Peter Frankopan: Of all of the cities in the world, why write about Istanbul?

Bettany Hughes: There were two reasons. The first was that the infrastructure system in Istanbul is currently being expanded massively, with tunnels being dug under the Bosphorus strait. This has resulted in a whole load of new archaeological work that I knew hadn’t been published, and which needs to be shared. So I’ve been gathering research for the past decade, and in terms of fresh evidence it felt like the right time to cover the city.

And, as you know, every time we open a newspaper we’re being asked to have an opinion on Turkey and what’s happening in Istanbul, so I felt that we had to dig deeper down into that history in order to have an informed view.

PF: As a classicist, what did it mean to you to explore the early days of the city?

BH: Prehistory has shown us that the city was always a bit different. I start the book with the fact that one of the digs unearthed the world’s oldest wooden coffin, and that a healthy little community was managing to make a life for itself there even 9,000 years ago.

Byzantium was one of those interesting places that, even if it didn’t appear to be driving ancient history, was quietly doing so. It turns up on a lot of carvings on stele [monumental slabs], for instance, and we know that it was a place that was being thought about in political and economic terms elsewhere. It was almost a kind of sleeper state by which people were fascinated, but which hadn’t yet made its mark as an independent civilisation in the classical period.

Istanbul: a brief history

The peninsula west of the Bosphorus strait has been inhabited since at least the 7th millennium BC. Around 660 BC it was colonised by Greeks, who renamed it Byzantium, and then in AD 73 by Romans. In AD 330 it was refounded as Constantinople by the emperor Constantine. Over the centuries following the split of the Roman empire, the city was capital of the Byzantine empire; it declined in the Middle Ages and was captured by Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1453. After the foundation of the Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, it was renamed Istanbul in 1930.

PF: The geography of the city is very important. Is seeing it as the point between east and west useful, or do we impose on it an artificial geography?

BH: I think that’s very astute, and absolutely right. Words such as ‘Asia’ and ‘Europe’ weren’t understood by hundreds of thousands of people who lived in the place that we now call Istanbul.

But not only are there fake divisions in time and space when you look at the history of a city such as Istanbul, we also have a tendency to look at it from completely the wrong side of the compass. Firstly, this is a city that also connects north and south. We also talk about it as being the gateway to the east but, for the bulk of human experience, most of the exciting history in the story of the world happened in the east. So this city was instead a strange place right on the very western edge of the world. It’s absolutely critical to completely reset your mindscape when you’re thinking about this landscape.

PF: How can we do that? How can we expand our horizons so that we avoid these distinctions, and instead see Byzantium and Constantinople as a pivot from which the world fans out in 360 degrees?

BH: We have to make a bit of an effort. That is obviously something that you’ve done, Peter, in your book The Silk Roads, which I found immensely refreshing. I remember you telling the story, in your introduction to that book, of lying on your bed as a teenager and looking at a map with all of this space about which you knew nothing – and having a sense that it really mattered.

And it does all matter. Because although we continue to discuss the need to be ‘citizens of the world’ in philosophical terms, we are global citizens, both physically and physiologically. So we are doing ourselves the most enormous disservice if we don’t understand the need to look at the world from different angles. It’s our failing as a civilisation, and it’s critical that this is an issue that we now address, because there are acutely relevant histories here that have an impact on how we go about our day-to-day lives.

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When you’re writing a big history of a massively cosmopolitan city such as Istanbul, how do you explain the moments at which it turned inwards? Can you get a sense of ideas opening up and closing again?

BH: I think that you can. There’s something very particular about the topography of Istanbul that allows it to remain cosmopolitan, even if it has had those moments of closing down. It was a walled city from very early on – we now think from its ancient Greek iteration onwards. This means that there was always the danger that a siege mentality might set in, but the city never quite embraced it.

I think that’s because of the way in which Istanbul is set up geographically. It has always had satellite settlements – which are now part of greater Istanbul – and it’s almost as if that little central historical hub was never allowed to forget them at any point during its history. So even though there were moments when it closed off, when there were tensions, it was never allowed to become parochial.

PF: It’s like a magnet, bringing people in from everywhere.

BH: Yes – and what’s very interesting is that it’s always been a city that’s hosted refugees. From the fourth century AD up until the 12th, arguably, it became the refugee city. And that tradition carried right on until modern history: in the Second World War, for instance, it took in a huge number of Jewish people from Paris.

This is another reason why Istanbul is a special city: because of the notion that it’s a place of security and sanctuary. It’s very interesting that today there are more refugees in Istanbul than in any other city in the world.

PF: Your book sparkles with anecdotes throughout. Which characters particularly stood out for you?

BH: It might not be an answer that surprises you, but I love Theodora, the sixth-century empress of the Byzantine empire. We’re told that she was a very poor girl whose father was a bear tamer and trainer. She worked in and around the centre of Constantinople, particularly around the hippodrome, which was a very exciting place at the time. This was ‘the new Rome’, and because they were ‘new Romans’ they loved chariot racing. It was a high-octane, incredibly competitive culture, and chariot racing was the ultimate sport.

A mosaic of the sixth-century empress Theodora, one of Bettany Hughes’ stand-out characters from Istanbul’s history. “This seems to me to be a girl with some experience of the rough side of life,” says Hughes. (Getty Images)
A mosaic of the sixth-century empress Theodora, one of Bettany Hughes’ stand-out characters from Istanbul’s history. “This seems to me to be a girl with some experience of the rough side of life,” says Hughes. (Getty Images)

PF: A bit like Formula 1…

BH: It was like every competitive sport you can imagine, combined. I’m sure you’ve been to Istanbul when there was a big football match on – well, the intensity and passion of those crowds are nothing in comparison.

The entertainments that happened around the chariot racing were critical, and some were quite titillating. We’re told that young Theodora was one of the girls who entertained the crowds as an erotic dancer. What’s amazing is that she then apparently went on a journey around the eastern Mediterranean, becoming a Christian along the way. She slept her way up the ranks of officials and came back to the city before finally catching the eye of the emperor Justinian, who changed the law so that he could marry her. Suddenly, an erotic dancer was the empress of the civilisation of Byzantium at its greatest.

This is what we’re told, anyway. And I wonder if it may just be true, because what’s very interesting about Theodora and Justinian – and it seems that the couple really did have a passionate, close relationship – is that they worked together to reform law. They did a lot of work cleaning up and gathering together all of the Roman law that had been around up until that point, and we know that Theodora set up a safe house for women working in prostitution and made the penalties for rape and pimping more harsh.

This seems to me to be a girl with some experience of the rough side of life – either that or she just had a great imagination and was some kind of proto-feminist, which seems more unlikely. So I wonder if, by her deeds, we do get a hint of her early life. In any case, it’s remarkable that Theodora ended up being the most powerful woman in the known world, with reforming, socially driven principles that she enacted and incarnated in the buildings around Constantinople – as with that safe house for women working in prostitution.

PF: This was also the period in which one of the city’s greatest buildings was constructed. Tell us about Hagia Sophia, because the built environment is fundamental to understanding this city – it’s about prestige, power, and self-consciously showing that this is a settlement that means business.

BH: Yes – and what it also says is that this is the earthly home of the one true God. Constantinople was founded as the capital of Christendom, and it would have been very clear to inhabitants that this was where the centre of God’s power lay.

Hagia Sophia [built as a church, later used as a mosque and now a museum] is an extraordinary building, even today. Even though it’s quite dark, its darkness almost sucks you in. But what’s remarkable is that it is almost the opposite of how it would have appeared in the medieval world, when people talked about it constantly glittering with light. It was filled with light on the inside and the outside, and would have been a pulsing beacon for those who passed along the Bosphorus. All of the surfaces on the inside were reflective: silver, polished marble, gold, mosaic. It had a luminous iridescence.

That’s the reason that I’ve written this book, actually: like you, I went to Istanbul when I was quite young. I walked up to Hagia Sophia and went into the doors and thought: “This, right here, is the story of the world. This is something that I have to understand.” You asked about the key characters in the
city’s history – in a way, Hagia Sophia is its most important surviving character. I would argue that it’s the most beautiful building on Earth.

The current Hagia Sophia, completed in AD 537. “People talked about it constantly glittering with light: all of the surfaces on the inside were reflective,” says Bettany Hughes. (Alamy)
The current Hagia Sophia, completed in AD 537. “People talked about it constantly glittering with light: all of the surfaces on the inside were reflective,” says Bettany Hughes. (Alamy)

PF: You can imagine its effect 1,000 years ago. In a city that was this imperial in its projection, and in its certainty about being the home of God, how easy was it to be tolerant of new ideas and people?

BH: It was an imperial and religious city, but it was also a trading city. If you are a port city, you have to get on with other people: if you’re a sailor, wherever you come from, you’re forced to have a cosmopolitan outlook in order to trade your goods. We now know, for instance, that Elizabeth I had such terrible teeth because of all the lovely sweet things that came to England from the Ottoman world. The concept of a lingua franca, or ‘bridge language’, emerged from Ottoman territories, too.

So I think it does force an open-mindedness, which explains to me why these civilisations – in all of their iterations – lasted so long. The ‘new Rome’ lasted almost longer than the old Rome because you had this invigorating outside influence.

PF: In the Islamic world, Constantinople was a magnet that drew in everybody. How did the transition from the Greek, Christian city to the Turkish, Muslim one occur?

BH: Constantinople/Istanbul was always as important as an idea as it was a place. It had a special place in Islamic literature and the Islamic mind. There’s a notion of it as a great city that the greatest Muslim armies had to take – and they tried, fairly quickly. Throughout the second half of the seventh century and first quarter of the eighth, Arab sieges and Muslim armies came pretty close to taking Constantinople. Because they didn’t, it became a prize that seemed ever more important to win. And it was also an intellectual and spiritual prize: throughout the story of Islam, there are lots of images of Constantinople as a place that needed to be captured.

And then, of course, the Ottoman Turks – who came from a very different part of the world, as semi-nomadic tribes from central Asia – were slowly heading farther and farther west from the end of the 13th century onwards. We tend to think of the events of 1453 as coming out of nowhere – that suddenly the Ottoman Turks arrived and Istanbul fell and it was a newly Islamic city. But, of course, the Ottomans had already been nibbling away at the territories around it.

And, as I say, it was very important for the Ottomans to take the city because of what was said about it in Islamic literature beforehand. From 1517 it was where the caliph sat – the centre of the caliphate that lasted until the 1920s.

PF: You mentioned the recent archaeological discoveries made in Istanbul. How did you find out about the latest developments, and what’s the mood like on the ground after the attempted coup this summer?

BH: I was there in the middle of October, and I can say that the mood is quite fragile and anxious. Things move very fast in Istanbul, and always have done. It has always been a very protean city politically, so it would be specious for me to try to predict what’s going to happen because it’s changing weekly. But, boy, should we care about the feeling on the ground and in government buildings.

This book is a prime example of how I won’t write history without going to the place in which it happened. I think it’s completely disrespectful not to get up out of your chair and spend time there. In some ways, this book is a biography of a city, and I’d hate it if somebody wrote my biography and didn’t want to spend a bit of time in my company.

So this book has been quite demanding to write because I try to be rigorous and go to every place that I talk about – as well as those which impacted upon the city and those upon which the city had an impact.

PF: It seems to me you didn’t want to write too much about the 20th century. Tell us about the change from Constantinople to Istanbul, and how you decided to end the book.

BH: I end the book in 1924 – just after Istanbul officially ceased to be the capital of the Ottoman empire, and when Ankara became the capital of the Turkish republic. There was no longer a sultanate, or a caliphate based in Istanbul, so all of those long-running continuities stopped then. That moment, both in practical and psychological terms, was the point at which there were huge changes – and I think there could be a whole second volume about the story of Istanbul beyond it.

PF: What parallels do you see with the situation today?

BH: It’s a fascinating trope of Istanbul that it seems to be a city in which the people on the street have always felt they have a voice, and where they could express that voice – often to no effect, but they would still try. I think this is partly due to Istanbul’s urban design: it was founded in the classical era but has a medieval landscape, so it has big gathering spaces and medieval streets into which protesters can melt away if things start to go wrong.

But I wonder if it’s also partly because Istanbul is such a character in and of itself. It’s almost bigger than its rulers, and the people who live there have a sense of that: I know this from experience, having been inadvertently caught up in the Taksim Square protests in 2013. They’re somehow empowered by the place in which they live, and have a sense of a power to speak that lasts longer than a single reign. It’s very much a city of protest.

Bettany Hughes is an author and broadcaster who has presented several high-
profile radio and television series. Her latest book is Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2017).

Peter Frankopan is the director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and the author of the bestselling The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015).

This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016