Read an Excerpt
I think we've hit pay dirt!"
Jack Howard looked up from the chart table to the minarets dotting the Istanbul skyline, then down to where the excited shout had come from the foredeck below. He quickly replaced the nautical dividers he had been using and swung out of the bridge door for a better view. He had been on edge all morning, hoping against hope that today would be the day, and now his heart was racing with excitement. When he saw what was happening he turned and slid down the metal handrails three flights to the walkway on the port side of the ship. Seconds later he was mingling with the crew on the foredeck, his dark blue fisherman's jersey conspicuous among the overalls bearing the logo of IMU, the International Maritime University.
"Right. What have we got?"
Before the crew chief could reply, one of the divers surfaced in a tumult of white water off the port bow. Jack leaned over the bulwark railing to watch as the diver spat out his regulator mouthpiece and injected a blast of air into his stabiliser jacket.
"It's Venetian," he called up breathlessly. "I'm sure of it. I saw the markings."
The diver vented his jacket and disappeared back beneath the waves. Jack watched the slew of bubbles that rose from his exhaust and that of the three other divers who were guiding the lifting platform to the surface. It was a potentially treacherous operation, with Sea Venture maintaining position against a five-knot surface current. A slight wobble in the current and the divers and their precious cargo would be swept off into one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Jack narrowed his eyes as the sunlight glinted off the waves, his rugged, tanned features creasing as he kept his attention glued on the spot where the diver had disappeared. Behind him the machinery on the foredeck clunked and whirred into action and the crane dipped with the weight of its load. Slowly, inexorably, the cable rose from the seabed a hundred feet below, groaning alarmingly as the current took hold. The crew lining the railing seemed to hold their breath as the cable creaked upwards inch by inch. At last the spread of chains holding each corner of the platform appeared and Jack knew they were safe. Sea Venture had been positioned with her port side in the lee of the current, facing the shoreline of the old city, and the lifting platform would now be protected by the deep draught of the vessel.
From the murky depths an oblong form began to take shape. Jack felt the familiar tug of excitement, the burst of adrenaline he always felt at this moment. Despite being present at some of the greatest archaeological finds ever made, he had never lost the thrill that came with every new discovery. Even the most mundane object could open a whole new window on the past, give reality to momentous events only obscurely remembered in myth and history. As he watched intently, his hands gripping the rails, the four divers emerged at the corners and the platform was winched clear of the waves. When they saw what lay in the middle, the crew erupted in a ragged cheer. Months of planning and days of round-the-clock effort had paid off.
"Bingo." The crew chief grinned at Jack. "You were right again."
"Couldn't have happened without your hard work."
It was a great gun, a gleaming bronze cannon at least two metres long, its upper surface washed clean of the accumulated grime of centuries and shining like gold. Jack could immediately see it was an early type, its ornate cylindrical breech tapering to an octagonal fore end. He had seen similar guns, dating from the sixteenth century, from King Henry VIII's flagship Mary Rose in Portsmouth and from shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada. But this one looked older, much older. After the crane had slowly swung its load over the railing and deposited it on the foredeck, Jack strode over for a closer look, the crew crowding eagerly behind. He ignored the spatter of mud from the cleaning hose as he crouched down and stretched his hand reverently towards the gun.
"The Lion of St. Mark's," he said. "It's Venetian all right."
He pointed to a raised casting near the breech end of the gun. The image was unmistakable, a winged, forward-facing lion wreathed in a leafy garland, one of the most potent symbols of medieval Europe. He traced his fingers over the emblem and trailed them towards the rear of the breech. Suddenly he raised his other hand to order the crewman holding the hose to avert the flow.
"There's a foundry mark," he said excitedly. "In front of the touch hole."
"It's a date." The crew chief leaned over Jack, shielding his eyes from the glare. "Anno domini. Then Roman numerals. I can barely make it out. M, C, D . . ."
"Fourteen fifty-three," one of the others exclaimed.
"My God," Jack said quietly. "The Great Siege." He had no need to explain that date; its significance had been drummed into the crew during his many briefing lectures. 1453. The year of the greatest-ever showdown between East and West, a clash of titans at this crossroads between Europe and Asia. The year of the last dying gasp of the Roman Empire, its domain shrunk to this one defiant promontory from its heyday fifteen hundred years before, when Rome had ruled the greater part of the known world. For a moment Jack felt a frisson of energy as he pressed his hand against the cold metal of the gun. He glanced along the line of the barrel towards the city of Istanbul, its minarets and domes rising like a studded jewel from a mirage. He was touching history itself, drawn into the past with an immediacy no textbook could ever convey.
After a moment he stood and arched his back, his tall, lean frame towering over most of the crew. "It's a field piece, a siege gun, much bigger than the antipersonnel breech-loaders carried on ships of this period. My guess is we're looking at one of the guns used by Sultan Mehmet II and the Ottoman Turks to pound the city defences." He gestured towards the shoreline where the fractured remains of the Byzantine sea walls were just visible, their impressive stature further reduced by earthquake and modern development. "The Ottomans would have used any gun they could lay their hands on. This one was cast in Venice earlier that year, then maybe captured in battle or by pirates, then used against the massed forces of Byzantium behind those walls, including the Venetians themselves. The Turkish media are going to love this."
As the crew dispersed back to their jobs, Jack looked again at that emblem on the gun. Like his own forebears in England, sea captains and explorers who had touched the farthest reaches of the globe, the Venetians were maritime adventurers who had spread their tentacles across the Mediterranean world, even installing a colony of merchants here in Constantinople. Theirs was a world of trade and profiteering, not imperialism and conquest. Yet they had been responsible for one of the greatest crimes in the history of civilisation, a crime which had drawn Jack to this spot and which he was determined to fathom before the expedition was out.
Back on the bridge, Jack resumed his seat behind the chart table and rolled up his sleeves. It had been a cool early summer morning but the sun was beginning to bear down as the sea mist burnt off. He looked over at Tom York, IMU's senior captain, a neatly attired, white-haired man who was conferring over the main radar screen with the ship's second officer, a newly appointed Estonian who had come with impeccable credentials from the Russian merchant marine academy. York glanced keenly at Jack and inclined his head towards the window from which he had been watching the scene on the foredeck below.
"I'd say mid-fifteenth century, from a distance." York had begun a distinguished career in the Royal Navy as a gunnery officer and since then had developed an expertise in early naval ordnance which had proved indispensable on IMU projects. "I can't wait to take a closer look. Right at the dawn of naval gunnery. But too late for us."
Jack nodded. "Fourteen fifty-three, to be precise. Almost two hundred and fifty years too late. We're looking for something way before guns were used at sea. It's a terrific find and I didn't want to deflate the crew, but we've got a long way to go before we reach the Crusades."
Jack gazed pensively towards the shore, his view momentarily obscured by an overcrowded ferry that passed perilously close to the excavation. In the shimmer of phosphoresence left in the boat's wake the city seemed to be floating on a cloud, like a heavenly apparition. It was one of the supreme images of history, a palimpsest of the greatest civilisations the world had ever known. To Jack's eye it was like a cross-section through an archaeological site, only instead of layer built upon layer, here everything was jumbled, the threads of history all interwoven and nothing clear-cut. At the lowest level were the cracked and fissured remnants of the walls of Constantinople, first planned by the emperor Constantine the Great when he moved his capital here in the fourth century AD and abandoned Rome to decline and ruin. Above the walls rose the slopes of the much older Greek acropolis of Byzantium, a name which survived as the term for the Christian empire of the Middle Ages which was based in Constantinople and traced its roots back to Rome. Above that rose the sprawling splendour of the Topkapi Palace, hub of the city the Ottoman Turks renamed Istanbul after they defeated the Byzantines in 1453 and shining heart of the most powerful state in the medieval world. Higher still, above the few remaining wooden houses of old Istanbul, rose the minarets and cascading domes of Hagia Sofia, once the greatest of all Christian cathedrals in the East but after 1453 a holy site of Islam. And somewhere, Jack knew, it was possible, just possible, that the sprawling mass of the city concealed evidence of a migration at the very dawn of history, of settlers from a precocious civilisation who had fled their citadel of Atlantis as it was inundated by floodwaters far to the east in the Black Sea.
He could hardly believe it was six months since he and Katya had lost themselves in the labyrinthine back ways of the city. It had been a time of supreme exhilaration, basking in the discovery of a lifetime, but a time also of emptiness and loss. For Katya it had been the devastating truth about her father's evil empire, a revelation which weighed heavily on her despite all Jack's efforts and led her to return to Russia to spearhead a renewed effort against the illegal antiquities trade. For Jack the sense of personal loss had been more acute, and he still felt it now. He had been with Katya when the search for Peter Howe had finally been called off. Howe had been a friend since boyhood and Jack was reminded of him every time he saw Tom York, his limp a legacy of the same gun battle. Jack had insisted on staying with Sea Venture over Atlantis until the search had finally been called off. For many days afterwards he felt that his ambitions had become entombed in the Black Sea with the wreck of Seaquest, that he had no right to risk the lives of others in his search for adventure. It was Katya who had nursed back his confidence as they became absorbed in the history of Byzantium during their long days together exploring Istanbul. She had persuaded him to reawaken a schoolboy dream he had cherished with Peter Howe, a dream of a fabulous lost treasure which had become all-consuming after Jack and Katya had parted ways at the airport, a dream which had led Jack back to where he was now.
"I've done it!"
Jack snapped out of his trance and hurried over to the source of the noise in the navigation room behind the bridge. In the darkened interior he could see where the radar and position-fixing consoles had been stacked on either side to make way for a complex array of electronic gadgetry surrounding an outsize computer screen. In the midst of it all, oblivious to his presence, sat a swarthy, dark-haired man with a rugby player's physique, his eyes glued to the screen and his head clamped in earphones festooned with antennae.
"Good thing you finally lost some weight," Jack said. "Otherwise we'd be excavating you out of this."
"What?" Costas Kazantzakis shot him an impatient glance and reverted to the screen. Jack shouted the words at him again.
"Okay, okay." Costas lifted off the headset and leaned back in what little space he had. "Yeah, well, it was scraping my way through that underwater tunnel that did it. I've still got the scars. If anything good came out of that project it was the gods of Atlantis warning me to pull back on the calories."
Costas craned his neck around and took in Jack's mud-spattered sweater. "Been playing again?"
"Siege gun. Venetian. Fourteen fifty-three."
Costas grunted then suddenly snapped the headset back on as the screen erupted in a kaleidoscope of colours. Jack looked on fondly as his friend became absorbed again in his task. Costas was a brilliantly inventive engineer, with a PhD in submersibles technology from MIT, and had accompanied Jack on many of his adventures since the foundation of IMU over a decade ago. His hard science was a perfect foil to Jack's archaeology. Not for Costas the complex interwoven threads of history and the uncertainties of interpretation. For him the only significant problems were those that could be solved by science, and the only complexity was when things failed to work.
"What's going on?"
Maurice Hiebermeyer squeezed through the doorway beside Jack. His frame was definitely on the bulky side; Hiebermeyer seemed to be in a permanent sheen of sweat, despite his baggy shorts and open shirt.
Jack nodded in greeting. "I think Costas has finally got this thing to work."
Jack knew what was coming next. Hiebermeyer had flown in by helicopter the night before from the Institute of Archaeology in Alexandria, like a bird of prey pouncing on its target, hoping that Jack would be looking ahead to the next project, having found the problems of excavating in Istanbul's harbour insurmountable. They had last spoken on the deck of Sea Venture six months ago when Hiebermeyer had mentioned another extraordinary find of ancient writing from the necropolis of mummies that had produced the Atlantis papyrus, and since then he had been bombarding IMU with phone messages and emails.
He fumbled with a folder he was carrying. "Jack, we need to . . ."
"It will have to wait." Jack flashed a good-natured smile at the portly Egyptologist. "We're on a knife-edge here and I have to concentrate. Sorry, Maurice. Just hang on till this is over." He turned back to the screen and Hiebermeyer went silent.