The Hijaz, that part of the Arabian Peninsula which contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was long subject to imperialism, but not of Western variety: it was instead subject to the Ottomans. Although nominally under Ottoman suzerainty for centuries, it was ironically 19th-century British imperialism that forced Istanbul to attempt to consolidate its control over the region.
In 1480, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople fewer than three decades earlier, sat for a portrait by the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini. Bellini had been sent to Istanbul to fulfill a request for a “un bon depentor que sapia retrazer”—“a good painter who knows how to paint portraits”. The Sultan apparently wanted his portrait done.
Alan Mikhail’s much-publicized and lavishly-illustrated new book on Selim I, which he calls “a revisionist account, providing a new and more holistic picture of the last five centuries,” would seem, at first, to be a very welcome addition to a rather sparse list of books, especially biographies, on Ottoman sultans.
Husayn ibn ‘Abdallah, more usually known as General Husayn, died in Florence in 1887. Born in Circassia in the late 1820s, he was sold as a slave to agents of the bey of Tunis, raised and trained there, ultimately rising to hold some of the most senior positions in the government.
Much of early-modern history, up until the early 20th century, was characterized by empire—not just or even particularly the colonial projects of Britain and Spain, but contiguous empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, China and the Ottomans. These latter were multi-ethnic and—using modern sensibilities—in some ways multinational edifices. They all came to an end around the time of the First World War: China and Russia morphed into republics and largely kept their territories; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were replaced by a welter of new countries.
A few years ago, Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim edited a much-needed and generous selection of Evliya Çelebi’s Seyhatname or Book of Travels. Evliya (1611-1682) spent the better part of forty years traveling around the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia Minor; he’s perhaps the best-known of all Ottoman explorers and travelers, which is not to say a great deal, because non-European travel-writers are still sadly under-represented in English translation.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed that “seekers for gold dig much earth, but find little gold.”