Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

I started reading Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes while I was in Istanbul last November and finally finished it last week. It’s a really solid and absorbing book, and far too dense and rich with detail to zip through, which is why I read it a dozen or so pages a night over months (it is 600+ pages, plus 200 odd pages of notes and references).

It’s rare for an actual history book, just a straight-up telling of a dense, long tale, to reorient your sense of history. I read my first world history book in high school and have felt pretty well-oriented since then. Books I’ve read since then have mostly served to deepen my sense of particular periods in particular times. They didn’t change my overall sense of history. This one did.

What’s nice about this reorientation is that it isn’t the result of some superficially plausible pop Big History “reframe” that isn’t (think Jared Diamond or Yuval Harari), a genre I mostly detest. This isn’t a TED talk type shallow Aha! reorientation. But it’s also not just a pile of anecdotal rubble. This is an opinionated and coherent telling of the tale of a 3000-year-old city that has had an outsize impact on the histories of three continents. A tale that achieves its effects not through overwrought theorizing (there are no clumsy theoretical conceits here), nor through cherry-picking of an impoverished set of facts to support a favored historicism (the book is overwhelmingly full of all sorts of messy details that trip up simple mental models), but through actually doing the heavy labor of painstakingly brushing away the noise so the contours and through-lines of the actual story become clear. And it’s a story too complex to compress into facile historicisms anyway, which is the point. Whether you like Marxist, Whig, Neoliberal, or Fukuyama theories of history, the tale of Istanbul will complicate your life in a very healthy way. All the various impoverished just-so escaped realities collapse into an interesting actuality in Istanbul. It is a singularity among cities where sophomoric theories of history come to die.

So the opinionatedness of the book is phenomenological rather than ideological. So for example, even though it is a history by a woman who openly emphasizes the role of women in the story, it doesn’t read like a feminist deconstruction/reconstruction/representation project. It feels like a reveal of the fact that the story of Istanbul actually makes more sense with this choice of emphasis. Similarly, the book, though written by a European, nevertheless manages to tell the tale of the Turkish-Islamic third era sympathetically, but without either losing its European viewpoint or taking the Islamic perspective of the tale uncritically on its own terms. Instead, you get a sense of the deep continuities arising from the land and sea itself, which transcend religion and race.

You probably know the story in broad outline, as the story of the Greek city that became the birthplace of institutionalized Christianity, and then the prize won by Islamic conquerors in 1453. What you probably don’t know is just how big the story is. Even the most famous modern Turk, Kemal Ataturk, merits barely a few paragraphs in the vast, sprawling, incredibly crowded tale.

Hughes does the narrative equivalent of redrawing a Mercator projection world map in a more area-accurate Peter projection. In the familiar “normal” sense of history, the story of Istanbul looks somewhat smaller than the story of Rome, the way Africa looks about the size of Europe in a Mercator projection. But I finished the book feeling the story of Byzantium-Constantinople-Rome is at least 3x bigger than that of Rome (and for comparison, I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and first visited the city, in my twenties so I do have an appropriate comparison point at a similar level of detail). The sheer amount of raw history that can be traced to three-era city is astounding. The famous bits like the Code of Justinian and the Council of Chalcedon are well known. But consider:

  1. Tulips were introduced from Turkey and eventually sparked the Dutch Tulip mania
  2. ”Masticate” comes from mastic gum which is what makes Turkish delight or lokum
  3. The baton twirling of drum majorettes comes from Janissary parades
  4. Byzantine silks dominated the silk market for centuries
  5. Most Christian rituals come from the city
  6. The current Ukraine and Gaza conflicts both reproduce patterns that first emerged in empires controlled by the city
  7. The dying Ottoman Empire played a far bigger role in WWI than you probably think
  8. Byzantine is an adjective for bureaucracies and blockchains for a reason

These might seem like random bits of trivia, but in the context of the larger story, they feel natural. A city that was so important for so long must have left its mark on the world. The history even reoriented parts of Indian history I thought I knew well. The Delhi Sultanate and Mughal empire appear in the story as distant rivals and peers in the era of Islamic gunpowder empires (Mughal, Safavid, Ottoman, Egypt) in a very unfamiliar way, where the horizontal spatial relations across the Islamic world matter more than the regional temporal continuities. Though the Mughal empire was a political, economic, and military peer, it was a spiritual subordinate due to the status of Istanbul in Islam. All roads led to New Rome across the Islamic world, more so than to Mecca or Jerusalem. The Mughals, like other Islamic rulers, sent their embassies to Istanbul, and their princes on educational missions.

The India connection also helped me make sense of why the Indian independence movement includes a seeming non sequitur, the Khilafat movement, of Indian Muslims protesting the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire (there are also random royal-alliance connections — an Ottoman princess ended up as princess of Berar for example). Now that makes sense. The book truly brings out the extent to which the Islamic era (stretching back to long before the Ottoman era, to the first Arab sieges) was a globalization prequel. It was the United States of its time, though none of the three continents it spanned appreciated its full scope. A book I read decades ago, a translation of the travels of Ibn Batuta (the Islamic equivalent of Marco Polo who arguably had more interesting travels) gave me a clear sense of a connected background and context to his travels I was missing. This book supplies that background and context.

The ancient history sections offer fewer connection points for the modern reader compared to the Islamic part, but some bits strongly resonated. The machinations among early Christians vs pagans, as they went from being an oppressed minority to an oppressive majority to fighting among themselves, seems to foreshadow a lot of what’s happening today. The story of the Church of Saint Poryphry in Gaza City, which dates to the 4th century, features in a grisly incident in the book, and has been in the news again in the current war. The modern flood of Syrian refugees into Turkey rehearses similar flows throughout history. Istanbul has long had a history as a refuge for a diverse, cosmopolitan mix of refugees from three continents.

This, incidentally, is probably the moral leitmotif of the book. The cosmopolitanism and globalism of Istanbul demonstrates that neither dynamic is a new thing. Even during its current somewhat reactionary Islamic turn, the city retains a cosmopolitan, global vibe that is missing in Dubai for example. Pre-Islamic history and culture poke through in the city itself, despite the Islamization, and in the Islamic parts of the book. I found this both refreshing and reassuring. Cosmopolitanism as an ethos has a much stronger claim on the currents of world history than the ethnonationalist fairy tales that are so eager to carve them up among themselves. World history is the tale of cosmopolitanism, which is the tale of complicated cities like Istanbul which entangle distant corners of the world in wonderful and consequential ways. It is not a set of escapist frog-in-the-well fantasies that fit neatly within the borders of today’s states and the limits of the impoverished political imaginations of their charismatic-populist leaders.

One part of the book that is particularly intriguing is how the modern idea of “White” was basically invented by early-modern European visitors who noted the white Circassian women who dominated the Sultan’s harem, and at the time were apparently reputed to be the most beautiful women in the world. In a strange way, this observation of the validation of a notion of beauty by the choices of a conquering alien foe, coupled with some vague pseudoscientific anthropology, led to the construction of an idealized “Caucasian” race (Circassia is in the actual Caucasian region), and helped shape Europe’s idea of itself. It seems P. T. Barnum exhibited fake “Circassian” women in his circuses (apparently Irish women dressed in Circassian clothes). Ironically, modern Circassians are apparently all Muslim (having taken refuge with the Ottomans due to Russian genocides apparently). This vignette also explains the scene in Lawrence of Arabia where the Turkish officer attracted to Lawrence asks if he is “Circassian.” I honestly had no idea that an obscure little province bordering the Black Sea played such a big role in the Western narrative of civilizational and racial identity formation.

More broadly, the Ottoman era of parts of Europe (much more so than the better-known Islamic Andalusian era of Spain), I now think, shaped those areas and Europe generally far more than we realize. In Western-centered histories, these chapters are usually vaguely hand-waved away as “Balkan troubles” that hover worryingly in the peripheral vision of British or French leaders. With the tale centered on Istanbul, these chapters appear in sharp relief, and things like the start of WWI make way more sense (why should a Serbian student shooting an Austrian archduke cause so much trouble? The one-word answer is “Constantinople.”)

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that in recentering my notions of history, it awakened new curiosities. Now I want to read histories of the Balkan/Caucasian regions, the Mongol and Turkic tribes (what’s the difference between Seljuks, Ottoman, Chagtai etc?) and Gaza. I am particularly curious now about how Persia-Iran managed to retain a strong historical identity as a civilization that seems to always appear primarily as a shadowy boundary or transit condition for other civilizations. Persia appears as a boundary condition in the stories of: Greece, early Christianity, China, India, the Mongols, the Russian-British Great Game, and in our time as a shadowy “evil” empire puppet-mastering the Middle-Eastern conflict from Yemen to Syria. It was a transit zone for Turks, Mongols, and WW2 Westerners running arms to Russia. Yet it never quite appears front-and-center in its own right. I’m now looking for a good, dense history of Persia-Iran.

Books like this one make me realize that the default cartoon western history, which gallops to its manifest destiny from ancient Athens to modern Mar-a-Lago, is worse than just reductive, Eurocentric and wildly wrong on many points. Its greatest failing is that it is boring. History is much more interesting than the historicist-ideological-political missions it gets yoked to by low-imagination power-seeking bores everywhere, in every era, whether they sit in Beijing, DC, London, Istanbul, Moscow, or Delhi.

Anyway, all-in-all a stimulating read that can rejuvenate a jaded sense of history and provide a genuinely fresh perspective on very current events. We may be past the End of History, but there’s a lot more to the finished stuff than we realize. We could stay busy for the rest of post-history making sense of it, even with ChatGPT helping.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Thank you, Venkat for sharing this review. Your curiosity for deeper and richer histories of empires could be further piqued through Anita Anand and William Dalrymple Empire Podcast (

    You’ll find some amazing book recommendations from their interviews with historians like Bettany Hughes (Episode 30, Sultans to Slaves) and many others.

    I’m currently at the tail end of listening to the Empires of Iran, something you would enjoy and appreciate.

    Anita and William also do a good job linking (Empires focused histories) into our present context.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your review, thought I would highlight the Empire podcast and their book recommendations, if you weren’t across it already.

    I’m currently reading Peter Frankopan’s — The Silk Roads: A new history of the world; it has been a great read so far as it sweep right through Central Asia, so some of your curiosities about the histories of the Balkan/Caucasan regions maybe further entertained.

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