God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World by Alan Mikhail - review by Caroline Finkel

Caroline Finkel

Master of the Universe?

God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World


Faber & Faber 496pp £25

When mainstream publishers commission monographs by Ottoman historians, it is cause for festivity in our ivory tower. It shows that someone has remembered that history is not bounded by today’s national borders but shared across time and space. The high production values of this volume, focusing on the ninth Ottoman sultan, Selim I (who reigned from 1512 to 1520), and his place in world history, are guaranteed to delight. It is replete with illustrations and maps, and is blurbed by Orhan Pamuk and Stephen Greenblatt. It tells, according to the latter, a story ‘worthy of Game of Thrones’. God’s Shadow is indeed a rollicking read. Therein lies the problem.

Alan Mikhail is recognised for his scholarship on the environmental history of Ottoman Egypt. Here, he sets out to revise what we think we know of Selim and his influence, characterising his book as ‘innovative, even revolutionary’ and announcing that it ‘overturns shibboleths that have held sway for a millennium’. Known as ‘the Grim’, Selim came to the throne by ruthlessly annihilating his brothers and deposing his father and is typically considered one of the nastier sultans. A Sunni, Selim in his short reign defeated the Shia Safavids of Iran and toppled the Mamluk rulers of Syria and Egypt. His son Süleyman I was, in striking counterpoint, dubbed ‘the Magnificent’ (at least in Western parlance), and his reign has long been considered the apogée of the Ottoman Empire. Conquest of the Mamluk territories made the Ottoman domains Muslim-majority for the first time and brought the Islamic holy places within Ottoman control. Selim adopted the sacred title ‘God’s Shadow’ as an appeal to his new subjects.

Mikhail’s purpose is not to rehabilitate Selim but to give him what he sees as his rightful place in history. He states that his empire influenced ‘nearly every major event’ of the era, ‘from China to Mexico’. ‘The ineluctable fact is that the Ottoman Empire made our modern world,’ he declares, with ‘reverberations down to our own time’. Selim, he writes, was a sultan whose ‘life and reign spanned perhaps the most consequential half-century in world history’. The bar is set high at the outset, and readers are primed to wonder if Mikhail can make his case.

The book begins with an account of Ottoman history up to Selim’s time, imagination supplying colourful detail where the sources do not. Columbus figures largely, and the action soon transfers to the New World: ‘The Ottoman Empire … was the very reason Europeans went to America.’ Mikhail proposes that the westward expeditions of Columbus and his successors, many of them veteran ‘Moor-slayers’ from Europe’s battles against Muslims, were intended to open a new front in the war with Islam, and states that these adventurers ‘invoked their perceived duty to counter Islam to justify importation of West African slaves to the Americas’. In sum, ‘the vocabulary of war with Islam became the language of Spanish conquest in the Americas’.

This is intriguing, but historians of the Americas are better placed to evaluate Mikhail’s chapters on 1492 and all that than this reviewer. Ottoman historians know 1492 as the year when Spain’s Jews fled to the sultan’s domains, offered refuge by Selim’s father, Bayezid II. Selim’s name, by contrast, is indelibly linked with his murderous struggle against the Safavids. With the Iranian shahs winning adherents among nominally Ottoman populations across Anatolia, Selim went on the offensive and in 1514 his armies routed the Safavid forces at Chaldiran, in the borderlands of today’s Turkey and Iran. This event does indeed reverberate in the present, with Turkey’s Alevis, descendants of the tens of thousands persecuted by Selim, lacking the religious rights enjoyed by the dominant Sunni community.

Victory over the Mamluks soon followed the defeat of the Safavids. The Ottomans now found themselves with new neighbours and inherited problems, such as the recent arrival of the Portuguese in the eastern oceans, where Yemen was a point of contention. Mikhail writes that the Ottomans could not control even the coast of Yemen before 1527, and only tenuously afterwards. However, the momentum of his narrative encourages us to assume an effective Ottoman presence there at an earlier date, which sets up a segue into Selim’s supposed role in the spread of coffee that the chronology does not warrant.

Economy with the extent of what we know is evident too in the dramatisation of an incident that Mikhail employs to illustrate Selim’s expansionist impulses. The Topkapı Palace library holds a portion of a world map made by the famous Ottoman mariner and cartographer Piri Reis, who in 1517 presented it to the sultan. God’s Shadow has it that Selim ripped the original in two, handing back the part showing the Americas – a fiction that allows Mikhail to account neatly for the survival of only a portion of the map. His cited sources are tentative about the reason for the map’s mutilation, but Mikhail is certain. He uses this episode as a springboard for imagining Selim’s mind drifting to but then rejecting Ottoman adventurism across the Atlantic. However, by 1520, he writes, Selim ‘seems to have decided that … he wanted the Americas’, and ‘intended to make the whole world Ottoman’.

Mikhail’s efforts to persuade us of Selim’s singular significance influences his choice of sources. Specialist historians accept that they cannot expect books explaining their sphere of interest to a wider readership to incorporate the full panoply of sources, but we need to be confident that a narrative rests on a firm foundation and that anyone choosing to read further can do so with profit. Mikhail’s stated decision to base his study on English-language materials is therefore problematic. The chapters on the sultan himself, for instance, lean heavily on a panegyric of the mid-16th century, the Selimname. Mikhail’s historian’s training leads him to clarify that this refers to ‘a corpus of sources’ known collectively by that name, yet he utilises only an English translation of part of the Selimname. He both describes the Selimname as ‘credible’ and recognises the need for caution when using it, admitting that it ‘grew out of an effort after Selim’s death to paint the sultan in as flattering a light as possible’.

Mikhail also sets conspicuous store by a book that, at least in the Turkish original, has no footnotes and whose author is unknown to me and to colleagues I have consulted. One example of how it attempts to improve upon current scholarship must suffice: the Mamluk sultans had long hosted the caliph in Cairo, and it has been much debated whether Selim adopted the title when he conquered their empire. Few historians consider that he did, but Mikhail asserts, pace his much-referenced source, that there was even a ceremony to invest the sultan with the sacred office. Discerning readers will also be jolted by the claim that in Selim’s day the Ottomans referred to the Kurds as ‘mountain Turks’. No authority is given for this; the term is widely known to be a republican-era slur. Such details matter, because history matters.

Mikhail’s ‘revisionist’ account of Selim’s life and times is shoutily that. The point about revisionist history is surely that the existing edifice must be carefully dismantled before being reassembled. Revisionism requires that the author performs the balancing act of staying faithful to the demands of their craft while at the same time not short-changing a readership who may have no knowledge of, in this case, middle-period Ottoman history. Time will tell if a new take on world history lies beneath the overblown assertions of God’s Shadow.

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