Sunday 22 October 2017

"It's very hard to be xenophobic when you can speak someone else's language." Historian Bettany Hughes on Istanbul past, present and future.

This is a longer version of an article originally published by BBC Arts in January 2017. The original piece is here.

As told by historian Bettany Hughes, the story of Istanbul – formerly Constantinople, formerly Byzantium – reads like a tumultuous epic. Hughes’ third book Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities depicts the Turkish city as a site of trade and luxury, radicalism and revolution, coups and takeovers, restless movement and rooted ambition, gorgeous aesthetics and terrible violence.

Fittingly, I meet Bettany Hughes at a crossing point of the past, present and future. We are in the Grade II listed English elegance of Somerset House where her new film, radio and TV company SandStone Global is shortly going to be based, beginning a new phase in her career, from writer and broadcaster to producer and power-player.

Hughes’ book is dedicated to “those who can no longer walk the streets of Istanbul.” It pays tribute to the citizens who have occupied the land since the 5th century AD and were, as Hughes tells me, “forced off the streets by an early death.” The comment is all the more poignant given that the city’s conflicts are no less disturbing today; Hughes is telling a story which is far from over. In 2013 there were protests in Gezi Park against repressive President Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan’s infringement of freedom of the press, expression and assembly and the increasing religious conservatism of everyday life, while in July 2016 a military coup against him was brutally quashed. Challenge hasn’t only come from within: a terrorist attack at Ataturk airport last year and another during the 2017 New Year’s celebrations at a city nightclub (the latter claimed by Isil) have left dozens dead and hundreds injured.

“The history kept on happening,” she says. “During the week of the attempted coup I was due to fly [to Istanbul] for my final stay. I went to my favourite baker, where you can buy a loaf of bread, pay for two, they make a cross on the blackboard outside and it means you’ve paid for a loaf for someone in need. He showed me the bullet holes all around his oven.”

With a historian’s long view, she reminds me that recent popular demonstrations against the government echo the Nika riots of 532AD, where jostling between rival charioteering teams escalated into protests over taxation and legal reforms.

Istanbul dissolves sharp distinctions between eras of the city’s past and also between the conflicting parties who sought dominance there: there is no stark latitudinal battle between broad-brush Christian Western and Muslim Eastern forces, which Hughes refers to sardonically as “the Ottoman peril that threatened Christian civilisation” in the minds of Victorians in “the parlours of the west.” Instead there are cameos from Vikings and Britons and an account of long in-fighting between Sunni and Shia Muslim forces across swathes of territory from North Africa to Azerbaijan – again, an ongoing story.

Istanbul was at the heart of a web of trade routes where horses, crystal, jade and silk came from the East; amber, honey and wax came from the North East; cotton and porphyry came from the South; oil, wine and fruit came from the South West; and linen and livestock came from the North. Meanwhile there were attacks and blockades from all points including Egypt, Russia and Britain and immigration from everywhere including Albania, Georgia and Ethiopia.

“There’s a tenacious characteristic of the city, beginning in the 5th century AD,” says Hughes. “It’s always been a city of sanctuary. It’s very unusual in welcoming in and providing hospitality to refugees of any nationality.” She first visited Istanbul when she was eighteen and remarks, “In my study of the world I’ve never before come across any other city where you have the notion that you have a duty to accept refugees. In the Ottoman era you have dragomans coming in speaking nine or ten languages. It’s very hard to be xenophobic when you can speak someone else’s language.”

Instead of a sequential history, Istanbul offers the visitor a simultaneous history in which ancient pagan shrines are appropriated into churches and then into sanctuaries and temples. Coins from 1st century BC show Hecate, protector of a pre-Roman “citylette” called Byzantion, whose symbol was the moon and star – “a design echoed in the Turkish flag today,” Hughes notes. The ancient scriptoria of the city itself preserved Greek plays, Roman philosophy, Christian texts and Muslim poetry.

At once thunderingly brisk and joyfully rich, the book is unerring in its straight shot from the past to the future and yet generous in its contingencies, exceptions and felicities. Hughes has looked into everything from the city’s priestesses to the poetry written about it by foreign visitors, picking out the lives of spectacular personalities like the Athenian general Alcibiades, “acting like quicksilver, twisting and turning.” “A city is the people who live in it, she tells me. “Architecture is a kind of macro-historical guide. But it’s the lived, breathed, hoped, feared lives of the people in it that stick with me.”

I ask why she’s telling the story of a city which has already been depicted and examined so many times. She concedes that a historian can only say something original if their work is based on “new evidence and fresh archive discoveries, manuscripts, the physical accumulation of documentary evidence.” She points to exciting material, much of it coming from former communist countries in eastern Europe – “literally, sealed boxes with a sign saying ‘old Turkish documents’” – which are now slowly being translated, along with fresh archaeological finds:  “there’s going to be a lot of stuff coming out of the ground.”

Istanbul joins Hughes’ two previous books The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life and Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess Whore. In the course of her research, she has had to adopt a panoply of different roles: linguist, archaeologist, sociologist, art historian, military analyst, travel adventurer, natural geographer and academic. The unique result, in all three cases, is history which is astonishingly alive, told with the rigour of a scholar and the vigour of a storyteller.

Hughes is also a prolific and magnetically erudite presenter on TV and radio. For the BBC alone she has examined the geniuses of the modern world (Marx, Nietzsche and Freud), those of the ancient world (Buddha, Socrates and Confucius); studied the hidden history of women in religion in Divine Women; explored the mythologies of Alexandria, Atlantis and Athens; and chronicled the Aryans, the Ancient Egyptians, the Minoans, the Spartans and the Moors. Her radio work has covered everything from playwright Shakespeare to poet Sappho.

Yet she goes red and says “I absolutely don’t feel prolific” when I tell her I admire her work. She is motivated not by relics from a dig but by “empathy and excitement with the characters, sharing the delight I feel in discovering new evidence: ‘Aha! I get it. That explains why that person did that thing and that moment.’”

Now she is launching her own production company. SandStone Global will produce international documentaries, working with fully diverse teams in front of and behind the camera. They are already well into filming the story of Aphrodite, “the goddess of love and war – not a soppy Venus,” working with Cypriot partners and “telling the story from the point of its origin rather than helicoptering in.”

Yet in following a story from its origins, one can’t help but notice the perennial quality of war and conflict. Istanbul takes us past the Crusades, the Crimean War, the two world wars and the fall of the Ottoman empire to eight months ago. And the headlines keep coming. Hughes admits, “I was expecting the pages [of my Istanbul book] to be full of people sitting listening to bees buzzing, having a sherbet at the hammam. The sad truth of history is that rage is so close to the surface. It’s a city where as well as the beauty, you feel anger crackling beneath the surface. The only thing that keeps it together is people’s desire to do so, and to find something to celebrate and respect.”

Nonetheless, Hughes asserts, “Whatever monoculture anyone tries to impose on it, the people will shrug it off. There have been so many rulers who tried to create the city in their own image. The city always fights back.”

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes is out now.