Category Archives: The Ottoman World

Who’s Who in Yashim’s Istanbul

We must begin with the sleuth himself, of course. Yashim is as old as the 19th century, thirty six years old when he makes his first appearance in The Janissary Tree. He is the sultan’s confidential agent, or tebdil khasseky, in succession to Fevzi Ahmed – of whom much more in An Evil Eye (Yashim No. 4). Unlike Fevzi Ahmed, Yashim can visit anywhere and talk to anyone in Istanbul… for Yashim is a eunuch. Although he can make love, he will never father children.

You want to know how that works? Then you need to read Yashim No. 5, The Baklava Club. I’m afraid that’s all the explanation I can give you here.

I don’t want to press the eunuch theme (which makes some men cross their legs), but it is a metaphor for Yashim’s role as a sleuth. All through history, eunuchs were created to serve in the palace bureaucracy – it’s true for imperial China, and ancient Persia, as for the Byzantines and their successors, the Ottomans. Without family, their interests were allied with the ruler’s own ambitions and desires, making them men a ruler could safely trust.

The Byzantines are thought to have modelled their representations of angels on eunuchs: chaste, and intercessionary, passing between the divine and the sublunary world. Above all, their role is to serve.

Angel from a mosaic in La Matorana, a Byzantine church in Palermo

Angel from a mosaic in La Matorana, a Byzantine church in Palermo

So Yashim, too, serves his sultan, and the people, and the requirements of justice.

He is also a fabulous cook, preparing the Thursday night dinner for his old friend Count Palewski, Polish ambassador to the Porte, as the Ottoman court was called. He draws on the full repetoire of Ottoman Turkish dishes, many of them first elucidated in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace, where Yashim was trained. It’s this palace tradition that allows Turkish cookery to be ranked as one of the three great classical cuisines of the world. The other two are French and Chinese.

Chimneys of the kitchens at Topkapi

Chimneys of the kitchens at Topkapi

Turkish buns

Turkish buns

Yashim has been well-trained. He has worked in the palace, and out of it, for a Greek merchant. He speaks many languages, and reads voraciously – French novels are a favourite, passed to him by the Valide, the Queen Mother, of whom more in a subsequent post!

Jean Leon Gerome's finest work - Arnaut and his dog.

Jean Leon Gerome’s finest work – Arnaut and his dog.

The Ottoman Nose

Many of you will recognise this portrait of Mehmed II, the conqueror, who beseiged and took Constantinople in 1453, bringing the story of imperial Rome to its bitter end.

Mehmed the Conqueror

Mehmed the Conqueror

It’s a portrait I love, with its rich internal frame, and the sparkling rug draped over the sill. It belongs to the National Gallery in London, where it can be seen on, I think, alternate Wednesdays in the basement store. The whole mad, scarcely credible story of this picture – its loss and rediscovery, and the curious route it took to London – can be found in Yashim Number 3, The Bellini Card, which it of course inspired. The painting itself was done by Gentile Bellini when he spent two years in Constantinople in the late 1480s, as a guest of this Renaissance prince and sultan. His invitation to stay was the result of a peace treaty between the Venetians and the Ottomans.

Is the nose credible? It’s quite a conk. I used to wonder if an over-eager restorer had perhaps given it a slight tweak.

Fast forward five centuries, to the 1930s. We are now in the princely Indian state of Hyderabad, where Azam Jar, heir to the Nizam’s throne, is married to Princess Durru Shehvar (b. 1914). Her proper, Turkish name is Hatice Hayriye Ayşe Dürrüşehvar Sultan, as she is the daughter of  Abdülmecid II, the last heir to the Ottoman throne, and the last caliph.



I don’t know who took the photo above, but you can see she was a strikingly beautiful woman. She died in London eight years ago, at the age of 92.

Cecil Beaton, the great society photographer, was clearly entranced by her. To judge by his portrait of Dürrüşehvar Sultan, he knew the Bellini, too.


I make it thirty one generations between Mehmed the Conqueror and his linear descendant, Dürrüşehvar Sultan.

That’s thirty one generations, five centuries – and one glorious nose.



Yashim in the Crimea

‘I was told you were in the Crimea.’

Yashim blinked. ‘I found a ship. There was nothing to detain me.’

The seraskier cocked an eyebrow. ‘You failed there, then?’

Yashim leaned forwards. ‘We failed there many years ago, efendi. There is little that can be done.’ He held the seraskier’s gaze. ‘That little, I did. I worked fast. Then I came back.’

There was nothing else to be said. The Tartar khans of the the Crimea no longer ruled the southern steppe, like little brothers to the Ottoman state. Yashim had been shaken to see Russian Cossacks riding through Crimean villages, bearing guns. Disarmed, defeated, the Tartars drank, sitting about the doors of their huts and staring listlessly at the Cossacks while their women worked in the fields. The khan himself had fretted in exile, tormented by a dream of lost gold. He had sent others to recover it, before he heard about Yashim – Yashim the guardian, the lala. In spite of Yashim’s efforts, the gold remained a dream. Perhaps there was none.

The Janissary Tree


The palace of the Tartar Khan at Bakhchisaray, Crimea

The palace of the Tartar Khan at Bakhchisaray, Crimea

 At the beginning of The Janissary Tree, Yashim has just returned to Istanbul, telling himself that ‘anything was better than seeing out the winter in that shattered palace in the Crimea, surrounded by the ghosts of fearless riders, eaten away by the cold and gloom. He had needed to come home.’

One irony that won’t be lost on anyone following recent developments in the Crimea is that Catherine the Great stole the territory illegally in the first place. By the treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed between the Ottomans and the Russians in 1774, Crimea was to remain in Ottoman hands. Nine years later, the Russians seized it.

The harem at Bakhsaray Palace

The harem at Bakhchisaray Palace today


Albanian Rhapsody

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When I visited Albania, in 1996, the imam at the Tirana mosque very kindly invited me to accompany him up the minaret. I shuffled my feet nervously onto the balcony while he issued the call to prayer, gazing down over the roofs of the city, and away to the encircling mountains. Far off, high on the mountain flank, I could just see Krujë, from where Scanderbeg defied the Ottoman forces in the 15th century for almost thirty years.

Albania is a mountainous country of about 4 million people, which was all but closed to the outside world from 1945 to the early 1990s, when its secretive communist regime finally collapsed. It’s a land of ancient ruins, glorious terraced hills, unspoilt Mediterranean beaches, and really hairy driving conditions. Here’s a gypsy playing his bagpipe – a reminder that Byron thought the Albanians were close to the Scots, with their kilts and their clans. He, of course, had himself painted in Albanian dress (above).


And here’s the wonderful trailer the Albanian publisher produced – 52 seconds of true Albanian atmosphere!

Once conquered, the Albanians did a reverse take-over of the Ottoman Empire. Their horizons, bounded by the mountains and the seashore of their own small country, expanded. Albanian devsirme boys went on to dominate the Janissary Corps. The Köprülü provided a dynasty of Grand Viziers. Mehmed Ali ultimately seized control of Egypt, founding a royal line that fell from power in 1956. So when I spotted Ataturk’s double in the street outside my hotel, everyone shrugged: Mustafa Kemal was Albanian, they assured me.

tirana mosque

Now a site has been cleared for a new mosque nearby, but the delightful roccoco building erected in 1703 is in immaculate condition, decorated inside and out with floral panels and these delightful glimpses of an Ottoman paradise.

Mixed Media

Why isn’t The Janissary Tree a movie yet?

After all, the locale couldn’t be faulted, could it? Who wouldn’t want to see 19th century Istanbul brought to life, from the palace to the street?


Just imagine the costume! Imagine the décor!


Ottoman civilisation may have been crumbling, politically, but it was in full flood in the creation of beautiful and unique aesthetic, and a particular way of life.


It would be gorgeous, wouldn’t it? And new: I’m rather tired of ballrooms, and chignons, and gowns. I want to see this veiled Circassian on the move:


So let’s forget the movie for the time being, and focus on the music.

Here’s an interpretation by Greg Burrows, a New York-based percussionist. He sent to to me the other day, inspired by Yashim’s adventures in The Bellini Card.

And here, if you haven’t heard them yet, are The Bookshop Band’s takes on An Evil Eye, the latest Yashim story.


Lost Empires, Vanished Kingdoms


The historian Norman Davies has written a book after my own heart. Vanished Kingdoms details the stories of several significant European polities which no longer exist, including the Kingdoms, Duchies and Counties of Burgundy, the Polish-Lithianian Commonwealth, and Saxe-Coburg. The biggest recent Boojum is, of course, the Soviet Union, which vanished overnight without anyone – least of all Gorbachev – intending it to do so; nor the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, strategists, politicians or secret policemen devoted to its preservation, being able to do anything about it.

We tend to look at the history of existing things, rather than vanished ones; and the more eagerly when they are powerful existing things. And that brands us not only as creeps, but as fools: because the most interesting lessons of history, when you think about it, teach you how things fail and disappear.


My first published article was an essay on the Polish Government-in-Exile and the Estonian Consulate in London in the 1980s, both stubbornly defying the apparent verdict of history, which ruled that Poland was a communist satrap and Estonia a province. Happily it won me the Spectator/Telegraph Young Writer of the Year Award. Happier still, both the exiled government and the unconsular consulate – of a country which did not, officially, exist – were shortly to figure once again in their nations’ affairs.

I heartily recommend Vanished Kingdoms. And I offer my own contribution, in the prologue to my Ottoman history, Lords of the Horizons:




At the back of the Bayezit Mosque in Istanbul, close to the walls of the Grand Bazaar, stand the ruins of an old Byzantine chapel. Beneath its vaulted roof is a tumbledown cafe. Horn lanterns hanging from the wall cast a dim light on the clientele, while the open door affords a glimpse – beyond the gigantic cypress which grows in the courtyard of the Bayezit Mosque, past the porphyry columns – into the sanctuary of the mosque itself, where the faithful kneel in prayer.

In the cafe a little orchestra – flute, two drums, a viola and a triangle – is playing in one corner; a backlit sheet is stretched across another. Armchairs are taken by several elderly pashas, some in uniform, some in Stamboulines and fezzes, all of them supporting armfuls of grandchildren. Behind them sit a handful of solemn old men in turbans, smoking pipes; a clutch of Greek and Armenian women, swathed to invisibility in black shawls; and a couple of Cook’s tourists, in tweeds, hoping for an insight.


For in a moment Karagoz and Hacivat will skitter across the sheet, heroes of the shadow play, the Pantaloon and Harlequin of the Ottoman stage: jointed silhouettes, cut from dried camel leather, painted up and oiled for translucency. The original Karagoz, hunchbacked and foul-mouthed, and his straight man, Hacivat, are supposed to have developed their knockabout rou­tines on a building site in 1396, where their antics proved so irresistible that work on Sultan Bayezit’s Great Mosque in Bursa ground to a halt, and the Sultan had them put to death. Others say Constantinople (Istanbul) always had its Karagoz and Hacivat, even in the days of the Roman emperors. Some think that the pair of them are offshoots of an ancient wisdom, dressed in a corrupted version of the licensed finery of the Sufi and the shaman and the bard.

In the semi-ruinous cafe they are worked by an Armenian, who is a mimic and comedian rolled up in a newspaper – a five-, six-, even seven-tasselled puppeteer. His is a very old, wandering profession. Over the years he has been in Hungary, setting garri­sons in a roar, or in Egypt, raising a pasha’s smile; he has carried his cut-outs, lamp and little screen to Iraq and the Crimea; to the neighbourhood of Venice in the army’s van, and with the fleets to Algiers. The Cook’s tourists have been told to watch for his scurrilous take-off of a foreigner speaking Turkish. The orchestra wails and squeaks; the Armenian ladies giggle; the children squirm; and a constant supply of coffee cups moves about the room, borne by Circassian youths in ‘the good old costume’: which is baggy trousers, waistcoats, and coils of coloured linen piled on their shaven heads.


This book is about a people who do not exist. The word ‘Ottoman’ does not describe a place. Nobody nowadays speaks their language. Only a few professors can begin to understand their poetry – ‘We have no classics,’ snapped a Turkish poet in 1964 at a poetry symposium in Sofia, when asked to acquaint the group with examples of classical Ottoman verse.

For six hundred years the Ottoman Empire swelled and declined. It advanced from a dusty beylik in the foothills of Anatolia at the start of the fourteenth century to conquer the relics and successors of Byzantium,

including the entire Balkan peninsula from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and the so-called Principalities of Wallachia and Mol­davia north of the Danube. It took Anatolia. The submission of the Crimean Tartars in the fifteenth century, along with the capture of Constantinople in 1453, completed its control of the Black Sea. In 1517 it swept up the heartlands of Islam – Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, along with the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Controlling the thoroughfares which linked Europe to the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Danube to the Nile.

The empire in those years was Islamic, martial, civilised and tolerant. To those who lived outside its boundaries, in lands known, by Islamic custom, as Dar ul-Harb, ‘Abode of War’, it was an irritant and a terror. To its own subject peoples, however, it belonged in the Dar ul-Islam, or ‘Abode of Peace’, and was such a prodigy of pep, so vigorous and so well-ordered, such a miracle of human ingenuity, that contemporaries felt it was helped into being by powers not quite human – diabolical or divine, depending on their point of view.

But at the start of the seventeenth century the Ottomans falt­ered. The Mediterranean Sea was relegated to second-division status, the Islamic spirit seemed to stagnate. The nations of the West were querulous and disunited, but their very squabbles proved vigorous and progressive. In the Ottoman, Islamic world the battles were already won, the arguments suppressed; the law was written, and the Ottomans cleaved ever more rigidly to the past in a spirit of narcissistic pride.

For the next three hundred years, the empire defied prognosti­cations of its imminent collapse. Fractious and ramshackle, its politics riddled with corruption, its purposes furred by sloth, it was a miracle of a kind, too, a prodigy of decay. ‘It has become like an old body, crazed through with many vices, which remain when the youth and strength is decayed,’ wrote Sir Thomas Roe in 1621. The crazed old body survived him by almost three centuries; outlived its fiercest enemies, the Russian Tsar, and the Habsburg Emperor, by a full four years. Not until 1878 were the Ottomans dislodged from Bosnia; not until 1882 did the Sultan cease to rule, in title anyway, over Egypt. Albania, on the Adriatic coast, was one of the toughest provinces the Ottomans ever sought to subdue in the fifteenth century; but the Albanians were still sending parliamentary deputies to Constantinople in 1909.

This was an Islamic empire, though many of its subjects were not Muslim, and it made no effort to convert them. It controlled the thoroughfares between East and West, but it was not very interested in trade. It was, by common consent, a Turkish empire, but most of its dignitaries and officers, and its shock troops, too, were Balkan Slavs. Its ceremonial was Byzantine, its dignity Persian, its wealth Egyptian, its letters Arabic. The Ottomans were not accounted builders by contemporaries – even though one grim old Grand Vizier was remembered as the man who built more churches than Justinian. They came with no schemes of agricul­tural improvement, although production soared in the lands they conquered in Europe. They were not religious fanatics as a rule; Sunni Muslims, they followed the moderate Hanefi school of Koranic interpretation. Sultans read the life of Alexander, but they were not particularly interested in the past.[1] But the young Ivan the Terrible took the life of Mehmet the Conqueror as his primer, and the Venetians, who always liked to know the way things ran, fiercely admired the system of government which Mehmet had devised, and found in it a Palladian quality, of harmony and handsome proportion.

The empire outlived its grandeur, famously. By the time Napo­leon landed in Egypt the empire seemed to the world as weak as Spain, as decayed in ancient pomp as Venice. Rich in talents still, the empire no longer provided a glittering stage for their expression. Its most brilliant sailors were all Greek. Its canniest merchants were Armenian. Its soldiers were ineptly led, while everywhere admired for their courage. Imperial statesmen oper­ated at home in an atmosphere of intolerable suspicion. Yet the empire lingered into the twentieth century with no white cliffs to shield it, like England; no single language to unite it, like France. Unlike Spain, the empire was wedded to no illusions of religious purity; and it never discovered gold, or Atlantic trade, or steam. The Ottomans seemed to stand, in their final years, for negotiation over decision, for tradition over innovation, and for a dry under­standing of the world’s ways over all that was thrusting and progressive about the western world.

Never, perhaps, did a power fall so low, in such a glare of publicity – the Crimean War of 1856, in which Turkey fought Russia with French and British aid, was the first war in history covered by journalists. Tsar Alexander called the Ottoman Empire ‘the Sick Man of Europe’. The Victorians referred to it imper­sonally as ‘the Eastern Question’, to which an answer, by implication, was to be supplied by muscular Christian gentlemen. To many westerners, of course, what was no longer an object of fear became an object of curiosity, and even admiration: certainly no one could deny the beauty of a traditional society, and painters found a ready market for their depictions of Levantine life. In the nineteenth century the empire made a valiant attempt to remodel itself along western lines, to enjoy, as everyone hoped, some of the western magic; but the convulsion killed it, for by then the heart was weak.


Karagoz is put in a coffin and buried at the end of the play, but just before the light goes out he pushes up the lid, hops out and sits on the coffin, roaring with laughter. The Armenian puppeteer puts out his lamp. The little orchestra, after a timpanic crescendo, lay down their instruments. The Circassian boys who have been handing refreshments round now pass amongst the audience for coins, and the pashas’ little girls, who have giggled through some improper dialogue, wriggle out.

The grave old master behind all the moves and bustle of that prodigious performance known as the Ottoman Empire moves on, packs up his puppets, extinguishes his lamp, and leaves only the screen behind: the hills, plains and declivities of the Balkans, the plateaux and coasts of Anatolia, the Holy Cities Mecca and Medina, the sands of Egypt, the grasslands of Hungary, and the grey, grey waters of the Bosphorus, which slap at the pilings of the Galata bridge.


[1] Posterity concerned them, of course. Abdi was Sultan Mehmet IV’s court historian (1648-87). ‘The Sultan kept him always near his person, and charged him with the special duty of writing the annals of his reign. One evening Mahomet [i.e. Mehmet] asked of him, “What hast thou written to-day?” Abdi incautiously answered that nothing sufficiently remarkable to write about had happened that day. The Sultan darted a hunting-spear at the unobservant companion of royalty, wounded him sharply, and exclaimed, “Now thou hast something to write about” ‘ (Creasy).



China publishing

Rain, falling on wet snow: a day of incipient gloom and indoor-ishness, with that sniffle making its way through each member of the family – towards me.

2013-01-18 11.36.55

And then:


It is the Chinese edition of my Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire.

It is also my favourite cover yet – gorgeous colour, great lettering.

549752-1  9785389024991  9788420643168  79542_lordsofthehorizons_jkt-1

Not only does it look like a product of the Silk Road – a bag of rice, perhaps, or a box of Turkish Delight – but it feels like one, too. The cover is smooth and quite thin, and the paper inside is Chinese, old-school, slightly rough, off-white.

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The book itself is heavily and brilliantly illustrated, in black and white – and it comes with another little book, ‘An Ottoman Handbook’, with an illustrated glossary of Ottoman terms and practices. What a good idea! I wish we could have one of those in English.

2013-01-22 13.10.00

Museum Secrets

Last year I did some filming with Kensington TV for a series called Museum Secrets, airing on Canada’s History Television channel.

Episode 14, Topkapi palace, is going out today.


Why were so many Sultans assassinated?

What would be the perfect way to murder a Sultan?

Topkapi Palace Museum is peaceful at night.  But when the Sultans lived here, it’s likely they had trouble sleeping.

A traitorous vizier, a jealous wife, or an ambitious son – many might have reasons to murder a Sultan.   During the Ottoman Empire, 19 Sultans were assassinated.

In the broadcast episode, we meet a man who is an expert in such matters.  His name is Jason Goodwin – a detective novelist who sets his stories in Topkapi Palace during the Ottoman Empire.

We follow Jason as he examines murderous possibilities in the Sultan’s bathroom, at Istanbul’s famed spice market, and as he returns to Topkapi to consider the homicidal potential of the Sultan’s kitchen.  Here Jason investigates if poison could be secreted into a Sultan’s food.

Is poison the best way to murder a Sultan?  Or are other nefarious methods more likely to succeed?

All is revealed in Museum Secrets: Inside Topkapi.

Further Questions

Jason’s detective novels, set in Topkapi Palace, are filled with mystery and history.  We invite you to check out a complete list of his works to date on


Anyone with £100,000 to spare? (£5 million preferred)

Speaking of orientalists (see previous blog), Sotheby’s have a sale of Orientalist paintings on April 24th in London. The link is at the end of this post.

The star of the sale, to my mind, is Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Scholar: it could be Yashim’s young friend Kadri, from An Evil Eye, continuing his studies.

The estimate is £5 million.

If it’s too short notice to free up that amount, why not John Frederick Lewis’s A Halt in the Desert?

Lewis was not the first English artist to go East, but he was unusual in settling in Cairo for ten years from 1840, where he quietly worked on his sketch books. The British were about to fall in love with the Middle East. For one thing it was actually quite easy to go there by the 1840s, so that the sort of journeys which Byron had made so much of became almost everyday. David Wilkie, it’s true, didn’t make it home: his death aboard ship was commemorated in Turner’s Peace – Burial at Sea. Richard Dadd came home only to murder his own dad, afterwards pursuing his career inside Broadmoor; but others – like David Roberts – managed to lash themselves around the sites in short order. Even Edward Lear was able to roam from Albania to Petra (‘striped ham’, he noted) and get home safely. There is a good Lear in the sale, too. By the 1860s you could visit Palmyra with Thomas Cook.

Travellers by then could contrast the warmth and personality-based governance of the Ottomans with the repressive machinery of centralised government represented by Russia. After fighting the Ottomans in the cause of Greek independence, the British (and the French) tried to prop up the Sick Man by any possible means; British forces saw off an Egyptian incursion into the sultan’s dominions in 1840 (see An Evil Eye) and, famously, fought alongside the forces of the Sultan in the Crimea; some historians go so far as to describe the Ottoman Empire as a British protectorate in all but name. Echoing the spirit of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s observations in the previous century, some observers compared eastern freedoms favourably with the industrial slavery of Victorian England.

Lewis was not alone in trying to convey the dignity of Ottoman civilisation, partly by his emphasis on craftsmanship over soulless machine products (although by the 1840s, Europeans were unwittingly cooing over Manchester cottons on sale in the bazaars of Constantinople, fully in the belief that they had stumbled over a cache of exquisite native prints). There was a receptive audience for this stuff at home. Thackeray wrote: ‘There is a fortune to be made by painters in Cairo…I never saw such a variety of architecture, of life, of picturesqueness, of brilliant colour, of light and shade. There is a picture in every street, and at every bazaar stall.’ Lewis, whom he championed, really did it best: he may have recycled the same stuff for 25 years after he came home, even trying the patience of Ruskin, who had first encouraged him into oils, but he did it with a shy sense of irony.

Both in The Carpet Seller and in Interior of a Mosque, Afternoon Prayer (The ‘Asr) he renders a disguised self-portrait, once as the carpet dealer, the other as an old military man about to pray, which seem to exude a private yearning for fellowship with a world he could, when all is said and done, only watch from the outside. I like this one, A Harem Scene, Cairo, for the detail:

Lewis and his wife had no children. They never went out to parties, he wrote very few letters, and after all the apparent excitement of Cairene life he seems to have lived a life of quiet and blameless activity with his brushes in Walton-on-Thames, part of which, I am sure, can be glimpsed out of the window of his harem picture. His wife modelled for some of the decorous odalisques. Called upon to speak after dinner at a gathering of watercolourists, he apparently gazed silently at the ceiling and then sat down.

Not many painters do so well.

Tulipomania – (almost) too beautiful for words

A reader’s suggestion for putting tulips in the garden reminds me of this passage in my history of the Ottomans, Lords of the Horizons:

The tulip was the emblem of the Ottoman royal house, worked into textiles and inlay, and celebrated in poetry: the romantic tulip of Central Asia, that is, a lyre-shaped flower with pointed petals. For a brief period at the end of the seventeenth century the tulip’s sway in the Ottoman garden was challenged by melons and cucumbers; but under Ahmet III in the 1720s it came back into favour with a frenzy which recalled, in its less sordid aspects, the tulipomania of seventeenth-century Holland.

The Dutch mania had been a speculator’s bubble. In Turkey tulipomania came to symbolise the hedonism of the court. Sultan Ahmet III had so many children that with all the births, circumcisions and daughters’ weddings a permanent holiday atmosphere reigned in the Seraglio. ‘Let us laugh, let us play, let us enjoy the delights of the world to the full,’ wrote the court poet Nedim, a particular favourite of Sultan Ahmet’s. Grizzled old kapudan pashas stooped tenderly over the bulbs with little trowels; the head gardener laid his executioner’s tools aside, and dazzling were the nightly displays in the palace in the fleeting growing season. The French ambassador described such an evening at the house of Grand Vizier Damad Ibrahim Pasha in 1726:

When the tulips are in flower, and the Grand Vizier wishes to show them to the sultan, care is taken to fill the gaps where the tulips have come up blind, by flowers taken from other gardens and placed in bottles. Beside every fourth flower is stood a candle, level with the bloom, and along the alleys are hung cages filled with all kinds of birds. The trellises are all decorated with an enormous quantity of flowers of every sort, placed in bottles and lit by an infinite number of glass lamps of different colours. These lamps are also hung on the green branches of shrubs which are specially transplanted for the fete from neighbouring woods and placed behind the trellises. The effect of all these varied colours, and of the lights which are reflected by countless mirrors, is said to be magnificent. The illuminations, and the noisy consort of Turkish musical instruments which accompanies them, continue nightly so long as the tulips remain in flower, during which time the Grand Seigneur and his whole suite are lodged and fed at the expense of the Grand Vizier…

For ten years the whole of Constantinople gave itself over to illusions of fairyland. Giant turtles bearing flickering candelabra paddled through the Seraglio grounds. ‘Sometimes the court appears floating on the waters of the Bosphorus or the Golden Horn, in elegant caiques, covered with silken tents; sometimes it moves forward in a long cavalcade towards one or another of the pleasure palaces… These processions are made especially attractive by the beauty of the horses and the luxury of their caparisons; they progress, with golden or silver harnesses and plumed foreheads, their coverings resplendent with precious stones.’

At the back of it, though, lay policy desperate and inspired: it was all the handiwork of a single Grand Vizier, Damad Ibrahim Pasha, who feverishly worked the silken threads…

From Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire