Geoffrey Fox

Book extras

A Gift for the Sultan: Book extras

Video: How and why I wrote “A Gift for the Sultan”

Map of Constantinople in 1402-03



Known officially as Nea Roma, “New Rome,” Konstantinoupolis or “Constantine’s city” has for 1100 years been the capital of Orthodox Christianity and for most of that time the largest, richest, most splendid and most powerful metropolis of the western world. But now, in the summer of AD 1402, it is a weakened shell, cut off from all its colonies by an Ottoman siege and its ancient walls crumbling under the assault of trébuchet catapults and other siege weapons, deeply in debt to cities and riven by internal conflicts. Surrounding it by sea and land is the great horde of the terrifying sultan “Yildirim” — “Thunderbolt” — Bayezid.

Facing disaster, Ioannes VII, the acting ruler of the great city — in the absence of the legitimate emperor, his uncle Manuel II — secretly agrees to surrender to the Osmanli (Ottoman) Sultan Yildirim “Thunderbolt” Bayezid. Urged on by the sultan’s crafty vizier, Ioannis send a delegation to the sultan with not only the key to city but also a young imperial princess, Theodota, his uncle Manuel’s favorite bastard daughter, for the sultan’s son’s harem to seal the deal. A fierce and famous Ottoman bandit chief, Arslanshahin (“Lion-Hawk”), no lover of Christians, is entrusted to deliver the girl and the treasure across the war-ridden mountains of Anatolia.

This is the story of that journey and of the relationship that develops between the Turkish warrior and Princess Theodota Palaiologina, the spirited and devout young Christian he is supposed to hand over to the sultan.

It is also the story of how a great city barely escapes its total collapse, and Christian urbanites and Islamic warriors all have to scramble when the invasion of Timur-i-lang (“Tamerlane”) upsets the whole chessboard on which they have been playing.

Major characters:

Historical figures are marked by asterisk (*). All others are fictional composites.

*Ali Pasha: Historical. Chandarli Ali Pasha (Turkish: Çandarli Ali Paşa), is sultan Bayezid’s chief vezir ( vizier) or minister, a crafty politician and military strategist. He survived the battle of Ankara, serving Bayezid’s oldest surviving son until his death. The Çandarli (Chandarli) family produced a long line of distinguished viziers. (On the importance of the Çandarli family in early Ottoman politics, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire.)

Arslanshahin: A respected and feared Turkish gazi, i.e., a warrior for the gaza or defense of the faith (Islam), about 30 years old and. He is the chief of a band of mounted archers who, when they are not defending the sultan, spend their time raiding and pillaging caravans. Though nominally Muslim, he follows the more ancient Central Asian traditions and beliefs of his people. He won his war name “Lion” (arslan) and “Hawk” or “Falcon” (shahin) in battle.

Bardas Tzimiskes: An ambitious young merchant of Armenian origin. He speaks Greek, Turkish, and Latin and possibly Armenian— though he is fully acculturated into Greek-speaking Constantinople and its version of Christianity. (His names come from two historical Armenian rulers in Constantinople, Bardas and Tzimiskes.)

*Bayezid: Historical, age 42 in AD 1402. Survivor and victor of the battle of Kosovo (destruction of the Serb army in 1389), he is the first Osmanli ruler to call himself “sultan”. A fierce and cruel war leader known for his lightning strikes, he goes by the nickname “Yildirim”, or “Thunderbolt”. As of July 1402, he has never been defeated and now hopes soon to conquer Constantinople.

*Giorgos Goudelis: Historical. Giorgos Goudelis was reportedly the richest man in Constantinople during the reign of Manuel II. Though he is mentioned in several sources, there is little detail available. My portrait is largely imaginary, based on general information about the lives and opinions of the wealthy.

*Ioannes VII: Historical. About 36 in 1402, he is the nephew of Manuel II and co-Emperor in Manuel’s absence. The son of Andronikos IV (b. 1348), Manuel’s elder brother, in 1373 when he was about 7, he and his father were partially blinded and imprisoned in the Tower of Anemas as punishment for Andronikos’ treason. He seized the throne in 1390 (after the death of his father), but was driven out of city later that year by Manuel. He nevertheless continues to have a faction of supporters in Constantinople.

Mehmed: Greek-born, 17-year old janissary, i.e. slave infantryman of the sultan. He is bilingual in Turkish (which he has learned in the horde) and his native Greek (though with a rural accent that sounds odd in Constantinople). Converted to Islam when he was 14, he still cannot help responding to the powerful Christian symbolism when he come into contact with Greek Constantinopolitans.

*Manuel II Palaiologos: Historical, 52 in 1402, emperor of “Romania” (the Eastern Roman Empire) since 1391. He is more interested in theological questions than warfare. Since 1399 he has been absent from his empire, seeking Western aid against the siege of Constantinople, and has left the city in the hands of his nephew Ioannes VII. In the novel, Theodota is his bastard daughter (the real Manuel II did in fact have at least one bastard daughter, though older than the fictitious Theodota).

Mesud: Arslanshahin’s younger half-brother, a warrior more devoted to poetry and song than to fighting.

Olga: A big young Russian, about 25, who is the personal slave of Princess Theodota but acts more like her big sister. Resourceful and intelligent, she speaks fluent though imperfect Greek.

Harry: An English soldier who has found work in Constantinople as a “Varangian”, i.e., an ax-bearing palace guard. The Greeks call him “Erres” which is easier for them to pronounce. He is put in charge of the Varangians guarding Princess Theodota, and is smitten by Theodota’s Russian slave Olga. (The name comes from a real Varangian mentioned in a document from this time.)

*Shah Rukh: Historical. Youngest son of Timur-i-Lang (Tamerlane). He would later (after his father’s death) become the most powerful of the Timurids (descendants of Timur).

Theodota Palaiologina: 14-year old bastard daughter of Manuel II Palaiologos, devoutly religious (Christian Orthodox) and convinced that God has destined her to somehow save the holy city of Constantinople from the Turks. Despite her illegitimate birth (neither she nor anyone else in the palace knows who her mother was, though there are contradictory rumors), she has always been treated as a princess. (Though Theodota is fictional, we do know that Manuel II did have at least one bastard daughter, Zampia.)

*Timur: Historical, nicknamed Timur-i-Lang (“Timur the lame”) but commonly known in the West as “Tamerlane”, 66 years old in 1402. Based in Samarkand, he has conquered great swaths of territory in India and Persia and now is encroaching on the eastern territories of sultan Yildirim Bayezid. He commands a formidable horde which includes thousands of cavalry and a troop of warrior-bearing elephants. (He is the central figure of Christopher Marlowe’s most famous tragedy, “Tamburlaine the Great” <1587>.)

Zilha: A beautiful young Serbian woman enslaved by the Turks for sexual service and sent by the vizier to accompany and spy on Arslanshahin. She is multilingual, in Serbian, Greek and Turkish; nominally Christian.

Setting & Locations

Anatolia: Greek for “eastern land”. The peninsula between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (now occupied by Turkey).

Ankara: Site of the decisive battle between Sultan Bayezid and Timur, August 1402. Today, the capital of Turkey.

Blachernae: Palace of the late emperors of Constantinople.

Bursa: This city south of Constantinople was the administrative center for Sultan Bayezid’s rule.

Byzantium: Ancient name of the Greek colony pre-dating the founding of Constantinople (consecrated by the Emperor Constantine in AD 330); in later periods, the name was occasionally used poetically for Constantinople.

Constantinople (Konstantinopoulos): popular name for New Rome, city built and consecrated by the Emperor Constantine in AD 330

Hagia Sophia (“Sacred Wisdom” in Greek): the grandest and holiest church in Constantinople.

Kosovo Polje: “Field of Blackbirds”, the site of the disastrous battle (for both sides) between the Turks commanded by Murad and the Serbs under command of Tsar Lazar, 1389. It was as a result of this battle and the death of Murad that Murad’s son Bayezid was able to seize power and, soon after, proclaim himself sultan.

Kütahya: a small city and stronghold of the sultan.

Marmara: The inland sea between the Aegean and the Black Sea.

New Rome: Official name of Constantinople.

Nikopolis: City on the west coast of Greece that was the site of a disastrous defeat of western crusaders by Sultan Bayezid in AD 1396.

Romania: what its inhabitants called the Byzantine Empire, supposed to be the continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. The Turkish name for it was “Rum”.

Samarkand: Home base of Timur, today in Uzbekistan.

Sivas: A city in eastern Anatolia with an Osmanli fortress. It was sacked by Timur and its inhabitants massacred in 1400.

Thessalonica: Original home of Mehmed/Michael.

Thrace: An ancient region comprising all of today’s European Turkey and parts of Bulgaria and Greece.


Blues: A rowdy Constantinople street gang that has adopted the ancient term for one of the horse-racing factions. From Wikipedia: “Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city’s social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Venetoi), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi). The Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi) gradually weakened and were absorbed by the other two major factions (the Blues and Greens).” By 1402, the time of the novel A Gift for the Sultan, the Hippodrome was no longer in use and the factions were mostly forgotten, except by this fictional street gang.

Janissaries: Turkish: yeni çeri, “new soldier”. Slave infantry recruited forcibly from peoples conquered by the Osmanli (Ottomans), converted to Islam and trained in warfare. They were in fact “new soldiers” in this period, because they had been introduced by the Emir Murad and further developed in the reign of Bayezid.

Varangians: The corps of ax-bearing imperial guards, originally composed of big, imposing Norsemen (Vikings) and Russians, but by the beginning of the 15th century almost entirely English soldiers.


A great many works were consulted for this novel. Among them, the following were especially useful:

Alexandrescu-Dersca Bulgaru, M.M. La campagne de Timur en Anatolie, 1402 (London: Variorum Reprints, 1977; originally published in 1942). Extremely detailed account of Timur’s military campaign and of all the principal actors — Ottomans, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, Greeks, and of course Timur and his men, based on study of sources in all the relevant languages.

Barker, J.W. Manuel II Palaeologus (1391-1425): A Study in Late Byzantine Statesmanship (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969).

Bartusis, M.C. The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453, ed. R.M. Karras (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

Bernicolas-Hatzopoulos, D. “The First Siege of Constantinople by the Ottomans (1394-1402) and its Repercussions on the Civilian Population of the City,” Byzantine Studies 10, nº. 1 (1983): 39-51.

Cameron, A. Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976). This is where I got the idea of the “True Blues” patriotic street gang.

Çelik, Zeynep. The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986).

Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Korkut, Dede (“Grandpa”) The Book of Dede Korkut (London: Penguin Books, 1974).

Cover, A Gift for the Sultan
A Gift for the Sultan