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    Photo tour of Constantinople, I mean, Istanbul

    For your viewing pleasure, I've uploaded some of the more interesting pictures I've taken along the way as I've walked all over Istanbul, searching for sites that would have existed in the early 8th century. I've only managed to write descriptions of about a third of them thus far. I'll keep plugging away at that in between rambles. Hopefully my processing ability will keep pace with my picture production, though really, who are we kidding?

    Go to the Gallery here.


    The Turkey has landed

    One of my fondest memories - in retrospect, not in the living of it - is of my arrival in Phnom Penh, 16 years ago. Now, mind you, Cambodia was only a year out of the dark days of Khmer Rouge rule, and had only just reopened its airport. The national airline had four brand-new prop planes and a single used but spotlessly refurbished DC-9, the pride of the fleet. Flying into this city of more than 2 million people at night, I only saw the lights I'd have expected from a city of maybe 50,000. The airport was a large quonset hut, in the midst of a vast empty space that had clearly once been a major airport. 

    The Cambodians recognized a job opportunity when they saw one, though. There were perhaps 40 people on the plane. There were at least that many customs officials ready to process us, all ranged in a line down a series of folding tables. One person's job was to take your passport, and hand it on to the next person. That person opened it up, and passed it on. And so on. The big bottleneck in the system was the poor sap who's job it was to write down all your passport information and the visa number in an enormous book, and then give that to the bigwig next to him, who looked very important as he signed and stamped the whole thing. Each of these people was, presumably, being paid.

    Entering Turkey was nothing like this. Atatürk Airport is modern, enormous, and efficient, and though they parked our plane on the tarmac, a late-model electric bus was waiting to whisk us to the terminal. Baggage claim was no worse than in any American airport, and considerably better than at La Guardia. The Customs guy just opened up my passport, read my e-visa off my iPhone screen, and thumped his stamp down on the page, and off I went. 

    The ride into the center of the city parallels the Sea of Marmara, where vast fleets of cargo ships wait to pass through the Bosphorus or offload containers at the city's port facilities. All along the waterfront are parks, which at mid-afternoon on a Saturday were full of families on picnics. Where in America there would be basketball courts with pickup games going on, there were here soccer fields (with the same kind of fences), also with pickup games going on. Every park had exercise equipment, well-used by older people, who were out walking with a vengeance. Barbeques on the beach, smoke drifting. People laughing. And right across the parkway on which my driver (a very polite and quiet middle-aged lady, driving a Mercedes van like a mild-mannered maniac) whisked me along, there were the ancient sea walls, pitted blocks of stone with bands of crumbling brick, with shops and houses built on top as if there was nothing unusual about such a foundation. The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

    I passed through one of the gates in the Walls of Theodosius. A wild moment. How many barbarians battered at those gates for more than a thousand years, without success? And I, more barbaric than any of them could imagine, passed through in mere moments, stopped only long enough to wait out a red light.

    Sultanhamet, the neighborhood where I'll be staying for the next week, is the heart of the Old City - cobblestoned streets, narrow alleys, monuments everywhere, and tourist traps doubly so. The windows of my hotel room overlook the Blue Mosque. The muezzin keeps long hours - his final call to prayer rang out, too loud to ignore, after 10pm, so melodic it was hard to imagine that such sounds could come from a human throat. He woke me again at 4:20ish in the morning. I hope he takes naps during the day.

    The forecast is for thunderstorms today, and from the size of the cumulonimbus I saw floating down from Bulgaria on the flight in, that seems entirely plausible. Seems like a good day for museum visits. Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral built more than 1500 years ago by Justinian I on a site originally chosen by Constantine the Great, is at the top of the list.


    In the footsteps of the Byzantines

    On August 1 I'll be leaving for Turkey on a trip that has been three years in the making. For all that time, I've been writing my 8th-century historical novel set in what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel without ever having set foot on the soil of any of those countries. A difficult feat, to be sure. As of Friday, for the first, time, I'll be set loose to wander along the paths my characters would have trod, sample the scents and tastes they would have sensed, see the birds and flowers and lakes they would have found around them, and feel the same aches in my muscles and blisters on my feet as I travel the same roads they would have taken.

    For three weeks, I'll be doing intensive research on-site in areas ranging from Istanbul to Cappadocia, gathering as much input as I can on what life might have been like in what the Byzantines would have called Romaioi in 715-18 CE. This will require a significant leap of the imagination. Modern-day Turkey is a very different place. Even the topography has changed over the past 1300 years in places, thanks to the silting up of harbors, the expansion of landmasses by human effort or earthquake, dams and deforestation and climate change. Underneath modern cities lie the layers of Ottoman history, and Seljuk, and Latin crusaders, and late and then middle Byzantine periods, and many periods of cultural disruption due to invasion, before we get to the chaotic period in which my novel is set. In many cases, remaining ruins have been excavated past the early medieval period to access earlier classical Roman and Greek and even neolithic remains that are of greater interest to scholars, leaving little information about what life might have been like in those places in the so-called Dark Ages. Major sites were abandoned - a case in point being Amorium, the capital of the Anatolikon theme at the time of my novel and a large fortified city, which was sacked in 838 and never fully recovered, and eventually abandoned. Where once was a thriving city with a population in the tens of thousands (large by medieval standards) now lies a small farming village, irregularly enlarged by teams of archaeologists. 

    How does one turn the human mind into a canvas on which centuries-dead cities and people can come back to life? I'm about to do my best to find out.

    I'll be making an effort to share portions of the trip here. Stay tuned.


    And now for the unexpected...

    The good news keeps on rolling in. This morning I learned that my critical essay, "The World That Was My World" won an honorable mention in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. It's not publication, and it's not money, but it's recognition, which is a powerful incentive in its own right. I'm feeling very blessed right now.


    Graduation day

    After two years of diligent work, I completed my Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Pacific University on Saturday, June 28. Graduation day in Forest Grove dawned with fine drizzle, but over the space of the day the weather cleared. By late afternoon, we were graced with sunbeams lancing through the disappearing cloud cover. Perfect for the kids to race around on the grass while the black-robed, hooded, weird-hatted adults wandered around hugging each other and taking oodles of pictures. 

    The MFA was a long journey, but after my marriage and the birth of my kids, it was also one of the most life-altering experiences I've ever had. I'm so grateful to my mentors, faculty, friends, and family for all that I've learned, all the support I've gotten, and all they've helped me accomplish. I come out of the program with Part One of my novel highly polished and going strong. I'm well positioned to complete Parts Two and Three, on which I've already written several hundred manuscript pages. The editing job ahead is vast and daunting, but doable. 

    In August, I'll be spending three weeks in Turkey, researching the territory about which I've been writing for the past several years. There's information that can only be gathered with eyes and nose, feet and ears. I can only hope that corner of the world doesn't disintegrate between now and then. I doubt it will, but for a historian and writer whose period of expertise has become the early Islamic Caliphate, the news that a new Caliphate is arising (however pale a shadow of the original it might be) does grab the attention. 

    In the meantime, I'm enjoying family time back home. Back to the research, the writing, and moving ahead. MFA in hand.