The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

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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.

 

 

Pilgrimage: the Road to Istanbul – BBC 2

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That’s not Istanbul, obviously 🙂 – that’s my local park.  The first episode of this new series involved a lot of time spent in rural parts of Serbia, and some of the “celebs” taking part said that, for them, getting close to nature was the best way of experiencing peace and spirituality.  It is for me too, which is why I usually spend a weekend in the Lake District at this time of year.  That wasn’t to be this time, but I’m really feeling it even at home at the moment, during this very strange time when everything’s so quiet.

You can hear the birds tweeting, the bees buzzing, and I could even hear the thud of a squirrel’s little paws on the ground earlier today.  In the park, I could hear the sound of the water in the stream as it passed over the stones.  Normally, especially on a Saturday, the place is full of people and noisy dogs, and you can hear the traffic from the busy main road nearby, and sometimes there are planes flying overhead; but, now, it’s as if we’ve gone back in time.  I didn’t even know that that huge bank of daffodils was there.  I always go to look for the daffodils on the other side of the park, but I haven’t walked round that side for years.  There are woodland daffodils, too – they make the wooded areas look like enchanted forests from Enid Blyton books.  And I haven’t stood and watched the stream flowing since I was a little kid going for “nature walks” with the rest of my infant school class.

It’s a strange feeling.  These are very, very strange times – such terrible things are going on, especially in Italy and Spain, and yet, because of it, everything’s suddenly so peaceful and so natural … like it was for our seven “pilgrims” in the wilds of rural Serbia, to get back to the point.

This was scheduled to coincide with the run-up to Easter, Passover and Ramadan, but I think we’re all feeling rather more like hermits than pilgrims at the moment.  Life doesn’t half throw curveballs sometimes, and this is a pretty major one!   Unlike the Santiago de Compostela series and the Rome series, this is following a route which isn’t a historical pilgrimage trail, and in fact is the route which Ottoman armies took on their attempts to conquer Vienna.  It’s now been “repurposed” as the Sultan’s Trail, and the idea is to walk it in reverse, from St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna to the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and to see it as a path of peace and a meeting point for all religions.

NB – it’s actually called “the Sultans Trail”, the Sultan being Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who did the Tudor period for A-level, but it just looks all wrong with no apostrophe!  Our gang are only going from Belgrade to Istanbul, but that’s OK because it means that most of their religious stop-offs will be Orthodox.  I like Orthodox churches.  Shame about the lack of seats, but they have nice music and lots of nice gold iconostases.  In the first episode, we saw the wonderful 15th century Manasija Monastery, one of the most important cultural sites in Serbia, and we also saw the gang join in a “slava”, a celebration of a saint’s day, in Nis. I’d rather have seen a traditional, historical pilgrimage route,  but I’m still  am enjoying this. We don’t get to see much of the Balkans on British TV.

We also saw the Crveni Krst Second World War concentration camp outside Nis, a reminder of some of the horrors of modern history.

As far as the “celebs” go … well, I’m familiar with Edwina Currie, Adrian Chiles and Fatima Whitbread, and I’d heard of Dom Joly, but I have to admit that I’d never heard of Mim Shaikh, Amar Latif or Pauline McLynn before.  Sorry, folks!  Amar is amazing, though.  He’s been blind since he was 18, but he’s still travelled the world.  They’re from different backgrounds, with different views on faith/religion, and it’s been interesting to hear what they’ve had to say.  I think the people in the first two series opened up more, but this was only the first episode.  What we were seeing was more interesting than what we were hearing, though – some of the most fascinating historical and cultural sites of Serbia, and the glorious, open countryside. There were even lots of fruit trees, in some of the less remote areas.  I love fruit trees.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, especially my city, but the noise and the traffic and the crowds can get a bit much.  It was interesting to see Dom Joly walk out of the church in Nis, saying that he found the crowds and the noise overwhelming and wanted to be outside.  We’re only allowed out once a day at the moment, and I am trying so hard to make the most of that.  I’m very sad that I won’t be seeing Grasmere, Windermere, Coniston, Chirk Castle and Biddulph Grange during daffodil season this year, but I’m so very grateful to have our lovely park within walking distance, and, even just in my own garden, I’m really feeling quite close to nature during this strange, quiet, time out from normality.  Wherever you are, if you’re reading this, thank you, and I hope you’re also finding a way to find some peace in these troubled times. Stay safe and well xxx.

I am so sorry if anyone’s had three notifications of this post – I had problems getting the picture to display on the Facebook link and had to keep redoing it!  Sorry!!