As Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, Peter Frankopan was the ideal interviewer of Bettany Hughes, an engaging historian and broadcaster who brought wit and sparkle to 'what's passing, not past.'
The brief but lively exchange between two historians united in a shared passion for the ancient world offered a tantalising glimpse into a city, known as The World's Desire. Istanbul has been called many things: Byzantium for 900 years, Christian Constantinople for an additional 1000 years, Islamic Islam-bol and now Istanbul. Under President Erdogan, 2016 saw the renaming of the iconic Bosphorus Bridge to the 'July 15th Martyrs' Bridge', as a coup against him was quashed.
Hughes is a hands-on historian who seeks to understand both the archaeology of place and culture. When Frankopan asked her why she had chosen Istanbul as a subject, she spoke of how a ten year long project has seen many trips to the city, including one last year with her two daughters. She recounted how her historian's curiosity to witness a demonstration against President Erdogan first hand over-rode her maternal instincts, but was chastened by the effect tear gas had on her daughter's asthma. At this point, Frankopan drily dissociated himself from such derring-do methods, but reminded Hughes that at the Jaipur Literary Festival, it had been she, not him, who had chosen to stay in her room, while he went out to explore the city.
Boldly addressing the audience, rapt in the narrative, Frankopan reassured Hughes that her diligence would be well understood in Oxford. 'This is the epicentre of swots,' Frankopan said. As an Oxford alumni, Hughes explained that their necessarily brief discussion was due to another date at the V&A that evening, to raise money for the University.
The contribution of outstanding women has been one of Hughes' most consistent areas of interest, and in Istanbul she finds much to admire. Surveying the modern skyline, Hughes notes that 'half' the buildings were founded or paid for by women: mosques, fountains, gardens were all in the gift of rich female patrons, whose religious duty was discharged in acts of philanthropy.
Hughes' eclectic cast of characters through Istanbul's long and bloody history are brilliantly evoked, but her message was inclusiveness - what brings the world together is the marvel of the book.