‘This city will always pursue you,’ wrote the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy a century ago. He was describing his native Alexandria, but the sentiment might equally apply to the city that is the subject of Bettany Hughes’s ground-breaking book: Istanbul. Hughes says that she has loved this place for four decades and has spent ten years researching and writing about it. As she states, ‘Over 8,000 years, over 320 generations’ worth of humanity have lived, worked and played here.’ There has been no recent large-scale history of the city with many names (Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul), which makes this colossal undertaking a notable achievement, coming at yet another turbulent moment in its long existence. The book opens with the recent discovery of Neolithic remains in the substrata of Istanbul, and it ends on 4 March 1924 with the last Ottoman sultan, Abdülmecid, and his family being packed off to Switzerland on the Orient Express. In between lies Istanbul’s extraordinary history. It is a place, in Hughes’s words, ‘where stories and histories collide’.
Hughes sets out her stall at the start: ‘What follows is not a catch-all catalogue of Istanbul’s past. It is a personal, physical journey – an investigation of what it takes to make a city … a means, perhaps, to comprehend both the city and ourselves.’ Throughout this book,