The author Harry Sidebottom visits sites in Turkey and northern Cyprus for the next instalment in his series of historical novels, Warrior of Rome. It was the dirt-encrusted riding boots that first betrayed him as the other foreigner standing on the deck of the Turkish ferry, heading from the mainland port of Tasucu bound for northern Cyprus. Only afterwards did I notice the shorts and expensive camera. Then, another Australian birdwatcher emerged. He had an air of resignation, as if too often the victim of avian absenteeism. The newcomer briefly caught my eye. I smiled but he turned away. The two of them started an animated conversation, with much pointing and focusing of cameras. The sky was completely empty.
International travellers need a special interest to visit the Turkish province of Mersin. Archaeology had drawn me here. Three years ago, I decided to combine two of my passions - classical history and fiction - and write a series of novels. Warrior of Rome is set in the crisis of the mid-third century AD, when, for the first time, things began to go badly wrong for the Roman empire. The hero is an Anglo-Saxon warrior, Ballista, who has risen to high command in the army of Rome. It is his task, and that of the characters around him, to try to hold the empire together despite the threat of religious fundamentalism, civil war and foreign invasion.
The novels are action-adventure thrillers. Yet, given my day job as an Oxford classics don, it is crucial to me to get the history as accurate as possible. I hope that readers who come to my books knowing only a little about the Roman empire will finish the stories having learnt a great deal, and that those who are already familiar with the background will be provoked into questioning things that they have always taken for granted. Another aspect that I work hard to get exactly right is the sense of place.
There is nothing more exciting about planning a new novel than travelling to different locations. Such research takes me to places I would never otherwise see. Some are wonderfully unspoilt. Others quickly reveal why they do not have hordes of tourists beating a path to visit them. I've learnt that researching the scenes where the action will happen before you set off is vital. Jumping on a plane and hoping for the best is sure to end in disappointment. I do my planning in two stages. First, I pore over Google Earth, the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World - hideously expensive at US$475 (Dh1,744) but nevertheless essential - and a couple of modern guidebooks. Then I delve deeper using the unmatched archaeological resources of the Sackler Library at Oxford University.
To best research locations, I usually travel with a friend, Peter, who is a keen amateur archaeologist and an engineer by training. It is good for a historian and novelist like me, who works primarily with texts, to be reminded that everyday things such as buildings or boats have always had to work in the real world. Lion of the Sun, the third novel in my Warrior of Rome series, has eight main locations spread across three countries in the Near East. The narrowing down process of which to visit turned out to be relatively simple. Research for an earlier novel showed that the remains of the classical city of Emesa have been all but obliterated by the modern Islamic city of Homs in Syria. Then there were six sites in Turkey: Antioch (modern Antakya) I had already visited; Samosata is completely covered by the waters of the Ataturk Dam.
Whether or not to visit Zeugma was a trickier decision. Much of it has shared the fate of Samosata (in this case under the Birecik dam) but Turkish archaeologists are working hard to turn what remains into an open air museum. In the end, though, I decided it was simply too far away from the other, more crucial sites. Some of the key events in Lion of the Sun happen at three places along the eastern end of Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast. In the classical world this was Cilicia, famous for the production of flax and notorious as a pirate haunt. Now it is Mersin province, its shoreline a ribbon of mainly unlovely hotels designed for local holidaymakers. Two of the sites here were distinctly unpromising. All that remains of Pompeiopolis is a row of columns running incongruously towards some modern tower blocks in the modern town of Viransehir. Of Roman Corycus, one gate remains incorporated into one of two medieval castles of Kizkalesi. But a third site, Sebaste, looked like a must.
The final remaining location is Kyrenia in northern Cyprus. While there are no antiquities left above ground, two things drew me to it. The present day Venetian fortress is on the site of a Roman fort. Secondly, the fortress itself houses a nautical museum with a Greek merchant ship that sank in the third century BC. With two must-see places identified, it is time to work out the practicalities. Peter and I decide to travel in May, when it should not be too hot for exploration. We'll base ourselves in Kyrenia and use local ferries to skip to the mainland.
Flying in to northern Cyprus, international flights have to land on the mainland because no other country recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. There we sit on the tarmac for an hour or so before one digit of the flight number changes, so we can take off again for the hop to Ercan Airport on the island. Arriving at the town of Kyrenia I am struck by a strange juxtaposition of opposites. A gleaming new store selling Armani and Versace sits next to a vacant lot. The large Hotel Socrates looks like it has been shut for decades. The reason can probably be found in its name. Yet finding accommodation is easy enough. Every year quite large numbers of British holidaymakers are drawn by the weather and the favourable exchange rate.
My research here goes like a dream. The Kyrenia boat exhibition is powerfully evocative. It is hard not to be moved by the four sets of dining utensils used by the doomed crew. High on the battlements of the fortress, as the prevailing north-west wind blows, we imagine and plan out the scene: the war galley rounds that breakwater there, docking by the submerged jetty - and I take 360° photographs. Studying archaeological reconstructions can tell you what antiquities might have looked like, but not what you can see - the sea, the mountains and the lay of the land - when you take in the view.
Our journey to the mainland is hampered by our northern European obsession with punctuality. The sailing time of the ferry is advertised as 9.30am; it casts off over an hour later. We are told the crossing is two-and-a-half hours. It actually takes three-and-a-half. The smell of fuel is so strong that it catches in your throat and makes your eyes water. The open, aft deck is piled with luggage and full of Turks smoking. Although the ferry is only slightly wallowing through the calm sea, most of those on deck move apprehensively, clutching one hand hold after another. Either they are very bad sailors or they know something about this vessel that I don't.
On arrival at the shabby port of Tusucu we are marched to a small, airless room. An irascible looking official asks for visa payment in US dollars. We say we only have Turkish lira. He looks furious. So furious that, without a word, he walks out of the room for 10 minutes. When he returns he demands a sum in lira that cannot be justified by the exchange rate, but we have both seen Midnight Express so we pay up.
Outside, our faith in humanity is quickly restored by a taxi driver. We ask for a hotel recommended by our guidebook. He laughs and points: there it is overlooking the harbour. The blue paint may be peeling, but the Leda Motel is scrupulously clean. The dapper, pleasant man in charge speaks good English and arranges for a driver to take us to Sebaste and then return to bring us back some hours later.
A four-lane road has been driven through the site of Sebaste. Although between the mountains and the sea there is nowhere else it could go. Everywhere classical ruins poke up through the modern village of Ayas. There is a theatre carved out of the hillside. Below it are a bathhouse and an intriguing overlay of an agora on top of a villa. On the headland and all around are other, harder to identify remains - walls and columns stick out of the sand. Again we photograph and plan a scene - the Roman land forces will march down that small plain to the east, the Sassanid Persian defenders rush out from here to oppose them, Ballista, the hero, will land on that beach to the west and seize a town gate over there.
The details worked out with time to spare, I decide to add another site. I remember that up the one inland path is Kanytelis, a natural chasm with some antiquities around it. It might come in useful for the novel and I assure Peter it can not be more than a kilometre away. We set off. As soon as you leave the coast road you move into another world. It is very quiet. Chickens wander about; cows are tethered under trees. On either side of the path are large ancient -sarcophagi. Some of them are now incorporated into simple but ingenious irrigation systems. In the shade of ramshackle houses elderly women sit and shell beans. They watch us impassively. An occasional car passes. All except one, they considerately slow down to avoid covering us in dust from the dirt path. One that brakes contains four young men. They smile and wave. I tell Peter I think they are laughing at us. He replies that he is laughing at us. Although we have water, we are now hot, tired and hungry.
After 35 minutes of hard walking uphill we come to a crest. There are no antiquities and no chasm in sight ahead. Peter points out if we don't turn back soon we will be late to meet our driver. As we trudge back I reflect that I have just relearnt a lesson I already knew: on this sort of trip preparation is vital. Later, back on Cyprus, I consult the heavy books I had not taken on site - it is three kilometres to Kanytelis.
Yet the long hour's walk in the sun was not totally wasted. I had half a mind in the novel to have a unit of routed cavalry fleeing up that hill. Now I know, however, that going up either side of the track is nearly impossible because of the jagged rock. A man on foot would soon be covered in grazes and a horse would not make three paces before breaking a leg. And I have some great photographs of the reused sarcophagi: living archaeology.
The next morning, as we eat breakfast in the empty dining room, the amiable head man assures us that many foreigners stay in both spring and autumn to see the great migrations of birds. In fact two Australians had just checked out. They were catching our ferry. As the ferry labours towards Cyprus under an empty sky, the talk of the Antipodean twitchers falters and dies. At length the resigned-looking one suggests that they go inside. Not long afterwards a cormorant crosses the wake of the boat. It circles, low and black, over the water close by. Further evidence that on trips like this - as well as preparation - you need a spot of luck.