Posts Tagged ‘Byzantium’
Three years ago I reviewed the second book in Gordon’s Strategos trilogy, which I loved as much as the first. It goes to show how busy I am and how many books there are in my reading pile that it’s taken me 3 years to get to the final volume in a series I love. But here we are. I’ve been back with Mr Doherty’s golden prose once more and loving it.
For me, Strategos III (Island in the Storm) is a win on two levels.
Firstly, I have come to love the setting and characters. I am fascinated by late Rome and Byzantium but am less familiar with the medieval era of that world than the classical. Yet the first Strategos book opened my eyes to it and I drank it in. It’s a testament to a good series and excellent characters when you can step out for 3 years then pick up again and the whole thing is instantly familiar and all the personalities in it come flooding straight back. That’s what happened for me. The tale of Apion’s life is at the same time heroic and glorious and makes the blood surge, but also sad and heartbreaking and thought-provoking. It is a rich tale with depth and a great deal of care put into every detail. And the fact that I knew this was the last book in the trilogy meant that I knew everything had to be tied up and come to an end. This was a masterful drawing together of threads, particularly given that anyone familiar with the events covered in the book knows that things cannot end well. That being the case, reaching an end that satisfies the reader is impressive.
Secondly, the book revolves largely around the Battle of Manzikert. Even not being overly-familiar with the era, I know of that battle. It’s one of those that should go down in history with Alesia, Adrianople, Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo etc. A world-changing battle. But while I knew the basics (the sides in the battle, the outcome and the rough location) that was all. So this book was educational as well as entertaining. Because I have since finishing it read up a little on Manzikert, and Doherty had clearly done his research. And while reading a non-fiction account of a battle is educational, for me it can’t quite beat an ‘author’s eye view’. Because a good historical author does adequate research to produce as accurate a portrayal of the fight as it is possible to create, and in putting the reader into the action, seeing it through the eyes of those present, the writer makes the reader experience the battle rather than just learning about it. That is the second value to me of this. It made me understand Manzikert and just how important it was.
Doherty is one of the finest historical writers out there at the moment and for me pretty much leads the pack in the Indie book world (myself included.) Don’t read this book if you don’t know the series. Read them all. Buy the Strategos trilogy. You can get the lot on kindle for £10. That’s the price of a pub meal which will last you 15 minutes, while these will give you many hours of pleasure. Surely that’s a no-brainer?
I am something of a lover of all things Byzantine these days, and an avid reader of historical fiction, of course, and so it’s no wonder really that this book came to my attention. Tales of Byzantium is a collection of three short stories, and so I shall deal with each individually briefly, and then the whole thing to finish.
The first story is primarily a love story. It is the tale of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his lady Helena (he’s one of my heroes, responsible for Tekfur Saray palace in Istanbul.) This story actually takes up more than half the whole book. Once I realised that this was a romantic tale, just a short way in, I thought I probably wouldn’t like it – historical romance has to be done exceptionally well to hook me. But oddly I stuck with this, and am glad I did, for it is far more than a love story. It is an examination of the characters, of what it meant to be a member of one of the great dynasties, to be the empress, it’s an examination of the dichotomy of the whole Byzantine world, in that they were such a cultured ancient people, who were the most powerful nation imaginable, and yet they were also riven by self-destructive tendencies and unable to come to terms with their both east and west and the changing world around them. Perhaps for me, most of all, I enjoyed the scenery, for Istanbul (Constantinople) is my heartland, and I could picture every location as it was brought forth. No. In honesty, it was the characters of Constantine and Helena. They were beautifully portrayed. So if romance is not your thing, brush that trend aside and read it anyway, paying attention to the people.
The second tale is more my usual fare, being a military story based around a siege involving another of my faves, Manuel Komnenos (or Comnenus in the tale). The characters in this (Manuel in particular) are immensely likeable and deeply realistic. The story is one that has something of a twist, and I liked the way it was framed as a retrospective view. There are action scenes, some humour, and a light exploration of the politics of the era. War fans will enjoy the moments of the actual siege. My one complaint about this tale is that it could so easily have been a much bigger story. It could have been played out slower and longer, as long as the first story, really, and that would have given us more tension over the events that are central to the story and more opportunity to come to know Manuel. All in all, it’s a nice story and a good read. I just feel it was a slightly missed opportunity for something larger.
The third tale is of an exiled princess, who, trapped in a tedious life in a monastery, manages to live a life in almost solitude despite being in a city of millions. Demeaningly for a woman of her status, she is given the task of teaching a young nun to read and in doing so decides that an unfinished story should be finished. This is Anna Komnena, who wrote the great Alexiad which documented the empire at the time of the earliest crusades. Once more, this is a beautiful vignette well-written and lovingly-researched, with well-fleshed out characters and attention to detail. Once again, though, I felt that this came across more as the prologue of a much grander work than a tale on its own. If Stephenson decides at some point to write a grand epic of the eleventh and/or twelfth centuries in thew Byzantine world, this would make a lovely start to it.
Overall, then, the writing is lovely. The characters are presented just right, there is a depth and colour to the world that Stephenson has clearly treated as a labout of love. The stories are entertaining and intriguing and tell of some of the great characters of the Imperial dynasties with a great deal of historical knowledge and accuracy. The whole book is a very easy and enthralling read. My only issue was that of the three tales only one felt complete, the other two being a little brief for me. But at 99p in ebook form, it is well worth the money and worth a read nonetheless, and certainly made me appreciate the author’s skill. I shall look out for further work by her.
Ok here we go. It might take a while to load as this is an image heavy blog post. There follow 23 images. And here’s your big quiz question to begin: which of these images are Roman. Go for it…
Ok? Got your answers in order? Here we go…
It was a trick question. All of the above are Roman. Or, if I need to put it another way, if you could ask the builder or designer or commissioner of these structures, they would all tell you they were Roman. And they cover a period of over 2000 years. Yes, I know. It’s often staggering to think of that. At the end of the post, I shall detail the pics, if you’re interested.
Right, the reason for all this tomfoolery is because I keep finding myself confronted with words like decline, fall, and twilight applied to the Roman Empire. It is mostly the fault of Edward Gibbon and his renowned ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, of course. And because of him Alec Guiness was in a film with the same theme. And you know what? They are talking about the period following the death of Marcus Aurelius and the reign of Commodus. And here’s the thing: Rome had existed for 933 years when Aurelius died (if you take the founding in 753 as Gospel, anyway.) But if you count an emperor of an empire that consider themselves Roman in an unbroken chain back to the days of Augustus, then the empire went on til 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople. That means there was still 1273 years of being Roman to go. So this decline and fall seems to have taken place less than half way through? Pah!
Ian Ross has written a series of novels based around the rise of Constantine around 305 AD. His series is called Twilight of Empire. Now don’t get me wrong, they are very good books and I would recommend them. It’s just that monicker that makes me twitch. 305? 1148 years is a hell of a long twilight, isn’t it? Especially in a day that’s 2206 years long. So can even that era really be called a decline or twilight?
Because here’s the thing: Rome changed. Everyone seems to have this set view of the Roman Empire being the legions in their segmented plate with rulers in togas building playing-card shaped forts, shouting in Latin, worshiping Jupiter and conquering barbarians. Think again. Rome had been through many phases even by Gibbon’s time of theoretical fall. It had been an Etruscan monarchy with a military heavily based on the Greek model. It had been a republic with a Hellenistic/Etruscan/Gallic model of armies. It had been a principate with the first true professional standing army. And it had been an empire that meets common public expectations.
And if we accept that Rome had changed, morphed and grown from its start as an agricultural village to the great empire Aurelius left to his son, then why should we consider the changes that follow a decline or fall?
There was a century or so of political turbulence, yes, and the borders came under much pressure, yes. But even during that time there were periods of golden stability. Gallienus ruled for 15 years with a record that does him credit, for example. And during this time, art changes and blossoms. The mosaicists become multichrome and complex following African influences. Paintings become more varied and imaginative. Religion starts to become a much wider and more complex animal. Cultural identity is becoming mixed. What is a Roman in the late 3rd or early 4th century? Many emperors have now come from Africa, Syria and the Balkans. This is, to my mind, not a decline but a period of change driven by struggle and need, but one of glorious revolution. Sometimes change is difficult, but that does not mean it loses its value.
And so Constantine marks another turning point, as he for the first time shifts the focus of power. Rome is no longer the heart, but Constantinople. Does that make it less Roman? No. The inhabitants are still Roman, ruled by Roman emperors. The army is now a more diaphenous, complex and mobile thing, and includes members of the very peoples they used to fight. The equipment owes as much to the Germanic peoples and the Parthians as to ancient Rome and Greece. But they are still, in their minds, Roman.
Then Rome (the city) falls to the Goths and a short while later the last western emperor disappears into obscurity. Chisel that headstone of empire then, as Gibbon predicted. But no… wait a minute… there’s this thing we now term the Byzantine Empire, centred around Constantinople. But guess what? They did not think of themselves as Byzantine. That is a modern monicker. To them, they were Roman. It was the Roman empire, plain and simple. It spoke Greek, and was centred on Constantinople, and it was a Christian world. But it was still Roman.
So there you have it. Rome, to my mind, fell in 1453 after 22 centuries. It did not decline and fall between the 2nd and 5th centuries. Commodus did not mark the crucial apex before the downward slide. Equally, Constantine ruled during an earlier period of empire, not its twilight. In fact, its final decline I would put at 1204, when the Pope’s crusaders sacked Constantinople and crippled imperial power for good. THAT is the decline and fall. Two and a half centuries at the end consisting of desperate emperors clinging on in the face of Italian belligerence and Turkish expansion.
Anyway, that’s my two-penneth for the day. And it gave me the opportunity to post some nice piccies too. Back soon with another book review.
- The ‘Romulean Huts’ on the Palatine in Rome (8th century BC)
- Outfall of the Cloaca Maxima sewer in Rome (circa 7th century BC)
- Temples at San Omobono in Rome (6th century BC)
- Temple of Castor & Pollux in the Roman forum (5th century BC)
- Servian Walls of Rome (4th century BC)
- Temple in Largo Argentina, Rome (3rd century BC)
- Walls of Tarragona in Spain (2nd century BC)
- Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome (1st century BC)
- House of Argus, Herculaneum (1st century AD)
- Hadrian’s Wall at Willowford, England (2nd century AD)
- Walls of St Albans, England (3rd century AD)
- Aqueduct of Valens, Istanbul (4th century AD)
- Theodosian Land Walls of Istanbul (5th century AD)
- Haghia Sophia, Isanbul (6th century AD)
- Church of St Titus, Gortyn, Crete (7th century AD)
- Haghia Irene, Istanbul (8th century AD)
- Church of St Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome (9th century AD)
- Monastery of Constantine Lips, Istanbul (10th century AD)
- Chora Church, Istanbul (11th century AD)
- Church of the Pammakaristos, Istanbul (12th century AD)
- Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Istanbul (13th century AD)
- Brontochion Monastery, Mistra, Greece (14th century AD)
- Bridge over the Armira River, Bulgaria (15th century AD)
An interesting read over Christmas. The Sultan of Byzantium by Selcuk Altun. It’s the first time in quite a while that I’ve read a foreign language text translated into English, and so I had forgotten to be prepared for the usual ‘things don’t always carry over into a different language well’ situation. Still, I soon overcame that issue.
The Sultan of Byzantium is hard to categorise. Some might throw it into the same camp as people like Dan Brown, Simon Toyne or Chris Kuzneski, though it would be a shoe-horned fit, I think. It is an interesting enough story, though for me its value is in its less central facets, to which I will turn shortly.
Essentially, it is the tale of a half-American, half-Turkish, well-educated and largely secular man who is visited by a secretive and powerful group claiming to be the protectors of the line of the last Byzantine emperor. These strange folk explain that our hero is the last of the line of the Palaeologus dynasty and that his ancestor, Constantine XI, upon losing Constantinople to the Turk, had written a list of folk upon whom he sought revenge. The protagonist will have to undergo a series of tests to prove his worthiness and, if he succeeds, he will be made ’emperor in exile’ and will be given the last item on the revenge list to tackle, after which the extremely wealthy secretive organisation will be his to do with as he wishes.
Cue a treasure hunt across the Byzantine world, with the hero finding a purple square that will lead him to the next place in his quest.
What this books is perhaps missing is a sense of threat that comes with the Dan Browns, Simon Toynes and Christ Kuzneskis. Most of the novel comes across as a happy and relaxed exploration of Byzantium, mixed with interesting observations and personal discoveries and reminiscences. Then, towards the end, a sense of threat suddenly appears, becomes slightly less nebulous and is quickly and efficiently dealt with with no real heart-stopping moment. That being said, there is certainly still intrigue and a little suspense to the tale.
Another thing that sat oddly with me in the books was the occasional reference by the author to himself as a minor supporting character. I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with the idea, but it just seemed a little strange.
But the value of this tale comes in other directions for me. Firstly, if you’re not a lover of Istanbul and Byzantium, don’t bother. The thriller side of the story will not be enough to retain your interest, I suspect. But for those like me, who have a deep love of Istanbul and fascination with Byzantium, I would heartily recommend it. The descriptions of ancient Istanbul and Byzantium are livid, evocative and enchanting and will whisk you straight to them. I can perfectly picture almost every site mentioned in the text, and his descriptions are almost exactly as I remember them.
Additionally, this is a viewpoint that you will rarely get to experience. A secular Turk with Euro-American leanings, a superstitious, devout Islamic grandmother, a lover of fine things and a tendecy to mistrust his own feelings such that he indulges in the company of prostitutes to satisfy. This is a story written by a Turk about a Turko-Greek-American, and the cultural viewpoint is fascinating and telling in odd ways.
I learned things. I love Byzantium and Istanbul and there were few points in the story that I didn’t already know, but perhaps two or three times, Altun produced a little fact or snippet that truly interested and educated me. Fascinating.
Then there is the imagery and use of language. All I can say is that in his native language, Altun must be poetic to read. Because even in translation, he creates some stunning images and some beautifully-crafted prose. There are moments that I have taken to my heart and phrases that will stay with me. The descriptions of Galata – a place that I have previously found to be over-busy, over-modern and cluttered and fraught – have made me see a new side of it, and the next time I visit, I will view the place through new eyes.
How do I summarise? The Sultan of Byzantium is a fairly specialised read. But if you love the exotic world of Istanbul and Byzantium, it is well worth investing in for a quick, absorbing read.
So, after 6 years we just made it back (this time with 4 of us rather than 2) to Istanbul. And confirmed that it is still our joint favourite location on Earth along with Rome. It is somewhat hard to beat. And so for those of you who’ve not considered visiting or who are wavering as to whether to go, here’s my top tips…
- Most important of all: do not be put off. Do not allow rumour or uncertainty to put you off. When we went this time, we happened to time it (yes more than a year after the park riots) but only a week after the hospital riot following the poor young lad’s death. A number of people expressed concerns, and we could understand them and expected to have to be wary. The simple fact is that we felt safe everywhere and more than that: welcome and encouraged. Even with some political problems, the Turks are a friendly people and Istanbul is a relaxed, pleasant place.
- Go off the beaten track. Istanbul has maybe a dozen major historical sites that are thrown at you constantly (eg Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Chora Church, Topkapi palace.) There are lesser sights. And then there are the unusual ones. And then there are the astounding ones. Istanbul is packed with sights like a pomegranate with seeds. Some of them require a bit of walking or extensive tram use. Go for it. It’s cheap, you’ll see things you’d regret missing, and exploration is half the fun of the city.
- Do not book a short trip. The girls behind us returning to the plane said that next time they were only booking a one-way ticket so that they can choose when to come back. They were right. Istanbul sucks you in and tries to keep you. If you want to immerse yourself in it stay for a week minimum. If you’re wanting to see whether it’s for you, do 4/5 nights, but take it from me: it is. Book longer.
- Get yourself in the mindset. Istanbul is a meeting of worlds but also a meeting of ages. It is the ancient, the medieval, the renaissance, the new and the modern as well as just east and west. Read C C Humphreys’ A place called Armageddon, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, or Christian Cameron’s Tom Swan series (or might I suggest my own Ottoman Cycle!) Having a good historical context for the place will give you something you might not see otherwise. Oh, and if not a reader (why are you here again) you could watch Topkapi or From Russia With Love, or play that Assassin’s Creed game.
- Keep your eyes open. Istanbul is absolutely chock full of odd fragments. There is every chance that when you walk down a side street you will see a wall with layers of bonding tiles. It’s Roman/Byzantine. Or early Ottoman stolen style. It might be the back wall of a garage which was a monastery 1200yrs ago, or a couple of 3rd century columns supporting a doorway, or a 17th century watchtower. Nothing in that city is what it seems.
- Plan in advance. Search out everything you can find and make sure you don’t miss something just because you don’t know about it. If necessary, mail me and I will send you a fairly comprehensive list. Rank things. And go. Do it. But take maps. Be prepared. PPPPPP as they say. 🙂
- Try the foods and drinks. It’s not Turkey without Koftas, good Kebabs, coffee like sweet silt, and of course yogurt and sherbert. Do not buy a fez. Only a feckin’ idiot buys a fez… like the muppet we watched wearing one while sucking face outside a mosque at a cafe table.
Given that, here are things (not necessarily the top ones you get pointed at) not to miss:
- Spend a day walking the walls. Start at the Yedikule fortress, walk the land walls, and then the sea walls via Golden Horn and then Marmara. It is a stunning journey full of wonders. It’s long, but it is more than worthwhile and you will see Istanbul from every angle.
- Go and visit the monastery of the Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) and explore Fener and the area around it. It is the most truly local and real area you will find and that church/museum is one of the most amazing places in the city.
- You will visit the Basilica cistern. You might visit the 1001 column cistern. There are a hundred of these water tanks in the city, but do not miss dinner at the Sarnic restaurant. Dinner in a Roman cistern among the myriad of columns is a special thing.
- Walk the Blachernae area. Some of it has been horribly reconstructed and some is under current work, but everywhere from the Chora to the Golden Horn… walk it just inside the walls. You will see a side of the city you would otherwise miss!
- The Hippodrome is hard to miss. You will find a thousand tourists being herded round it every hour. Go past the end of it and trace the Sphendone – the curved end – down and back up. If gives an idea of scale you would fail to see any other way.
- When you visit the Aya Sofya, realise that this was attempt #2 of Justinian’s church. The first version on a small scale was the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, now known as Küçük Ayasofya Camii. Try to get there. It’s beautiful.
- Istanbul is full of Roman honorific columns. Track them down and visit for a fun quest: Hippodrome columns x3. Goth’s Column, Cemberlitas, Column of Marcian and Column of Arcadius. And then look for the REALLY obscure ones.
- Take the boat trip up the Bosphorus. It’s cheap. It’s relaxing. It’s fun and it’s educational. Take the short trip for a 2hr rest. Take the long one if you want to get as far north as Anadolu Kavagi, but be prepared to eat seafood for a while then.
- Go for dinner at Palatium restaurant on Cankurtaran. It was a stunning atmosphere, an amazing meal and an all round great evening. But even more, in their courtyard you can descend into the rooms of the Byzantine Imperial palace.
- Simply: stroll. Enjoy the city. The more you wander and meet the people and find the unusual unexpected sites, the more you will fall in love with the place and the people.
And with that now in the bag, here are another 10 reasons to visit:
Fragments of the Arch of Theodosius
The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) of Justinian
Basilica Cistern (Birbindirek Sarnic)
Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Saray)
Rumeli Hisar, the fortress of Europe
Church of Saint Saviour in Chora (Cariye Camii)
Triumphal column of the emperor Marcian
Reconstructed section of the Land Walls of Theodosius
The Hippodrome of Constantinople as it is today.
The Bukoleon palace. Probably my favourite single place in Istanbul…
It’s been a while since I’ve read one of Gordon’s books (the last one being the first in the Strategos series.) And once again I find myself not only impressed with the quality of his writing, but even a little jealous.
Again, for the record I have, since we started writing, become a friend of Gordon’s, and consequently, feel free to ignore this review, but the review is genuine for all our acquaintance.
Strategos 1 was largely a tale of personal growth for the youthful Apion, battling physical disability, personal demons and the harshness of a land torn by war and distrust. I was therefore surprised when I picked up book 2 to discover that the story has moved on a number of years and Apion is now a grown man, battle-hardened, jaded and fatalistic, watching his Empire falling apart and fighting to maintain his corner of it.
This book really does take us in a different direction to book 1, which in retrospect is only natural. No follow up to book 1 could have seamlessly continued from where it left off. Rise of the Golden Heart concerns itself largely with the power struggles in Byzantium, corruption in the Imperial Court and the rise of Romanos Diogenes. In this installment, Apion is drawn into the horror of court life as well as that of border warfare. The story takes us from the Turkish border wars to Constantinople, across Byzantine Europe and then back to the plains of Syria by way of intrigue, betrayal, vendetta and, of course – as readers of Gordon’s work have come to expect and love – WAR!
Short of what I’ve noted above, I’ll not delve deeply into the plot for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say there is an ongoing theme of betrayal and treachery throughout, whether the background be the tinkling fountains of the Constantinople palace or the arid, deadly mountains of southern Anatolia.
As usual with Gordon’s writing there are certain high points and factors that stand out for me. One is the thoroughness of his plotting and research. The story is perfectly formed and runs in an undeniably smooth arc, while threading itself around the known historical fact and not twisting, altering or guessing anything.
Second is the quality of the language itself. Gordon is fast becoming a master of the historical genre with his elegant turns of phrase and sensory, tactile descriptions which bring the locations to life in the text.
Thirdly, the characters are realistic and sympathetic. There is nothing 2-dimensional or bland about them. In particular, I loved the gradual shifts in the general attitude of Apion as the world turns around him, affecting his life.
I understand that there will be a third volume in the series, and I cannot wait to see what he does with a – presumable older again – Apion, probably at the dreadful battle of Manzikert.
If you’ve read Strategos, why are you reading this. Click the ‘Buy’ button and read the book instead. If you’ve not, boy have you got some engrossing hours ahead.
Next up for me on the Gordonologue: Legionary II.