We had a three-day holiday to celebrate the end of the Ramadan month of fasting. Left alone, I did some wandering around less frequented parts of the old city.
Ottoman history is undergoing something of a revision in Turkey these days. Despite its portrayal in the West, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious state. The concept of Turkishness and Turkish nationalism emerged in the late 19th century in response to the rise of national independence movements within the Ottoman Empire, encouraged by the so-called Great Powers of Europe. During the 19th century, the Empire lost much of its former territory as a result of wars which the European powers justified by claiming to champion the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. When oil began to replace coal as the fuel of choice, and it was discovered that vast resources of “black gold” lay within their domains, it became increasingly fashionable to brand the Ottoman government as bloodthirsty barbarians slaughtering their poor downtrodden minorities.
At its greatest extent, in 1683, The Ottoman Empire covered more than 3 million km2 spread over three continents. As late as 1820, Muslims made up no more than 60% of its population. The website Lost Islamic History has this to say:
“While analyzing the Ottoman Empire’s Islamic character, one must keep in mind that much of the empire’s population was not Muslim. Large communities of Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Catholics all lived in the empire. At some times, Muslims even formed a minority of the empire’s population. At no time in the empire’s history were non-Muslims forced to abide by any Muslim laws. Instead, a system of religious pluralism, known as the millet system, was implemented. In the millet system, each religious group was organized into a millet, or nation.
Each millet was allowed to run by its own rules, elect its own leaders, and enforce their own laws on their people. For example, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had the Orthodox Christian community of the city elect a new patriarch, who served as their leader. By not enforcing Islamic laws on non-Muslims, the Ottoman Empire ensured social and religious stability and harmony within its borders for much of its history. Contrary to this, throughout the rest of Christian Europe, religious freedom only began to take root in the 1700s and 1800s. Denial of rights and persecution of non-Christians continued, however, as is seen in the Holocaust of the 1940s and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnians in the 1990s.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica elaborates:
“The purpose of the millet system was to keep the different peoples of the empire separated in order to minimize conflict and preserve social order in a highly heterogeneous state. Christian hatred of Muslims and Jews, however, led to constant tension and competition among the different millets, with the Jews being subjected to “blood libel” attacks against their persons, shops, and homes by the sultan’s Greek and Armenian subjects. Those attacks intensified during the week preceding Easter, when Greeks and Armenians were driven into a frenzy by the old accusations, invented in ancient times by the Greek Orthodox Church, that Jews murdered Christian children in order to use their blood for religious rituals. The sultan intervened to provide protection for his Jewish subjects as much as possible, though the fact that many of his soldiers were Christians converted to Islam who retained the hatreds instilled in their childhoods made that intervention difficult.”
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after the end of the First World War, what little remained was saved by the efforts of a nationalist resistance movement that employed, of necessity, the uniting principles of Turkish identity and the Muslim religion. The secular republic that emerged from the struggle was, perhaps ironically, more exclusively Turkish and Muslim than the Ottoman state had ever been. An important aspect of its founding mythology was the need to deny a connection with the once-great empire from whose ashes it was emerging.
What has been happening in recent years is a greater willingness to acknowledge the fact that the Ottoman Empire, its history, culture and achievements, are an important aspect of the heritage of the modern Republic of Turkey. Movies such as Fetih 1453 (The Conquest of Constantinople), Dedemin İnsanları (My Grandfather’s People), and popular TV series like Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century) and Payitaht Abdülhamid (The reign of Abdülhamid II), have been bringing Ottoman history to life and making it palatable to new generations in the 21st century.
The case of Abdülhamit II is possibly the most striking example of the revisionist revolution taking place in Turkey. Condemned for years in the West as “The Red Sultan” or “Abdül the Damned” for his alleged atrocities against Armenians, Abdülhamid ascended to the throne in August 1876 at a bad time in Ottoman history. His older brother, Murat V, had been deposed after a brief eight-month reign. Murat himself had taken over from his uncle Abdülaziz who had been ousted and forced to commit suicide. Shortly after getting the top job, Abdülhamid found himself involved in a disastrous war with Russia, which ended with a victorious Russian army at the gates of Istanbul. The British Government intervened to keep Russia in its place, but the Ottomans again lost territory – including the İsland of Cyprus, which the Brits grabbed as a “protectorate”.
Abdülhamid managed to keep his rickety empire afloat for a further 33 years, in the face of increasing threats from within and without. In 1905 he survived an assassination attempt by Armenian revolutionaries, but was overthrown by a coup in 1909, in which, according to a Turkish source, there was Jewish involvement. The Sultan had upset powerful Jewish interests by opposing their plans for a Jewish state in Palestine – at that time in Ottoman territory.
During his reign, the third longest in the empire’s 623-year history, Abdülhamid:
- Modernised the army
- Opened many schools and hospitals
- Extended postal, rail and telegraph networks
- Introduced major law reforms
- Left an impressive architectural legacy
The Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque was opened in 1886 near the Sultan’s new residence on the hill above Beşiktaş. Interestingly, the architect was an Armenian, Sarkis Balyan, whose family had served the Ottoman dynasty for several generations. A substantial portion of the palace grounds have been preserved as a public park – the 46-hectare Yıldız Park has recently undergone substantial redevelopment, and is a restful oasis in the megalopolis that is present-day Istanbul. I’ve been waiting impatiently for restoration of the mosque to be completed. After four years, it was re-opened in March to mark the 100th anniversary of Abdülhamid’s death. I’m told the cost of renovation amounted to 27 million TL (around $US 5 million), and the result is spectacular.
There is a three-storey clock tower in the courtyard. The mosque is entered by a double stairway of white marble, and the interior decoration was designed to exceed that of the palace itself. In recent years students have been learning the neglected skills of Ottoman art and decoration, of which the Yıldız Mosque is a magnificent exhibition. Some of the elaborate woodwork in the interior is said to have been made by the Sultan himself, a skilled cabinet-maker in his spare time.
A hundred metres or so downhill towards the centre of Beşiktaş is a smaller mosque dedicated to a Sufi Sheikh, Tunuslu Muhammed Zafiri. Abdülhamid Khan took his religion seriously, and was apparently a devotee of the Şâzelîlik sect that originated in North Africa.
Well, there’s only so much history we can absorb at a sitting – but I’m pleased that the current ongoing review of Ottoman history is opening new angles on the world we all inhabit. It’s not possible to find answers until we know what questions to ask – and I’m constantly finding new questions to which I’m seeking answers.
I took a trip down memory lane on my recent visit to New Zealand. The War Memorial Museum is arguably Auckland’s most iconic building – if you ignore that upstart Sky Tower with its money-laundering casino. Surrounded by 75 hectares of sculptured gardens, sports fields and semi-wilderness, the museum’s hilltop setting offers a tree-framed view over the harbour to Rangitoto and other islands of the Hauraki Gulf – these days marred somewhat by giant cranes and other paraphernalia of the port container terminal.
According to Wikipedia, the original building, opened in 1929, was constructed partly with the same English Portland stone used for Buckingham Palace and St Pauls Cathedral – requiring a six-week sea-voyage to the uttermost end of the Earth. Quite an expense for a tiny country.
The main hall on the museum’s ground floor is devoted to the indigenous cultures of New Zealand and its regional neighbours – the Māori and their Polynesian cousins who navigated the trackless immensity of the Pacific Ocean centuries before Dutch and English explorers “discovered” it. Taking pride of place in this section are a meeting house, and a 25-metre long war canoe carved from a single log of totara.
As a child I remember the effect of the elaborate carvings in the meeting house muted by a coat of dull red paint applied in the 1950s. Now, I am pleased to learn that a major project is under way to remove that offensive monochrome and restore the splendour of the originals.
A meeting house (wharenui) was the centre-piece of a Māori tribal village, a communal meeting place whose carvings and other works of traditional art recorded the history and origins of the people of the land. Living people shared the house with the spirits of their ancestors, and the house was given a name recognising this metaphysical dimension of its existence.
Auckland Museum’s wharenui is Hotunui, the name of an ancestor of the Tainui people who arrived with the great migration around a thousand years ago. The word can also be translated as “a great mourning, a yearning of the heart”, which may be significant in the light of what I learned of the house’s history. Apparently, it was one of two such meeting houses built in the 1870s by the Ngāti Awa people of Poverty Bay. The government had carried out large-scale confiscations of land after the Te Kooti uprising in the 1860s. According to Te Ara Encyclopedia, “The carving of both [houses] was led by Wēpiha Apanui and his father, Apanui Te Hāmaiwaho. Hotunui was, in part, a tribute to Te Hura Te Taiwhakaripi, one of the leaders in the wars of the 1860s. One of the poupou (uprights) in the porch is a carved representation and commemoration of Te Hura, so that the tragedy of the confiscation suffered by Ngāti Awa is memorialised in the meeting house.”
Little of this information, needless to say, is available to the public in the exhibition hall. It seems, by the early 20th century, Hotunui had fallen into disuse and a state of disrepair – not surprising, since the Māori themselves were in danger of disappearing as a race at that time – and it was removed to the newly opened museum in Auckland, to represent a world that no longer existed.
The canoe, Te Toki a Tāpiri (the Battle-axe of Tāpiri) is a survivor of days when Europeans were a small minority in the country. According to Te Ara, it was built by the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe in 1836, and passed through the ownership of several other tribes before “it ended up in the hands of the government”. The museum website is a little more informative, acknowledging that the canoe was confiscated by government forces during the Waikato War in the 1860s. Attempts at the time to blow it up apparently failed, and the canoe was left to slowly moulder away. In my school days the wars that were fought between various Maori tribes, the British Army and settler militias, were known as “The Māori Wars”. More recently, some have argued that it would be more appropriate to call them the Pākeha Wars, since the Pākeha (the Māori name for Europeans), were actually invading their country. These days a compromise seems to have been reached where they are referred to collectively as “The New Zealand Wars”.
Canoe and meeting house eventually found their way to the Auckland Museum, originally built to serve as a memorial to soldiers who had lost their lives in the First World War. The top floor of the building now commemorates all the wars in which New Zealanders have been involved since the country became part of the British empire in 1840.
Brief mention is given to those “New Zealand Wars”, including one particularly poignant quotation attributed to Te Ua Haumene, a Taranaki Māori converted to Christianity, in the early days of colonisation, by Methodist missionaries. With the increasing arrival of European settlers and land “purchases”, Te Ua turned to armed resistance, inspired by a visions of the archangel Gabriel who “assured Te Ua that he was chosen by God as his prophet, commanded him to cast off the yoke of the Pakeha and promised the restoration of the birthright of Israel (the Maori people) in the land of Canaan (New Zealand). This would come about after a great day of deliverance in which the unrighteous would perish.” A forlorn hope, as it turned out, but perhaps understandable in the circumstances.
The words of Te Ua displayed in the museum read: “Pākeha say, ‘Take our religion and our form of government, develop the economy and learn to read and write, and you will be citizens of the greatest empire in the world.’ We try to do all that. But when the British bring in a professional army to back up a faulty purchase of land, nothing of what we have been told appears true anymore. Pākeha seem to want to make the country theirs alone. The only thing we are expected to contribute is the land. Outnumbered, outgunned, unable to trust the law, we turn to religion.” Does that sound familiar?
The Boer War, 1899-1901, was the first where the New Zealand government sent troops to fight on foreign soil. The Auckland Museum’s display includes a quote from a local newspaper, The Waikato Argus, dated 31 January 1900. “It is the destiny of the British nation to spread good and just government over a large portion of the earth’s surface. Wherever her flag floats, equal justice [is] meted out to all . . . There is only one sentiment throughout the Empire – we must win regardless of the cost in man and treasure!”
Well, the British Empire did win, of course. According to a table on display, the British fielded 450,000 troops against the Boers 55,000. British casualties included 21,942 soldiers and 350,000 horses killed. The Boers lost 5,071 fighting men, and 27,921 civilians who died in concentration camps established to combat the guerrilla tactics of the outnumbered and outgunned Boers. In addition, 30,000 farms were burned, and 3,500,000 sheep were destroyed.
What is perhaps more interesting is that The Boer War, as it is known in general British histories, was actually the second war fought between the British and the Boers. The first, a relatively brief affair in the summer of 1880-81 had resulted in a humiliating loss for destiny’s Empire. Contrary to the Waikato Argus editor’s altruistic rhetoric, Wikipedia itemises three key factors for British interest in South Africa:
- The desire to control the trade routes to India
- The discovery of huge deposits of gold and diamonds
- The race against other European powers for expansion in Africa
So it goes – and that brings us to the next exhibit, and the original reason for the Museum’s construction: The First World War; known at the time as “The Great War”, and “the war to end all wars.”
I am currently reading a history of this war written by John Keegan, celebrated by The New York Times as “possibly the best military historian of our day”. The first sentence of Keegan’s book reads: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” So it’s a little sad that military and civilian casualties totalled 41 million, of which 18 million died. The New Zealand government despatched more than 100,000 young men (from its one million people) to battlefields on the other side of the world – and more than 18,000 never returned.
One item in the museum’s display asks the obvious question, “Why go?”, and gives two answers: “Loyalty to Britain was strong and people believed going to war was the right thing to do. The war was also a chance for a great adventure.” One returned soldier is quoted as saying, “it was a case of Duty.” A contemporary poster published in The London Times gave three further reasons: “To save [Britain’s] good name. To save her life and her Empire [and] To save the freedom of the people in all Europe”; and encouraged young men to “FIGHT then – for your life. FIGHT – for your honour. FIGHT – for freedom. FIGHT – for mankind.” So clearly propaganda played an important role.
What receives less emphasis is that not all young men were so gung-ho about participating in an Imperialist war. There were many who believed, and more who came to that belief during the conflict, that the war was being fought for economic reasons, and that the common soldier had more in common with his “enemies” on the field than with his own political and industrial leaders.
Once conscription was introduced, however, there was no option of refusing to go. In theory, conscientious objection on religious grounds was acceptable – but almost impossible in practice. Those men who did actually refuse were cruelly treated by their governments. Flogging as a means of enforcing discipline had been banned in Britain’s armed forces in 1881, but remained on the statute books until 1947, and was still used in prisons – where an uncooperative soldier could easily end up. Once in the army, desertion, cowardice or dereliction of duty were offences punishable by execution. Lack of enthusiasm for the war effort was a disease that couldn’t be allowed to spread.
Many servicemen from New Zealand and Australia had their first taste of combat on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey. Few of them could have located the place on a map. I, and most of my fellow citizens grew up with the legend of Anzac, commemorated every year on 25 April, the day when the invasion landings began. According to a laconic text in the museum display, “New Zealanders fight the Ottomans at Gallipoli . . . Their first campaign is a shambolic eight-month operation that ends in stalemate and evacuation.”
Shortly after first coming to Turkey, I went with a party of Turkish students to the cemeteries of Gallipoli and the town of Çanakkale, where an event takes place every year on 18 March commemorating the Ottoman success in turning back the combined naval fleets of Britain and France. You will search hard to find reference to this in British or New Zealand histories. From an Ottoman perspective, the British naval defeat was the critical event – the “shambolic” beach invasion a bloody exercise that had little chance of success from the outset. Was the result a “stalemate”? The British strategy (conceived by Winston Churchill) had been to bring battleships in front of the Ottoman Palace, force their government’s surrender, take them out of the war and establish a supply route to Russia. The aim was to strengthen the Russian military effort and force the Germans to fight on two fronts. In the light of that goal, the campaign must surely be seen as a failure.
That was then, this is now. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Are we any better off in the present age of information? So help us, God!
 The First World War, John Keegan (Vintage Books, 1998)
Üsküdar on the Anatolian shore of the Bosporus is one of my favourite districts in Istanbul. I lived there for three or four years in a small apartment I bought before the current property boom began. For the money I paid I would have been lucky to buy a car parking space in downtown Auckland.
These days Üsküdar is rapidly moving up-market. Its ferry terminals despatch passengers to Beşiktaş, Eminönü and other parts of the city. It is a major station on the Marmara Metro line that dives through a tunnel under the Bosporus, linking “the two continents of Europe and Asia”, if you’re one who believes that Ancient Roman stuff – and a newer line heading out through this huge city’s Anatolian urban sprawl. It has possibly Istanbul’s most magnificent views – from here you can stroll along the Bosporus foreshore and watch the sun setting behind the domes and minarets of the city that served as capital of three major world empires.
The Üsküdar Municipal Council is a go-ahead team providing services to citizens rich and poor, while restoring its rich heritage of Ottoman buildings, constructing major new facilities such as sports and cultural centres, developing parks and open recreational spaces, and encouraging commercial projects.
Last week I spent a day strolling around my old haunts, bringing myself up-to-date on what’s going on in this fascinating district. In my primary school days we were told about the brave English nurse, Florence Nightingale, who cared for her empire’s soldiers wounded in the Crimean War back in the 1850s. We were never told why those imperial troops were over there fighting the Russians in Crimea. Much like the heroic horsemen of the Light Brigade, ours was not to reason why. Nurse Nightingale’s hospital was in Scutari – and after coming to Turkey I learned that was what Brits insisted on calling Ottoman Üsküdar.
It was a stubborn insistence, obstinately ignoring the fact that Üsküdar, and Istanbul itself, had been in Ottoman hands for 500 years. As you cross the Bosporus on your ferry, one of the many mosques you see was commissioned by Rum Mehmet Pasha, grand vizier of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1469 – four centuries before Ms Nightingale appeared on the scene.
According to official figures, there are 186 mosques in Üsküdar, a tribute to the district’s importance in the religious life of Istanbul’s Muslim community. I have a vivid memory of the first night I spent in my new apartment, woken at an unholy (in my opinion) hour before sunrise on a summer morning by a mind-numbing cacophony of sound from 186 muezzins competing, with the aid of electronic amplification via speakers attached to the tops of their minarets, for the attendance of the prayerful.
Well, it is not my intention to enter into a discussion about the religious ramifications of modern electronics. I am continually learning about the role Üsküdar has played in the life of local Muslims, and I find the subject endlessly enthralling. The final station on the Marmaray Metro line after Üsküdar is called “Ayrılıkceşmesi” – “The Fountain of Departure”. It was here the faithful gathered in bygone days before embarking on the long overland journey to the Holy City of Mecca, a pilgrimage all good Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime.
High on the slopes between Üsküdar and the neighbouring district of Kadıköy lies the extensive cemetery of Karacaahmet. It is a vast necropolis, these days intersected by busy urban roads, but still providing an important oasis of oxygen-emitting trees for those yet alive in this vast urban conglomeration.
As I passed one entrance of the cemetery I noticed a conspicuous sign calling attention to the Karacaahmet Cemevi and tomb. In case you don’t know, a “cemevi” is a place of worship for followers of the Alevi sect. Alevis are an intriguing demographic in Turkey, making up between 10 and 20% of its people. That statistic in itself is thought-provoking, given Turkey’s 80 million population. Why such inaccuracy?
Modern Turkey is a nation of paradoxes, one of which is that, while its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established a secular republic, citizens are still required to state their religion and have it recorded on their official ID document. They don’t have to identify as Sunni Muslim or Alevi but Sunni is what most Turks are, at least in their cultural upbringing. Alevis, on the other hand, insofar as you can pin down their heterodox beliefs, adhere to the Shia branch of Islam – and have traditionally had an uneasy relationship with the Sunni majority. For that reason, I was surprised to see this cemevi so publicly announcing its presence. I had heard of its existence but never previously been able to locate it. I’m happy to see that, in spite of the antipathy many Alevi people seem to feel for the AK Party government, they are at least now able to identify themselves openly – as may not have been the case in the past.
Then there was the tomb – of someone called Karaca Ahmet, and I just had to check him out. Well, it seems he was a famous Muslim mystic who lived back in the 13-14th centuries. He belonged to the Bektashi sect and was born in Khorasan, way to the east of modern Turkey, but came to Anatolia to bring the good news of Islam to the benighted Christians of the Byzantine Empire. At some later date, the Bektashis espoused Shia Islam and became influential in the military Janissary corps. After overthrowing a sultan or two, the Janissaries were forcibly disbanded by Mahmut II in the early years of the 19th century, and the Bektashis, along with all the mystical sects, were outlawed at the foundation of the republic in 1923. Subsequently it seems they set up shop in Albania, where they continue to flourish.
Strange, strange and strange! Most Alevis I know profess to love Atatürk, who banned the Bektashi sect; and distrust the current AK Party government, who seem to have made their lives more comfortable and secure. The Sunni majority, meanwhile, has a traditional suspicion of their Alevi neighbours, yet they are happy to be buried in the cemetery of Karacaahmet, the oldest Muslim burial ground in Istanbul, and the largest in Turkey. At this stage I am still seeking answers.
Another fascinating feature of Üsküdar is that the largest and best known of its 186 mosques were built for, or commissioned by women. The first you come across as you disembark from the ferry is one dedicated to Mihrimah, beloved daughter of Süleiman the Magnificent, built between 1546 and 1548 by the renowned Ottoman architect Sinan. But I’ve written about Mihrimah before.
Across the road is another fine example of imperial Ottoman architecture, the mosque erected between 1708 to 1711 for Rabia Gülnüş Emetullah, wife of Sultan Mehmet IV and mother of Ahmet III. This good lady had a roller coaster life, born a Christian on the island of Crete, captured and taken as a slave, educated as a Muslim in the royal palace, becoming favourite of the Sultan Mehmet, exiled for a spell when her husband was overthrown, and finally returning to the harem after her two sons, first Mustafa II and then Ahmet III restored her to grace. Her mosque is said to count as its most prized possession, a coat once worn by the Prophet Muhammed himself.
Ahmet III is one of those Ottoman sultans who seem to have suffered from a bad press. He is most known for presiding over “The Tulip Age” and being ousted by a popular revolt of citizens infuriated by the opulent lifestyle of the sultan and his courtiers. I’m of the opinion that he can’t be so lightly written off. Certainly, the Ottoman Empire was on the decline by the time he ascended the throne in 1703. Ahmet, however, made serious efforts to stem the ebbing tide, looking westwards for innovations, belatedly introducing the printing press, fostering literature and the arts and making early attempts at industrial development. He was the last Sultan to achieve military success against the expanding Russian Empire.
The Ottoman court had never been known for parsimoniousness. Ahmet’s lavish expenditures were nothing new. His attempts at modernisation, on the other hand, were – arousing the ire of the Janissaries, who had become a powerful force of reaction. Ahmet was overthrown by a rebellion, possibly with foreign assistance. Its ringleader was portrayed as a romantic figure in France at the time – and Ottoman decline accelerated.
Further up the hill behind the Üsküdar market place, in a district less frequented by outsiders, are two older mosques, also commemorating the lives of influential women. Çinilli Mosque is known for its beautiful ceramic tiles, an important art form in a culture that forbade religious icons and the depiction of the human form. That name also obscures the fact that this mosque was commissioned by Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan, another woman of Christian origin who came to the capital as a slave and rose to exert unprecedented influence over the empire’s affairs.
Kösem Sultan was the leading figure in a recent season of Muhteşem Yüzyıl (“The Magnificent Century”), a Turkish series dramatizing goings-on in the Ottoman court at the peak of the empire’s power. She was favourite, and wife of Sultan Ahmet I, who lent his name to Istanbul’s best-known tourist district, and had the famous “Blue Mosque” built. Widowed at the age of 28 after 14 years of marriage, Kösem directed her talents to palace politics at a chaotic time in the empire’s history. Coups and assassinations kept the throne room functioning like a conveyor belt. Through all the oustings and regicides, Kösem maintained her influence, seeing two of her sons ascend the throne, serving as regent for the elder, Murad IV, until he came of age; and briefly for her grandson, Mehmed IV, 7 years old when elevated to the sultanate. Unfortunately for her, Mehmed’s mother had ambitions of her own, and had Kösem strangled in her bedroom at the age of 61.
Nearby is an older mosque, dating back to a more stable time in Ottoman history, when the tradition of fratricide tended to simplify the problem of royal succession. Atik Valide is actually a külliye, a large complex including a hospital, school, soup kitchen, caravanserai and public bathhouse. It was one of the last major works of the great architect Sinan, commissioned by Nurbanu Valide Sultan, the first woman to exercise real power behind the Ottoman throne. Her origins are uncertain, but like those others she came from beyond the borders of the empire. Some suggest she was the illegitimate daughter of a brother of the Doge of Venice. Like those others she was educated in the palace harem and became the wife of Sultan Selim II. Selim, who came to the throne in 1566 on the death of his father, the Magnificent Suleiman, was weak, and relied on the advice of others, especially his wife. His reign, however, lasted only 8 years before he died, ending Nurbanu’s power. Apparently, she turned her hand to funding charitable projects, including the Atik Valide complex, completed just before she died in 1583.
Despite its important role in Ottoman Muslim history, certain districts in Üsküdar were also home to Christian and Jewish communities. At the top of the hill in Bağlarbaşı, three cemeteries exist side by side, home respectively to the mortal remains of Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Armenian citizens. Not far from Kösem’s mosque is a large Armenian church, Surp Garabed. First built in 1593, it was renovated several times over the centuries, finally being rebuilt in 1888 after the earlier building had been destroyed in a fire. Interestingly that rebuild took place during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, reviled in the west as “The Red Sultan” for allegedly massacring large numbers of innocent Armenians. That surely begs a question or two.
As I wandered back down the hill towards the coast I passed an enormous construction site, the last stage of a mega-project initiated by the Üsküdar Municipal Council. Already completed are new premises for the council itself, a large events hall for hosting weddings and the like, and an impressive indoor sports complex. The huge excavation next door will apparently be filled by a modern shopping mall. Does Istanbul need another shopping mall? Evidently some think so.
Emerging on to the level streets of the old commercial district I came upon a smaller monument easily missed: a marble column, a large stone ball, and a brass plate with a barely legible inscription informing passers-by that this was one of the projectiles launched against the walls of Byzantine Constantinople by its Ottoman conquerors back in 1453. That siege witnessed the first major use of cannons in warfare, brought about the end of the eastern Graeco-Roman empire, struck terror in the hearts of Western Europe, and arguably marked the transition from the Medieval to the Modern Age.
Ending this little expedition on the Bosporus waterfront opposite the plush Çırağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, I was intrigued by a row of restored warehouses dating back to the reign of Selim III at the beginning of the 19th century. Taken over by the state alcohol and tobacco monopoly Tekel in the early years of the republic, these stone buildings currently house the State Opera, Ballet and Theatre administration, as well as hosting performances previously located in the Atatürk Culture Centre in Taksim Square. The AKM has been the focus of court cases and protests accusing the government of destroying the secular republican legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Certainly, it is planned to demolish the unattractive 1960s venue – but recently announced plans indicate that its replacement will preserve some features of the original and will still bear the name of Turkey’s revered founding president.
Üsküdar is certainly worth a visit.
I’m happy to be back in Istanbul after spending most of the summer at our seaside retreat. We were rocked by a moderately disturbing earthquake in Bodrum – but it seems the big city suffered worse damage from torrential rain and a storm of super-sized hailstones. Gentle reminders from Mother Nature about who’s actually in charge on this planet. Anyway, I have to start work again, a necessary evil in order to sustain a lifestyle above subsistence level.
My good lady is still out of town, so, looking for ways to amuse myself in her absence, I headed over to the European side of the city. I was keen to see Taksim Square, Gezi Park and İstiklal Avenue, having heard so much negative comment about their descent into a black hole of fundamentalist Islamic horror.
My first target was Küçükçiftlik Park, which I had seen advertised as venue of the 4th Istanbul Coffee Festival. I passed through tight security before emerging at a ticket booth totally lacking in any kind of queue. On asking the entry price I understood why . . . 35 Turkish Liras! What? Unable to believe what the young lady had said, I asked, “What’s in there? Is it worth it?” I took her momentary hesitation to mean that she herself had doubts, so I headed for the exit. 35 Liras! Last year it had been held in the grounds of Topkapı Palace, and admission was free. So what had changed over twelve months?
While in the vicinity I decided to check out Maçka Democracy Park, a good-sized island of greenery (yes, another one) in the inner city I hadn’t visited in a dog’s age. It was named in happier times when regular military coups ensured the preservation of democracy and secularism, at least for the nation’s ruling elite. It turned out that visiting the park was easier said than done. Clearly much of the lower end has been leased out to whatever private concern is now scalping citizens for entry to the Coffee Festival, and I had to walk a kilometre or so up the hill to find a gate.
Maçka Park has been in the news recently over an event where a couple of scantily clad young women were harangued by a guy who found their short shorts unseemly – giving rise to a series of protest meetings where sisters gathered (in shorts) to assert their rights to expose however much female flesh they thought necessary or desirable. Me? I keep out of such issues. I just try not to ogle too blatantly when vistas of naked leg and cleavage appear before me 😉
I was pleased to find that the cable car I remembered from years gone by still crossed the valley from Şişli to Taksim – and more pleased yet to find that the spectacular view over woodland to the Bosporus was less disfigured these days by youthful inscriptions etched into the perspex windows of the carriage.
A short walk brought me to Taksim Square, still a rather barren space despite council claims that they had planted a large number of trees. Gezi Park, location of much political excitement four years ago, is actually a rather more accessible and pleasant spot than in former times. The whole area has been closed to motor traffic which has been diverted underground. An exhibition area hosts thematic displays of handcrafts and the wares of micro-businesses. On this particular day, dozens of stalls were purveying second-hand books, classic movie posters and prints of old Istanbul, and several outdoor cafes offered Turkish coffee brewed slowly, in the traditional way, on glowing charcoal.
Feeling a little hungry, I headed down a back street and found a tasteful little restaurant calling itself “Gezzy” where I enjoyed a most delicious pide, a kind of Turkish pizza with cheddar cheese, tomatoes and green peppers.
From there, I carried on down the road known as Tarlabaşı Boulevard. On the downhill slopes to my right spread the colourful neighbourhood featured in numerous Turkish films about the underground life of gypsy music, prostitution in all its multitudinous guises, and the world of crime in general. I remember, years ago, on first seeing the narrow lanes of rundown Victorian tenements (or whatever the Ottoman equivalent was), wondering when the mixed blessing of gentrification would arrive in an area so close to the beating heart of the metropolis. Well, arrive it has – amid much fanfare, accompanied by somewhat justified wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I cut back up the hill towards Beyoğlu, passing by the fortress-like walls of the British Consulate. Built in 1845 as an embassy, in ostentatious imperial neo-classical style, adorned with the requisite inscription in Latin and the date in Roman numerals, the enormous edifice provides little in the way of services, to locals or UK citizens. A bombing fourteen years ago that killed a number of Turkish citizens, and accidentally got the Consul-General, led to the building of a defensive wall. Once an important outpost of empire in the Ottoman capital, Pera House these days looks like little more than an expensive anachronism.
The back streets running more or less parallel to İstiklal Avenue, the commercial thoroughfare leading out of Taksim Square, are lined with imposing buildings of similar vintage in various states of decrepitude and restoration: The Pera Palace Hotel, famed for its role in accommodating wealthy travellers disembarked from the Orient Express; the Grand Hotel de Londres, a reminder that French was a more fashionable language than English in those days; the Italianate façade of the Beyoğlu Council building, erected in 1857. These and more recall that for centuries, in Ottoman times, and before, when the city was capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, citizens lived in the ancient city across the Golden Horn. The district known variously as Pera, Galata or Beyoğlu was a satellite town of foreign traders and diplomats.
Most visitors to modern Istanbul take time to visit Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348, and providing panoramic views of the city from its 63-metre viewing deck. In those days, the Genoese and their Venetian neighbours controlled trade in the Mediterranean, and it was their contact with Eastern civilisations that contributed to the Renaissance in Europe. Subsequently their control was challenged and more or less replaced by Ottoman power – which may have been a major motivation for Western Europe to get its political act together in the interests of defence.
I had thought Galata Tower was the only remnant of the walls that formerly enclosed the enclave of Galata, but as I walked down the hill towards the Golden Horn I came across another tower and section of ancient fortification in a sorry state of decay. Turkey is often accused of failing to protect its rich architectural heritage, but when you get out and wander around the city, or the country as a whole, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ancient churches, castles, mosques, temples, bathhouses, theatres, stadiums, city walls . . . Every day, it seems, some farmer ploughing his field turns up the mosaic floor of an opulent Roman villa. This is world heritage – but mostly Turkey is expected to foot the bill for protection and/or restoration. Just as the Middle East refugee tragedy is a global problem – but largely locals are left to house and feed the displaced homeless.
Behind the decrepit tower I caught a glimpse of a bell tower clearly belonging to a Christian church. I wandered round the block trying to get closer, but it was well protected by the walls of a decaying 18th century inn, and a locked gate. Nevertheless, I did identify it as an Italian Catholic church dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul, erected in 1843 to replace a more ancient edifice that had been converted to a mosque in 1475 after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.
In the 19th century, the district of Karaköy, at the foot of the hill below Pera, became a major commercial district where banks and other businesses established their headquarters. I’d heard about Salt, Istanbul, and took a quick look in as I passed by. It’s a kind of research library, museum and exhibition centre housed in what was once the HQ of the Ottoman Bank, established in 1863, according to the BNP Paribas website, “by the Turkish government in partnership with French and British financiers” with the aim of “restoring Turkey’s finances to health and helping to modernise the Ottoman Empire”. Yeah, right! Wonder if the Rothschild family were involved in any way. On the wall inside is another inscription in imperial Latin: “Extra fortunam est, quidquid donatur amicis; Quas dederis, selas semper habebis opes.”
My Latin’s a bit rusty these days, but the Internet came up with this translation:
“Who gives to friends so much from Fate secures,
That is the only wealth for ever yours.”
So were those French and British financiers claiming to be friends of the Ottomans? Well, that friendship didn’t turn out so well for the locals in the end, did it! Empires come and go, but leopards don’t change their spots.
I’ve been cruising past the sign for a week or so now – a huge billboard strikingly designed in red and black and white, located near a busy intersection on Istanbul’s Baghdad Avenue. It’s a long way from Baghdad, Iraq, of course, but once upon a time this road was probably the main route to that legendary city of the Near East. These days, Baghdad Ave, at least around where that billboard is, is the premier shopping district on the Asian side of the city – and a popular strip for young unattached wealthy males to prowl in their Porsches and Lamborghinis searching for an impressionable and willing young lass to whisk off to designer paradise.
The local council is unapologetically CHP – meaning they, and the citizens who elected them, are implacable foes of the AK Party that governs the country and manages the broader Istanbul Metropolitan region. So I suspect there are a few locals gnashing their teeth over this billboard – if they’ve actually noticed it, or managed to work out what it’s all about. I don’t want to undervalue the intelligence of those implacable foes – but sometimes I wonder whether their brains are actually engaged with their mouths.
The huge red and black billboard is advertising a book. That in itself is something of an oddity in a culture not especially given to reading for information or pleasure. I passed it several times myself before deciding to take a closer interest. I checked it out online, and then, my curiosity aroused, dropped into a nearby bookstore and purchased a copy: “100 Yıllık Terane” by Taha Ün – subtitled “This kind of coincidence is only seen in films”.
Well, I’m still a slow reader of Turkish, and the introductory pages are pretty heavy going – but Mr Ün, a journalist and amateur historian, I gather, has found a very interesting thesis. He is revisiting the closing years of the Ottoman Empire, in particular, a period of 33 years from 1876 to 1909 when Sultan Abdulhamid II was on the throne. He wasn’t the last Ottoman Sultan, and by no means a major threat to Europe, but he has possibly the worst reputation among the 36 scions of the House of Osman. Taha Ün has looked back on how that Abdulhamid was depicted in the Western press – and drawn 180 pages of fascinating parallels with the 15-year tenure of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Prime Minister first, and now President of the modern Republic of Turkey.
It’s a subject that needs airing – and not only to a Turkish audience. In fact I suggest that the determination of Western opinion-leaders to blacken the image of Turkey and earlier Islamic civilisations is centuries-old. For two hundred years after the first Crusade in 1095 CE, Western “Christendom” launched wave after wave of ruinous invasion on sophisticated civilisations in the Near East, with little concern as to whether they were Muslim or Christian.
There was a period of two centuries or so after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 when Western powers, not yet in the ascendancy, were obliged to find ways of getting along with their powerful Muslim neighbour. That began to change, however, after a coalition of European forces won a decisive victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Thereafter Ottoman power went into slow decline – to the delight of rising Western Empires eager to add its territories and wealth to their own expanding spheres of influence.
Tourists in Istanbul tend to spend much of their time visiting historical sights in the Sultanahmet area. Ahmet I reigned from 1603 to 1617 and was responsible, among other achievements, for commissioning the famous “Blue Mosque”. He is not to be confused with Sultan Ahmet III, who ruled the Empire for twenty-seven years at the beginning of the 18th century until deposed by a military coup.
Ahmet III’s reign is commonly known to historians as the “Tulip Era”, in reference to a craze for the bulbs and flowers among Ottoman court society. The uprising of Janissary soldiers that overthrew Ahmet in 1730 is generally portrayed in Western histories as a popular revolt against “the excessive pomp and costly luxury” of the Sultan and his court. The figurehead of the uprising, Patrona Halil, a Janissary officer of Albanian extraction, apparently found time and leisure from his insurrectionary duties to pose for a romantic portrait by the French artist Jean Baptiste Vanmour.
Perhaps surprisingly, then, Ahmet III had actually been doing his best to cultivate good relations with France – incidentally at a time when that nation was not notable for democratic treatment of its own citizens. Apart from growing tulips, and living in the lap of luxury – a lifestyle not altogether shunned by his French contemporary, Louis XIV – the Ottoman Sultan “left the finances of the Ottoman Empire in a flourishing condition . . . without excessive taxation or extortion procedures”. He was probably the first of his line to look Westward with an eye to emulating European progress. He was a patron of literature, architecture and the arts in general, promoted commerce and industry, and authorised the introduction of printing presses for producing books in the Ottoman language. During Ahmet’s reign the Ottomans came close to destroying the power of the emerging Russian Empire – and it is perhaps here that we may seek the reason for his negative portrayal in the West.
Apparently King Charles XII of Sweden was given sanctuary by the Ottomans after his army had been defeated by the Russians in 1709. Refusing to hand over the Swedish monarch brought Ahmet into a war with his northern neighbour, which was going badly for the Russians until the Safavid Persians attacked the Ottomans in the east. At least one historian has argued that the resulting peace treaty possibly turned the course of history, in that it saved Tsar Peter, who subsequently went on to become the Great Emperor of Russia, from possible capture and imprisonment.
That looks like quite an impressive list of achievements for a guy who ascended the throne at the age of 13; and it might seem a trifle unfair to write him off with a belittling reference to tulips and luxurious decadence. Russia had had close diplomatic relations with Persia since at least the middle of the 16th century. As their power increased, it is likely that they saw benefits accruing from stirring up conflict between the two Muslim empires to the south – and not impossible that the Shi’ite Persians hoped to win favour with Russia and territorial gains for themselves by striking the Sunni Ottomans while they were otherwise engaged. It is also possible that Western interests were served by fomenting internal strife against Sultan Ahmet when he looked as though he might be turning the tide of Ottoman decline. But it’s just a theory, you understand.
Anyway, let’s move forward another hundred years. By the beginning of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was really struggling. Western Europe was well into its industrial revolution; the Big Three, Britain, France and Russia, were expanding on all fronts; and military defeats by their troublesome eastern neighbour had become a thing of the past. Selim III ascended the throne in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, with reform on his mind, particularly in the fields of education and the military. The landmark four-towered army barracks on the Asian shore of the Bosporus near Kadıköy stands as a symbol of his efforts. They were cut short, however, by forces of conservatism within the Empire, the Janissary army, religious leaders and the hereditary elite, who, fearing the loss of their traditional power, joined forces to overthrow and murder him. Selim’s two successors both had brief reigns and came to nasty ends, before his great-nephew Mahmud II took over in 1808.
Bucking the trend of recent years, the 30th Sultan managed 31 years on the throne and died of natural causes. He carried out far-reaching reforms in administrative, fiscal and military matters. One of his major achievements was abolishing the Janissary corps, once-feared symbol of Ottoman military might, that had long since become more active as a force of reaction, overthrowing and sometimes assassinating reform-minded Sultans. Mahmud went on to set up a more equitable taxation system; curb the power of local governors; establish a modern army and navy; and institute clothing reforms that brought his subjects more into line with Western conventions. Interestingly, it was he who introduced the fez in place of the traditional turban – though that headgear itself later came to be seen as a symbol of Ottoman backwardness.
Once again, however, the machinations of European powers worked against Mahmud’s positive moves. “The Eastern Question” assumed increasing importance as a motive behind the foreign policies of Western governments. The essence of the question was: “When will the Ottoman Empire finally collapse and disintegrate – and which of us will get what parts of it when it does?” British, French and Russian governments might, of course, have different answers to this question, with the result that sometimes they worked together against the Ottomans; and sometimes supported the Ottomans against each other, bolstering them up to suit their own interests while doing their best to undermine them and assist the break-up of the Empire from within.
The Greek War of Independence that began in 1821 illustrated the complexities of the Eastern Question. Russia, always keen to get access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, saw advantage in championing the Sultan’s Eastern Orthodox Christian subjects to rebel, and bring the Bosporus Straits and the Aegean Sea under Russian control. Britain and France wanted to keep Russia bottled up in its frozen wastes. A compromise was brought about when the navies of the three Great Powers combined to smash the Ottoman and Egyptian navies, and create an “independent Greek” state. Just how “independent” became clear when a Roman Catholic Prince from Bavaria was installed on the throne of the new kingdom, whose finances were supported by loans from Britain and the Rothschild bank.
The very name “Greece” in fact carried little or no significance for the “Greeks” themselves, who preferred (and still prefer) variations on the theme of “Hellas”. British aristocrats supporting the “Greek” struggle had confused ideas about returning modern-day locals to the pagan glories of mythological ancient times they remembered hazily from their Etonian school days. Modern Hellenes laboured under the misconception that they would be permitted to re-establish a Christian Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople. Dream on!
Nevertheless, a precedent was set for the Great Powers to support downtrodden Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, encouraging them to rebel and bring down the wrath of the Ottoman government on their heads – whereupon said great Powers would be justified in getting involved with a nationalist struggle on humanitarian grounds.
This new strategy of the Western powers proved a major nightmare for Mahmud’s son, Abdulmejid (Abdülmecid), Sultan from 1839 to 1861. The new monarch is remembered in Turkish history as the initiator of Tanzimat (Reorganisation), an ambitious programme of reforms encompassing finance, the civil and criminal law, the establishment of modern universities, equal treatment for religious minorities in the Empire, and the abolition of slavery. According to Wikipedia, he had “plans to send humanitarian aid of £10,000 to Ireland during its Great Famine, but later agreed to reduce it to £1,000 at the insistence of British diplomats wishing to avoid embarrassing Queen Victoria, who had made a donation of £5,000.”
His attempts to combat the rise of separatist nationalist movements, however, by legislating for equal rights, and promoting “Ottomanism” as a unifying doctrine were undone by Great Power support for Christian minorities. While Britain and France were lending support in the Crimean War to contain Russian expansion, the Russians themselves were driving out the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus, and, following the example of “Greek independence”, inciting Armenian Christians in eastern Anatolia to rise up against their lawful government.
Abdulmejid died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 and was succeeded by his brother, Abdülaziz. Despite his continued attempts to modernise the Empire, Ottoman travails continued. He attempted to cultivate ties with France – which was undermined by France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Britain, as always, proved an untrustworthy ally, by this time more interested in acquiring Ottoman territories after the construction of the Suez Canal. The British Government originally opposed the French project but, later took over the canal, and extended its influence into Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Increasingly desperate, the Ottoman government turned to Russia for assistance, but Russian support for nationalist independence movements in the Balkans meant there was little hope to be gained from that quarter. Abdulaziz struggled on for fifteen years before mounting crises at home and abroad led to his deposition in 1876. There is some disagreement over his subsequent death – did he top himself, or was he “offed”?
Whatever the case, the once mighty empire was in an almighty mess. Abdulaziz’s nephew lasted 93 days on the throne before being ousted on the grounds of insanity. His younger brother was crowned Abdulhamid II on 31 August 1876. Within fifteen months the Ottomans had fought and lost a disastrous war with Russia, whose forces were massed at the very gates of Istanbul/ Constantinople. Only last minute interference by the British Navy averted total defeat – but most of Ottoman territory in the Balkans was lost, and the Brits made off with the island of Cyprus.
Which brings us back to that book. There seems to be some revision of history under way in Turkey these days. Of necessity, the founders of the Republic dissociated themselves from the Ottoman Empire, on whose ashes they hoped to build a new nation. In looking to the West for inspiration and guidance, they took on board Western perceptions of Ottoman history depicting its rulers as corrupt, decadent and brutal. An unfortunate side effect of this process was a loss of identity, a feeling of inferiority that manifested itself in attempts to leapfrog 900 years of history and establish a semi-mythological connection to Turkic forebears in Central Asia. All of which bolstered Western stereotypes of swarthy, camel-riding barbarians not fit to be granted entry into Europe.
An important new industry in Turkey is producing television drama series that have been finding surprisingly enthusiastic audiences, not only at home, but in the Middle East and as far away as South America. Yesterday the first episode of a new historical drama was screened: “Payitaht: Abdülhamid”. The title is somewhat cryptic – possibly implying that, for better or worse, this guy WAS the sole governing power of the Empire at that time. Apparently the series deals with the last thirteen years of that controversial Sultan’s reign, from 1896 to his deposition in 1909. Another sign, perhaps, that Turkey is no longer satisfied to be defined by Western stereotypes.
I’ve just finished reading “The [jaw-dropping] Untold History of the United States” by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. Here’s another untold history I haven’t yet read – but the review looks interesting, so it’s on my list:
“In a year when the election of London’s first Muslim mayor and the Brexit vote made headlines, the publication of historian Jerry Brotton’s new book, “The Sultan and the Queen,” seems particularly appropriate. While histories of 16th-century England generally emphasize the country’s isolationism, Brotton argues that to the contrary, England actively sought closer ties with the Islamic world. “The Sultan and the Queen” explores a less-well-known aspect of Elizabethan history, namely England’s nascent commercial and political relationships with the Muslim powers of the day: the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Morocco.
In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I’s excommunication from the Catholic Church led to England’s exile from its European trading partners as well as its release from papal edicts against trade with Muslim nations. When merchants proposed that England seek closer links with the Muslim world, Elizabeth agreed. North America had not yet become a source for significant exports, so from these Muslim lands England hoped to gain sugar, spices, silk, cotton and even potassium nitrate to make gunpowder. During the queen’s nearly 45-year reign, she sent numerous delegations to powerful Muslim empires, frequently with purposes that extended beyond business.
At the time, England was not the dominant world power it would later become, and little was known about Islam or life in Muslim lands, despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire was much more formidable than England. In England, Muslims were known as Saracens, a racialized term that referred to Arabs or dark-skinned Crusaders. Yet in many ways, Brotton asserts, the Muslim world in 1578 was much more cosmopolitan than England. Writing of an English soldier’s first visit to Morocco during this period, Brotton observes that coming from “the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestant and Catholic, the multiconfessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock,” with its “Berbers, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, Africans, Moriscos and Christians” as well as the many languages spoken in its streets.
As trade relations became more firmly established, hundreds of Muslims traveled to England, where the English reported on their unfamiliar clothes and customs. When the Moroccan sultan al-Mansur sent a delegation in 1600 to London (ostensibly for trade but covertly to discuss the prospects of a joint attack on Spain), witnesses noted that in addition to being “strangely attired and behavioured,” the emissaries “killed all their own meat within their house. . . . They use beads, and pray to Saints.”
It is impossible to read these words and not think of the Syrian refugee crisis, one of many moving reminders of why this book is particularly resonant today. History is long, even if cultural imaginations often hardly extend back before the colonial period. “The Sultan and the Queen” evokes an England struggling to find a place for itself in a world that it had not yet learned to dominate, and often making colossal diplomatic blunders in the process. Brotton is a gifted writer who is able to present this history as an exciting series of critical and suspense-filled encounters. His masterful blending of the influential stage dramas of the day with the historical incidents that influenced them makes theater and history come alive. In a lesser writer’s hands, both Shakespeare and the fevered political engagements with the Muslim world could easily have come across as dry relics of the distant past.
As England, like so many countries these days, tacks between isolationism and integration, between building walls and welcoming refugees, Brotton’s colorful and fascinating history of earlier encounters between England and the Muslim world is a potent reminder that in many respects, we have been here before.” Read the full review in The Washington Post
THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam
By Jerry Brotton Viking. 338 pp. $30