Istanbul…Constantinople…Byzantium. Can a city so well-known still hold secrets? I am currently writing a novel set in Constantinople in the 1750s. There’s not much of eighteenth century Constantinople left to see, what with fires, earthquakes and a propensity to build in wood. But the mosques, palaces and hammams are still there, and the Bosphorus and Golden Horn haven’t changed too much over the centuries.
Christ at the Chora Church
Over the past two thousand years Istanbul has been Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Muslim and a home to all races and peoples. On the whole it has been and remains a place where people rub along together pretty well.
Few tourists at Agia Sofia
But the sense that Turkey is dangerous, and less welcoming to westerners these days seems to have deterred Americans and Europeans from visiting. When I went this Spring the squares and mosques and museums were largely empty, the gap they have left filled by tour groups from China, Russia, India and the Middle East. President Erdogan’s referendum campaign was well underway, his ‘Yes’ buses and rallies thinly attended by city dwellers with other things on their minds.
My novel is about an English clockmaker and his son, caught up in the fierce competition for trade and political advantage between European nations eager to keep the Ottoman Sultan as an ally.
An eighteenth century Ottoman clock
The sense of time is different in Istanbul. It stretches and curls around the late Romans, the crusaders, around Venetians and Ottomans, around Ataturk and Erdogan and sets them all down in a place that is everywhere at once and no time in particular.
My novel is about the impossibility of time. There is nowhere better for that to be understood than the city on the Bosphorous.