There are touchstones you find, like my sea shell. There are those you make, like the sling shot. Those you buy, like the shepherd’s crook.
And then there are those that are used to attack you.
Welcome again, to Touchstone Tuesdays, my weekly blog of objects to be found in my writing hut. Things I have acquired over the years, during my wanderings. This week: a piece of the Theodosian walls.
These are the great defences that protected the fabled city of Constantinople on the landward side for close to 1000 years. They were only breached once: on May 29th 1453 when Mehmet ‘Fathi’, Sultan of the Ottomans, took the Christian city by storm after an epic seven week siege of relentless gunnery and daily assault. It became a Muslim city then and, eventually the fabulous place we know today as Istanbul.
The siege was the subject of my 2011 novel, A Place Called Armageddon
(Click on title to read more)
The novel is a multi-narrator take on this extraordinary time, told from both sides of the walls, Muslim and Christian, from Sultan to mercenary. I chose to write it after my first visit to Istanbul when I fell madly in love with the place. Gave me a good excuse to return – tax deductibly, of course.
It was on that second trip that I acquired this piece of these walls– and here’s the story of how I did.
I had rendezvoused with my good friend, Allan Eastman – film director, writer, gourmand, philosopher and fellow history nut – to explore the city again and spend a lot of time on the walls where so much of the action of the novel was to take place. One day we decided to walk them from south to north – about six kilometres worth, closing off the city from water to water ‘like the collar on the neck of a dog’. They are still remarkably preserved, the more accessible parts patched up, some parts less well tended, stretches with ruined towers and crumbling ramparts. About nine this one morning, we wandered into one of those bastions, a small, roofless fort, trying to imagine who had defended it, treading on the shattered brick and masonry that Turkish cannon fire had created.
Suddenly we were not alone. Nine boys, ranging in age from ten to fifteen had run across a stretch of barren ground from their homes in a nearby poorer neighbourhood. “Heh, mister. Mister!”, one – the largest one, the leader – shouted, smiling. “You give me cigarette?”
Allan and I looked at each other. Both of us are seasoned travellers. Both have found ourselves, on rare occasions, in ‘situations’ before – wrong side of the tracks, far from authority, in the company of those who might mean us harm. Calm is the key. Soft talk. Moving slowly. “No, no,” we said, hands raised pacifyingly, beginning to pass through them.
They closed up. Words now came without the smile. “You give us money. Money!” “No, no,” we repeated, feigning calm, still walking, nearly through them, the road – cars, people – not far.
Then something shoved me hard on the back. Hard enough that I felt it through the daypack I wore on my back. I turned. That oldest boy was staring at me hard from a few foot away. I gave him what I hoped was ‘the look’. Not aggressive, not fearful. I don’t want to fight, it says. But if I have to… (What’s that line from Polonius to his son in ‘Hamlet’? ‘Beware of entrance into a quarrel, but being in/ Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee.’)
They let us pass. We made the road. Flagged a cab – the better sites began a couple of klicks further on anyway, we reasoned. Away from the wastelands.
A great day was spent. We discussed, we analyzed, we imagined. The book, part of it, was taking shape in my head. Late that night in my hotel room, I was wearily unpacking my back pack – guides, maps, notebooks – and I found…
…The stone. I was puzzled for about a second, until I realized: the boy hadn’t shoved me in the back at all – he’d hucked a stone at me. It had hit the pack and dropped in the open flap.
Another few seconds – and the grin came: That section of wall had been rendered into small pieces by cannon fire – like the piece I was holding now. Fired by one of that boy’s ancestors.
The grin widened: I had taken Turkish shot on the walls of Constantinople. And now I was holding history.