A deeply researched biography of a legendary city, beginning in prehistory.
For the past four decades, historian and documentary filmmaker Hughes (Research Fellow/King’s Coll. London; The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life, 2011, etc.) has had what she calls “a love affair” with Istanbul. Her fascination with the city inspired prodigious research as well as travels throughout the Arab world, Central Asia, and Europe as she engaged in “an archaeology of both place and culture” to chronicle the city’s evolution from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul. Located on the Bosporus, the strait dividing Asia and Europe, in each iteration the city was the center of a coveted trade route, a strategic geopolitical nexus, and a religious mecca for “the world’s most tenacious theocracies,” most notably Sunni Islam. Hughes argues that the city’s development was fueled not only by commercial and political motivations, but also by humans’ “fundamental desire to share ideas.” Religion was prominent among those ideas: in the seventh century, “stakes in the religious game were being raised,” and tolerance among Jews, Christians, and Muslims broke down. Soon, leaders in Muslim territories and Christians in Constantinople engaged in “wars of propaganda and faith.” Power was another idea: commerce in the city included the trade in humans, both as sex slaves and to provide labor after devastating population loss caused by the Black Death in the 14th century. The slave trade flourished, with women “particularly active as dealers.” Many slaves became farm laborers, and the most appealing male and female slaves were pressed into household or harem service. The harem, meaning “sanctuary,” became a site where dynasties and alliances were nurtured. Hughes vividly details both the reality of the harem and its fantastical rendering by Western writers as a place of wonder, licentiousness, and sexual desire. The author’s history teems with individuals and events, sometimes overwhelming her usually lively narrative, especially once she focuses on the Ottoman Empire and its roiling succession of rulers.
A panoramic cultural history of a fascinating place.