The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park


Word PressThis 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.

Jerusalem: the making of a holy city – BBC 4


Word PressJerusalem has been captured/recaptured 44 times.  That’s rather a lot.  It just about sums up religion: it claims to be a positive force, but it generally ends up in bloodshed.  Jerusalem the Golden ought to be one of the most visited places on earth, but it continues to be torn apart by the different religious groups who all claim it and never seem to be capable of … well, sharing nicely, for lack of a better way of putting it!

This series was first shown in 2011, but I can’t remember whether or not I watched it then.  Anyway, we’ve got a three part series, presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  The first episode was mainly about Biblical times, and the second episode took us up to the 13th century.  The final episode, to be shown next week, will take us up to the present day.  An awful lot of rubbish gets spouted about the history of Jerusalem, by people – and it’s usually Westerners ranting on the internet, rather than the people who actually live there – who are only interested in using it to support their own political views, so it’s very nice to see a respected historian presenting an accurate and impartial picture of what – as far as we know, as it’s hard to be sure of exactly what was going on in Biblical times – actually happened.

Unfortunately, however well-presented the history of Jerusalem may be, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a history of violence.  Attacks.  Sieges.  Capture by first one side, then another.  Destruction.  Massacres.  What a tragedy, and what a travesty.  The name “Jerusalem” is supposed to symbolise everything to which people should aspire.  “Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”  And it’s an incredible city.  There’s nowhere like it.  I remember stopping for a tea break in the Old City and just being mesmerised by all the different people in the different types of traditional dress walking along.  Whatever your own personal views on religion, the sense of history and of so many different cultures that you feel there is almost indescribable.  One lady who was in my tour group on my last visit there was actually overcome with emotion and burst into tears.  It’s some experience, visiting Jerusalem.

But there is no peace there, and, at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of it.  It’s arguably the most controversial subject in world politics, and the most ironic.  It’s supposed to be a Holy City, a City of Peace, but the thread that runs through its history, and therefore through this series, is violence.

A very well-presented and interesting series, but one which inevitably makes the viewer rather sad.


The Crusades – BBC 4


Word PressOne of the great scourges of humanity is so-called “holy war”. The Crusades of the Middle Ages spanned a period of almost 400 years.  And that’s just the Crusades in the Middle East.  They’re the ones we usually mean when we use the word “Crusades”, but let’s not forget that there were also “Crusades” against “pagans” in the Baltic, “heretical” Christian groups in southern France and elsewhere, and, of course, the “Reconquista” in what’s now Spain and Portugal.  Let’s also not forget that the Crusaders massacred large numbers of Jews in the Rhineland, during the First Crusade, and that Latin Christians sacked the Greek Christian capital of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.  I hate reading about the Fourth Crusade, because I love Venice and it always upsets me that the Venetians behaved so appallingly.

Anyway, back to the BBC 4 programme.  I think this was on, on BBC 2, a few years ago, but it’s certainly worth watching again, especially given what’s going on in the world at the moment.  In the first episode, we got, logically enough, the First Crusade.  In the third and final episode, I assume we’re going to get Baybars.  In the second episode, we got the Third Crusade.  Now, the Third Crusade is the “every schoolboy knows” bit.  Richard the Lionheart and Saladin.  I once rather shocked an Egyptian tour guide by saying that I much preferred Saladin to Richard.  I don’t think he expected to hear that from an English historian, but, as Thomas Asbridge explained in this programme, Saladin, the warrior who retook Jerusalem without civilian bloodshed, has got a far better reputation than Richard, the man who massacred 3,000 people at Acre.  Interestingly, Thomas was granted access to documents showing that maybe Saladin wasn’t quite the gentleman history’s got him down as, and maybe he wasn’t all that reluctant to spill blood when he retook Jerusalem after all … but, the fact is, it did all happen as peacefully as it could have done.

One aspect of it all which tends to be overlooked is that the Crusades all kicked off when the Byzantines appealed for Western European help against the Turks.  But, in 1453, where the hell were the Western Europeans when Constantinople was about fall?  Doing very little other than trying to persuade the Byzantine Emperor to convert to Catholicism, is the answer to that.   However, that’s rather beside the point.   So, first there were the Byzantines asking for help, but then it got turned into this idea of reconquering Jerusalem.  Some of those who went had genuine religious motives, either from genuine piety or because going on Crusade was supposed to expiate all your sins and get you a guaranteed pass into Heaven.  Others went for adventure, for financial motives, to follow their lords, maybe even because they had nothing else to do.  And then the Crusader kingdoms of “Outremer” were set up.  It’s easy to forget how long some of them lasted: I was doing some revision on the subject before going to Greece last year, and I’d half-forgotten that not only the rule of the Knights of St John in Malta but some of the other kingdoms lasted into the 15th and 16th centuries.

So, as Thomas Asbridge made clear, the Crusades went well beyond the fighting.  They had a huge effect on the culture of both Europe and the Middle East.  The term “Franks” is still in common use in the Middle East, and I found in Greece last year that some Catholic churches there are still referred to as “Frankish churches”.  And we’re still talking about them.  But, at the end of the day, they were wars, and they were about violence, and bloodshed, and religious hatred.  And that, sadly, is still going on today, and the Middle East is still the area most affected by it.  Maybe one day it’ll all come to an end and Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East, and the rest of the world, will be free of the bloodshed caused by religion.  We can but hope.

The Leopard Unleashed by Elizabeth Chadwick


Word PressThis is one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s earlier books, and it’s quite thin – both physically and otherwise 🙂 – compared with her later books, but it’s still quite interesting and entertaining. It’s set in the late 1130s and early 1140s, during the period of the Anarchy, when Stephen and Matilda were battling for the throne; and most of it’s set in England, partly at Stephen’s court, partly on the battlefield, and partly at the main character Renard and his wife Elene’s estates on the Anglo-Welsh border. The focus is largely on the fictional characters and their lives, although real historical characters feature prominently as well.

The part that got me thinking, though, was the early section of the book, which showed Renard, before he was summoned home due to his father’s ill-health, as a soldier in the Crusader Principality of Antioch, then ruled by Raymond of Poitiers (perhaps best known as the half-uncle and alleged lover of Eleanor of Aquitaine, although Renard’s time there was a decade or so before Eleanor’s visit). The part of the world covered by the principality is now partly in Syria and partly in Turkey, border area which didn’t rank very highly in terms of global attention when this book was first published, in 1992, but is now, sadly, somewhere which we hear about every day. The city of Antioch itself is now the Turkish city of Antakya, a popular holiday destination … just 25 miles or so from the Syrian border and currently struggling to cope with a huge influx of refugees.

The chapters about Renard in Antioch were mostly about his relationship with an exotic dancer, not about the complex history and demographics of the area; but then the book wasn’t supposed to be about the Middle East: it just got me thinking about what a messy, complex history the area has. The war between Stephen and Matilda, the Anarchy, the time “when Christ and his saints slept”, was settled in the end, but it lasted the best part of 20 years. All right, 12th century warfare can hardly be compared with 21st century warfare, but civil wars do tend to drag on and on. Let’s hope that something can be sorted out in Syria before long … and what was supposed to be a review of a decent if not brilliant book about medieval England has now got very depressing and completely off the point, so I’ll shut up now!  End of review!