Written by Toby Gay
Image: Photograph of Dr. Michael Scott as promo for BBC series, Ancient Invisible Cities
Dr. Michael Scott concludes his three-part series Ancient Invisible Cities with its strongest episode: Istanbul. Combining his typically smooth enthusiasm with the latest 3D scanning technology, Scott allows the visuals to do most of the work in revealing the stunning archaeological and architectural treasures of this multifaceted and secretive metropolis.
Unfortunately, this more passive role means that the presenter sometimes neglects his role of describing the outstanding and dramatic history of the city, especially of the early Byzantine period. Instead of explaining the significant role the city played in the rise of the Silk Road (as the excellent Dr. Sam Willis did two years ago), and its vital, unique geography with the Golden Horn harbour, Scott heads straight for the jugular: the Hagia Sophia, which was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years.
This is understandable, however, as the Hagia Sophia is such an incredible building that it was worth cutting all the customary preamble to focus on it. The 3D scanning, while awkwardly presented (‘You can’t do that in real life!’), is truly fascinating in how it uncovers the engineering masterstrokes it took to build the huge dome. The exquisite angels on the pendentive, now plastered over, are shown to be holding up this now very fragile and ‘bumpy’ centrepiece – quite literally holding up heaven. Even if he fails to tell the story of Constantine, and his reshaping of Byzantium into the Romanesque Constantinople (renamed as Istanbul in 1928), Scott does a wonderful job of bringing to life the character of Emperor Justinian – who built the cathedral.
Sadly, Scott only discusses the Muslim amendments to the former cathedral after a 40-minute hiatus, by which time the audience, filled with information about beautifully preserved Christian mosaics and Roman aqueducts and forgotten colossal hippodromes and city walls, is unable to understand the complex architectural history of this World Heritage Site. The presenter makes up for this by exploring the city in virtual reality, a genuinely funny but also fascinating gimmick. However, Scott surely cannot be forgiven for spending so little time on the modern, Muslim history of the city, which started in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II conquered it with the use of gunpowder – the first time the substance had been used in Western history. Despite indulging in a little of the local street food as a premise for exploring the remarkable success of multiculturalism in early-twentieth century Istanbul, Scott times this programme quite poorly, spending little time on the wonderful Muslim architecture and artefacts of the Sultan Ahmed mosque, and even less on the culturally-diverse domestic lives of the İstanbullu which are still influenced by the long history of the city.
All in all, this is a programme well worth watching; the narrative succeeds in drawing a line between the ancient past and the current day, unlike its predecessors on Athens and Cairo. Although it is a little torn between history and archaeology, Muslim and Christian architecture, this can be put down to the magnitude of this great city’s heritage. At a time when the West and the East are threatening to pull Turkey apart over the Syrian crisis, along with the furore over the recent death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is reassuring to remember that this country and its cultural capital have endured it all over the last 1800 hundred years.