Inspiring People – Bettany Hughes: How to Build a City

‘Heady, boozy and blessed’ is how Bettany Hughes, speaker in the penultimate Inspiring People talk of the current series, encapsulated the famous city of Istanbul. With hilariously relatable anecdotes, Hughes confidently and concisely led us through the extraordinary history to suggest how a good city is created.

Beginning when Istanbul was called Byzantium, she focused on its defining features like the Bosphorus strait, international relations and hosting of refugees. She showed the audience pictures of some of the extraordinary recent archeological finds and their relevance in discovering this symbolic city’s history, particularly as it is the centre of both north and south, east and west. Attended by a huge proportion of the classics department and, with Bettany being a classicist herself, the talk was fascinating, providing an insight into Istanbul’s early history, significantly having the world’s oldest coffin amongst other extraordinary finds.

Continuing our journey through Constantinople, we were surprised to learn about the vast quantity of Constantinopolitan goods found in Cornwall, supposedly as a ‘pity’ trade similar to diplomatic trade today. More British connections featured, when it was revealed that Elizabeth 1 had been close friends and political allies with one of the Sultan’s most powerful wives.

She went on to describe the city’s blessed, welcoming nature as she introduced us to the people who changed history and the world today. Famous partly for the wrong reasons, Theodora had risen through society from erotic dancer to an Empress who changed her society, providing safe houses for prostitutes and single mothers and home to thousands of refugees.

Particularly in the current refugee crisis and rise of feminism, I found myself comparing Byzantium with our modern society and cities. It seemed no wonder that Istanbul stands as the oldest (8000 years old) city in the world with a society setting an example to ours today.

Unfortunately, Constantinople’s luxury caused jealousy and became its downfall as thieves in the forms of Vikings and crusaders resulted in Ottoman and then British control of the city. However, the highly literate citizens, who provided the body of the city, were re-admitted into the city as they proved to be the cause of its success. Therefore, Hughes left the audience with the strong optimistic opinion of the need for human relationships and co-habitation, with the view that letting in those beyond our borders was the way citizens could be the most successful and happy.

By Sixth Former Sybilla Hamilton

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