Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

by Bettany Hughes, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25

 ‘Rome never fell, it simply moved 854 miles east,” is just one of the many startling ideas that pepper Bettany Hughes’s fiery and magnificent new biography of Istanbul. It is a testament to the city’s importance that the book’s 600 pages are teeming with kings and sultans, priests and relics, riots, coups and wars. At times, it can seem as if the whole of history has happened within its imposing walls, while at others, Istanbul appears a unique hybrid of East and West, Christianity and Islam, the debauched and the sacred.

Istanbul was founded as early as 11,000 BC on the banks of the Bosporus, the sliver of water that separates Europe from Asia. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks established the city of Chalcedon on the Asian side and in the following century colonised the European shore. “Byzantion’s geographical blessings have sometime seemed a curse to those who lived there,” Hughes says, and the city’s history has indeed been one of conquest and re-conquest, both geographically and spiritually.

In AD 73, Byzantion – the Greek for Byzantium – was formally incorporated into the Roman Empire by Vespasian and roads such as the Via Egnatia were constructed so that the city could serve as Rome’s power-base for her Middle East holdings.

But Hughes’s story is about much more than territory. Philippi, on the road to Istanbul, is regarded as the first town to convert to Christianity, as attested by St Paul’s letter. But it was Constantine’s conversion and his renaming of the city as Constantinople that set it at the heart of Christianity. Byzantines called the Virgin Mary the “commander in chief” of the city and religion was taken very seriously there. The basic doctrines of the Catholic Church were all hammered out in Constantinople or its environs: the Council of Nicaea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

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