‘Mission Impossible’ -- underwater!

‘Mission Impossible’ -- underwater!

Author Clive Cussler (L) penned “Crescent Dawn,” the 21st installment of the Dirk Pitt thrillers, with his son, Dirk (R). (PHOTO REUTERS)

December 25, 2011, Sunday/ 12:16:00

Being surrounded on three sides by water, Turkey’s wealth of coastline means its history is intricately linked with the history of the sea.

The Turks may have swept into Anatolia on horseback from Central Asia, but they soon discovered, as the Romans and Byzantines had done before them, that an important plank in defense of their realm had to be naval defenses.

The Ottomans fast developed naval prowess. Shipbuilding became an art, just as horsemanship had been, and Ottoman sea captains moved into positions of supremacy. The result was that the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean became Ottoman lakes.

There are a number of exciting finds from around the coast of Turkey housed in various museums. The Underwater Archaeological Museum at Bodrum is world famous. Not only are there hundreds of amphorae and gold coins salvaged from shipwrecks on display, but some of the ships themselves. The treasures range in date over the centuries and represent powers as diverse as Phoenician, Lydian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman.

Underwater archaeology is so valued that even the massive engineering enterprise of the Marmaray Project, set to join the Asian side and European side of İstanbul by rail tunnel, came to a halt when digs for the project uncovered an ancient Byzantine harbor near the old walls of Constantinople, replete with ships.

The findings from this harbor are housed in the İstanbul Archaeological Museum. Walking round the exhibition, visitors can imagine life in a bygone era, the age of sail, when international trade was carried out mainly by ship.

The raised wrecks seem so serene: a silent witness to the economic life of those who inhabited these lands before us. They appear calm and lifeless.

But, of course, their last moments afloat would have been anything but calm and serene. What passions and terrors they were witness to! What panic and horror caused their sinking! Maybe it was ferocious weather conditions that caused them to take on water and sink, despite desperate bailing by the crew, or even financial suicide of jettisoning a valuable cargo.

Perhaps it was darkness and fog that meant they ran adrift on to vicious, jagged rocks that cut their hulls to pieces. Or the vicissitudes of war, being rammed by enemy vessels or ravaged by fire caused by arrow brands, or shot by heavy cannons.

Equally fearsome were the pirates who sailed the seas, waiting for an opportunity to intercept a trading ship with a valuable cargo on board. Ships’ captains and crew would be armed and trained for defense. A very valuable cargo, with state importance, would warrant a military escort.

Clive Cussler’s latest all-action maritime adventure captures the excitement and intrigue of Mediterranean shipping over the centuries. “Crescent Dawn” starts in the Mediterranean in A.D. 327. The Roman galley is propelled through the waves by oarsman, their grueling rowing enabling the vessel to run faster than the wind, for she is charged with delivering a precious cargo from Judea to the emperor in Byzantium. There is a centurion guard on board, for pirates are around, and we witness the fierce thrust of the battle.

Action then cuts to 1916, and to the Royal Navy dockyard in Portsmouth. A dodgy cargo is loaded on the HMS Hampshire, a battleship on active service. The trap has been set to sink a warship and so murder a general, because a secret must die with him.

We then find ourselves transported to 2012, and to the al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt, where murder and disguise go hand-in-hand in a terrifying attack. An olive-skinned woman dressed as a male theology student leaves a backpack in Egypt’s main mosque. “Few could have recognized, however, that the attack was only the first salvo in a strategic ploy that would attempt to transform the very dominance of the entire region.”

Megalomaniac terrorists move on to bomb the Green Mosque in Bursa and then steal the Sacred Trusts from Topkapı Palace. Attacking holy Muslim sites, they hope the blame will fall on infidel Americans or Jews, enabling them to take over control of all of Islam. At this point their paths cross that of a family of underwater archeologists, who were in the environs of Topkapı Palace discussing with experts from the İstanbul Archeological Museum the mystery of how they had found a Byzantine crown in a wreck that dated from the age of Süleyman the Magnificent.

There follows a most dynamic and exciting series of chases that last throughout the whole novel. This rip-roaring adventure starts at Topkapı, descends into the underground cisterns of the Yerebatan Sarnıcı, then takes off up the Bosporus. Escaping for a moment to pause and take a breath, we find the action jumps to England, where two young researchers find gunmen who are also interested in their academic research. Marine archaeologists in Caesarea also find themselves in mortal danger.

Nearly every type of transport is involved in a high-speed chase. From vintage cars to underwater submersibles, from sports cars to power yachts, vehicles are driven to their limits, shot at, smashed up and destroyed in an attempt to either catch international terrorists or to flee from them.

Heads are hit with revolver butts, legs are shot, ankles are twisted in amazing leaps, throats are garroted, bodies are half-frozen in icy-cold water and noses are broken. At almost every stage in the chase someone dies -- and not just the baddies. Could all of this be just over ancient papyrus manuscripts and legends of a manifest?

No, although the papyrus does have an important role to play in the story. It soon also becomes apparent that the terrorists have bigger and more deadly plans in mind. If they could blow up the holy Muslim mosque on the site of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, then that would surely turn Muslim public opinion along a dark and deadly track. Or, how about a horrendous attack on the heavily populated city of İstanbul?

When they realize the extent of the terrorists’ plans, the underwater archeologist Pitt family realize that because time is short only they -- father, son and daughter and their colleagues -- stand between the terrorists and atrocities of international proportions. This swashbuckling trail of obsession and murder, where smart academics manage to behave like international spies and overcome all hell unleashed against them, led me at times to suspend belief.

A similar rip-roaringly unbelievable but equally highly entertaining story is showing at movie theaters at the moment -- the latest episode of Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible” series, “Ghost Protocol.” In “Crescent Dawn,” Clive Cussler has created a historical and political thriller that contains exactly the same mixture of glamour and intrigue, delusion and atrocity, mystery and blame, and attack and assault as the “Mission Impossible” storyline.

Except, this time, the winning team is not a bunch of hard-lined, expertly trained spooks; it is a family of adventurous marine archaeologists. They only got involved -- out of their depths -- because their curiosity about ancient relics got the better of them, and they said, “After all, who doesn’t like a good mystery?” This mystery adventure novel may be formulaic, a little long and some of the sections read like a Wikipedia-style encyclopedia paragraph about a historical fact or tourist site just cut and pasted in. But if you are a fan of “Mission Impossible,” you will agree with them!

“Crescent Dawn,” by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler, published by Penguin (2011) 7.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-024195131-6

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