Jem Sultan: The Adventures of a Captive Turkish Prince in Renaissance Europe by John Freely - review by Jerry Brotton

Jerry Brotton

Escapades of an Agitator

Jem Sultan: The Adventures of a Captive Turkish Prince in Renaissance Europe


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EVER SINCE GEORGE Bush’s unfortunate use of the word ‘crusade’ in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, there has been a renewed interest in refuting the argument that we are experiencing a ‘clash of civilisations’ by reconsidering the broader history of cultural and political relations and exchanges between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Particular attention has fallen on the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

For Ottomanists. this sudden interest can present some problems, scholars’ working within the field have known for decades the contribution the Empire made to the European Renaissance. Mehmed the Conqueror and Siileyman the Magnificent were great patrons of the arts, attracting: scholars and artists like Gentile Bellini and George Gf Trebizond to their courts, whilst Queen Elizabeth established amicable dplomatic and commercial relations with Istanbul from the 1570s. But such interpretations often neglect the specificities of Ottoman courtly life and commercial practices, and of the Turks’ approaches to artistic and scientific culture: the achievements of the Ottomans are simply appropriated into the grand story of the European Renaissance and of Western Europe’s ascent to cultural superiority. To modern secular historians, these celebrations of the Ottoman Empire so have an unpleasant whiff of nostalgia for a bygone age of autocratic rule.

These issues fail to impinge on John Freely’s biography of Jem Sultan, a loving tale of exiled princes, scheming popes, evil dukes and damsels in &stress, which, try as it might, is never quite able to strip away the veneer of romantic Orientalism that adheres to Freely’s subject. Jem’s life is one of the most important examples of the complex but often amicable confrontations between Christianity and Islam that took place in the late fifteenth century. The third son of Mehmed I1 (the Conqueror of Constantinople), Jem had the distinction, in 1459, of being the first prince born in the Great Palace. In contrast to his older brother Beyazit, Jem was popular and cultivated, admired for his poetry and dashing good looks. After Mehmed’s sudden death in 1481, Jern claimed the throne, which led to a brief but bloody struggle with Beyazit over the succession. Jern was quickly defeated, and fled to Cairo, where he edsted the support of the Mamluk Sultan Kaitbey.

For the next fourteen years, until his death in February 1495, Jern was passed around the courts of Europe, an exotic pawn in a diplomatic game of cat and mouse that encompassed the papacy, and assorted kings and dukes of France, Italy and Hungary, as well as the newly crowned Sultan Beyazit, and Kaitbey. Seduced by the appeal of leading a Christian-sponsored crusade to conquer Constantinople and overthrow his brother, Jern decided to open negotiations with the Knights of St John on Rhodes, where he arrived in July 1482. The Grand Master of the Order, Pierre d’hubusson, soon realised that if Jem were to remain useful to the Christian forces in opposing Beyazit’s military expansion, he would be safer in Europe. Later the same year the prince arrived in France, penning a poem:


What a wonderful place

is this city of Nice

A man can stay there

and do as he please!

Freely is a great admirer of Jem and is at pains to emphasise his stature as a poet; per- haps the lines lose something in translation (although, frustratingly, the book lacks footnotes, so it’s impossible to tell, just as it’s difficult to trace the provenance of Freely’s rich and varied source material).

For the next six years Jern was held as a virtual prisoner on French soil as d’Aubusson, King Louis XI (and then his children), Pope Sixtus IV and the other European rulers squabbled over what to do with him. Freely’s book is at its best unravelling the complex debates and shifting alliances that swirled around Jem. King Mathias Cowinus of Hungary wanted him to lead a campaign against Beyazit for him; the Venetians and Neapolitans wanted to keep him quiet to retain their fi-agile alliances with the Ottomans; whilst all that Beyazit wanted was someone to rid him of his politically troublesome brother. By 1489, however, the Pope had secured Jem’s transfer to Rome, and held him there with a view to using him as a figurehead for a crusade against the Turks, quietly pocketing the vast sum of 40,000 ducats a year from Beyazit to keep his brother imprisoned in the Vatican.

Jern might have remained confined in his luxurious papal apartments were it not for the imperial ambitions of the new young King of France (Charles VIII), who marched first into Italy then the Vatican, taking possession of Jern and escorting him to Naples to lend his name to another unlikely campaign to recapture Constantinople and the Holy Land. By the time they reached Naples in February 1495 Jem was dying, probably of pneumonia, Freely argues, rather than any poisonous plot. Even in death, East and West fought over Jem, and his body was only finally returned to Turkey in 1499 and buried in Bursa, where its final resting place remains a site of pilgrimage and veneration to this day.

Freely admits his admiration for Jem, describing him as ‘a Turkish prince caged like a bird of paradise’ and approvingly quoting contemporary Christian commentators, who noticed that ‘even as an exile and a fugitive, he [did] not lose his aristocratic dignity’. His story rattles along at a good pace, and the material is fascinating. Mantegna wrote an account of Jem’s papal residence in 1489, Pinturicchio included the prince in his Vatican fresco The Disputation of St Catherine; and the author shows just how pivotal he was to European diplomacy in the last two decades of the fifteenth century. The prob- lem is that Freely is caught between taking an older, Orientalistic approach to the Ottomans as exotic but ultimately despotic, and adopting a more recent perspective that tries to integrate the Empire and its rulers into a wider European picture, without forgetting what makes Ottoman culture distinct. So there is a great deal about Jem’s parrots, his fearsome countenance, and his highly speculative romantic escapades in France, but little about the mechanisms of Ottoman court life, attitudes towards the ‘Franks’, or even Jem’s brother Beyazit, who remains that classic Orientalist’s stereotype – the shadowy, malevolent, tyrannical Eastern ruler.

Jem disappears for large sections of the book as Freely tries to disentangle the various petty rivalries and diplomatic jealousies that kept the different Western states at each other’s throats. In doing so, he misses the opportunity to show just how close East and West were: unfortunately, as he hasn’t consulted recent work in this field, he slides back into the old nineteenth-century interpretation of the period, which sees it in terms of us and them, tyrannical Turks on one side, sneaky Christians on the other. It makes for a great read, but the author could have spoken far more eloquently to current concerns and prejudices.


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