and threatened those who were trapped within the ‘World’s Desire’.10 There was now, indisputably, a new maritime power on the block. Each spring from Cyzicus on the coast of Asia Minor the Arabs attacked. All that would hold them back was Greek Fire, Constantinople’s diabolic secret weapon made from a combination of Caucasian crude oil, sulphur, pitch and quicklime, with an effect similar to napalm; along with the firepower of a 500-ship navy built by Constans while absent in Sicily.11 Fresh analysis of the Syriac and Muslim sources suggests that we should think of these early Arab aggressions as nagging incursions, rather than as a full-blown and consistent strategy of besiegement.

In AD 717 all that would change.

Defeated by Constantinople’s walls and by her cutting-edge weapons, but never taking their eyes off the prize, in AD 717 (year 98–99 in the Islamic calendar) Muslim armies returned. The Arabs had secured a base on Gibraltar in 711, footfall to much of the Iberian peninsula. Swathes of the Middle East and North Africa, and the edge of Europe, were theirs. Now it was time to secure the city of God. In 717, the besieging forces, led by the brother of the Syrian-based Umayyad Caliph Süleyman, attacked by both land and sea. Byzantine control of the Caucasus and Armenia had already evaporated. A Muslim fleet of 1,800 supported a vast army. Constantinople’s leaders were so fearful that all inhabitants were instructed to prove that they had the wherewithal to fight and a larder plump enough to survive a full year; those who did not make the mark were expelled. That year the city planted wheat in the gaps between her famous walls.12 Meanwhile, buoyed up by an eschatological vision – that a ruler bearing the name of a prophet (Süleyman is the Arabic equivalent of Solomon) would take the city – the attacking army made up predominantly of Arabs and Berbers stockpiled vast resources and arms, including naphtha, and jerry-built their own siege walls of mud around Constantinople, isolating those within from their allies.

Yet the Arab plan had an Achilles heel: the seaward sides of the city could not be blockaded by their fleet. First that preposterous Greek Fire – its use directed from the walls of Constantinople by the Emperor himself – and then the convenient defection of a number of Christian Coptic Egyptians on the Muslim ships meant that supplies, men and morale could keep scuttling into the city under the cover of darkness from that squid-black sea. The treacherous currents in the Bosphorus snared Muslim relief ships sailing up from the Sea of Marmara. The Arabs’ own destruction of the surrounding countryside had left the invaders with no food of their own; famine, fear and disease worked its way systematically through their camps. A severe winter, when the earth was white with snow, saw not besieged but besiegers eating pack-animals, possibly even turning to cannibalism.13

Finally on the Feast of Dormition, 15 August AD 718, the Arab commander ordered the retreat. Constantinople’s protector, Mary the Mother of God, whose image had been paraded around the walls, was credited with victory.14 Realising that they had the upper hand, the exhausted Constantinopolitans rallied to attack the retreating enemy one last time – many Muslims drowned, others were harassed by Bulgars. The troops that survived limped their way back to allied territories and then home.

These events became legends before they were history. The onslaughts and heroism and desperate escapes introduce us to a recurring theme in Istanbul’s history, that this is a city that lives a double life – as a real place and as a story.

The songs of Constantinople’s sieges and ocean-borne battles would be sung around the campfires of both sides in the conflict for generations to come. Medieval chroniclers and later sources paint-boxed up the narratives: it was said that the Byzantine Emperor Leo III had sunk the Muslim fleet by touching the Bosphorus with his cross. Many declared that Constans had flown a cross while his soldiers sang psalms and that the Muslim commander Muawiyah had displayed a crescent with his men reciting the Qur’an in Arabic beneath. Memorialisers ignored the fact that both armies probably spoke Greek, that soldiers and civilians would have been able to understand one another perfectly – as they yelled insults and threats and muttered their prayers.

In Christian and Muslim households alike AD 717 became an episode of epic history and of deferred victory. Ottomans would later make pilgrimage to the mosques and shrines they believed had been founded within the city at the time of the siege.15 Much Arabic literature declared that the Muslims had in fact won – and looked to a further and full vanquishing of Constantinople and her territories at the end of days.16 It was said that the Arab commander Yazid I had scaled Constantinople’s stubbornly resilient walls before the 674 siege and thus was known hereafter as fata al-‘arab, ‘the young champion of the Arabs’; that Arab commandos had entered the city and had hanged a Byzantine emperor within Haghia Sophia in revenge for the slaughter of Muslims. In the West, tales of Constantinople’s tribulations are, in fact, still sung; in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, a fight for the city of Minas Tirith by land and over waterways,17 draws inspiration from these attacks. And each year on 15 August populations across the Christian world still thank Mary for her miraculous powers of protection. That Constantinople had not fallen increased her allure. In the minds of many, the city took on fantastical proportions.

Along with the tales of triumph we are firmly informed by Byzantine sources that around the time of the sieges of Constantinople Arabs occupied Rhodes, breaking up and then selling off to a Jewish merchant one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Colossus (which some said had been toppled by an earthquake in 228 BC, others that it had been restored by various Roman emperors or indeed thrown into the sea). This beast of antiquity was then dragged by 900 camels (3,000 according to a few excitable chroniclers) to be sold off as scrap metal. This particular event, although enthusiastically retold in a number of medieval texts and in many reputable modern histories, appears in no Arab sources. Perhaps it is an embarrassed denial – or perhaps this ‘history’ is simply a story with all the hallmark tropes of vandalism and philistinism expected of both Jews and ‘Saracens’, spiced with a tinge of eschatological anxiety.18

Cultural memory, the hope of history, is often as potent as historical fact.

This is Istanbul incarnate. A place where stories and histories collide and crackle; a city that fosters ideas and information to spin her own memorial. A prize that meant as much as an abstraction, as a dream, as it did as a reality. A city that has long sustained a timeless tradition as old as the birth of the modern mind – where past narratives are nourished that tell us who we are in the present. In hard historical terms the Arab failures did indeed mark a change of ambition. The drive now was not to ‘cut off the head’ of Byzantium’s empire, but to focus on the territories all around – east, south, south-west. The result was 700 years of an uneasy parallel existence between the new monotheists, one that witnessed collaboration as well as conflict. But no one forgot that the ‘bone in the throat of Allah’ had not been taken.

For men of many faiths and for East and West alike, Istanbul is not just a city but a metaphor and an idea – a possibility describing where we want our imagination to take us and our souls to sit. A city that encourages abstractions and armies, gods and goods, heart and body, and mind and spirit to travel.


Not only is Istanbul the city of many names, but there are many ways to transliterate, configure and spell the names of her rulers, inhabitants, protagonists, territories, enemies and allies. In general I have opted for the Greek forms of, for example, Eastern emperors – but I have also used popular forms such as Constantine and Michael where appropriate. Absolute consistency is almost unachievable and arguably a little self-congratulatory – in a city that was often described as ‘luminous’ my hope has been to illuminate rather than to obfuscate. Turkish phonetics have been employed with the kind help of Robin Madden, Lauren Hales and my splendid copyeditor Peter James and proof-reader Anthony Hippisley.1

The classical Greek name Byzantion (Byzantium in Latin) almost certainly derives from the Proto-Indo-European bhugo – a buck. It possibly has a local Thracian root Buz connected to waters and fountains. Either way, greater Istanbul’s naturally rich flora, fauna and geology are recognised in the city’s first historical label Byzantion. Constantinople comes from the Latin name Constantinus – the nomination of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who refounded the city in AD 324, giving rise to a civilisation that was called Byzantine only in the sixteenth century (by the historian Hieronymus Wolf in 1557). The city was referred to as the New Rome from AD


  • "Groundbreaking...a colossal undertaking...a notable achievement"--Roger Crowley, bestselling author of 1453
  • "Impressive. In Istanbul, Hughes plays intriguing, sophisticated games with time and space.... By making unlikely connections between well-described locations and events separated by eons, she gives voice to those witchy, diachronic feelings in a spectacular fashion."--The Economist

  • "Richly entertaining and impeccably researched. Hughes's ebullient book is an ode to three incarnations of the city."--Peter Frankopan, author of the international bestseller The Silk Roads
  • "Brimming with brio and and life-affirming history, steeped in romance and written with verve"--Justin Marozzi, award-winning author of Baghdad
  • "Mesmerizing... Weaves research and insight with understanding and love: here is a book written as much with the heart as the mind."--Elif Shafak, award-winning author of The Bastard of Istanbul
  • "Shows readers how a prehistoric settlement evolved through the centuries into a great metropolis, the crossroads where East meets West."—New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
  • "Curiously gripping...[Hughes] establishes just how deep the Greek roots of the settlement called Byzantion went...She has a fine feel for the complexities and shadings of that distant past...Hughes's tone is both scholarly and rich in visual detail...Show[s] how intricate and improbable Istanbul's history has been."—New York Times Book Review
  • "[A] marvelous new book...[by] one of Britain's most successful television historians...[An] ambitious enterprise...Vivid and readable prose...[A] wonderful evocation of Istanbul's glittering past."

    Wall Street Journal
  • "Hughes is not an argumentative historian. She avoids the debates of academe. She is a wistful and impassioned cosmopolitan who has produced a challenging story."—Financial Times
  • "A deeply researched biography of a legendary city...A panoramic cultural history of a fascinating place."
    Kirkus Reviews
  • "Packs the story of its three iterations-Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul-into one volume, from its earliest settlement in 6000 BC, to the 20th century. Though it sweeps across eight millennia, this glinting mosaic of a book is divided up into short episodic tesserae that evoke vivid aspects of the city's history and demonstrate the long reach of it influence."

    The Bookseller
  • "A vibrant, sprawling portrait of a city as enigmatic as it is historically important...Hughes' entertaining narrative style with its visual details, dramatic archaeological discoveries, and cliffhanger chapter endings allows her erudition and exuberance to shine."
    Booklist (starred review)
  • "Hughes demonstrates a passionate and keen eye for detail in her newest book covering the history of Istanbul from its classical origins to the modern era. Despite its heft...this work is eminently readable and thorough...A timely work, given current events, and a powerful testimony to Istanbul's impact on culture, society, and religion over time. Historians and lay readers alike will find this a welcome addition."
    Library Journal
  • "The kind of history that rewards existing knowledge while functioning perfectly well for the reader who brings little in the way of previous experience of the ancient world to the book. The pages are dense with information yet the work is never overbearing; you finish every chapter feeling smarter and, even more importantly, newly curious."
    The Awl
  • "The information that is presented is excellent."—San Francisco Book Review
  • "Be prepared to learn...The maps included are numerous and depict everything from the city itself, its defenses, growth, locations of important temples, building and churches to the wider Mediterranean world and the extent of respective empires. They are extremely helpful, detailed, and informative"—New York Journal of Books
  • "The always engaging Bettany Hughes has written [an] electrifying book on Istanbul...In the many well-done portraits of a variety of figures-from prominent emperors and empresses to stylites, eunuchs, knights, medics, and janissaries-she goes beyond just the biography and facts and often imparts some of the relevance of their actions and ideas...There is relatively little in the history of Istanbul that one won't find in this book...Thorough, informative, and well researched...Upon closing the book's cover a reader will have received a rich and in-depth experience of this grand city...Hughes's zest, knowledge, and nearly lifelong interest in this city shows itself on every page."—PopMatters
  • "The strength of this particular account lies in Hughes' focus on the totality of the city's inhabitants, not just the powerful ones. She introduces the reader to emperors and sultans, but also to slaves and refugees. She gives emphasis to the roles women played in the city over time...The result is a more complete presentation of the city's history...Hughes' conversational tone makes the book extremely approachable, regardless of one's familiarity with the city. Peeling back layers of time and fantasy, she shows us why this city is such an integral part of humanity's story."—Washington Independent Review of Books
  • "Hughes wonderfully tells the story of a city that has been many things at many different times...[A] terrifically rewarding new book...In sure, gripping prose, the story moves steadily forward through violent clashes between Christian and Turkish forces vying for this city...It's a spellbinding performance from start to finish...Gorgeously-written."—Christian Science Monitor
  • undefined—"10 Best Books of September,? Christian Science Monitor
  • "[A] majestic and immensely enriching narration of history...A journey through conquest and greatness from Roman to Ottoman times and it reminded me of why I love the city."—Financial Times (?Best Books of 2017: Critics? Picks?)
  • "A sprawling one-volume survey of the history of one of the world's most consequential cities, Bettany Hughes' Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, like its subject, captivates from beginning to end. Written with verve and color, its short, easily digestibly chapters pulse with the author's enthusiasm. For anyone who has traveled to what was once Constantinople and Byzantion/Byzantium, Hughes' artful marshaling of archeology, literature, and cultural history offers a fascinating portrait of this city at the nexus of East and West...To the reader who hasn't visited The World's Desire, the book is likely to stir hopes of a pilgrimage one day...Hughes has the knack of assembling wide-ranging detail with the focus needed to sustain a narrative of such sweep...The writing shines."
  • "In her beautifully written account, British historian Bettany Hughes capably juggles telling anecdotes and historic milestones from across the centuries."
    Milwaukee Shepherd-Express
  • "The book is cleverly organized around descriptions of various artifacts from Roman times that have been uncovered in the recent digging...Hughes has a gift for collapsing detail gracefully."—New York Review of Books
  • "[An] informed and energetic account of one of the world's great metropolises...A colorful, popularized narrative history that covers a lot of ground...Informative and never boring...[A] fascinating story. And [Hughes] tells it well."—Washington Times
  • "The book offers a readable tour of it all from the prehistoric to the Erdogan government and the attempted coup of 2016...Highly recommended."—Choice

On Sale
Mar 5, 2019
Page Count
864 pages
Da Capo Press

Bettany Hughes

About the Author

Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster. She is currently professor of history at the New College of the Humanities and a research fellow of King’s College, London. She is the author of three popular books, including the New York Times-bestselling The Hemlock Cup. She lives in London.

Learn more about this author