This really doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. However, it’s rather didactic and at times reads more like a textbook than a novel, so don’t read it if you’re in the mood for something light and easy. It must have taken an incredibly amount of research, and that’s all the more impressive when you bear in mind that the author was 89 years old when this was published.
The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi was set in Renaissance Italy, so readers might well have been expecting a similar setting for the sequel. However, when this book opens, the action in this has shifted to an equally rich and glamorous but completely different setting – the court of the Sultan at Constantinople. Poor old Grazia drowned whilst trying to escape the Sack of Rome, but her husband was working as the Sultan’s chief physician and her son survived the shipwreck and was eventually reunited with his (step)father. The Sultan – Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who studied the Tudor era for A-level! – did indeed employ a European Jewish chief physician, although the real guy was Spanish rather than, like Judah del Medigo in the book, Italian.
The blurb on the back cover tells us that the book is about Danilo (Grazia’s son)’s illicit romance with a (fictional) daughter of the Sultan. That gives the impression that it’s going to be some sort of Mills and Boon type story involving every Western harem fantasy going. It isn’t! For a kick-off, as the author points out, life in the harem, certainly for a young unmarried princess, was more like being at a strict old-fashioned boarding school than the popular image of a harem as a luxurious brothel. Apart from Saida, the other women who feature prominently are Hurrem, known in the West as Roxelana, the Ukrainian slave girl who, in a story you really couldn’t make up, became the Sultana, and Hafsa Sultan, Suleiman’s powerful mother. The author presents Hurrem as being rather annoying, but she was a very canny woman who gained a lot of influence. So, if you were expecting the sort of thing you got in that awful ’80s mini-series about the Victorian American woman who was kidnapped by Art Malik and ended up on Omar Sharif’s harem, think again!
The exotic element is there, but in a different way. There are a lot of references to Scheherezade. It’s an interesting reminder of how the Middle East used to be seen, before things there got into the horrendous mess that they’re sadly in now. Think about, for example, damask silk, damask roses and damask oil. Then think about what the word “Damascus” brings to mind now. Think about the Arabian Nights and the Caliph’s adventures in Old Baghdad … then think about what the word “Baghdad” brings to mind now. Even bookings for Istanbul itself are apparently nose-diving, because people are, understandably, anxious about going there after the recent terrorist attacks. And think about the relative tolerance shown to religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, and then think about what goes on now.
Moving on. The star of the show is Danilo, not Saida. We follow him through his education in the Ottoman system: for people not familiar with the running of Ottoman Empire, the system of taking boys from Christian families and forming them into an elite military corps is carefully explained. The book does suggest that families sometimes saw it as an honour to have a boy taken via the “devshirme” system, which is definitely not the impression I got when I went to Greece in 2015, but anyway! Danilo becomes part of the elite gerit team … which Wikipedia describes as “a traditional Turkish equestrian team sport played outdoors on horseback in which the objective is to score points by throwing a blunt wooden javelin at opposing team’s horsemen”. The players are the sporting superstars of their day, and, of course, Danilo excels himself in a big match! He also makes a good impression on the Sultan by being able to translate Western works about Alexander the Great, Suleiman’s big hero. And so he’s invited to join Suleiman on his campaign to (re)conquer Baghdad.
When those of us in Britain, and on the Continent, think about Ottoman campaigns and wars, we think about those in Europe. Oh come on, we do! The Battle of Kosovo. The Fall of Constantinople – 1453, one of those dates that “every schoolboy knows”. The Battle of Mohacs. The Battle of Lepanto – how they do go on about that in Venice and Madrid, even now! Going back to my holiday in Greece, I was so over-excited about being in Lepanto (Naupaktos, to use its Greek name rather than its Italian name), that I spent ages taking photos of the beach and the monuments and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue. It is not like me to be the last one in the ice cream queue, but these are iconic names for historians. The 1683 Siege of Vienna, of course. They go on about that one a lot in Warsaw. And there are a lot of stories involving coffee, croissants and bagels. Lord Byron, all very “mad and bad and dangerous to know”, going off to fight the Turks for Greek independence. The Crimean War, although people sometimes seem to forget that that was actually about the Ottoman Empire and not about Britain and France having a totally unnecessary scrap with Russia. And Gladstone striding round Midlothian saying that it was time to drive the Turks “bag and baggage” out of Europe.
So. Baghdad. No coffee, croissants or bagels. Actually, I think coffee was mentioned, and Saida and Hurrem spent a lot of time talking about sherbet. I presume that was the sort you drink, not sherbet dips or sherbet lemons! Anyway, no croissants or bagels, but there was an awful lot of detail about other things. I’m not sure that I really needed to know that there was no toilet paper and that hands were used instead, but most of the other stuff was … well, it was fascinating largely because it would just never in a million years have occurred to me to think about it! For example, the water buffalo were leased. Like you might rent a car these days, you could hire water buffalo if you wished to invade 16th century Iraq. However, if you didn’t get the water buffalo back in time for the breeding season, you had to pay a penalty because the owner would be missing out on that year’s calves. Loads and loads of stuff like that! It is admittedly rather didactic in part, but it’s very, very interesting if you can concentrate on it.
This part of the story’s told largely by a series of letters sent by Danilo to his (step)father Judah, who’s back in Constantinople. Intertwined with it all is Danilo’s reading of accounts about Alexander the Great to the Sultan, and the Grand Vizier’s jealousy of him. Danilo isn’t part of the army, so there aren’t any battle scenes, but then there wasn’t really that much fighting anyway. It does come across that Suleiman was trying to emulate Alexander, and there’s possibly a bit too much emphasis on that and not enough on the realities of the 1530s, the clash between the Ottoman and Persian Empires. It’s a clash between Sunni and Shia Islam, which sees the mainly Sunni Ottoman Empire end up in control of Mecca, Medina and, following this campaign, the historic caliphate capital of Baghdad as well.
Bearing in mind the role played by sectarianism in the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, that’s something we could probably all do with understanding rather more about. However, to be fair, this is a novel, so it’s not its job to educate people about the historical background to today’s political issues. But it’s something that the reader is bound to think about. We also see how the Kurds are caught up in the clash between the Ottomans and the Persians, something else that we could probably all do with understanding rather more about.
The book ends up, setting the scene for the third and final instalment in the trilogy, in Venice. Another gloriously rich and glamorous setting, and one which feels very safe and familiar after the journey from Constantinople to Baghdad and back. But I really enjoyed that journey. It’s not an easy read, and anyone who did read the back cover and was expecting a harem romance was probably thoroughly bemused to be met with water buffalo instead, but what fascinating material! These books have been very popular in Canada, the author’s home country, but don’t seem to have met with much attention elsewhere. That’s a shame. They deserve to.