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Copyright © Bettany Hughes 2009

ISTANBUL: A TALE OF THREE CITIES

Istanbul has always been a place where stories and histories collide and crackle, where the idea is as potent as the historical fact. From the Qu'ran to Shakespeare, this city with three names - Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul - resonates as an idea and a place, and overspills its boundaries - real and imagined. Standing as the gateway between the East and West, it has served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires. For much of its history it was known simply as The City, but, as Bettany Hughes reveals, Istanbul is not just a city, but a story.

In this epic new biography, Hughes takes us on a dazzling historical journey through the many incarnations of one of the world's greatest cities. As the longest-lived political entity in Europe, over the last 6,000 years Istanbul has absorbed a mosaic of micro-cities and cultures all gathering around the core. At the latest count archaeologists have measured forty-two human habitation layers. Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews, Vikings, Azeris all called a patch of this earth their home. Based on meticulous research and new archaeological evidence, this captivating portrait of the momentous life of Istanbul is visceral, immediate and scholarly narrative history at its finest.

UK REVIEWS

Fortunately for today’s readers, the historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes has [an] outlook, sufficiently wide to encompass everything from the earliest spear-carrying bronze age inhabitants to marauding ancient Greeks, Christian-slaughtering Roman emperors, pious Byzantine ascetics, world-conquering Ottomans and hatchet-faced 20th-century nationalists. She populates her three cities of Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul with a rich and dizzying cast of ordinary and extraordinary men and women...

This is a historical narrative brimming with brio and incident. Hughes' portraits are written with a zesty flourish...One wonders whom she could possibly be thinking of in 10 Downing Street or The White House when she concludes that "to know Istanbul is to know what it is to be cosmopolitan - this is a city that reminds us that we are, indeed, citizens of the world." Istanbul a visceral, pulsating city...In Bettany Hughes' life-filled and life-affirming history, steeped in romance and written with verve, it has found a sympathetic and engaging champion.

​ JUSTIN MAROZZI, The Guardian

Over its 6,000 year history, Istanbul has been home to Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews, Vikings and Azeris, and been the cornerstone of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Hughes traces the history of one of the world's greatest cities.

THE GUARDIAN

Award-winning historian Bettany Hughes pieces together the history of Istanbul in a riveting biography of a brilliant, bloodied city.

MADELEINE KEANE, Sunday Independent (Ireland)

Her latest book, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, is a particular stroke of genius...Over the years the city has had three names - Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul so in a vivid rattle she hurls Xerxes, Alcibiades, Constantine, Justinian, Theodora, Suleyman the Magnificent and a sometimes overwhelming cast of thousands of others before us...It is a story well worth telling as the region continues to implode, the final or at least latest lashings out of the Ottoman Empire's collapse...The book is littered with historical echoes that are impossible to ignore...there are wonderful anecdotes...She concludes with an encomium to Istanbul as a world city - literally, a cosmo-polis - where faiths and ethnicities are brought together by learning and trade...a thought...that although not original in this particularly troubled moment, for bomb-hit Istanbul and the rest of us, bears repeating.

RICHARD SPENCER, The Times

Bettany Hughes' Istanbul is built deliberately on what is passing as well as past. It is a story of numerous overlapping names, changes that often happened more slowly than the guidebooks tell us. Her subject is the city that was Byzantium for some 900 years, Christian Constantinopole for another 1,000, Islamic Islam-bol, then Istanbul - while also being New Rome, a Diamond Between Two Sapphires and The World's Desire...assiduous...passionate...there have been swirling tidal shifts since she began this book 10 years or so ago. She is celebrating citizenry of the world at a time when that idea is in retreat, damning the 'otherness' that the west has bestowed upon the east when throughout the world there are more and more "others". She is a wistul and impassioned cosmopolitan who has produced a challenging story for 2017.

PETER STOTHARD, Financial Times

A passionate retelling of Istanbul's history and its impact on the world today.

FINANCIAL TIMES

With a broadcaster's delight, Bettany Hughes...throws herself into the gargantuan task of capturing the history of a city that spans 3,000 years, and whose story has been woefully neglected compared with other great urban centres...Hughes reconstructs Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul as living, breathing landscapes. ...her scholarship is impressive...her enthusiasm radiates...Her subject...is irresistibly rich. The place known simply as "The City", Hughes notes, has long lived a "double life - as a real place and as a story"...The tale she tells of the metropolis at the crossroads of the Earth is textured, readable and often compelling.

LOUISE CALLAGHAN, Sunday Times

Hughes continuously maps Istanbul's past onto the fabric of the modern city and catches the eerie sense of layers of histories jumbled and superimposed (...) In Bettany Hughes' encompassing book the city follows us home

LITERARY REVIEW

As Istanbul rises again under President Erdogan and epic history relives its glory days.

THE SUNDAY TIMES

Fiery and magnificent new biography of Istanbul...Hughes does a fantastic job of cramming all this history into a fluid and engaging narrative. She also possesses a great turn of phrase, such as when she describes Haghia Sophia as seeming "to be suspended by a golden chain from heaven"...A gripping and erudite book.

STAV SHEREZ, Catholic Herald

Ten years in the researching and writing, it's a glittering mosaic of a history, packing the stories of three cities - Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul - into one volume, from their earliest settlement in 6000BC, to the 20th Century. 

CAROLINE SANDERSON, The Bookseller

Bettany Hughes' history of Istanbul through the ages is richly entertaining and impeccably researched. Hughes' ebullient book is an ode to three incarnations of the city-she...guides us round a city that is majestic magical and mystical,leaving few stones unturned. It is a loving biography of a city that never stands still, never sleeps...Hughes has written an important book that brings the past of this glorious city to life. It is filled with charming vignettes...snappily written...plenty here to entertain those who know something about the city and to enthrall those who don't.

PETER FRANKOPAN, The Observer

A magisterial new biography of this urban icon, gateway from West to East, and capital of the Late Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires - the 'city of the world's desire' and 'diamond between two sapphires'. Bettany Hughes transports the reader on a magic-carpet-like journey through 8,000 years of history, introducing hitherto unknown Neolithic origins and breathing life into the city's many incarnations in  vivid narrative dotted with colourful characters and fascinating tangents....the quintiessential historical overview of a city racing up the modern political agenda.

RICHARD TARRANT, The Lady

Hughes succeeds triumphantly...and produces a cogent, passionate survey bolstered by staggeringly wide-ranging research...a captivating book...Istanbul is a place where the past is impossible to miss and few have told its enchanting story with Hughes's blend of precision and panache.

JON WRIGHT, Geographical, The Royal Geographic Society

For all its colourful drama, the city's history can be hard to narrate in a way that is coherent and gripping...Bettany Hughes takes up that challenge and the result is impressive. In 'Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities' Hughes plays intriguing, sophisticated games with time and space...by making unlikely connections between well-described locations and events separated by aeons, she gives voice to those witchy, diachronic feelings in spectacular fashion.

THE ECONOMIST

One of the pleasures of wandering he city today - whatever you call it - is in recognising that its layers of history are so enfolded with one another that they are impossible to separate. This is also the pleasure of Bettany Hughes' highly readable jaunt through its past 2,500 years...Istanbul is still a living history and perhaps the most moving moment in the book comes when Hughes goes looking for the song of the Janissaries...Hughes tracked down one of their descendants...Could he remember one of the songs? 'Yes he could - and out came a fluid, mellifluous prayer, a song from the religion of the road, a song of hope and revolution, of piety and human heartedness.' It could be the city's anthem.

SAMEER RAHIM, The Telegraph

Hughes wishes to show how the city's topography shaped the civilisations that grew from it - and how the many peoples that have passed through its walls went on to shape the lands and ses and trade routes of their known world....The thrill the author takes in her discoveries is infectious...Keen as she is to identify a past that is still omnipresent. she does not just liken the city to a 'historic millefeuille': time and again she proves it....this heroic work....is the perfect thing to read if - having noticed that Istanbul is increasingly in the news these days- you wish to know its place in the scheme of things, and what light it may cast on the uncertain future we shall most certainly share.'

MAUREEN FREELY, The New Statesman

A scholarly narrative, and Hughes isn't averse to heating it up with salacious stories that dot the city's past.

THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

Bettany Hughes' sprawling, 600 page love-letter to one of the most inspiring cities on earth was a decade in the making, as befits a book covering millennia's worth of history in impressive detail...Powerful women...feature in a history ostensibly dominated by sword-wielding men....She embraces the horror as well as the beauty of Istanbul's past, and as a result our understanding of the city is correspondingly rich. Hughes is a meticulous historian who understands the power of stories which exist beyond historical fact - ancient myth and salacious contemporary rumour....Istanbul's history bleeds across terminology, ideology and the centuries of its eclectic rulers, as Hughes admirably proves.'

ALEV SCOTT, Prospect Magazine

History which is astonishingly alive told with the rigour of a scholar and the vigour of a storyteller...magnetically erudite

BBC ARTS WEBSITE

The complexity of the city's story is revealed in mesmerising detail in Bettany Hughes's new book. At times her writing feels like a love letter, or a eulogy to what has been lost. Her compassion for the city and its millions of inhabitants, past and present, comes across from the very first pages. It is rare to read a historical book that weaves research and insight with understanding and love: here is a book written as much with the heart as the mind....Like a magpie she collects facts and stories, giving voice to the forgotten, the silenced, the excluded. Asking 'to whom does it belong' Hughes gives us an impressive narrative that celebrates diversity and continuity. Her research is full of fascinating details, painstakingly sewn together...This is not only for lovers of history or for those who have visited one of the most important cities on earth. Anyone who cares about culture, civilisation, multiculturalism and collective memory will find this book of interest...BettanyHughes's wonderful book thus restores memory at a time when it's much needed, salvages stories and knowledge from tides of indifference.Here is an important book that must be translated into many languages.

ELIF SHAFAK, The Spectator

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