The modern city of Istanbul has been known by many names. Constantinople, Miklagard, the New Rome, the Queen of Cities, the Great City, Byzantium. But by any name, it has been the setting for many a great novel (and some not so great ones). I suppose when it comes to creative inspiration about a particular place, usually one experiences the place and then conceives of the story. For me it was the other way round.
My current series, The Wanderer Chronicles, is about the adventures of a Viking warrior in exile, set in an epoch (the early 8th century) when the main catalyst for change – across the Old World at least – was the birth of Islam and the subsequent Muslim conquest of vast swathes of territory previously the domain of the Persian and Byzantine Empires.
At first, this might seem to have little to do with the fate of my collection of characters – those that made it through the first two books in the series – who hail from the frozen north of Scandinavia. But in this third volume, several of them become embroiled in the climactic showdown between the armies of the Caliphate and the beleaguered Roman (or Byzantine) Empire.
The historical centrepiece for the novel is the Siege of Constantinople in 717/718 AD – when a host of over a hundred and twenty thousand Arab troops and a fleet of more than two thousand ships encircled the Great City – there, to deliver the final death-blow to the once great Roman Empire. The future of Europe, and arguably the world, hung in the balance. Certainly contemporaneous sources believed that to be true, as do most historians of the period that I have read.
Anyhow, this crisis seemed sufficiently dramatic to me – with its intrigues and betrayals, its pivotal battles and the Byzantines’ horrifyingly effective secret weapon known as Greek Fire – to make for a good story. And by the time I landed in Istanbul I had already drafted almost three quarters of the novel, with only the final act climax to do.
One of the things that I always found frustrating about studying archeology, back in the days of my degree, was that there was always for me an unbridgeable gap between whatever one was looking at or reading about and the actual lived experience of that time: particularly if that time lay in the very distant past. What I really wanted was a time machine – or failing that an iMax movie directed by Ridley Scott. It took me a good fifteen years to discover that writing historical fiction was the solution to my problem. Where the lived experience of a world, albeit in one’s imagination, fills in the gaps and, most importantly, provides the motives and emotions of real characters with real goals and real obstacles in a particular period and place.
Never was this lesson more powerfully driven home than during my brief visit to Istanbul. Everything I saw, I had already experienced through the travails of my characters. I found myself feeling what they must have felt. To experience these places, to see these wonders with my own eyes was like a sudden super-inflation of everything I had struggled to imagine. Whether it was walking into the looming expanse of the Hagia Sophia – Emperor Justinian’s great basilica – where one’s gaze is sucked upwards into the abyss of air that fills the massive dome; ambling the open market squares once filled with columns and statues of New Rome’s greatest emperors; striding down the home straight where the Blue and Green factions screamed their lungs out in support of their charioteer teams whirring round the Hippodrome; or else climbing up the busy shopping street that used to be the “Mese,” imagining I could still smell the spices and perfumes of a thousand years ago on the traffic-clogged air.
Another was standing on the upper deck of tour-boat like every other tourist who comes to Istanbul, chugging noisily out of the Golden Horn but feeling the Wanderer’s adrenaline surge as the dromon oars rose and fell and the drums beat hungrily, bearing him out onto the Bosphorus into the horrors of Greek Fire. Perhaps the most striking of all these impressions came from walking the massive Land Walls, which defended the western approaches to the city, and successfully held off (nearly!) all comers for the best part of nine centuries, and only truly fell with the invention of gunpowder.
All this provided a welter of retrospective inspiration – while for several hours a day I was cantering along to the climax of my own story, typing away on a hotel terrace from which, with a glance to the left, I glimpsed the heft of the rust-red buttresses of the Hagia Sophia in all their splendour, and to the right, the shimmering waters of the Bosphorus straits and the hazy hills of Asia beyond.
A few days, but they made all the difference. I tapped out the words “The End” about ninety seconds before the stewardess told her passengers to shut down their electrical devices on the flight home.
Of course, this wasn’t even close to the actual end. In my experience, “writing is re-writing” is one of the truest maxims about our profession. And this book proved no different.
Nevertheless, the all important first draft was complete. And as I closed the lid of my laptop, I felt a deep gratitude to this ancient city for the gift of being able to enter my own story. Istanbul is as alive today as it ever was, still riding the restless fault-line of its history and geography, as the latest controversy over Erdogan’s returning the Hagia Sophia to its relatively recent function as a mosque only proves. History keeps on rolling, in spite of any dismay this new development might cause the Orthodox church and the global church further afield. There will be other writers to tell that story and the ones to come.
My own tale is but a single snapshot – and a pretty obscure one at that – from the almost unlimited universe of stories that Istanbul has to tell. To have that connection with that place – or any place – is surely one of the rewards of the sometimes painfully hard graft of writing a novel.