“God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim I, his Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World” by Alan Mikhail

Selim I and Piri Mehmed Paşa (via Wikimedia Commons) Selim I and Piri Mehmed Paşa (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Selim I, sultan from 1512 to 1520, is usually surnamed “the Grim”, which presumably tells us something. During his relatively brief reign, Selim conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, adding some 70% to Ottoman territory. including Jerusalem and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Like many other sultans, however, he remains rather elusive, and research does not yield anything like as much material as it would were Mikhail writing about, say, Selim’s contemporary in England, Henry VIII.

Mikhail has at his disposal, above all, the hagiographical Selimname or Book of Selim, which we may term an “official” account of the sultan’s life and death, and which went through a number of manifestations over the years, but is nonetheless indispensable to an historian. There are accounts of individual actions recorded by contemporaries, and there are Western sources of varied reliability as well as paintings. Mikhail also has access to Selim’s own writings, including poetry. All in all, when it comes to painting a portrait of Selim I, Mikhail has done an excellent job with the material he has. Selim emerges as an extremely ruthless (he had two of his brothers strangled and deposed his own father) but cultured and religious man, a ruler who nevertheless showed tolerance towards Jews and encouraged learning, although with all that rushing around conquering people it’s surprising he had any leisure time at all to follow these interests or effect the reforms Mikhail tells us he carried out.


God's Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World, Alan Mikhail (Liveright, August 2020)
God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World, Alan Mikhail (Liveright, August 2020)

However, from the very first pages one can understand why the book has also been the subject of controversy, beginning as it does with asking readers why there should be a place called Matamoros, a Mexican city just across the border from Brownsville. Whatever has that got to do with the Ottomans, one might ask? Professor Mikhail has the answer: the name means “killer of the Moors”, a sobriquet of St James, the patron saint of Spain, and therefore it must have an Ottoman connection, because the Spanish have, from the Middle Ages onwards, feared the potential of spreading Turkish power, and of course Mexico was then part of Spain’s overseas empire. As Mikhail has it, “If we do not place Islam at the center of our grasp of world history, we will never understand why Moor-slayers are memorialized on the Texas-Mexico border,” an omission which has led us to have “blindly and repeatedly narrated histories that miss major features of our shared past.” Well, that’s certainly a breathtaking opening gambit, and the mention of Mexico gives the Central American connection which we can remember when Mikhail gets on to the Mayas, Incas and so on, ultimately leading to the chapter entitled “Christian Jihad” in Part Three, followed by the now-obligatory discussion of slavery.

Mikhail thus makes the first of many sometimes questionable connections between the Ottomans and the Americas, adding on, chapter by chapter, a great deal of strange and wonderful material about Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Mayas, the Reformation in general and Martin Luther in particular. There are sections on “Empire Everywhere”, “American Selim”, and a “Coda” entitled “Shadows over Turkey”, in which Mikhail argues that President Erdoğan’s policies can be understood in terms of his admiration for Selim I. Erdoğan, Mikhail informs us, even thinks that Muslims “discovered” America. More “relevance”, one supposes, but this, like so much in this book, may also be seen as simply “reaching”, a technique which can be simply misleading if the reader does not know the history well. This reviewer has come rather late to this controversy, but I was from the outset concerned by what seemed to Mikhail’s search for history’s “relevance” to our own world, to link Ottoman history to the United States (American historians tend to do this, according to one reviewer, because insular American readers want everything to be about America, and it sells more books), somehow “globalize” the short, warlike reign of Selim I, consequently reducing the importance of that of his son Süleyman I “the Magnificent” (1520-66). In this globalizing fervor, spread throughout the book, Selim himself often recedes into the background of the narrative, leaving readers rather lost, wondering what exactly this book is about as they travel with Columbus, dispute with Luther and Pope Leo X or take ship to America with Robert Cushman on the Mayflower a century after Selim’s death.

For much of the rest of the time, Selim is elevated by Mikhail into an incarnation of the “great man” idea of history as pioneered in the works of Thomas Carlyle, the one chosen by God and placed on earth to get significant things done, hence Selim’s title of “God’s shadow”. It does seem odd, however, that a soi-disant “revisionist” historian with “holistic” aspirations should even attempt to revive the “great man” idea by placing Selim I in the midst of events, but then having him often stand waiting in the wings while he attempts to connect faraway events with him. One could argue, however, that Selim’s title suggested that either he or his subjects did in fact think of him as a great man; after all, shahs of Persia were often referred to as the “Pivot of the Universe”.

Mikhail’s thesis appears to be that the Ottomans under Selim I’s single-handed guidance (with some help from his mother Gülbahar Hatun) practically “invented” the modern world, which, according to an earlier book by another prize-winning American historian (Arthur Herman in 2001), had in fact already been invented by the Scots. The Ottomans, unlike the Scots, did this by making everyone very frightened of them. Would they seize Spanish colonies, dominate trade routes, and even go on to monopolize coffee? Worse than all these things, would Islam supplant Christianity everywhere? If so, what was needed was a new crusade and a general crackdown on Muslims, the best example of the latter being the well-known move made by Ferdinand V and his even more fanatically anti-Muslim wife Isabella I when they finally expelled the Moors from Granada. This act of brutality was one of the few significant contacts between Moors and Europeans during Selim’s lifetime. Selim’s wars were actually directed largely against fellow-Muslims, namely the Mamluks in Egypt and the Safavids in Iran, and his religious fervor at dissenters in his own faith, not at Christians or Jews. The Ottomans did not move to help Spain’s Moors against Ferdinand and Isabella, even as the latter must have been aware of their power.

Yet, Mikhail has given a wide-ranging, vividly-written and sympathetic account of Selim’s reign and administration, and has certainly made the point that historians need to look at the Ottoman Empire’s influence in the early modern world, especially in relation to the idea that early modern history is all about the “rise of the West”. Drawing on a multiplicity of sources in several languages, Mikhail does indeed present history from the Ottoman side, emphasizing their very real centrality in early modern history, and for that readers should be grateful. However, we should read carefully—it requires a leap of faith to incorporate the expansion of the narrative to Columbus, Luther or the “American Selim”, and in the end this reviewer was unable to make that leap, because it imposes 21st-century notions on early modern events. But as a book on Selim I and the rise of the early modern Ottomans, Mikhail’s book may be, for the moment, indispensable, although no doubt the same subject matter will be tackled by historians of a more traditional bent but who are, nonetheless, aware that the West is not the sole focal point of the historical development of our modern world.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.