Fact Stranger than Fiction?
The Parapet (from street-level), August 20, 1999
“You’ve got to come up here,” Jennifer called when she reached the perch atop the wall. Richard gasped. Her voice echoed eerily and her position would have been perilous were it not for the parapet, a square-toothed mandible of rock, between her and the drop of the wall to the sea. Breaking off his quest for a path across to the porch they had seen from the shore, he headed in her direction.
“Be careful but hurry. You can see for miles: two continents, all the boats, the whole world.” Breathless in pursuit of her youthful exuberance, he picked his way through the shards. Jennifer reached out and pulled him over a lip to a flat area about twenty yards square. The height, the sound of the heaving water below, and the low light and long shadows of late afternoon made his head whirl. He leaned against one of the jutting teeth and studied first the sea and its shore, then the hills and their contours, then the wall itself. They had gone beyond the map to a territory lost long ago.
“It is as if this place has been hiding here, undiscovered, just waiting for us,” she said. “Imagine how it looked at sunset on a summer afternoon in the time of Justinian and Theodora.”
She went close to him. The hill would have been a park with hanging gardens, the green of every variety of tree splashed between with the colors of every flower in the known world. Through it would wind walkways tiled with splendid mosaics. Higher up, the cool marble and classical lines of palaces, courts and government buildings would have been crowned, as the scene still was now, by the dome of Hagia Sophia.
She finally found words for their mutual ecstasy. “Right now we could be the emperor and empress standing together on the roof garden of the House of Theodora—pardon me, Your Majesty, the house of Hormisdas—reviewing the day’s events: the latest on the western battle front, your bailiwick, or progress in the domestication of the silk industry, my pet project.”
He smiled and took her hand. They stood facing the waning sun. “This is indeed the House of Hormisdas,” he proclaimed.
(Excerpt from The Anathemas, Ch. 10)
Sketch of the Great Palace Area in the 6th-Century
Byzantium—so it was first called by the Greeks that founded it, the city that straddled the narrow straits that separated Europe and Asia, West from East.
Constantinople it was called at its apex, the capital of the later Roman Empire. And so it was known during the 6th century reign of the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, The Anathemas’ historical subjects.
Istanbul, literally “the city,” it was renamed by its 15th-century Muslim conquerors, and here, still the bustling center of the Ottoman Empire although its Byzantine palaces and fortifications were already in ruins, it was that Richard and Jennifer Strawn, the novel’s protagonists, traveled in 1884 in search of the legacy of Justinian and Theodora.
Façade of Hagia Sophia (photo as taken)
On seeing a painting of the sacking of the mythic city of Troy, the German lad,Heinrich Schliemann, was convinced that he could locate the ruins of that ancient city, even though scholars then maintained that Troy existed only in the poet Homer’s imagination. It took most of his life to finance and execute the project, but today Schliemann is hailed as the discoverer and excavator of the ancient city of Priam, Helen and Hector.
A similar specific, although mental, picture impressed me in my early twenties: the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora on the rooftop of their palace abutting the seawall that fortified their capital city of Constantinople, a distinctive parapet in the background. This image compelled me not only to write their story in The Anathemas but also to travel to modern Istanbul in search of their palace, the legendary House of Hormisdas, also called the Palace of Justinian.
Hagia Sophia with minarets (now a museum, it once served as a mosque)
The Author in “The City”
Never having left the North American continent before, going to Turkey was merely a dream for many years. Finally, in August 1999, a fortuitous job assignment took me to Brussels, and I continued on to Istanbul to explore the places peopled by The Anathemas’ characters.
Since I was focused on Justinian and Theodora and their involvement in the Christian Council of Constantinople in 553 AD, I was dismayed to find most Greek and Byzantine remains in disrepair after 600 years of Turkish rule. What I sensed I was looking for would be buried, literally, under the city’s subsequent history. Justinian’s masterpiece, the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, still stood but had been converted to a mosque after the city fell to the Muslims in 1453; only recently had some of the layers of plaster been removed from the walls to reveal the priceless icons beneath. The Great Palace area, center city in Justinian’s time, now contained the Blue Mosque, so sacred a Muslim shrine that excavation in the area was prohibited. And nowhere on modern maps of the city’s historical sites could I find where the House of Hormisdas had been.
I spent a week exploring the region’s exotic atmosphere and multi-layered history, fortuitously flying south on the afternoon of August 16th to explore the Ephesus area, as, the next morning, an earthquake that killed thousands struck the Asian section of Istanbul.
When I got back to the shattered city, only a day remained before I had to leave. I was disappointed that I’d found no evidence of the palace so key to the novel’s climactic scene. But I was determined: the place with the parapet was here, in this city, somewhere. I just had to find it.
So, that last afternoon, not exactly knowing where I would go, I went walking alone, camcorder in hand, and filmed what I saw and spoke what I felt. If, as I proceeded, I clicked into that alleged intuitive zone, the switch was so subtle that without the camera most of the improbable sequence that occurred would have been blurred.
Portion of the Byzantine seawall with a tower
I started back in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which I had filmed earlier, took some additional footage, and then exited through a side door, one with a recovered mosaic of Justinian above it. In front of me was the wall surrounding the Topkapi Palace, the Sultan’s headquarters after the city’s conquest, now also a museum. Figuring that this later fortification was built upon or replaced the Byzantine wall surrounding the Great Palace area, I followed it down to the Bosphorus shore, where it joined a portion of the old seawall of known Byzantine origin. A multi-lane highway buzzing with traffic ran on the shelf that built up over time between the wall and water.
In the Istanbul Archeology Museum I had seen photos of the seawall depicting that very area in the 1890’s: no highway, barely a footpath at the wall’s base, what Richard and Jennifer Strawn would have encountered there a hundred years earlier.
With the telephoto lens on the video camera, I probed into some of the distinctive, if time-battered, features of the wall that rose three or four stories above street-level: turrets, doorways, archways, and ornamentation. At a point where the wall made a right angle towards the sea, the configuration felt right enough that I conjectured on tape: “This is the portion of the wall that I would consider my prime candidate for the entrance” to the House of Hormisdas.
Arches and doorways atop the seawall
The House of Hormisdas
Still at street level, I followed the jutting structure around. On the opposite side the wall was sufficiently crumbled to allow me through. Like a nail drawn by a magnet, I stepped past the refuse of the place’s homeless inhabitants and climbed the path that ran upward behind the wall. “Probably not the smartest thing on my part to be up here,” I then quipped on the tape, “but I am currently up above the walls, near where the great palace should have been—or the house of Justinian would have been, actually—and the train tracks are just to my left.”
Only after scanning the area several times with eye and camera did I begin to observe the layers, collapsed in many places, that were evidence of a multi-storied building composed of the arches, columns and stairways appropriate for a palace of the Byzantine period. “For all practical purposes I could very well be in the House of Justinian at this point,” I murmured, still tentative, on tape. Further exploration, much on film, however, finally had me whispering in awe: “I have to believe this is it, the House of Hormisdas.”
The parapet as seen inside the wall
But a greater shock of recognition awaited me. There, a level higher from where I was standing, in the far corner at the top of the wall, was a platform area, evidently a remnant of the building’s rooftop; and framing it, teeth prominent though worn, was the parapet.
“Right there, there is where the parapet scene took place,” I whispered on tape. The mental image formed some thirty years before had met its physical counterpart. “This is it,” was all I could say to acknowledge the improbable.
There was further verification, notably a hole in the roof (the ground from where I was standing), possibly the work of the earthquake a few days earlier, through which I saw an underground chamber with the typical brick Byzantine arches and columns of green and red marble.
Evidence enough that, like Jennifer in the novel, I could speculate, “It is as if this place has been hiding here, undiscovered, just waiting for us to return.” And so I did acknowledge in conclusion: “I’ve got to believe it’s what I’ve been looking for.”
Sun streaming through the windows of Hagia Sophia
After the trip and this specific adventure, especially while revising the novel to accommodate the fresh perspective, I had to wonder how I knew to take and record that walk on the afternoon of August 20, 1999.
The odds against it all being coincidence are high. That some extraordinary sense was in play is probable: precognition, déjà vu, past life recall on my part? Could an active imagination fired by a keen historical sense be sufficient to conjure up the ruins of a palace and a parapet along the Bosphorus in Istanbul? Not a mean ability even without the paranormal angle—and video proves it happened. Coincidence or co-incidence? I have to opt for the hyphen.
After much conjecture, I admitted the intangibles were so overwhelming that I could only pound my fist and say in the words of The Anathemas’ protagonist: “I don’t know. And I don’t know if it can be known, but I’ll do everything I can to find out—even if it kills me.” Sort of crazy, but a commitment, with The Anathemas, A Novel about Reincarnation and Restitution, the result.