Crime In The City
3:26 am
Mon August 25, 2014

Mystery Writer Finds Istanbul's Byzantine Past Hiding In Plain Sight

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 3:20 pm

Istanbul makes an exotic first impression: Boat traffic on the Bosporus sends waves brushing up against the shores of both Europe and Asia as enormous mosques and monuments from previous empires stand guard.

The city wears its history more openly than many, but that doesn't mean it's always easy to find. So writer Selcuk Altun spins mysteries that take his heroes into forgotten corners of the city, where once-majestic monuments go unnoticed amid the bustle of modern life.

Turkey's current Muslim leadership focuses primarily on the Ottoman Empire, but Altun's novel The Sultan of Byzantium is a homage to the Byzantines who ruled Istanbul — then Constantinople — for a millennium before the Ottomans came along.

It begins with a quiet academic living in Istanbul who receives a cryptic message that will change his life. It's from a mysterious organization that tells him he's a descendant of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine Palaeologus, and it poses a series of tests to determine whether he's a worthy successor. Along the way, he discovers that other descendants, including his father, died under mysterious circumstances.

In the book, Altun sets the stage for an exploration of Istanbul's Byzantine past, an era he thinks deserves a lot more attention than it gets these days.

"In my opinion, Byzantium civilization is highly underrated," Altun says, "and not only underrated but also mis-[re]presented. Nowadays, when you say the word 'Byzantium' it's synonymous with grand-scale conspiracy and intrigue."

Altun says he wrote The Sultan of Byzantium as a kind of antidote to the thick, plot-heavy thrillers of writers like Dan Brown. In Altun's book, the main character considers Byzantine civilization the greatest in history, and the author still gets excited being around its monuments.

Touring Istanbul's Obscure Byzantine Monuments

It's early on a weekday morning and commuter traffic is whizzing by, carrying passengers on cellphones who don't notice that they're traveling in a VIP lane of sorts: the Byzantine Golden Gate, reserved for victorious generals and visiting dignitaries. These walls were built in the fifth century to protect Byzantines, but by the Middle Ages they were also protecting medieval Europe from rapacious Eastern armies.

Altun points to differences in the limestone where later stone masons carried out renovations.

"The renovation part is really debatable," he says. "The original stones and renovated stones, they are not in coherence. Actually, in the infamous earthquake of 1999, some of the renovated stones fell down, but nothing happened to the original stones."

From there we move inland to a giant monument that, to motorists passing through its arches, must look like an old bridge — it's actually the ancient, 90-foot-high Valens Aqueduct, which once brought water to the royal cisterns.

"When Greeks and Romans started coming and settling in this city," Altun explains, "the city had a major problem: The nearest source of water was called Belgrade Forest, 25 kilometers [about 15.5 miles] west of [the] city. So they built these huge water bridges, called aqueducts. And to me it has a special meaning: You are coexisting with history."

To reach our next destination, we climb steep, winding streets alongside creaking bicycle carts. We're looking for Tekfur Palace, home of Palaeologus, the last Byzantine emperor. It's tucked away amid modest apartment blocks in a working-class neighborhood.

Altun says he can't blame Turks for not recognizing the amazing history all around them; after all, they aren't taught to appreciate it.

"Seventy years ago," he says, "in the history department of Istanbul University, there was a subdivision of Byzantine history. Today, there is no division or subdivision to study Byzantine history, although Istanbul — old Constantinople — is the center, is the heart of the Byzantine civilization."

The Tekfur Palace was saved by its very obscurity — rampaging crusaders missed it when they sacked the city in the 13th century. In the novel, this is where Altun's narrator discovers who has been putting his life in danger throughout the book.

The Final Crusader Insult

Our next stop is by far the most popular Byzantine site in Istanbul. Known as the "Church of Holy Wisdom," Hagia Sophia was an astonishing architectural achievement for the sixth century. Altun says a thousand years passed before a bigger church was built in Spain.

As massive lines of tourists fill the plaza outside the church, Altun pauses to describe what he calls "the Mona Lisa of mosaics" — an image of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist in the church's upper gallery. In the book, this is where his hero discovers the final crusader insult to the venerable church: Across from the glorious mosaic lies a marker for the grave of a Venetian doge named Dandolo.

"He was the one who provoked and motivated the mercenaries of [the] Fourth Crusade to plunder the city," Altun says. "When he died, he was 100 or 101 years old, and there is a plaque saying, 'Here is Dandolo.' "

The plaque remains, but historians say the bones were probably removed after the Ottomans conquered the city and turned the church into a mosque. It's now a museum, but some Turkish officials want to make it a mosque again. Altun hopes that won't happen.

A retired bank executive, Altun calls himself a reader and a book lover more than a writer. All proceeds from his books go to a scholarship fund for literature students. He hopes his modest mystery will give readers an urge to know more about a once-grand empire hiding in plain sight in modern-day Istanbul.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Istanbul is a city that wears its history more openly than many, but that doesn't mean it is always easy to find. Writer Selcuk Altun spins mysteries that take his heroes into forgotten corners of the city where once majestic monuments go unnoticed amid the bustle of modern life. This is the latest installment of Crime in the City - our profiles of crime novelists and the cities they write about. NPR's Peter Kenyon tells about Altun's novel, "The Sultan of Byzantium." It's a homage to the Byzantines, who ruled Constantinople for a millennium before the Ottomans came along.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT HORNS)

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Istanbul makes an exotic first impression. Boat traffic on the Bosphorus Strait sends waves rushing up against the shores of both Europe and Asia, as enormous mosques and monuments from previous empires stand guard. Turkey's current Muslim leadership focuses primarily on the Ottoman Empire. But for some, the Ottomans came after the most glorious period in this city's history, when it was the Roman Empire nation of Byzantium.

"The Sultan of Byzantium" begins with a quite academic living in Istanbul who receives a cryptic message that will change his life. It's from a mysterious organization that tells him he's a descendant of the last Byzantine emperor, Michael Palaeologus, imposes a series of tests to determine whether he's a worthy successor. Along the way, he discovers that other descendents, including his father, died in mysterious circumstances. Thus, Selcuk Altun sets the stage for an exploration of Istanbul's - that is, Constantinople's - Byzantine past, an era that he thinks deserves a lot more attention than it gets these days.

SELCUK ALTUN: In my opinion, Byzantine civilization is highly underrated and not only underrated, but also mis-presented. Nowadays, when you say the word Byzantium, it's synonymous with ground-scale conspiracy and intrigue.

KENYON: Altun says, he wrote this book as a kind of antidote to the thick, plot-heavy thrillers of writers such as Dan Brown. In "The Sultan of Byzantium," the main character considers Byzantine civilization the greatest in history. And the author still gets excited being around its monuments.

ALTUN: This is the real thing. (Laughing)

KENYON: Yeah.

ALTUN: That's the Golden Gate.

KENYON: It's early on a weekday morning. And commuter track traffic is whizzing by, carrying traffic on cell phones who don't notice that they're traveling in a VIP lane of sorts, passing through what was once the Byzantine Golden Gate, reserved for victorious generals and visiting dignitaries. Built in the fifth century, by the Middle Ages, these walls were protecting not only the Byzantines, but Medieval Europe from rapacious Eastern armies. Altun points out differences in the limestone where later stone mason carried out renovations.

ALTUN: Well, the renovation part is really debatable. The original stones and renovated stones - they are not in coherence. Actually, in the infamous earthquake of 1999, some of the renovated stones fell down, but nothing happened to the original stones.

KENYON: From here, we move inland to a giant monument that to motorists passing through its arches must look like an old bridge. It's actually an ancient 90-foot high aqueduct that once brought water to the royal cisterns.

So we're sitting in a traditional teahouse - low stools, low tables - directly underneath the arch of the giant Valens Aqueduct. It's quite an interesting setting.

ALTUN: When Greeks and Romans started coming and settling in this city, the city had a major problem. The nearest source of water was called Belgrade Forest - 25 kilometers west of city. So they built these huge water bridges called aqueducts. And to me, it has a special meeting. You are coexistent with history.

KENYON: To reach our next destination, we climb steep, winding streets alongside creaking bicycle carts. We're looking for Tekfur Palace, home of Palaeologus, the last Byzantine emperor. It's tucked away amid modest apartment blocks in a working-class neighborhood. Alton says, he can't blame Turks for not recognizing the amazing history all around them because they don't learn to appreciate it in school.

ALTUN: Seventy years ago, in the history department of Istanbul University, there was a subdivision of Byzantine history. Today, there is no division or subdivision to study Byzantine history, although Istanbul - old Constantinople - is the center - is the heart of the old Byzantine civilization.

KENYON: The Tekfur Palace was saved by its very obscurity. Rampaging crusaders missed it when the sacked the city in the 13th century. In the novel, this is where Alton's narrator discovers who has been putting his life in danger throughout the book. Now our journey takes us from the most obscure to, by far, the most popular Byzantine site in Istanbul.

ALTUN: Look at the line.

(LAUGHTER)

ALTUN: It's worse than British Museum. Really.

KENYON: Known as the Church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia was an astonishing architectural achievement for the sixth century. Altun says, it was a thousand years before a bigger church was built in Spain. With massive lines of tourists filling the plaza outside the church, Altun pauses to describe what he call the Mona Lisa of mosaics - of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist - inside the upper gallery. In the book, it's there that his hero discovers the final crusader insult to the venerable church. Across from the glorious mosaics, says Altun, lies a marker for the grave of a Venetian doge named Dandolo.

ALTUN: He was the one who provoked and motivated the mercenaries of the Fourth Crusaders to plunder the city. When he died, he was 100 or 101 years old. And there is a plaque saying, here is Dandolo.

KENYON: The plaque remains, but historians say, the bones were probably removed after the Ottomans conquered the city and turned the church into a mosque. It's now a museum, but some Turkish officials want to make it a mosque again. Altun hopes that won't happen.

A retired bank executive, Altun calls himself a reader and book-lover more than a writer. All proceeds from his books go to a scholarship fund for literature students. He hopes his modest mystery will give readers an urge to know more about a once grand Empire hiding in plain sight in modern day Istanbul. Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISTANBUL (NOT CONSTANTINOPLE)")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople. Been a long time gone - Constantinople...

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISTANBUL (NOT CONSTANTINOPLE)")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Every gal in Constantinople lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople. So if you have a date in Constantinople, she'll be waiting in Istanbul. Even old New York was once New Amsterdam. Why they changed it, I can't say.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) People just liked it better that way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) So take me back to Constantinople.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) No, you can't go back to Constantinople.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Been a long time gone - Constantinople. Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.