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.
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’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