The Year is 1905, and can be characterised in Turkish history as the culmination of generally ridiculous times. In these ridiculous times, foreign interests came to court with ridiculous propositions which they offered with much ridiculous smugness. Gone were the days when Europe shook in her boots at the mention of the Turk. Sultan Abdulhamid Han II had inherited an empire which was sick, creaking under heavy debts and besieged on all sides by rebellions. And the Rebellions were spurred on by the same foreign powers that came knocking at his door with self-interested solutions to the problems they stoked like leering pyromaniacs.
After the Turko-Russian war, England had leased out Cyprus, because this was apparently a fitting payment for having fought the Turkish corner at the Congress of Berlin. It had served only to whet their appetite. Four years later they marched their troops into Egypt and Sudan on the pretence of restoring order. Abdulhamid knew what they were up to. They'd so far done an excellent job sowing seeds of conflict among the simple and generally joyful Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who had previously been living peacefully together for centuries, with minor brawls over goat thievery. Things were looking dark for the dear-fledgling nation.
Meanwhile, Eastern Europe was already lost to him, and the Russians would soon be showing the newly independent states they'd liberated a good time. But the Middle East, a region predominantly Muslim, that's what hurt the most. His struggles to salvage what he could were near futile, but struggle he did.
This particular afternoon in 1905, Abdulhamid Han II was struggling yet again. The current quandary concerned property sales in Palestine. And it was relevant among all the other political palaver he had to deal with because of a certain man named Theodore Herzl.
Several years ago this man had come to Istanbul with an offer to pay a substantial sum of the Ottoman debt in exchange for Palestine. He’d communicated his offer via the Austrian, Philip Michel Newlinsky. At the time, Abdulhamid Han had stated his sentiments with heartfelt eloquence. They’d gone something like this:
“If Mr. Herzl is as much your friend as you are mine, then advise him not to take another step in this matter. I cannot sell even a foot of land, for it does not belong to me, but to my people. My people have won this empire by fighting for it with their blood. They have fertilized it with their blood. And we will again cover it with our blood before we allow it to be wrested away from us. Let the Jews save their billions. When my Empire is partitioned, they may get Palestine for nothing. But only our corpse can be divided. I will not agree to vivisection.”
Abdulhamid’s response was relayed to Herzl, who had experienced a fleeting pang over the tragic beauty of the Sultan’s fatalism. And then he’d gone back to the drawing board to hatch plan B. Everything from bribery, to threats, to various forms of leverage concerning various political figures ensued. But with every attempt, Herzl and his lot hit a brick wall. Eventually, and years later, the man himself was granted an audience with the Sultan to broach the topic one more time.
"We want to give the Jews a home," he'd said with tear-jerking dramatization. Abdulhamid Han didn’t have to take a discerning look at Herzl to know that his interests had nothing to do with the plight of the Jews. This dude was a card carrying Zionist and Abdulhamid wasn't born yesterday. History probably would have forgiven him, nay, cheered him on in fact, if the Sultan had turned to Herzl and told him quite simply to piss off. But the Sultan had too much breeding for that.
"The Jews, as you know,” he said instead, “have been our valuable subjects for many centuries. They found safe asylum in our country after the Spanish expulsion, and have always been welcome, as they always will be."
"But they need a country of their own, your highness. Palestine is ideal."
"Palestine is not mine to give," Abdulhamid had cut him off severely, growing impatient with the man's audacity. "It is the Palestinians'. You are welcome to chunks of Anatolia, if you want to make a country for your people. But Palestine I cannot sell you."
“Perhaps I’ve failed to communicate the gravity of the situation. Your Empire is in a shambles-” In that moment Abdulhamid very nearly did tell him to piss off, but his overwhelming anger stifled the words. The royal hand made a royal gesture instead, and Herzl was escorted out immediately, with his pride crushed, fist shaking and that fat, repulsive beard in tow. Here was a vengeful, Zionist piece of work if Abdulhamid had ever seen one. Not only was he bound to return, but his backers had probably already begun hatching alternative schemes to get what they wanted.
Immediately Abdulhamid had deployed his spies to the region in question to keep a close eye on the goings on. It wasn’t long before they struck gold. A lot of the locals had started selling their land to strange, wealthy buyers that we're offering big money. The buyers were Arab, by all accounts, but no one quite knew where they'd actually come from. This called for an emergency countermeasure. The Sultan couldn't very well tell people not to sell their own property, even if they were foolish, greedy peasants that were digging their own graves. And yet the national treasury had no funds to spare.
Out of desperation, Abdulhamid Han resorted to using his personal wealth. He started buying up all the land available before Herzl's lot got to it, and until he could afford to buy no more. This was completely possible, of course. Even a Sultan’s wealth has its limits (particularly in such ridiculous times.) And Abdulhamid Han’s comparatively modest wealth (in comparison to his royal contemporaries and the Sultans of old) reaches its limit on this particular afternoon. As the Sultan sits for a brief breather before commencing with another appointment, he personally owns about 3% of Palestine, and realizes it’s not nearly enough to save a country.
Placing an empty coffee cup on the tray by his side Abdulhamid picks up the second. It’s the Sultan’s custom to be served two Turkish coffees in one sitting, and most of the time, he drinks both. With the saucer in one hand and the demitasse cup in the other, he takes one sip, and then replaces the arrangement to light himself a cigarette.
Turkish coffee and cigarettes (the latter made exclusively for him by an artisan tütüncü) are among the few personal indulgences he allows himself. Behind the facade of Sultan, Abdulhamid is a simple man with simple pleasures, like music and woodwork. Indeed, a lot of the furniture in his homes were handmade by himself.
Another pleasure he generally allows himself is an hour of nap-time at noon, because rising daily before the sun does, and often having to work late, puts a real strain on his body and mind. Today though, Abdulhamid has forgone his nap-time to deal with the aforementioned Palestinian property issues, and also to make room in his busy schedule for some Venetians (the next appointment) which are waiting outside his door at that very moment. What they are there for, he doesn’t know yet. But why they are there, he does. They are there because Mahmut Şevket Paşa, that unimaginative, R-rolling tool, beseeched an audience on their behalf. Abdulhamid doesn’t even want to wonder which bodily part they'd got him by, because England had already called shot-gun on his balls. With so many shady characters he associated with and so little to go around, it was worrying.
When the Sultan’s coffee reaches its dregs and his cigarette is stubbed out, enter the Venetians, single file. Upon laying eyes on them, Abdulhamid is possessed by a strange sense of dejavu which feels oddly like it doesn't belong to him. There are three men, in understated but expensive attire that could easily be described as stylish if it weren't for the hat one of them is wearing. It's funny.
The tallest among the three waffles on a while with the preliminary ceremonials in accented Turkish. The Italian interpreter stands by idly, a tad slighted by the lack of need for him. Not that there ever really is a need for him. The interpreter is a front after all. Abdulhamid is fluent in Italian, as he is in French, and various other European tongues. He simply likes making foreign delegates sweat occasionally.
"Gentlemen," the Sultan speaks. "We welcome you in our court, and wish to make your visit worthwhile. Please do not hesitate to express frankly any requests or grievances you might have."
"Great Sultan," funny hat speaks up for the first time. His accent is much stronger. "We do in fact come to your great city, seeking something very dear to us." Here it comes -Abdulhamid thinks. They’ll have the shoes from my feet if they could. Bring it on. "It is an ancient relic." Funny hat says, matter of factly, and then says nothing more.
"Efendi,” Abdulhamid ventures, when he realises that no other particulars are forthcoming, “you'll have to be more specific than that.”
“It is a religious relic.”
“Hmmm,” Abdulhamid hmmms, because in actual fact he’s beginning to lose patience. He’s also noticed their matching signet rings, which has immediately made him even more bias towards them. “Where is it?"
“I aimed so near. Underground, I presume?”
“’twas a lucky guess. Where abouts?”
“In the catacombs beneath Fatih,” the man says, and Abdulhamid’s impatience dispels suddenly to be replaced by a curiosity he sees fit to conceal. Relics in the catacombs of Istanbul rings a sinister bell with him.
“And you know that it is there, how?”
“We once had access to it, but this hasn't been the case for many millennia. We wish to reclaim it."
"Reclaim it?" History repeats itself and Abudlhamid cocks an eyebrow. He wants to say 'Is it your father's registered property then?' but doesn't. He decides to play the amiable fool instead, which often helps to catch people off guard so you end up learning more in the end. "Can I know how it was lost to you?"
The men look at each other uncomfortably and then eventually funny hat speaks, "The basilica cistern was our access point."
"Ah." The proverbial penny, which had been precariously balancing on the precipice of comprehension, finally drops. Abdulhamid has a clearer idea of what they are now, but he's still in the dark about what exactly it is they're after. Nothing a bit of historical detective work won’t reveal though. "You're asking me for permission to excavate in the heart of Istanbul?" He continues to play the fool.
"Retrieving it will not be so complicated as that. We know exactly where it is."
"Oh that’s good. So, where is it?"
"I see. And why come for it now?”
“I mean to say, it’s been nearly five centuries since the Basilica Cistern was made off limits to shady characters such as yourselves," Abdulhamid’s wit rears its head a tad.
"I beg your pardon?” Funny hat is thrown off by the sudden change in the Sultan’s tone. The tall one comes to his rescue, “Uncertain times are upon us, great Sultan.” He says. “We wish only for it to be safe."
You bull-shitter -Abdulhamid thinks. You're here because you think we are weak and stupid and you can have your way with us. The look he gives the men also says as much, but his words don’t. "I will convene with my council," is his response "you will have my response within a fortnight."
The Italians vacate the meeting room hopefully and with profuse bowing. Little are they aware that the Sultan has already made his mind up about the matter, and his decision is not in their favour. He has, after all, no council –in the general sense of the word- which he can truly trust. Most of the nobility and politicians which surround him are crooked, back-stabbing pawns, each at the beck and call of a different foreign power. He avoids convening with them as often as is diplomatically possible.
He does, however, have instead a motley handful of politically unremarkable friends, who are cultured, world-wise and very capable. If this were a superhero comic, they'd each have distinct and invaluable super-powers, veiled beneath a carefully crafted facade of humble alter-egos. They range from Paşas, to spiritual men, to complete apparent-nobodies. One of them is Esvapçı başı İsmet Bey, who reads mystery novels for Abdulhamid at night times, to help the sultan forget the worries of state and fall asleep. Another is Abdul Halil Bey, otherwise known as Torajiro Yamada. He has been enjoying minor-celebrity status as a token Japanese in Istanbul this year, because his country of little people with giant courage, recently kicked Russian ass in the Ruso-Japanese war.
How Yamada came to be in Istanbul is a rather long-winded story. It’d all began with the order of the Chrysanthemum, gifted to Abdulhamid by Emperor Meiji following the visit of his nephew to Istanbul. And then came the wreck of the goodwill frigate, Ertuğrul, which Abdulhamid had sent to the East to further cement Ottoman-Japanese friendship. On its return the ship encountered a storm off the coast of Wakayama. The rest was historic tragedy.
Two years later Torajiro Yamada appeared in Istanbul, bearing aid funds collected by his sympathetic countrymen for the families of those Turkish sailors who’d perished. Naturally, everyone had regarded the man as an endearing curiosity at first. They were grateful and deeply moved, but at a loss for what to make of such a noble gesture from a land so far away. Also, the then 24-year old Yamada quite liked Turkey, and decided to stick around on Abdulhamid’s request. He began frequenting the court a great deal and was charged with teaching Japanese to a group of military cadets. Everyone went along with it, but they never really got why.
Now though, things were different. Now Turkey regarded Japan as its Asian brother with mutual enemies. Shops across the capital were being re-named ‘Nogi’. There was even a small side-street in Istanbul called ‘Togo’. And as if overnight, Yamada became a hero. This made him rather embarrassed. Generally.
On the evening following Abdulhamid’s meeting with the dodgy Venetiants, embarrassed is Yamada again, when the shy Japanese man pops by to pay the Sultan a visit. On his way in, he ran into a Paşa who asked if he was looking to take a wife soon, and if so, the eldest of his own daughters was now of marriageable age. Naturally, her beauty hadn’t seen the light of day, etc. and so forth.
"Ve Aleykum Esselam,” Abdulhamid returns Yamada’s greeting as the man enters his study, with a tell-tale blush across his face. “Konbanwa," he adds, taking opportunity to make use of one of four Japanese phrases he's recently learned. The other three are Sumimasen, and rather curiously, korosu, and shine. These translate as, pardon me, I'll kill you, and die! Respectively. “How does it go, Yamada Bey?”
“Elhamdullah, nothing new. Same bowl, same bath house.” By comparison, Yamada's command of Turkish is not only flawless, he’s also developed a knack for using local idioms. Ten years in Turkey may have had something to do with this. "Sultanim,” Yamada says with some concern, “your face is very white."
Abdulhamid leans back in his chair and rests his hand on the scroll he’s spent a considerable amount of time examining since the day before. It’s a record dating back to Sultan Mehmet’s reign, of an obscure incident which is relevant to his recent encounter.
“Only an hour before you arrived I received some news,” he offers eventually as Yamada takes a seat. “Yesterday I dispatched a team via the Yildiz Intelligence Bureau on a mission to explore the catacombs beneath the city.”
“…” Yamada says nothing. He wasn’t even aware there were catacombs beneath the city until now. Abdulhamid gathers as much from his inane expression.
“You know of the Basillica Cistern, no?”
“Ah yes,” Yamada’s face illuminates. Of course.
“Do you know anything of the Medusa?”
“Nothing at all.”
“I see.” There is silence, and then, “Perhaps I should lend you some Greek classical literature.”
“I would like that very much.”
“In any case, there seems to be a demon beneath the city.”
“The team discovered its sarcophagus. They were foolish enough to decide to take a peek inside, which was no easy feat, considering how big the thing is and how heavy its lid.”
“The Akuma was inside?”
“Whatever was inside, it caused two men to lose their faculties to speak.”