S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘Istanbul

Tobias

with 3 comments

10987322_890447387657389_8288669987352547017_o

Prue Batten has long been one of my favourite writers for quality of prose. Her word-spinning ability is at the top of her craft and anything she writes is enticing and enthralling, flowing across the pages with simple grace. The fact that the more she moves into the world of medieval historical fiction the more her plots also deepen and improve just adds to the reasons to read her work.

The Gisborne trilogy started out somewhere on the border between historical fiction and historical romance, and despite that not really being my thing, I read them it and loved it because, as I’ve said before, Prue could write a phone book and make it absorbing. But with the second and third volume in that series, the focus moved more towards the traditional historical genre and the action increased along with the intrigue, all without losing anything of character or style.

Tobias is the first novel in a series of standalone spin-off novels from that series and while it retains every aspect of skill and beauty I’ve come to expect from Prue, the novel also shows once again a strengthening of plot and deepening of knowledge and centrality in the medieval world. Here’s how Tobias as a novel really wins for me in 5 points.

  1. The characters. Tobias and his brother Tomasso are two of my favourite characters from the Gisborne trilogy. They stand out as a fascinating pair and, being dwarves, there is a real depth to them, given the medieval fascination with such folk. They are written truly sympathetically and beautifully and rather than being so empathically written that their stature does not affect the tale, rather it does affect the tale as it should and the reader starts to see the world from that height, which is an amazing thing. The supporting cast are also excellent, in particular including Mehmet, who is again one of my favourite characters from the series and probably deserves a book of his own, Prue (hint, hint…)
  2. The location. In addition to the ship on which the characters travel, the cast stop at Crete, which is one of my favourite places, and the plot centres very heavily on Constantinople, where the majority of the tale takes place. And Istanbul is one of my top 2 places on Earth, with which I am very familiar. So as well as loving the settings, I could feel the heady atmosphere of the place and picture every junction, facade and doorway.
  3. The plot is beautifully crafted, like the ribbons around a maypole, each thread entwining with the others, under, over, under, over. For the plot given at the start of the book, and what drives our heroes into their long and fraught journey is only the opening salvo of what is a deep, complex and in places surprising plot, involving a clandestine business deal, a woman of great importance with enemies across Byzantium, a missing holy icon and a sinister force hunting the pair.
  4. The interaction between the two brothers. The pair may be virtually identical to others but they are very different people and the growing rift between them and the way they deal with each other in their turbulent relationship throughout is perfectly done.
  5. Atmopshere. In the Gisborne series, we have felt the cold, damp, dour atmosphere of Medieval England, the hot, dusty, dangerous atmosphere of Outremer, the glittering, cultured atmospheres of Genoa and Venice. Well now, Prue has turned her attention to that cultural melting pot that is Istanbul and the join between Europe and Asia. It is one of my favourite things to experience and I felt it oozing out from the pages, so well done there, Prue.

So there we go. I don’t think I’ve spoiled the plot for you, but if you’ve not read the Gisborne series, I heartily recommend them. If you have, you’ll LOVE Tobias. The novel can be read as a standalone if you so desire, but you’ll get a lot more from it if you’ve read the Gisborne books and have a grounding in the characters, so that’s definitely the best way to do it if you have the leisure.

Another Batten masterpiece. And it’s out today. Go get it and be entranced.

Written by SJAT

August 31, 2015 at 9:33 am

The Sultan of Byzantium

with 3 comments

sob

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.

Written by SJAT

December 28, 2014 at 10:23 pm

Istanbul, not Constantinople

with 6 comments

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…

0016 Blue Mosque

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 🙂
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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:

Arch of Theodosius Fragments 5

Fragments of the Arch of Theodosius

Aya Sofia 14

The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) of Justinian

Basilica Cistern 01

Basilica Cistern (Birbindirek Sarnic)

Blachernae - Palace of Porphyrogenitus 2

Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Saray)

Bosphorus - Rumeli Fortress 9

Rumeli Hisar, the fortress of Europe

Chora church 10

Church of Saint Saviour in Chora (Cariye Camii)

Column of Marcian 2

Triumphal column of the emperor Marcian

Land Walls 14

Reconstructed section of the Land Walls of Theodosius

0041 Hippodrome

The Hippodrome of Constantinople as it is today.

IMG_2513

The Bukoleon palace. Probably my favourite single place in Istanbul…

Written by SJAT

March 22, 2014 at 12:24 am

Seven Wonders

with 3 comments

So, I was watching the Big Bang Theory and listening to its rather catchy theme tune, and noted the mention of the Wall and the Pyramids, which got me to thinking about what Herodotus would have included on his list of Wonders of the Ancient World if he had had access to more exotic places? The Great Wall would probably not have been one, since the wall as we know it is much later, the early versions not being up to Herodotus’ mark, I feel. And that led me to wondering what my Seven Wonders would be. So I’ve set myself the task to work it out.

The criteria must be the same as those available in the ancient world when ‘roddy wrote that list that rested in the library of Alexandria. Of the original seven wonders, only tiny fragments remain of most of them. Only the Great Pyramid at Giza still stands entire. So my seven wonders must be there and visible. I am going to allow ‘ruinous’ of course. And I must have been there. How can I compile a recommended list if I haven’t seen them?

1. The Pyramids of Giza

Image by Ricardo Liberato via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, the only survivor from the original list. Who could deny they’re a wonder? Quite simply they are breathtaking. Sadly, with every year, they are a little more invisible through hordes of tourists. Every year the urban sprawl of Cairo gets a little nearer to enveloping them. Already between the two visits I made to this amazing site (in 1982 and 2006) the city moved frighteningly closer. And given the troubles in Egypt, one has to fear for their future safety. But still… they remain an icon of the past and rightly so. Nice one, Herodotus!

2. The Ayia Sofya (or Haghia Sophia)

Image by Philz via Wikimedia Commons

Not around until long after our Roddy made his list. The great church of Holy Wisdom was started by Constantine II, and there were several rebuilds between 360AD and 532 when the current structure was commissioned by Justinian. It is simply the most breathtaking religious building I have ever set foot in. It is a symbol of Europe and Turkey and Byzantium and Rome, the blueprint for the Ottoman mosques for half a millennium. Among the fascinating oddities to be found within are runic carvings by one of the Viking Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor who went by the name of Halfdan. The place leaves me speechless.

3. The amphitheatre of Pozzuoli

Image by Ferdinando Marfella via Wikimedia Commons

The Colosseum is magnificent, yes. El Jem is wondrous. I am led to believe Pula’s amphitheatre is astounding. Yet surprisingly few people mention the great Flavian amphitheatre of Pozzuoli in Italy (near Naples.) It’s only a little smaller than the Colosseum (3rd largest in Italy), constructed only a few years later, and is easily better preserved than any of those previous three I mentioned. It is simply astounding to walk around and beneath. While I find most amphitheatres to be dead, emotionless structures (while still wondrous), the one at Pozzuoli sent a shiver through me. I felt loss there. Perhaps it is too intact not to?

4. The Siq at Petra

Image by David Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons

I guess everyone knows this because of Indiana Jones if nothing else. But Petra blew my mind. All of it. You can’t see Petra in a day. You can’t see it all in 3 days. But the core area, in particular the Siq are easily taken in. The siq was a crevasse through the rock that contituted the main entrance to the city. It is astounding to walk through. Roman paving is visible beneath your feet and an aqueduct channel runs along at your side, dry for millennia. Carvings crop up here and there, and tombs are visible high in the rocks. And in places where the Siq opens up, you find carved monuments such as the Treasury (see above). How could that NOT make it to a list of the great seven?

5. Hadrian’s Wall

Image by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia Commons

I can”t imagine I need to do much enthusing about Hadrian’s Wall. It is quite simply one of the most amazing and evocative monuments in the world. Not only was it a feat of sheer engineering and planning brilliance, but it also marks something unique. It represents that very moment when Rome stopped expanding and defined borders. Until Hadrian, the idea that Rome had a limit was a flight of fancy. Despite the Roman influence that continued beyond the wall, for that reason alone, Hadrian’s wall marks the edge of the Roman world for me.

6. The Baths of Caracalla

Image by Pascal Reusch via Wikimedia Commons

There are many great bath houses of Roman construction, even in Rome. The baths of Trajan and Diocletian remain. Further afield, those of Licinius in Dougga, or Antoninus in Carthage. But those of Caracalla stand as a testament to the sheer scale of such monuments. The remaining decoration; the enormous walls; the supplying aqueduct and cistern; Mind-blowing. And, though not open to the visitor, the underground passages remain, with rooms and furnaces, shrines and more. It is, to me the height of the Roman bath house and will ever remain so.

7. The harbour of Carthage

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The navy that actually beat Rome! Yes, Carthage for a while actually held the might of Rome at bay. They had the most advanced navy in the world, in history in fact. And the military harbour at Carthage was a wonder worthy of that fleet. Take a look at the picture above, as it survivies today. Upon a time, imagine this image, but with the circle complete, both the island’s edge and the outer circuit home to endless what are essentially hangars for warships. Room for around 300 warships to be berthed, each in its own building on an inland port with swift access to the sea by a channel. On the island’s centre was the admiralty. I stood on that road on the left side of the picture a few years ago and was simply stunned into silence.

* * * * *

So there you go. That’s my Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Now, all those of you who blog… let’s hear yours? I’m intrigued.

Written by SJAT

November 24, 2011 at 3:10 pm