Book One: Land of the Blind:
The renowned Venetian explorer Marco Polo once said: ‘I have not told half of what I saw’. This is the story of Ran and Lusin Eltanin, the twins who found the diary in which he told the other half of what he saw.
Ran Eltanin is a 12-year old student at Dandolo College, a 9th century boarding school in Venice. One day he finds what appears to be Marco Polo’s secret diary in the school library. On the pages of this journal the Venetian explorer and traveller of the mysterious East wrote the secrets he had not wanted to tell anybody about, and he also wrote down the name of the secret place in Venice where he had stored his rare treasures. When Ran discovers that Polo’s stash is in Dandolo College’s dilapidated tower, he immediately goes to investigate. Finding the concealed room below the tower isn’t difficult. The room is full of bows, swords, chests crammed with jewellery, a mummy and a scroll of papyrus. Looking at the papyrus he realizes that it is a map of a lost country. On the map is written, ‘The Land of the Blind’. There is a pyramid in the middle. Before the boy’s eyes the old Greek letters glitter on the papyrus: ‘Its atmosphere is one of death and darkness…’
Before Ran Eltanin has a chance to solve the mystery of the map, he and his twin sister find themselves in the headmaster’s office. The twins are told that their parents, both archaeologists, have gone missing in one of Yemen’s deserts. The school administration decides to dispatch the children to their great-uncle in Istanbul and puts them on the train. Their great-uncle, Captain Barnekas, is an old sailor who owns Pera Palace, one of the first hotels in Istanbul. It has hundreds of rooms and a past that probably goes back centuries.
The Room in the Tower
If there was one thing Ran Eltanin had been certain of his entire life it was that he, this twelve-year old boy with strange notions, a canny eye and sharp ears, was going to become a very famous mystery hunter.
He had grown up in Venice and spent most summers travelling with his archaeologist father on expeditions to deserted places around the world. Ran was therefore no stranger to mysteries. To him the nature of art and science was a mystery, which was in fact one of the most wonderful things in the world. At any rate, when you live in a magical city like Venice you become accustomed to the inexplicable. In particular at sunset and sunrise when the shadows and the otherworldly mist rose from the canals and enveloped the city, and the labyrinthine streets echoed languidly like the laugh of the devil.
Mysteries didn’t scare Ran. He had of course heard all the urban myths about Venice’s ghosts, demons, witches and water nymphs just like everyone else. But he also knew perfectly well that they wouldn’t harm you as long as you didn’t corner them.
Yes, but had he in fact ever met a ghost? Had he ever exposed a mystery? Or seen the dark, green silhouette of a mermaid swimming in the water? No. No. And maybe. Once he had seen a dark, green creature swimming in the water but whether that was a beautiful, graceful mermaid or a huge water rat, he couldn’t decide.
But he was an imaginative boy. That was why, when he looked at that tumbledown gloomy tower in front of him, he had no trouble imagining what it was like here hundreds of years ago. To Ran’s eyes that glittered and sparkled like firecrackers, this old building looked like a wizard’s tower with its arched windows, magnificent oaken door and pointed roof that reached for the sky.
The city of Venice extended behind the tower as ever with its canals, gondolas, bridges, piazzas and palaces.
The old tower rising before him was known among the Venetians as the Whispering Column. This was because of the wind which, after winding its way through the serpentine canals, arrived at the tower, making an ominous, whistle-like sound as it passed through the gaps left by the fallen stones, which made the tower look like a mouth having lost so many teeth.
As if that was not enough, the paved courtyard that surrounded the tower was entirely covered in ivy. A dense green carpet overshadowed and smothered the courtyard, turning the tower into a beached sea monster. On top of that, green lichen, reminiscent of a water nymph’s hair, hung from the iron railings of the bridge that led to the tower’s entrance.
The tower was part of one of Venice’s oldest castles, which also happened to serve as the magnificent Dandolo College. The College consisted of halls connected by canal bridges, long underground corridors and thousands of rooms filled with outlandish objects; it was probably one of the oldest schools in Europe, but nobody knew for certain.
The only thing that was certain was that the castle, the main building of the college, had been built next to the Whispering Column by an unknown, wealthy Transylvanian prince in the 9th century and that it later had been purchased in the 12th century by Enrico Dandolo, the 41st Doge of the Venetian Republic, who drew his last painful breath in Constantinople. Despite being old, blind and infirm, Enrico Dandolo lost no time in the final days of his 90th year in filling his Venetian palace with curiosities shipped from all corners of the world: a dinosaur egg found in the Gobi Desert, pearls the size of bird eggs from peculiar islands of the Arabian Sea, a Byzantine emperor’s inkwell made from large diamonds, the Persian Shah’s jewel encrusted sword, a Crimean princess’s silver mirror with a gold-plated rim and many, many more.
Ran had never before heard of, nor seen such a treasure. Enrico Dandolo’s curiosities and wonders might of course still be hidden in one of the thousands of rooms in the College, but the boy had never come across it. Perhaps that was why on that cold March morning as he stood in the schoolyard looking up at the tower known by the Venetians as the Whispering Column, on his mind was something else entirely:
The Map of a Lost City.
It was early in the morning. The sun was glowing hazily like a silver lamp behind the grey mist that had settled over the lagoon. Ran crossed the bridge carefully, avoiding the algae in order not to slip and fall into the dark murky water.
His coat was outmoded and his trousers were muddy. A small hole was also visible in the sole of his right boot.
Worse still, he couldn’t care less.
In the past few months the boy had turned into quite the rogue. He played truant whenever he got the chance and would dart off to the canal banks where he hung out with the gondola boys. If it was a fine day he would go the Alberoni beach on the Lido across the lagoon and bathe, or to the island of San Lazzaro where he would pluck the peacocks’ feathers. If he wanted to be alone he would go and sit by himself near the lighthouse in Brogara on the waterfront and listen to the peculiar music made by the wind. Lately, he had got into the habit of jumping on a vaporetto after dark and heading to the sinister island of San Michele where the graveyard was and playing spine-chilling games with the street kids.
Still, for some reason none of this satisfied his soul. He fantasized about sailors’ daggers, arrows with weird contrivances, and galloping on Arabian horses.
Luckily Venice’s baffling history was packed with explorers and sailors and the city was full of secret places yet to be discovered. The Whispering Column was one such place. And this was where Ran searched for the map of a lost city, which the Venetian explorer Marco Polo had acquired during his travels to the enigmatic East.
So, if everything worked out according to plan and he was able to find Marco Polo’s map, he might just become the greatest explorer of his time.
He crossed the bridge and stood in front of the tower. The door was tall and narrow. It looked like a deep slash in the body of a prehistoric animal. The boy had a sensation as if something secretive and forbidding was oozing out between the tower’s big, black stones.
He almost felt dizzy.
He lifted his gaze and looked up at the top of the tower. During their Venetian History: Explorers and Doges lesson, the teacher had told them that this tower was one of the most colourful structures in the city. It wasn’t known with certainty who had built it. But at one time a Bohemian alchemist, a teacher at the school, had carried out astonishing experiments in it, such as turning stone into gold or talking to angels, and for a long time the explosions from the top of the tower made the hair of the city’s people stand on end. The tower was later bestowed upon the Polo family. This exceptional family, which also counted among its members the famous explorer Marco Polo, used the tower to store and study the extraordinary wares they had had brought back from the east. Gradually, however, the tower was abandoned and forgotten.
The teacher had given them something to aspire to when he concluded by saying that perhaps one day the tower would be restored and given to a student who had shown outstanding ability.
Ran had liked the idea. To own a tower where an alchemist once had attempted to turn stone into gold seemed so terribly … Wicked!
But sadly, becoming a celebrated, distinguished student was a rather remote prospect. And in any case, he wanted to explore the tower right now! Like a great archaeologist or a mystery hunter.
‘Wait for me, I’m coming’ he whispered and took a deep breath as he stepped towards the darkness of the tower.
It looked at least as ancient and forsaken on the inside as it did on the outside. The early morning sunrays seeped into the cylindrical tower through the crumbling walls. It illuminated the decaying arches, the sprouting weeds between the flagstones, the animal nests in the nooks and crannies and the mesh of ivy that covered the tower like patterned wallpaper.
Higher up a shadowy staircase, which extended down like flimsy spider’s web, caught his attention.
Eerie statues, each more frightening than the next, stood in niches along the curved wall. These were statues of dragons, snakes, two-headed eagles and many other strange creatures, so mysterious they could only hail from an unknown past. They had suffered over the years. One had a broken wing, another an eroded nose, and of one just the claws remained. No longer alarming, they now aroused pity.
At the centre of the tower hall stood a large stone altar, the top of which had been darkened by fires lit by pagans hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years ago.
I wonder what the votive offerings were and who the gods were, thought the boy.
But then he shuddered in terror and averted his gaze. He wished only to complete the task at hand and clear out of this frightful place as soon as possible.
He knelt down, quickly opened up his backpack and took out a red bound notebook that was heavy as a brick. Its barely existent cover had been eaten away, and it was covered in mould and water stains.
He cautiously turned the pages. The parchment rustled fatefully under his fingers. Each page was filled with scrawled words and framed pictures. The pictures were of ancient weapons, extraordinary and beautiful cities in the foothills of the mountains, the victory stela of kings and unknown or long forgotten symbols and images.
Ran had quite recently come across the notebook in the library. Though it was written in old Italian, it had not taken Ran long to realize that it was Marco Polo’s lost diary. And what’s more: it was a diary written in the explorer’s own hand. There existed another book about how Marco Polo, who lived in the 13th century, had travelled to China over land and sea and visited the tent of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan; but there was nobody who could put a price on this rare manuscript.
At first the boy could not understand why the book was not kept in a museum rather than on some ordinary shelf in the school library. It was almost as if somebody had put it there deliberately for him to find.
Be that as it may, Ran found something in the great explorer’s manuscript that caught his attention. In his diary Marco Polo mentioned the tower known as the Whispering Column, and what’s more, that there was a map of a lost city that only very few people were aware of, hidden in a secret chamber beneath it.
The boy glanced around the tower. To all his schoolmates this was just a weather-beaten old ruin. They only came here to play hide-and-seek or for clandestine pursuits such as writing love letters or kissing or drinking brandy.
But thanks to Marco Polo, Ran knew that this tower was in fact a gateway. The famous explorer had written in his diary that under the tower was a long staircase that led metres down into the ground.
That staircase led to a room.
Which was precisely where Ran wanted to go.
The boy quickly skimmed the lines in Marco Polo’s diary that described how to find the staircase. He then he closed the book and put it back into his backpack.
‘It’s do or die! Now I’ll find you’ he whispered, almost threateningly.
He examined the niches that surrounded the hall and began to walk along the curved wall. As he moved he scrutinized the statues of the terrifying creatures one by one until he reached the bird with a lion’s head. He eyed the surface of the mouldy grey stone and inspected the mouth that was open in a roar. Then he found what he had been looking for. It was quite inconspicuous: a tiny protrusion that only was visible to someone who knew what they were looking for.
With bated breath he put his finger into the lion’s mouth and pulled on the left fang.
The tooth moved imperceptibly.
This was followed by a faint sound. He turned around to find the floor in front of the altar had split in two. Between the flagstones a dilapidated staircase disappeared into the darkness.
Ran stopped at the top of it and stared into the pitch-black void.
The stone staircase spiralled downwards. It was very narrow. The weak light that had filled the tower didn’t even reach the staircase.