In a word: Constantinople. The city that was. And Istanbul. The city that is.
I had been researching my previous novel, ‘Vlad: The Last Confession’ in Romania in 2007. I thought: I am this close, I should visit Istanbul. So I did, for five days. Did the full tourist thing, was suitably awed by luxuriant Topkapi and dazzled by the Blue Mosque. Took my boat across the Golden Horn and up the Bosphorus. Played backgammon in alleys in Pera. Bought a rug in the grand bazaar and smoked narghile filled with apple tobacco in a place just beside it. Ate it, drank it, smoked it. Loved it… and left.
What I didn’t realize was that I had caught a fever from the city and its people. It felt so… relevant, still the centre of the world in so many ways. Not just the cliché ‘where two continents meet.’ Its totality. So much had happened there over so long a period. It had been central to so many people, their faiths, their cultures. And the more I thought about 1453, the more I realized: this is where two empires ended – the Byzantine and the Roman they’d sprung from. 2000 years of history right there. And this was where another empire began: the Ottoman who, though they had conquered much of the Balkans by then, truly established themselves by felling those two ancient worlds. And when I delved further, I discovered this: that despite all the massive preparations of assault and defense, it all came down to one moment of fate. To a single bullet.
What I most gained from a second, targeted, still too-brief visit in 2010, was a sense of the people. I talked with citizens, from warriors to publishers to concierges. To a man I’d met over a pipe before, the gentle philosopher, Akay, disciple of Omar Khayyam. I soon realized that my ambitions had shifted. If I’d ever conceived this as a story between good guys and bad, between gallant, outnumbered Christian defenders and hordes of fanatical Muslims, that concept swiftly changed. The people I talked to had ancestors who had fought either side of the walls. And they were united now in their love of what they’d fought for. The city moved me, as few have ever before – and I have travelled far.
I began to conceive characters that would give me viewpoints both sides of the walls, to tell the whole story. My central one is Gregoras: exile, proclaimed traitor, toughest of mercenaries who vows never to return to the city that took his all and does the very thing he vows not to. An outsider can see what others cannot. One who was once an insider sees more. But I also truly wanted someone who did not fight for the things ordinary men fight for – God, gold, glory. Along came Achmed who fought so that no child of his would ever die of starvation again.
I don’t like to give history lessons in my novels. But to understand the characters you need to understand their context – religious, social, military, political. I found men and women who would lead me into all those areas and tell the readers what they needed to know because they needed to know it.
The city was the key to everything. Walking those still-standing walls, you can only marvel at the courage that it took to both attack and defend them. Why would men and women do that? Because Istanbul inspires that level of love. It did in me, resident for just a few weeks. What must it do to those who live there?
I wrote of this love, from the point of view of a nameless Greek, addressed to his enemy: ‘I watch the sun pass directly over me down the line of the Bosphorus, setting the dome of Divine Wisdom afire, falling on every column that marks our history, transforming the waters that surround and sustain us from the blue smelted steel of our swords to the green of an empress’s eye. In its daily course the sun casts an even light upon the whole city, lingers like a lover reluctant to part . . . then flees suddenly, unable to look back, anxious to swiftly return, as it always does.
As shall I. If I am too tired to lift my sword, I will lay my body in the breach to trip your foot; and if my sacrifice is not worthy enough to mitigate my sins, perhaps it will yet be enough for God to grant one prayer: that I spend purgatory as a stone in Constantinople. Under that light, breathing those scents, part of that history. Part of the greatest city on earth. As was. Is. Forever will be.
I am Constantine Palaiologos, Emperor, son of Caesars. I am a baker, a ropewright, a fisherman, a monk, a merchant. I am a soldier. I am Roman. I am Greek. I am two thousand years old. I was born in freedom only yesterday.
This is my city, Turk. Take it if you can.’
What inspired him, inspired me. Constantinople. This is where the book begins and ends, stands and falls. With that city and with the people who lived and still live there.
Chris's website: www.cchumphreys.com