This is one of the recommendations in the Duchess of Cornwall’s Book Club. One of the very few good things about this nightmarish situation we’re in is seeing what sort of books famous people have on their bookshelves, seeing as everyone seems to position themselves in front of the said bookshelves when they’re doing interviews from home. You do wonder if they sneakily shift a few books which don’t suit their image out of the way of the camera, but never mind! This one’s set in Constantinople/Istanbul during the 16th century, and what a joy to have a book which is set in the Ottoman Empire but isn’t primarily about either harems or invasions of Europe! It’s about an elephant keeper who’s also an architect’s apprentice. Now that’s different 🙂 .
OK, what did I know about the Suleiman the Magnificent, in whose reign the book opened? He had a Ukrainian wife referred to as Roxelana. He thrashed the Hungarians at Mohacs, conquered Belgrade, besieged Vienna, threw Knights of St John off Rhodes and then tried to throw them off Malta, and there was that naval battle against Charles V where a Jewish pirate defeated that Genoese admiral after whom that ship which sank in the 1950s was named. Oh, and he allied with the French against the Habsburgs, but England didn’t get involved because Henry VIII was too busy sorting out his family problems. OK, what about the Suleimaniye Mosque? Amazing place. Seen it twice. Who designed it? Er, absolutely no idea. Books about the Ottoman Empire don’t mention architects. They only mention harems and invasions of Europe.
We did get harems in here, and we did get invasions of Europe, but the book was mainly about the life of people on the fringe of the court. And it was fascinating.
I was rather confused at the start of the book, because the main character’s name was Jahan and he said that he came from Agra. Hang on, I thought this was about the Ottoman Empire, not the Taj Mahal? That bit didn’t become clear until right at the end, when our man Jahan, a 12-year-old orphan escaping his cruel stepfather at the end of the book, ended up helping to design the Taj Mahal whilst in his 90s. But the book was largely set in Istanbul, although we also saw some of the invasions of Europe, and also a trip to Rome.
It was a complex book, and there was a lot going on. Just to get back to the sultans, as well as Suleiman, we also saw the reigns of his son and grandson, Selim II and Murad III. Selim II, I asked myself? He was the one with the Venetian wife from what’s now Croatia. Lost the Battle of Lepanto, which Spain is always claiming as a great success but which I credit to Venice. I went to Lepanto (Naupaktos) once, and I was so excited about being there that I spent ages taking photos on the beach and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue, which is really not like me. Murad III? He was the one who exchanged letters with Elizabeth I. Oh dear. We really do learn about the Ottoman Empire from either a Western viewpoint or else from some weird hangover viewpoint left over from the Enlightment interest in harems, don’t we?
Anyway. Mimar Siman, the architect to whom Jahan was apprenticed, was one of the greatest architects of all time. He designed over 90 mosques, including the Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne/Adrianople, as well as vast numbers of palaces, Turkish baths, schools, bridges and mausoleums. A lot of the book was about the actual building work, and the idea of architecture as some sort of metaphor for life. There was also a love story, with Jahan being in love with Mihrimah Sultan, Suleiman’s daughter, a woman he could never marry. And there was a rather confusing thread about plots against Siman and various people conspiring with each other, which all came out near the end even though it’d never been very clear that there was a mystery in the first place!
Lots of different groups of people featured. Eunuchs. Labourers. Court officials, including the Grand Astronomer whose wonderful observatory was destroyed on the sultan’s orders after only three years. Sephardi Jewish booksellers. Roma gangs, who helped Jahan out of many predicaments.
And, of course, there was Chota, the elephant with whose birth Jahan assisted, and who became the sultan’s official elephant 🙂 but remained Jahan’s closest friend.
The historical timeline’d been messed about with a bit, to suit various aspects of the plot, but the author did explain in an afterword about what she’d changed and why she’d changed it. And it was brilliantly written. You’ll need to concentrate, and it’ll help if you’ve got a bit of idea about the Ottoman Empire to start with, but this is highly recommended, as something different.