Today is the launch date for Sarah Ash’s Scent of Lilies. We always like to ask our authors, Why? Why this story.
Why Byzantium? Why this story?
Byzantium – the name conjures up so many associations, from the poetry of W.B. Yeats to the twisted machinations of courtiers and politicians, jostling to climb to the heights in a powerful empire: silks, conspiracies, porphyry, the imperial purple…
I was reading The Alexiad of Anna Comnena when I came across the account of Emperor Isaac Komnenos’ miraculous escape from death in a storm on Saint Thekla’s day 1159, inspiring him to his commissioning a new church in honor of the saint ‘with magnificent decorations and works of art’. Before I knew it, I was imagining a team of fresco painters at work in Constantinople, laboring to finish the church in time for the opening ceremony on the saint’s day. I’d already done some research into silk manufacture in the Byzantine empire for another story and I couldn’t resist finding out more about the materials and techniques used by the painters (so often anonymous) who created the strikingly beautiful frescoes we can still see today. Who were these painters? How did they learn their craft? How easy was it to please an imperial patron in the charged atmosphere of the Byzantine court? And so I began to explore the dynamics of a master-apprentice relationship. Well, to be more honest, the characters just turned up (as they do) and began interacting. The instant these people appear and start arguing or flirting or whatever it is they’re doing, there’s only one option: write it down! So that’s how young Damian Theodorides begins his career as a fresco painter when he’s sent by a court official to assist Alastor, the maestros of the works at Saint Thekla’s, only to find himself overwhelmed by the beauty of his maestros’s art and maybe by the maestros himself…
So I had a fixed date in time – but where exactly was Saint Thekla’s? Had the church survived the ravages of time, earthquakes and wars in Constantinople/Istanbul? For a long time, I was working with what turned out to be the ‘wrong’ information and believed the original church to have been destroyed in 1929. But then I happened upon the Atik Mustafa Pasha Mosque. “Towards the middle of the ninth century, Princess Thekla, eldest daughter of Emperor Theophilus enlarged a small oratory, dedicated to her patron saint and namesake, lying 150 m east of the Church of Theotokos of Blachernae,” Wikipedia tells us, drawing on various sources. “In 1059 on this site, Emperor Isaac I Komnenos built a larger church.” I couldn’t have been more excited! Experts seem more than satisfied that what is now the Atik Mustafa Pasha Mosque was indeed the Saint Thekla’s. “Remains of frescoes placed on the south side of the building have been published.”