Anyone who has spent just a few days exploring Turkey cannot fail to be impressed by the sweeping pageant of history to which the land of Anatolia has been witness.
Amongst many others, the Hittites, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans made this land their own and left us many monuments to marvel at and remember them by.
Some parts of the history of this land are well-researched, well-explored and well-known. It is impossible for a tourist to stand in front of the Aya Sofya in İstanbul and not want to know more about Justinian, Constantine and Byzantium. It is impossible for a traveler to stand in front of the Mevlana Museum in Konya and not want to know more about Rumi and the Seljuks. It is impossible for a worshipper to stand in front of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne and not want to know more about Mimar Sinan, Mehmet the Conqueror and the Ottomans. It is impossible for a politician to stand in front of the Anıtkabir in Ankara and not want to know more about Atatürk and the modern republic.
But some parts of Turkish history are less well-covered. So I was pleased to find a title that, though set firmly in the present, contained many flashbacks to the 13th and 14th centuries, a period in history that gets scant attention. This period starts with the knights of the heinous and disastrous Fourth Crusade bearing down on Constantinople: a clash between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox expressions of the Christian faith. In this period, churches and monasteries exist throughout the land, while different Turkish tribes hold sway in separate “beyliks.” In this period, Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrizi both came to Konya and lived and died there. In this period, Christians hid in the rock formations and underground cities of Cappadocia to continue living and worshipping as they pleased, protected from invaders.
All of these historical elements are woven together in Raymond Khoury’s “The Templar Salvation.” Sequel to the New York Times Bestseller “The Last Templar,” we again see FBI agent Reilly and girlfriend Chaykin chasing through the Vatican and Turkey in a desperate bid to save their own skin while uncovering a mystery that is important enough for their pursuers to want to kill them for it.
The blurb on the back cover promised much. Khoury has been a screenwriter for “Spooks” and “Waking the Dead,” two of my favorite BBC television shows. They attract because of the action, tension and intrigue as well as the clever interplay between the lead characters, in particular the sizzling mental and emotional tension between cop Boyd and psychologist Foley.
“The Templar Salvation” does in fact deliver racing-pulse action, intriguing twists of plot, murder, mystery and mayhem. Following his previous formula of interspersing historical chapters in the modern day story, we start by following Edward of Tyre as he climbs the ramparts of Constantinople in 1203, during the siege, to smuggle out some wooden chests from the Imperial Library. They must not be seized by the Crusaders and must be saved for the Templar Knights, so Edward is charged with taking them to Antioch.
And so the mystery starts. What can be in these three chests that would lead monks to poison him on his journey?
Catapulted to the present day, we launch straight into terror. An Iranian professor in İstanbul is threatened by a fellow countryman who wants to the results of the professor’s research into old archives. “I need you to fully grasp how crucial it is to your well-being and to that of your wife and daughter that you devote all your time and energy to this matter … and figure it out for me,” he menaces.
An FBI agent is secretly in the Vatican while on leave. His girlfriend has been kidnapped and the only way he can save her is to do what the kidnappers want and get into the Vatican’s secret archives.
Yes, you guessed it, another story along the lines of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” It takes about 400 pages before we finally discover the glaringly obvious direction that the book is going. The crates contain what the monks describe as “the devil’s own handiwork,” but what every modern atheist or agnostic can see for what they truly are: the real gospels that prove the ones in the Bible are wrong and that the basis of the Church’s belief and faith are wrong. It is all too easy to spin a yarn along this line, portraying the Catholic Church as “the baddie” that will do anything in its power to stop the truth coming to light. At least this time the Catholic Church was only the baddie in history; the modern baddie is an Iranian secret service agent who wants to reveal the gospels and bring down the faith of America.
The lack of historical rigor is revealed in many places, the most glaring being Khoury’s statement that Antioch is in modern day Syria. He can ignore the evidence presented by Biblical scholars about the validity of the gospels, but it seems hard to ignore a modern political map. Antakya and Hatay have been in Turkey since 1939!
He also takes a swipe at Sunni Islam, clearly having his characters prefer the superior tolerance of Rumi and the Sufi dervishes over the Ottomans they describe as crushing the Sufis in a bid for religious orthodoxy. Clearly Khoury’s experiences in Lebanon’s sectarian violence have left him with strong opinions about whether there is an absolute right and wrong in belief.
Having said that, the mystery writing is excellent. Questions such as what was in the crates may have obvious answers, but the outcomes of others are more veiled: What does Reilly find in the Fond Templari in the Vatican archives? Why would 13th century monks resort to murder? What happened to the Templar not buried in the valley? Which of the four waterfalls on Mount Erciyes is the way up to the hidden monastery? But, at times, tiring of the constant fight scenes (some of which last for three or four pages), the way the hero manages to recover from horrendous injuries and the continual felling of opponents (by both sides), the question uppermost in your mind is how many will die before I reach the final page?
Our travels through Turkey take us to the Greek Patriarchate in Fener (bombs, fire and death there), to Mount Erciyes to find a hidden church (this time Turkish elite forces and an anti-terrorist squad take the brunt of the casualties), to Ihlara Valley (this time after being nearly killed a number of times our heroes are going to starve to death after being locked in an underground city by a stone mechanism used to protect those inside) and finally to Konya for the longest fight scene of all. The one touch of realism that brought a smile to my face was the fact that the car chase in İstanbul ended in a traffic jam. Now, that I could relate to!
To make a great story, no escape is without discovery and a battle. No journey (whether in the 13th and 14th centuries or the modern day) is free from pursuit by an enemy. No period of calm can last for too long. No challenge can be left unreturned by physically immobilizing the challenger. There is no clue without the Iranian agent having got there first.
All this is just what the thriller lover longs for, of course. And Khoury serves it up with a flourish. Sadly, just as with the too-easy and too-obvious bandwagon storyline of false gospels, the ending is equally unsatisfactory. Surprise, surprise: They are all destroyed. But wait, the old woman in Konya has kept the negatives of photographs of every page of infinitely fragile ancient texts… Having been asked to suspend historical intellect earlier we now have to suspend intellectual integrity.
Nevertheless, the pace and quality of the writing leave me torn as to whether this is a recommend or not. A real curate’s egg.
“The Templar Salvation” by Raymond Khoury, published by Orion. 7.99 GBP in paperback ISBN: 978-140911758-2