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    Entries in Constantinople (4)

    Sunday
    Aug032014

    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.

    Saturday
    Aug022014

    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.

    Wednesday
    Apr132011

    Constantinople, 717 AD

    One of the great challenges of writing historical fiction - particularly focusing on an era so distant from our own, in which so few original sources survive - is trying to bring a lost place and time to life, out of highly fragmentary evidence.

    Take, for example, the city of Constantinople, just to pick one at random. The site has been inhabited since ancient times, perhaps three millennia in total. Maybe longer. Today, there's a huge city on top of it all, a dynamic, crowded, cosmopolitan place which, much like any other modern megalopolis, has many things on its mind besides preserving one particular period of history for the archaeological convenience of people like me. I imagine a place like New York or London, but with an extra millennium or two of detritus layered underneath the modern city. And here I am, trying to pick one particular sample out of that history, no more than two or three years, and pulling that into focus, complete with buildings, streets, markets, harbors, palaces, parks, and all the rest of the things that make a city come to life. Smells. Recent controversies and urban development. Shifts in the "in places" - to eat, to live, to shop. What you would see. What you would hear. What sort of people would be on the street.Imagine, for those of you who live in a place like Athens, or Cairo, or Baltimore, a writer fifteen hundred years from now. How would they be able to figure out what the "hot" neighborhoods were? Where you ate when you were going out on the town, versus where you go when you're just picking up something for take-out. Where you buy your meat, your cheese, your bread - given that there were no super-markets at the time. It takes some real digging, more so for a culture like 8th-century Byzantium, where so few records survive.17th century artist's rendition of the Hagia Sophia as it might have looked when it was first built.


    My thanks, in this instance, to Paul Magdalino, whose "The Maritime Neighborhoods of Constantinople: Commercial and Residential Functions, Sixth to Twelfth Centuries" has been absolutely invaluable.

    Tuesday
    Mar222011

    Digging for gold

    There are times, working on this project, when I feel more like an archaeologist than a writer.

    True, I'm working with information, not rock and dirt, and my tools are my laptop and my 4x6" cards, rather than pick and brush. Still, I find myself sifting through layer upon layer of historical detritus, accumulated assumptions and broken chains of evidence, searching for a few kernels of confirmed fact. Or at least, some degree of probable plausibility. There's no question that I will have to hang a great deal of my own guesswork and narrative imagination around the sparse framework of fact and probability that I dig up, but there are times when I feel like a paleontologist trying to imagine an entire dinosaur - bone structure, skin texture, diet, mating behavior, life cycle, and all - from a single knuckle bone.

    I really have no one but myself to blame. After all, it's not as though someone held a gun to my head and forced me to write a book about early 8th century Byzantine and Arab history. Still, it's hard to resist the temptation to whine a bit about the dearth of primary sources. Even secondary sources covering the Siege of 717/8 are few and far between - which surprises me, since there seems to be fairly wide agreement that it was one of the pivotal events of the medieval period, at least as significant in the broad flow of world history as the Battle of Tours, which has received significantly more attention.

    So I dig around the edges of the topic, searching for clues that will help me bring the period to life. And every now and then I come across nuggets of pure gold, veins of it even. One of these came this morning, when I found articles from an entire colloquium on Constantinople that Dumbarton Oaks hosted in 1998. Now, mind you, I've come across quite a number of Dumbarton Oaks publications prior to this, and have made thorough use of some of them - particularly the Economic History of Byzantium, which, while dry as dust at times if you're not utterly in need of the information it contains, is a precious resource full of an incredible wealth of insight on how people related to one another, in trade and taxes and social life, across the whole broad scope of Byzantine history. Still, I had somehow missed this colloquium on Constantinople. The oversight made me dig more deeply, wondering what else I had missed. I wound up spending several hours this morning going through the entire catalog of their past publications back to the 1960s - and there's still more to do, twenty years or so before that. (When you're researching something that happened 1300 years ago, scholarship that is a mere half-century old is considered "recent," folks.)

    The Jewel of Muscat. Photo by AsianYachting.A narrower, but more captivating find came a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon the Jewel of Muscat Project - an enormous trove of video, photographic, and historical information about medieval Arab shipbuilding techniques, tied to an upcoming National Geographic documentary about the reconstruction of an early medieval Arab treasure ship found off Singapore. (Thanks again to Mitch Williamson for setting my mouse on the path to discover this one.) Sure, it's probably overkill to get this deep into medieval Arab naval architecture, given the relatively small role it plays in my novel - but I'm sure the detail will prove invaluable at making the relevant section feel real.

    I'll get to work on adding a "Resources" section to this site shortly - as well as a set of links to the friends, mentors, and contributors who are actively helping me bring this book to life. Including Matthew Herbst, Director of the Making of the Modern World program at UC San Diego and star of a series of podcasted lectures that I've been enjoying, who spent probably more time than he could spare talking to an aspiring author about Byzantine history and serving as a sounding board for my crackpot ideas about Leo III, Maslama, and the role of fiction in illuminating history.

    Back into the mines, now. I'm hoping to add another segment to the site soon, where I can share some of the more interesting tidbits and stories that I've come across in my archaeological dig - like how I think Justinian II snuck into his own capital city with a few good men and retook it from the successor-usurper to the man who deposed him. Skullduggery worthy of James Bond, surely, especially when you consider the fact that Justinian had a golden nose. (Or perhaps had had plastic surgery at the hands of, most likely, an Indian doctor. Both are entirely plausible.)