Nature or nurture?

The hero of Selçuk Altun’s book “The Sultan of Byzantium” spends his childhood surrounded by the Byzantine and Ottoman silhouette of İstanbul.

December 16, 2012, Sunday/ 13:27:00 / ISTANBUL

It is often debated whether nature or nurture is more important in a child’s upbringing when considering formation of character, personality and behavior.

Is it true that we are who we are purely because of our genetic makeup? Or are other factors, such as the way we were raised, the country we were raised in and the experiences we had growing up equally -- or more -- relevant?

Clearly issues such as the color of our eyes are due to nature rather than nurture (with the exception of those who use colored contact lenses!), but others are less clear-cut. That is where the fascination lies. Scientific studies and media reports often focus on identical and non-identical twins. The former attempt to analyze the resemblance and variation in a host of complex traits. The latter enjoy bringing us amazing stories of twins separated at birth, living thousands of miles away from each other, who when reunited decades later find they have chosen the same career, similar looking husbands and even drive the same make of car.

Even the Olympics this year led us to consider the nature versus nurture debate. There is clearly something genetic about Jamaicans that makes them the world’s greatest sprinters, and something genetic about Kenyans that makes them the world’s greatest marathon runners. (As I finished the 8-kilometer run in the İstanbul Olympics at Tophane, fellow runners in the queue for the certificates were joking, “The Kenyans will be almost at Bakırköy by now.”)

But is it all just down to the genes? Jamaica as a country places great importance on athletics, with its national school athletic championships being one of the most important sporting events in the country. Talent spotters pick and train children from junior school. The culture also gives track athletes the sort of idolization reserved for pop singers and football players in other countries.

A lot of the success of Team GB was due of course to the extra member in the team -- the home crowd, who gave amazing support to their heroes. But, according to most Olympic analysts, the massive investment in sports from the national lottery fund and the employment of top coaches led to this success. There was a business plan for nurture; it was clear, uncompromising, and it got results.

So what can we say about the balance of nature and nurture for a guy growing up in İstanbul whose father is a Serbian-American and his mother is a cultured Turk whose family roots are mixed with Greek and Georgian? The hero in Selçuk Altun’s “The Sultan of Byzantium,” a historical mystery adventure that was translated into English this year, has a similarly complicated case of nurture: He lives in Galata -- Infidel Galata, the part of town in the past where the foreigners lived, across the Golden Horn. Home to the Genoese before the conquest of İstanbul in 1453, it became multicultural over the next few centuries. The Genoese left us the famous tower, now a tourist site rather than a fire tower; worshippers still use the Greek and Armenian churches and Jewish synagogues today.

We don’t learn our hero’s name until chapter “Tau” -- in keeping with the spirit of Byzantium, the chapters are named after the letters of the Greek alphabet. But we learn quickly that his family believes that everything negative in his character comes from his father. He grew up neglected by his mother, a form of complicated psychological revenge on her ex-husband, and was raised by a dominating grandmother. They would either complain that any bad behavior on the part of the boy was due to his “good-for-nothing father” or say that the stubbornness of the man was “just like his grandfather.”

But it is the Byzantine and Ottoman silhouette of the historical peninsula that embraced his childhood. Altun’s prose in the opening chapter conjures up the multicultural patchwork that is Galata. The boy’s friend is Engenio Geniale, a retired Levantine professor of art history, nicknamed the “Lord of Galata.” As a teenager in the neighborhood between Galata and Tophane, he would frequent Nezih Café, meeting İskender, the proletarian “Knight of Galata” or the Tigris Buffet, whose owner Devran from Diyarbakır had spent five years in jail for his left-wing views. He loves hanging out with Panyot Sityanidis in his watch repair shop. Around him live the families of migrants from Eastern Anatolia.

Our hero is, like most of Altun’s heroes, intellectual, well-read and an expert in world poetry and literature. But it is not this that attracts the secretive Nomo organization to him. The way he makes friends with the lions at London Zoo, and his fascination with a map he owns of Galata before the Ottoman conquest are clues to the deeper layers below the surface.

A strange invite to meet at the Four Seasons Hotel from a friend of his grandfather catapults him into a world of adventure and historical mystery, a trail that can end only with the “sultan of İstanbul.”

These clandestine new acquaintances believe the last Byzantine sultan didn’t die as the walls of Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmet. Instead, he fled and died in exile, leaving his descendants to carry out the 11 items on his list of revenge on his enemies. They also believe that our nameless hero is the last link in a five-century chain. “You, sir, are his last descendant, which is to say, you are the current Byzantine emperor-in-exile, Constantine Palaeologus XV.”

Eleven dynasties of the Byzantines. Eleven centuries of empire. Eleven emperors in the last dynasty. Now he’s the 11th emperor-in-exile. His mission, the last item on Constantine XI’s list, must be a big one. In the meantime, he’s to receive training on Byzantium in London, earning a salary of about 30,000 pounds a month. So, why not?

So begins a mysterious historical adventure that will take us around Byzantine remains in Antioch, Mistral in Greece, Trabzon, İznik, Cappadocia and finally back to İstanbul. But perhaps we are not so much traveling in this century as traveling back at to the centuries of Byzantium. A wonderfully concise history of Constantine and his capital city and the empire he ruled over accompanies the tale.

The story is in some places surreal, but always thrills with its mystery. Depth is added to the story by Altun’s wonderful descriptive prose, which breaks through the dreamy mists of time and conjures up historical figures so tangibly. Our hero’s musings as he studies his favorite map are strikingly refreshing. He imagines the 1,422 walls of Galata to be dancing a halay (a folk dance performed widely across Anatolia and the Middle East in which dancers form a line or a circle and hold hands) around the tower, and the Byzantine remnants within the walls are as timid as pawns on a chessboard.

While passages like this are pure delight, our hero’s supercilious awareness of his own intellectual superiority can be a little grating. But the reader is prepared to forgive him this as he shares some gems of Turkish poetry with us. He also enthusiastically enters into the adventure of solving each next clue, while being somewhat unlucky in love.

But perhaps, after all, this novel isn’t about Byzantium or our hero. Of course, the star is once more İstanbul. This fun story is set in the city that has the most complicated personality in the world. Does İstanbul have a nature of its own that dictates how she is? Or is she a product of nurture, a product of the empires that have come and gone? Did she shape the Byzantines, the Ottomans and now the republic, or did they shape her?

Now there lies another historical mystery…maybe never to be solved!

“The Sultan of Byzantium,” by Selçuk Altun, is published by Telegram Books (2012). 8.99 pounds in paperback. ISBN: 978-184659148-8

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