Thomas Dallam was a young Lancashire craftsman who got caught up in an adventure that he could never have dreamed of in his wildest imaginings. He was the co-maker of a clockwork organ intended as a gift from Elizabeth I to Sultan Mehmed III, and in 1599, ‘upon verrie short warninge’, was told he must sail with this marvel to Istanbul to install it in the sultan’s palace and demonstrate its workings. The detailed diary of his journey and his time at the Ottoman court forms the basis of this book.
As Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy reveals, the organ was more than a mere diplomatic sweetener: the quality of the presents offered at court determined the pecking order of ambassadors to the sultan and the favours each could expect for his nation. Elizabeth had sent a number of gifts since trading relations with the Ottomans had begun a few years earlier, but when Mehmed came to the throne in 1595, another round was required in order to maintain vital privileges. The accession gifts – as well as the organ, the queen sent a coach for the sultan’s mother – were delayed, and the English envoy, Henry Lello, awaited Dallam impatiently as his prestige declined. Dallam’s voyage took six months and when the crates containing the organ were unpacked in the embassy, the instrument was found to have fallen apart, damaged by the heat and the violent churning of the sea.
Dallam and his fellow craftsmen soon repaired the organ and a string of visitors came to admire it. It was then carefully dismantled and taken across the Golden Horn to the Topkapı Palace. But before giving us Dallam’s own description of how the