It’s not that I want to avoid the story of the exploits of one of Turkey’s most famous and powerful sultans, Fatih Sultan Mehmet, as much as drivers in İstanbul are trying to avoid the roadwork queues on the bridge spanning the Bosporus named after him. It’s just that I have found most of these novels to be based on an excruciatingly simple formula. This is very similar to the spirit of naming pubs in England “The Saracen’s Head” and the descriptions of Turks in Shakespeare, namely the good Christian citizens of Constantinople are besieged by a Muslim terror.
Sound familiar? It is the same philosophy that creates a fortress mentality, assuming that the main threat to the US and Europe is not an economic one but terrorism. The same political rhetoric that tightens up on border controls and seeks to limit civil liberties of citizens. The same prejudice that assumes anyone Arab looking or with Asian skin coloring who is carrying a backpack must be a suicide bomber.
Valid actions by politicians and lawmakers to protect their citizens from external threats, and from internal radicalization, are necessary and needful. No one watching the Olympics feels the presence of security guards and troops to be invasive. In actual fact, in the wake of the empty seats scandal, many of us were delighted to see a group of soldiers sitting cheering on the swimmers after their shift was over. I am sure that sights like this will be even more poignant during the Paralympics which follow, when some of those competing will be their former colleagues, men and women who received injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The danger of this type of hype is that it can lead in its mildest form to fuelling suspicion and distrust of ordinary Muslim citizens, and in its extreme to exploding into Internet ranting and the mass murder of Norwegian Anders Behring.
The title of this latest book in a train that seems to be trying to cash in on this most unhelpful of popular moods confirmed me in my misery: “Constantinople 1453: A Place Called Armageddon.”
Armageddon: A word that rings apocalyptically clear; the place of the final battle between good and evil that will usher in the end of the world. This is not just part of the Christian faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Baha’i and also Ahmaddiya Muslims include Armageddon in their teachings.
Some believe that it is an actual place, such as Megiddo in Israel. Some see the name as figuratively being derived from the Hebrew word for meeting, for Armageddon is predicted in the Book of Revelation to be the place where Christ defeats the anti-Christ, Satan, after a mighty battle.
By choosing this as a title, the author appeared to be promising nothing more than a tale which panders to the current fear that the anti-Christ in Muslim disguise -- whether this be Bin Laden, Saddam, Gaddafi or Sultan Mehmet -- launches an attack on a faithful city.
Adding to this the fact that it runs to 500 pages, and the blurb on the back promising strong interweaving of the themes of love and jealousy with that of cataclysmic war, meant that this novel was one to be read for review not for pleasure.
I was pleasantly surprised! CC Humphreys’ tale is strongly told. He draws well-rounded and likable characters. He tells the background to the story, as well as the main action itself -- it is page 191 before the first shot in the battle is heard.
Yes, he does pitch the fight as being between Christians and Muslims, for this is what warfare was in the 15th century, with each side calling upon their God to help them. The recent Turkish film 1453 did so too, and received some negative comments in Europe because of this. But in the main it is pretty even handed. After having one character tell us the Turks are “as cunning as snakes” he redresses the balance by switching to conversation in the Turkish camp depicting the Greeks “as slippery as the eels I fished for in the canals of Laz.”
Using the device of a sorceress character who moves between Mehmet’s camp and the Genoan coast, Humphreys can build our understanding of and interest in characters on both sides of the conflict. An atmospheric tale builds up to the siege. All of the elements of good drama -- clearly defined characters, impelling motives and tension -- are employed.
The most tantalizing unanswered question of the 1453 campaign is whether a gate was deliberately left unlocked so that the Turks, once into the gap between the walls, could enter the city easily. Most novels about the fall of Constantinople seek to provide a fictional explanation; Humphreys is the most modest but at the same time the most satisfying of all that I have read. Treason can come in many forms, with many motives, but this one is believable.
I had expected to find myself wearily turning pages, skipping large sections of fight scenes. I found myself gripped by the characters and the story, eager to read on to the end.
As for the Armageddon charge, I leave it for you to decide if this is an over-exaggeration. It is true that for Christendom, the fall of its eastern jewel to followers of the Prophet’s teaching did seem like the end of the world. Humphreys gives Sultan Mehmet these words to say as he opens his campaign meeting in Edirne, “Welcome Lords to the end and beginning of history.”
It is also true that one of the reasons for his success, where earlier sultans had failed, was his having had cast the largest cannon ever made. This brought the sound of Armageddon to the Golden Horn and the fields surrounding the land walls. Looking across the valley to the opening of its barrel, defenders of the city are horrified to see “one big, most evil eye.”
It may have been the end of a political power in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it was not the end of the world. The city of Constantinople was not dead, it lived on and thrived. It became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet the Conqueror called on his people to populate it, and he started an ambitious building program, some of which such as Topkapı Palace dazzle tourists today.
İstanbul still sits proud on the Bosporus, the meeting point between East and West now a peaceful one, hosting symposia and conferences, and with the greatest competitive battles being sporting ones such as the Eurasia Marathon.
In his epilogue and thanks, Humphreys interestingly explains that he changed his emphasis after a visit to İstanbul. “If I’d ever conceived this as a story between good guys and bad, between gallant and outnumbered Christian defenders and hordes of fanatical Muslims, that attitude swiftly changed. The people I talked to had ancestors who had fought either side of the walls. And they were united now in love of what they’d fought for. My attitude even changed towards Mehmet ‘the Conqueror,’ whom I’d depicted so evil in [a previous book] ‘Vlad.’ He was still prone to blind rage, as the chronicles tell, but he grew in my story from selfish youth to a man who was fighting for something other than pure self-glory. For a cause. For a history. For a most fabulous place.”
One hopes that those drafting more life-changing documents than a gripping novel, the anti-terrorist experts and the international policymakers take the time to experience this fabulous place, too.
“A Place Called Armageddon” by CC Humphreys
Published by Orion, 2012 6.99 pounds in paperback