Since March, I have been lusting after travel. I have been planning armchair trips to hike the stone steps of the Inca Trail, leaf peep the fall foliage in upstate New York, tap my shoes along the cobbled streets of Paris. Turkey is right at the top of my wanderlist- I would start in Istanbul and work my south and west. Since I can’t go in person, I decided I would do an armchair visit, starting with this biography of the city and following up with a themed date night of mezzes and a movie (TBD, but I’m leaning towards Topkapi, a ‘60s jewel heist crime caper).
Having read this 600 page brick I feel much better informed about Istanbul’s long history- there sure is a lot of it. Byzantium started off as a small town, then a backwater under the Greeks; the Romans took a shine to it and it boomed and then actually overtook Rome to become the Center of the World (the New Rome, and the center for Christianity); its walls withstood Goths, Vandals, Huns and (mostly) the Crusaders, but after 5 attempts the nomadic Turks captured it in the middle ages and turned it into the Center of the Islamic World. A succession of poor leaders, combined with nationalism and misplaced allegiances in the first world war, all resulted in the eventual end of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the modern state of Turkey in the 20s. What a ride!
Hughes does a mostly good job with this wealth of information- she tries to give the highlights of the timeline while interspersing chapters about what life would have been like for the people who lived in the city at that time. These side chapters almost steal the show- yes I want to hear about Empress Theodora’s showgirl past, or the eunuchs that play such an important life in the royal court, or the outrageous outfits that the Janissaries wear! Because of this sidetracking, I sometimes got a little lost about how the Emperors/Sultans were shuffling forward chronologically; I think I would have preferred the chronology at the beginning rather than an appendix at the end (or at least knowing it was there earlier on).
My other, albeit minor, critique is regarding Hughes’ sentence structure- sometimes it feels like she gets carried away with her passion for something and her sentence just comes with her. Many times I had to reread sentences to sort out what she was actually saying. Minor nitpick, but I think she could have used a better editor.
I’m filling my ‘Happy’ bingo square with this one.