The walls of the city are dwarfed today by surrounding hotels and offices, to say nothing of the skyscrapers of Levent on the other side of the Golden Horn. And the whole extent of the walls -- between Eminönü and the Topkapı Gate -- seems so small compared with today’s city sprawl. Even with an ambulance horn blaring and the cries of many street-sellers, the Hippodrome is peaceful when compared with scenes of crowds attending the chariot races and fiery political demonstrations. The Aya Sofya, which still manages to make its visitors catch their breath in amazement, would have been even more astonishing with its interior shimmering with gold.
We catch something of the amazement and terror that this city would have inspired in Stephen Lawhead’s historical novel “Byzantium.” Set in the ninth century, it tells the tale of a pilgrimage from a Celtic monastery to the legendary city.
In those days Byzantium was the center of the world. The Emperor Basil, and Leo who followed him, were not only the political rulers of the world, but also its spiritual ones. Believed to be God’s vice regent and representative on earth, the city where the emperor rules was therefore God’s capital city and a place of pilgrimage and desire.
When the monks of Ireland decide to present a book of their illuminated manuscripts to the emperor as a gift, nine monks are to be chosen for the journey. Young monk Aidan is one of them, and Lawhead’s exciting page-turning tale tells of his adventures on the way to the city of gold. They have never seen Byzantium, but its fame has spread far abroad, and they have heard tell that the sky in Byzantium is gold.
In a dream before leaving the emerald-green fields of Ireland, Aidan says: “Dazzled by the radiance, I could not bear the sight and had to look away. When my sight returned, wonder of wonders! It was no longer the sun I saw, but an enormous, gleaming city, arrayed on seven hills, each summit aglow with splendor and richness beyond my most fevered imaginings. Radiant with the light of its own beauty, illumined by the fire and wealth of magnificence, this golden city sparkled like a jeweled ornament of unreckoned magnitude.”
The small band of monks was sent out, clutching their treasured gift for the emperor, with a blessing from the abbot, “All our hopes go with you.” The first stage of the journey is by boat across the Irish Sea to England, and “hand used to plying a scribe’s pen now row an oar.”
There is a surprise in every chapter of this stunning tale. Attacked by Sea Wolves (Viking marauders) their ship is wrecked. Seeming to survive this, they find refuge in a village ashore, but the Sea Wolves attack this small hamlet in the night, set it on fire and capture Aidan. From then on he is a slave and lives among the Vikings.
His new masters one day decide on a pillaging raid on Miklagard. To get to this city, they have to travel by Viking long-ship across the North Sea and then down semi-navigable rivers to the Black Sea. Continuing further south, the Vikings under their monarch Jarl Harald reach their destination of Miklagard -- none other than Byzantium.
The marauding pirates are used to getting their way and plundering every town and village they come to, seizing gold and silver and precious stones. They believe this magnificent place must have enough precious goods to keep them in luxury for a lifetime. But how to raid it? First of all, they are deterred by a thick chain strung across the Golden Horn, and then they have to pay harbor tax to weigh anchor. Cheated by the harbormaster, the would-be raiders have to pay a tax to buy the freedom of the city for a year, and can enter by the harbor gates.
The saga of Aidan and the Vikings has many twists and turns. They are presented before the emperor, in circumstances very different from those he expected at the beginning of his journey. The northern Sea Wolves realize they cannot defeat the might of Byzantium, so decide to join forces with it in return for a promise from the emperor of more gold than they could ever have imagined.
They are to accompany the emperor’s ships to Trebizond, where one of his envoys is to broker a peace deal with the Abbasid Saracens. Thus they enter into an adventure that will involve them in the complexity and duplicity of the Byzantine Empire. Scheming legates, ambush, murder and treachery are the order of the day.
As they set out on the trip, they scarcely believed the advice they received: “Discovery is the one thing duplicity and treachery cannot abide. Suspicion is the knife in your sleeve, and the shield at your back.” As they travel to Trebizond (Trabzon), Sebastea (Sivas) and Amida (Diyarbakır) and on to the glorious climax in Byzantium, these words ring true.
So it is strange to the monks to find they have more in common with the servants of Allah that they meet (Amir j’amal Sadiq, the Abbasid leader, and his entourage join their band) than those of their own faith who have the political power.
Although totally a work of fiction, “Byzantium” is historically accurate. Lawhead is an American who became fascinated with the Celts and their legends. He moved to England in order to research his subject and has written many series of books set in this time. He and his wife have settled in Oxford, and he has been dubbed a Yankee at the Court of King Arthur.
Interviewed in a magazine, Lawhead explained why he took the step of making his Muslim characters sympathetic and the Church of Rome ones the villains: “Perhaps my historical interest is based on my current interest in this provocative juxtaposition. Christianity meets Islam, or individualism meets collectivism, Occidental meets Oriental -- and where two such contrary forces clash, there is drama. My previous book, Byzantium -- about the horrendous life-altering ordeal faced by an Irish monk who undertakes a pilgrimage to Constantinople in the year 860 -- took me into such fascinating historical territory, I wanted to continue the journey, so to speak. I think the Crusades were very near the pinnacle of human folly, and they have been glamorized in the West for far too long. They were the result of colossal misunderstandings on many fronts, and massive failures of common humanity. Their dreadful legacy continues to influence events in the world today and many of the fractures have yet to heal. I wouldn’t like to have lived back then. No way. The 21st century suits me just fine. However, I would give almost anything to spend just a day living in the time I’m writing about -- just to see if how close I’ve come to getting it right.”
“Byzantium” by Stephen R. Lawhead, published by Eos, ISBN: 978-0061057540, $7.99 in paperback