16 February 2017
The world’s desire
Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities
Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul are only three of many names for a city whose combination of sanctity with sensuous allure has seized the world’s imagination: the New Rome, the New Jerusalem, the “armpit of Greece”, the “bone in the throat of Allah”, the “World’s Desire”, Tsargrad and Miklagard. For the Greeks, quite simply, “I Poli” – The City – was name enough and conveys both its centrality and their sense of loss.
In between the numerous sieges, quakes, fires, famines and cruelties of mobs or tyrants, not to mention plague, syphilis, TB and cholera, it has been a heaven-on-earth of humming commerce, soup kitchens, glittering prayer-filled domes, libraries, piping birds, pomegranates, beauties and lutes. Hecate, the witchy goddess of thresholds, was an early guardian of this liminal city which straddles three seas, Europe and Asia as well as heaven and hell. Her many shrines echoed with the baying of sacred dogs, and her star and moon still adorn the Turkish flag. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, kept the mantle of Apollo and Sol Invictus. His mother St Helena, pictured with her huge halo, an infant and an apple, resembles both Isis and the Anatolian sun goddess. All the best stories converge and shimmer here.
Bettany Hughes is a genial guide on a “personal, physical journey” through this “protean, multidimensional city”. She has noted the particular colours of sunset and moonrise on the old battlefields and schlepped round every dig in Europe and Asia Minor.
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