With total victory at hand, Lord Raymond’s morale only deteriorates beneath the weight of Evadne’s curse.
Unavoidably, these installments of The Last Man coincide with the 20th anniversary of the events that launched America’s retaliatory war on terror—20 years of Islamists tracked down or on the attack in the news, 20 years of sieges and displacements and continual loss of life. Raymond’s victory speech at the walls of Istanbul even feels familiar from those days, in light of the terrible consequences soon to unfold; and, in our case, to keep unfolding.
Mary Shelley depicts her Turks, whom she calls also Muslims or Mahometans, on the retreat from their recent position as a European power. These engravings from 1802, based on a French artist’s drawings from life, show how some of them dressed during her childhood, before their empire had begun to decline.
Byzantium *, Constantinople, Istanbul: three names for the city protected on three sides by water. Its dwindling defenders fire on Raymond’s troops from the land walls begun by the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine. This tour of Istanbul’s walls offers an example of what makes Rome in the Footsteps of an XVIIIth Century Traveller, a website created by an independent scholar in Italy named Roberto Piperno, one of the best I’ve ever encountered. Magnificent!
In one of many inversions Mary Shelley rings on the Ottoman conquest of 1453, the Turks in her novel have gone from besiegers to being holed up behind the massive walls, inside plague-stricken Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s Old City. And now it’s the Greeks who’ve dug trenches outside the walls they aim to breach; they also hold Pera and the opposite side of the long, crooked, tapering harbor known as the Golden Horn. Today you can cross it by foot on the Galata Bridge, but the first one of those wasn’t built until 1845; I’ve retained its non-existence from the original.
After spending time with her, one endearing aspect of Mary Shelley that emerges is her fascination with prime real estate and luxury travel destinations. The Constantinople episode in The Last Man combines them, as she installs her characters at a real-life summer residence of the Ottoman sultans. Küçüksu Palace, the anachronistic version here, was built in 1857, replacing the structure she had in mind. It appears (on the left, across the stream) in this beautiful painting from around 1880; the minarets of the city are just visible (at midpoint) in the distance. The fountain stands alone in an earlier photograph.
- Attentive modern readers will see that “Byzantium” has replaced “Constantinople” as Raymond’s favored replacement name for Istanbul in this installment and those preceding it. The change better reflects his loyalty to the Greek cause and culture: Constantine being a Roman emperor who imposed his own name upon Byzantium, which had been founded by Greeks. Istanbul was made the city’s official name in 1930. Mary Shelley calls it Constantinople throughout.