Trade, intrigue, politics, emperors, and sultans. The city on the Bosporus Strait characterizes all of these things and more. With the main narrative clocking in at around 600 pages long, “Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities” by Bettany Hughes is extensively well-cited with copious amounts of endnotes and a substantial bibliography. It’s clear that Hughes wrote this book with the eye of a historian. The problem? It’s not a very compelling narrative.
Hughes chronologically tracks the history of Istanbul from prehistory through the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires to the modern day. It’s a massive undertaking for a city that is literally viewed as a gateway between Europe and Asia; sitting directly on the ancient Silk Road. At its core, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the writing itself. Hughes is a very competent historian, but the choice of topics covered in the book is somewhat strange. While I was expecting a broader geo-political history, the book instead comes off as a chronological series of vignettes on various people and the occasional geographical landmark. Indeed, each chapter is only a handful of pages long. For whatever reason, the narrative fizzles out following WWI with the end of the Ottoman Empire. Hughes does make an attempt to portray Istanbul as a very cosmopolitan city, but sadly it all gets drowned out in the morass of biographical sketches of numerous emperors, sultans, princes, and slaves in the city on the Bosporus Strait. The main issue with this book is that examinations of the economic and political influence of the Byzantine or Ottoman Empires come off as fairly mundane and the narrative bogs down too heavily in individual stories. As a result, the reader loses sight of the broader picture of how the city has changed throughout the centuries. It seems like less of a cohesive narrative and more like a bunch of short stories about individuals or landmarks.
To be fair, the book is no slouch when it comes to its historiography. Hughes is definitely well-versed in the culture and history of the region. This is a worthwhile book to understand how people influenced the city and it’s very well-researched and cited. As a result, it strikes a much more scholarly tone in its writing than other offerings out there. In short, it’s a good book for historians or the historically-minded reader. However, as it stands, I had difficulty seeing how the narrative was supposed to come together. There are a lot of details in the book, but it didn’t seem like it was really going anywhere.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (Good. Borrow from a library.)