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!!

The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park

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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.

No Place for a Lady by Gill Paul

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Word PressThis is a rather simplistic novel about two well-to-do British sisters both caught up in the Crimean War, one as a nurse and one as the wife of an Army officer.  The storylines aren’t particularly well-developed or convincing, but it’s all right as an easy read … insofar as anything about the Crimean War, a stupid, horrendous waste of life, which should never have happened (modern day politicians complaining about each other’s policies on Syria would do well to have a long, hard think about the events of 1853-6), can ever be easy.  And it has its moments: there’s an interesting description of soldiers’ wives seeing the Charge of the Light Brigade from afar, there are some reasonably well-expressed descriptions of hospitals, and there’s an excellent portrayal of the all-too-often overlooked Mary Seacole.  Florence Nightingale came across as rather a bossy-boots, but I’m not arguing with that!  It’s just not very … deep.  There are a few minor annoyances – people in the 1850s would not have thought of themselves as living in “Victorian” times, an officer’s wife would not have given her name as “Mrs Lucy Harvington” rather than “Mrs Charles Harvington”, and the British spelling/pronunciation at the time would have been “Sebastopol” rather than “Sevastopol” (I was lucky enough to visit the place in 2008, and I kept calling it Sebastopol with a b because I’m just so used to thinking of it as such!) – but generally the book seemed fairly well-researched, just too … basic and simplistic.  Still, it’s OK as a bedtime read, especially after a hard day!

Oh, and I was interested to read, in the afterword, the thanks expressed by the author to Natasha McEnroe of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London.  I wonder if she’s read Natasha’s short story about Christmas at Pretty Maids ;-).

 

 

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Having recently launched into a bit of a rant on Facebook about certain politicians acting as if they think it’s 1878 again, I was rather interested to find the events of 1878 coming up in the first episode of this fourth series of the wonderful Great Continental Railway Journeys, which saw Michael Portillo travelling from Sofia to Istanbul. Complete with his beloved Bradshaw’s Guide!

Bulgaria isn’t a country which is particularly well-known in Britain, so it was really good to hear the talk about its struggles for independence and how it preserved its national identity during the years of Ottoman occupation. However, my point about 1878 was that most of the politicians at the Congress of Berlin seemed more intent on having a go at Russia than on addressing the issues they were actually supposed to be addressing, just as today’s politicians are doing over the Syrian crisis, so I wasn’t very pleased when a historian to whom Michael Portillo spoke in Istanbul made out that Russia was the only country hoping to benefit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire. What a load of rubbish! Then, when the subject of the Young Turk Uprising of 1908 arose, the fact that Austria-Hungary took advantage of the resultant chaos to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina was completely ignored. Bah!!!

Oh well. It was still good to see Bulgaria taking centre stage, and it was also good to be reminded that there’s a street in Sofia named after Gladstone, who spoke out against the Bulgarian massacres and actually was more concerned about the Balkans than about having a go at Russia! Things then moved on, along the route of the Orient Express, towards the Turkish border, which, as we were reminded, was, in 1913, the year in which Portillo’s edition of Bradshaw’s guide was published, a war zone.

One of the central themes of Great Continental Railway Journeys has been that, in 1913, there was a general sense of peace and optimism across Europe, with hardly anyone having the faintest inkling that their world was soon going to fall apart. Not so in the Balkans, of course. The Balkan Wars which immediately preceded the First World War tend to be overlooked now … although, occasionally, in particular with regard to the UN referring to the Republic of Macedonia as “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” because Greece got stroppy about the name, we are reminded that there were considerable disputes over borders and territory when Ottoman control of the area collapsed. And I think it’s important to remember that the idea of the Balkans as “the tinderbox of Europe” wasn’t and isn’t only about what became Yugoslavia.

Anyway. On to Istanbul … and a picture of refugees from the Balkan Wars arriving on Turkish shores. I don’t know exactly when this programme was put together, but I’d love to know whether or not that was originally intended to be part of it or whether it was shoehorned in when the current refugee crisis intensified during the summer just gone.

Istanbul is, as Portillo pointed out, one of the world’s great cities, the point at which Europe and Asia meet, and crucially placed strategically because it’s on the Bosphorus. We saw him visit the Aghia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar and try some Turkish delight, and we also saw him visit one of the city’s lesser-known sights, a British cemetery where many British service personnel who lost their lives during the Crimean War and both world wars, particularly the First World War, are buried.

Next week’s programme will be set in Austria and Italy, probably more familiar territory for most viewers, but I’m so glad that Bulgaria and Turkey have been given a look in, and the important events of 1877-1878 and of the Balkan Wars of the early 1910s discussed. There has been some negative talk about the countries of the southern Balkans of late, partly because of concerns over immigration from Romania and Bulgaria and partly because of the financial crisis in Greece, and maybe part of that’s because these are countries whose history and culture are not as well-known in this country as they could be. It’s nice to see at least one of them getting the attention it deserves.

Pascali’s Island by Barry Unsworth

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Word PressI’m not really keen on Barry Unsworth’s style of writing (especially as regards this book, which had no chapters), but I decided to read this because it’s so hard to find historican fiction set in Greece, unless you want ancient Greece. However, it turned out that this was actually set in a mainly Greek island still occupied by the Ottoman Empire, in July 1908. The date is very significant because it was the time of the Young Turk uprising, and the book never actually used the term “Young Turk”, so if you hadn’t recognised the date then you might have been rather confused. Pascali is a half-Greek, half-British oddbod working as a spy for the Ottomans, and the book is written as his report to the Sultan on the latest events on this island … involving an artist whom he’s secretly in love with, a British man who wants to get a bronze statue out of the earth, a German who wants the local bauxite deposits for military purposes, and a suspicious American. Most people end up dead. Like a lot of things nominated for Booker Prizes, it’s one of those books which is probably really good if you like that sort of thing, but isn’t really for me!