Authors: Matthew Reilly
‘Ah, the Sultan did not invite Giles. He invited our king to send a player. The Sultan did not know who Henry would send. But evidently the Sultan’s man has been watching and evaluating Mr Giles’s play and has found Giles to be a threat worthy of hobbling.’ Mr Ascham shook his head grimly. ‘I have not even met this Sultan yet and already I do not like the rules by which he plays.’
The lands of the Ottoman Turks were, I must admit, far more impressive than I had anticipated.
Their roads, some of them dating back to Roman times, were paved and clean and kept in excellent condition with few ruts or potholes. Their houses were sturdy and well built, and the Turkish people—unlike their surly Wallachian neighbours—were bathed and clean, wore brightly coloured clothing and were friendly. Many smiled at us as we passed by on our way to their capital.
‘I had expected the lands of the Ottomans to be, well, more backward,’ I said to my teacher.
Mr Ascham said, ‘Every nation thinks their own culture is the pinnacle of civilisation and that all other cultures are primitive and barbarous. It is a sad but natural prejudice of the human mind. This is why one must travel as much as one can. Travel is the finest form of education.’
Soon after arriving in those lands, I beheld for the first time a Moslem place of worship: the peculiar style of domed church that the Moslems call a mosque. I would see many more and they all followed the same basic architecture: each had a slender tower rising from it called a minaret and at prayer times, a male singer would mount this tower and from its summit call the faithful to prayer with a most unsettling elongated wail.
I was now truly in a foreign land.
Although I would never have admitted it to my teacher, I must confess that he was right: travel
the finest form of education and I was experiencing a tremendous thrill from our journey. Travelling abroad, and so very far from England, had shown me how cloistered my life back home was. Later in my life, a life during which I would encounter many kings and dignitaries, I often wondered if the difference between great rulers and poor ones was the amount of travel they had done before their coronation.
And then one morning, after four weeks of overland travel, we crested a rise and my breath caught in my throat. I was looking at the great city of Constantinople.
It was a stunning metropolis—a rolling sea of cream-coloured buildings and white-painted mosques, all interspersed with high trees and the odd taller Roman structure. Bathed in the dusty light of the Turkish sun and framed by the glittering golden waters of the Bosphorus Strait, the pale buildings of the city took on an almost heavenly appearance. My first glimpse of Constantinople was literally a breathtaking experience.
The core of the city was nestled on a sharp peninsula that lanced eastward into the Sea of Marmara—into which the Bosphorus flowed—and it was protected by a massive eighty-foot-high defensive wall that had been built by the Roman Emperor Theodosius a thousand years before.
The mighty wall—it looked like one wall, but it was, in fact, actually two walls—ran from north to south, cutting the peninsula off from the mainland. At each extremity, the great barrier extended all the way to the water’s edge. There were several fortified gates spaced at regular intervals along the wall, but the primary one was an immense portal known as the Golden Gate even though its thick studded doors were made of bronze (the original golden ones were long lost to history).
In the far distance, obscured by the hazy air peculiar to the lands of the East, I observed a great hulk of a building that made Theodosius’s wall look puny: it had a colossal dome and a towering minaret that soared into the sky and was easily the largest structure in the city.
We left our guardsmen at the Golden Gate: foreign troops were forbidden to enter the city. Once inside, as distinguished guests, we would be escorted by the Sultan’s crimson-robed palace guards.
But the city’s guards stopped short at the sight of Primrose Ponsonby.
Concerned that she might be bringing plague into their city, they refused outright to admit her. No argument or exhortation could sway them. In the end, Mr Ascham decided that Mrs Ponsonby would lodge with our soldiers at an inn in the ramshackle market village that had attached itself to the outer side of the massive gate. Her doting husband, clearly distraught, would remain with her until she recovered.
Yet even in her feverish state, Mrs Ponsonby found the energy to ask Mr Ascham: ‘But who will watch over Miss Elizabeth?’
‘I will,’ Mr Ascham said.
I had to turn away so that none of them could see the smile that had arisen unbidden on my face.
Inside the walls of Byzantium, my teacher would be my chaperone.
IN CHESS, QUEENS, KNIGHTS
, rooks and bishops can make powerful sweeping moves, but the humble pawn cannot.
This is because the pawn represents the ordinary infantryman. Lacking a horse or any other source of power, he can only move a single square at a time (except for his opening move) and then only forward or diagonally. Even the emasculated king can move backwards.
Pawns are weak. They are small. They are often exchanged for little or no tactical gain.
But we love them. We love their nerveless obstinacy in the face of attack, their modest aspirations in life and their unswerving loyalty to their king.
Is it not passing strange how often, in the latter stages of a game, the king finds himself abandoned by his queen, his religious advisors, his castles and his mounted lords, yet defended by a few loyal pawns?
Forgotten, mistreated and regularly sacrificed in pursuit of strategies of which they may not have even been aware, pawns somehow always manage to be there at the end.
Chess in the Middle Ages
Tel Jackson (W.M. Lawry & Co., London, 1992)
I was one day present when she [Elizabeth] replied at the same time to three ambassadors, the Imperial, French, and Swedish, in three languages: Italian to one, French to the other, Latin to the third; easily, without hesitation, clearly, and without being confused.
WE WERE CONVEYED THROUGH
Constantinople in glorious gold-rimmed carriages reserved for visiting players and their companions.
While travelling across the Continent, I must confess to the sins of vanity and pride: despite my teacher’s comment about the natural prejudices of all people, I felt I could honestly say that England surpassed the other lands of Europe in both complexity and cultural sophistication. But as we passed through the Golden Gate and rolled out onto the streets of Constantinople in our splendid carriages, I could not in good conscience come to the same conclusion about my homeland when compared to the Ottoman capital.
Put simply, Byzantium made England’s greatest city, my beloved London, look like a Wallachian hamlet.
Grand boulevards swept past bustling bazaars and sleek marble buildings. Many-arched aqueducts shot across valleys, bringing water to the million-strong population, while bath-houses still bearing Roman paint opened onto fountain-filled plazas. We passed some commercial docks on the southern side of the peninsula; they were packed with ships, loading and unloading cargo.
People went about their business on cobblestone streets, trading, shouting, conversing, smoking. Children played in alleys; men walked about in loose-fitting robes, obviously unarmed. Many women, however, wore cloaks that covered every inch of their bodies including their faces. They looked out at the world through gauze meshes and walked with their heads bowed subserviently a few paces behind their husbands.
Upon entering the city, Mr Ascham had suggested that Elsie and I don similar attire, scarves that covered our heads and cloaks that extended all the way to our wrists and ankles. I obeyed, but not before asking why this was necessary.
‘Some Moslem holy men believe that an unveiled woman will stir a man’s loins and provoke him to unseemly acts,’ he said. ‘So they demand women cover themselves in public.’
‘But that’s absurd! Why should the woman change her dress when it is the man’s urges that are at issue? Why not call upon the men of Islam to control themselves?’