It’s the 16th century, and the Ottoman Empire has just defeated the Mamluk Sultanate, conquering Damascus and Cairo, important centers of Arab learning and culture. But how did these two groups—Arabs and “Rumis”, a term used to refer to those living in Anatolia—interact? How did Arabs deal with these powerful upstarts, and how did Rumis try to work with their learned, yet defeated, subjects?
In the spacious courtyard of Istanbul’s Suleymaniye Mosque, public storytellers regale and instruct their miniscule but attentive audiences with the deeds of the mosque’s founder, Suleyman the Magnificent, the 10th Ottoman Sultan, the conqueror of Belgrade, Budapest and Baghdad. Christopher de Bellaigue, who has paid his dues listening to his sources in Kurdistan (Rebel Land, 2011) and Iran (In the Rose Garden of Martyrs, 2004), shows in his new book how deeply he has drunk from the well of oriental storytelling.
Visitors from the Arab world flock to Istanbul today, enjoying the city’s cosmopolitan vibe alongside its comfortingly familiar culinary and architectural riches. Turkey’s accelerating pivot towards the Arab world has renewed old connections. Ottoman Sultan Selim the “Grim” conquered Syria and Egypt in 1517. For the next 400 years, Arabs frequented Istanbul as loyal Ottoman subjects. Helen Pfeifer’s Empire of Salons examines the first century of encounter between the Arabs and their rulers. It addresses the question of how the Ottomans managed to integrate the proud, ancient centers of Arabic civilization that were Damascus and Cairo.
The Ottoman Empire has been many things throughout its long history. One of the greatest and gravest threats to Christian Europe. A source of inspiration for Renaissance and Reformation thinkers. An exoticized realm of sultans, slaves and harems. An equal and key partner in the European system of international relations. And, near its end, “the sick man of Europe”.
The conceit of Tulip of Istanbul is that it was “found” as an 18th-century handwritten Ottoman manuscript at a stamp and rare book auction. The arrival of the novel itself is almost as serendipitous: originally published in Turkish in 2009 and then in English in 2015 (also curiously published in Turkey), it is now available to a perhaps wider English-language audience via India’s Niyogi Books.
As a counterpoint to the rich literature of Europeans discovering Asia, readers have access to many accounts by Asians about Europe. These writings hold up a mirror in front of their authors, who, unconsciously, reveal much about their own societies. Mehmed Effendi, the first Turkish ambassador to the court of Louis XV wrote in his Paradise of the Infidels that France was ruled by women, revealing an Ottoman anxiety about the power of the harem. In The Narrative of the Residence of the Persian Princes, visitors from Iran remarked on the sobriety of Britain’s King William IV, compared to the glamor of the Peacock Throne. The Qajar princes wondered how long Iran could maintain its great power status vis-a-vis William’s nation of parsimonious shop keepers.
The historian Rui Ramos, who teaches at Lisbon’s New University, said, “All history is revisionist. History is an academic domain where one must emphasize originality, offering unique and diverse interpretations.” This challenge underpins Marc David Baer’s new work, The Ottomans, which joins a long list of recently-published works on this subject.