Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Queen of Cities

Byzantium ... Constantinople ... Istanbul ... For fans of historical fiction, these are all names of one of the most fascinating cities that Europe has ever known. In the early Middle Ages (a time period close to my heart), Constantinople was the greatest and wealthiest city in all of Europe, rivaled only by Cordoba in Moorish Spain. I’m particularly interested in Constantinople these days, as it will be a setting (among other locales) for my next novel.

To say that Constantinople is an interesting setting would be an understatement. Just consider this quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and you’ll know what I mean: “The most profligate debaucheries, the most abandoned villainies, the most atrocious crimes, plots, murders and assassinations form the warp and woof of the history of Constantinople.” Who wouldn’t want to read about this place?

After the Turks captured the city, it became Istanbul.

Not surprisingly, the city, which was once called the “Queen of Cities,” has been the setting of numerous novels, some of which I may write about in more detail over the coming months. But for today, here are a few good examples.

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead. As if the title didn’t give it way. This novel is set in the Ninth Century during the reign of Emperor Basil I, known as Basil the Macedonian. Like the novel I’m currently working onByzantium also involves Vikings, who referred to the city as Miklagard. Vikings were known to travel to Constantinople, and the emperor even kept a personal bodyguard of Northmen called the Varangian Guard. The Byzantine emperors apparently deemed the Vikings more trustworthy and less likely to assassinate them than their fellow Greeks. Needless to say, being a Byzantine emperor could be hazardous to one’s health!

Harald Hardrada: The Last Viking by Michael Burr. I’m currently reading this book about Harald Sigurdsson, a King of Norway, whose death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 is considered by many historians to mark the end of the Viking Age. Before he became king, Harald served for a time in the Varangian Guard, and in this fictional account may even have been involved in a conspiracy with the Empress Zoe the Macedonian to murder her first imperial husband, Emperor Romanos III.

Another good Viking Tale!
The Eagle’s Daughter by Judith Tarr. This novel tells the story of the Byzantine princess Theophano, who married Otto II of Germany to become the Holy Roman Empress during the Tenth Century. The novel begins in Constantinople with the murder of yet another Byzantine emperor, Nikephorus II, whose assassination was planned by his wife and carried out by her lover, John Tzimiskes, who succeeded Nikephorus on the Byzantine throne.

Baudolino by Umberto Eco. This one’s on my short list of books to read, so you’ll have to wait on the details. But the novel begins in 1204 during the sack of Constantinople by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. 

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Some of the most interesting scenes in this wonderful novel take place in Istanbul, where the protagonists must scour the archives of Sultan Mehmed II for information on the whereabouts of Dracula’s tomb. The history of Vlad Tepes (the real Dracula), which is explored in the novel, also concerns his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks, who ended the Byzantine Empire by capturing Constantinople in 1453. According to the novel, Sultan Mehmed had Vlad decapitated and then took his head to Constantinople as proof that the enemy of the Ottomans had fallen. As for how Dracula got his head back ... well, you’ll just have to read the novel. 

Some of the best scenes in this novel take place in Constantinople.
There are certainly many other examples of good novels set in the Queen of Cities. If you have one you’re especially fond of, write a comment and let me know.


Richard Campbell said...

Let me put in a plug for Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, both by Guy Gavriel Kay. They take place in an extremely thinly veiled not-Constantinople, during the reign of not-Justinian, and include the usual scenes of awe upon first entry to the city.

Joseph Finley said...

Richard, thanks for the recommendation! I'm going to check out both of these. I was a big fan of The Lions of Al-Rassan.