This form does not yet contain any fields.

    Entries in History (6)



    Over the past few days, since leaving Istanbul, I've covered something like 700km by road all across the Pamphyian plain, the Pisidian highlands and the passes through the Tauros Mountains, and on into the Central Plateau. Except while sleeping, I've barely sat still. My great "rest stop" was an afternoon in Eğirdir, a pretty little town on the gorgeous lake of the same name, napping and catching up on my trip planning and emails. Other than that, it's been dawn to dusk exploration. Time is growing short. In eight days, I catch a flight back to the States, and I still have the entire stretch of the old Royal Road from here (Afyon) to Cappadocia and the Cilician Gates beyond to cover.

    I've spent a morning scrambling up the steep escarpment at Sillyon (Sillaeon), one of the major fortified towns near Attaleia (modern Antalya), in 44-degree C heat. I've gotten thoroughly lost trying to find the ruins of Milyos and Cremna, which are a good 10 km away from where the Michelin maps show them, on crazy one-lane rural roads that wind through the mountains. (I got found again. I thank my Viking ancestors for my navigational sense.) I spent two hours trekking around the magnificent pre-Hellenistic, Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine city of Sagalassos, high in the mountains in what should have been a nearly impregnable position, though its strategic location stopped neither Alexander the Great nor a series of earthquakes and plagues that ultimately doomed the city.

    I spent a couple hours in the impossibly confusing and traffic-crazy town of Yalvaç trying to find the ruins of Antioch in Pisidia, a major crossroads city that was besieged by the son of Caliph al-Walid I in 713 and never fully recovered. (The remaining ruins are unimpressive, once found.) I've followed both the western route (Via Sebaste) and central route of the old Roman roads through the Taurus mountains to the central highlands, trying to retrace the ways travelers and/or armies might have made it from the coast to the strategic cities in the Anatolikon theme during the time of my novel. 

    Today comes the highlight of this part of the trip: Amorium, the Byzantine fortress city that was the capital of the Anatolikon theme. The city was sacked by the Arabs in 838 and never fully recovered, but at the time of my book, it was a relatively thriving crossroads city, well fortified and crucial to the defense of west-central Anatolia and the approaches to the strategically vital cities farther to the west and northwest. Here, the future Leo III, newly appointed strategos of the Anatolikon theme, played a game of cat-and-mouse with the Arab armies in the summer of 716, holding out to them the possibility that he might be their bought man in Constantinople if they would only help him attain the throne, while buying time and pinning the bulk of the Arab army in place through an entire campaign season while he frustrated them through sheer diplomatic wiles. From here, he raced to Constantinople as soon as the campaign season was over and, with the help of Artavasdos, the strategos of the vital Armenian theme, made his ultimately successful bid for the Imperium.

    Amorium is crucial to my story, so I hope the site will whisper to my imagination whatever secrets it has left to tell. Sadly, the team that has been excavating the site for the past 25 years or more did not obtain their permit to dig this year, so there will likely be no archaeologists on site. I'll have to go by the articles and maps that I brought with me, and then bombard Christopher Lightfoot and Zeliha Demirel Gökalp, the former and current directors of the Amorium Project, with questions about the state of the city in 715. 

    It will be a big day.

    And then, tomorrow, on to Cappadocia, via the ancient roads (or the closest approximation I can manage on the current road system), to see what an army invading from the Cilician Gates would have seen as they crossed the Anatolian Plateau. I look forward to Cappadocia both as a capstone of my journey and as a chance to take a (relative) rest. Assemble my notes, catch up on my actual writing, and explore the remaining areas in south-central Turkey that would have played a role in the story of the Siege of 717-18 and its buildup. 

    I've uploaded several new batches of photos from my journey - so far untagged, but organized by site, to make it easier to identify what you're seeing. When time permits, I'll try to go through and describe each photo and provide further detail.




    Reminder: if you click the little RSS button under "Subscribe", you can sign up to get reminders whenever I update the site. 

    Not to worry - I doubt I'll be updating it often enough to qualify as spam...

    I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Dumbarton Oaks yesterday, arguably the best center for Byzantine studies in the Western hemisphere. Although the library was closed for the weekend, the museum was open - as were the gardens, in full springtime bloom. A few hours of strolling through a millennium of Byzantine art, jewelry, sculpture, mosaics, and religious artifacts gave me a quick shot of reality-grounding. After so many months buried in books, seeing things that people had actually touched, worn, and used - albeit centuries ago - made the world I'm trying to bring back to life a bit more concrete.

    On the flight to DC, I was able to step back from the research and put some thought into the themes I want to develop, and how my characters will play into it. There's something about being in flight, between places, that frees my mind to float and find connections that I hadn't seen before. I could say that I should do it more often, but flying has become such an annoying process in this day and age that I can't really have any interest in subjecting myself to it any more than I have to.

    Happy Easter, folks - and Hag Sameach to my Jewish friends, too. Take care.


    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.


    Another dive into the research heap

    Okay, so I was a bit premature in declaring my "research phase" over and largely done with.

    True, part of my current repeat trip through my miniature Byzantine library is sheer avoidance. After all, reworking the outline for a novel as extensive and complicated as this one is turning out to be is... well, calling it "drudgery" wouldn't be far from the truth. Yes, I need to do it. Yes, the work will be all the better for it. No, it's not particularly fun. Or inspiring. Or interesting to talk about, to my wife or anyone else.

    Aerial view of Constantinople. Image by DeliDumrul (public domain).But then too, as I've worked on the outline and the scene concepts and the character profiles and the settings, I'm continually discovering things with which I just don't feel sufficiently familiar, yet. How many Byzantine monasteries in the early 8th century actually had orphanages, and were there any outside Constantinople? (Data's pretty thin, apparently.) How hard was it to cross over the border between Roman and Muslim territories, and what was life like for everyday folk in the "friction zone" where the two cultures rubbed together (and raided each other, and grabbed territory from each other, and tried to prevent the other from benefitting from lands they held, and so on)? Had iconoclasm started to pop up in small - or large - ways in the Byzantine religious establishment at the beginning of the 8th century, prior to its eruption into official policy with Leo III's massive push in the 720s, and if so, how did it manifest in the public eye, and how did the general populace regard it?

    So many questions. Luckily, I have many many books to turn to - unfortunately, precious little time. My writer friends counsel me to just keep writing, and go back to the research only later, to answer critical questions. The story is paramount, they tell me. Probably good advice. Still, I can hear the books calling me. Haldon's A Social History of Byzantium is sitting next to me right now, crying out for attention. It holds so many answers - the role of women. What monastic life was like. The interplay between rural and urban people. Class politics.

    If only my characters were so insistent. Sure, they call to me too. But it's more a vague muttering, easily lost in the cacophony from the source materials. Maybe this is a sign that I need to lock the books up for a while - preferably in a soundproof room - and focus on the actual writing.

    It doesn't help that I have recurring dreams about some graduate student in Byzantine history phoning me up in the middle of the night two weeks after the book hits the stands and telling me I got it all wrong about Leo, and that if I had just read this monograph, and that article (available only in Russian, but still, it was published in 1894), and visited this archaeological dig in Damascus, I would have known better. But maybe that's just me.


    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.)