Over the next few weeks, I plan to send along a selection of classic mystery and history pairings for your reading, listening and watching enjoyment. This week’s adventure will take us to Ottoman Turkey.
The Ottoman Empire lasted for nearly 600 years, from 1300, when the Turkmen chief Osman I founded the empire, to its dissolution in 1922 with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.
The Ottoman Empire contained a vast territory that spread outward from Turkey westward to eastern Europe up to the gates of Vienna, eastward through central Asia to parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and down through Northern Africa.
At its height of power and influence from the 15th through 17th centuries, when Constantinople was transformed into Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire contributed greatly to the advancement of architecture, art, law, science and medicine. It was during this time that the Blue Mosque was built and the scriptoriums were full of artists creating illuminated manuscripts for a flourishing book trade. Its Roman and Byzantine past was enriched by the skill and taste of its artisans.
Even today a walk through the streets of Istanbul is a feast for the senses. Its ancient skyline viewed from the Bosphorus at sunset will take your breath away. Its narrow streets crammed with book stores and coffee shops full of life and students reflect its intellectual energy. Its rich history is ever present and inspiring.
In an interview with the Bosphorus Review of Books, the Turkish writer Saygin Ersin summarized the magic and mystery of Ottoman Istanbul. When asked about the choice of setting for his book the Pasha of Cuisine, he said: “Ottoman atmosphere is our very attractive ‘Fantasy Realm.’ It is our Neverland, it is our Narnia, Westeros and Middle Earth. It has a magical atmosphere; very real on one side and very ‘dreamy’ on the other. Also, it is so flexible. You can write a realistic – political novel in that atmosphere and you can also write a mystical novel like the Pasha of Cuisine in the same atmosphere. It welcomes almost all kinds of fiction.”
I received a response from one of our patrons about considering Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red in my Medieval Mysteries newsletter. It made me think about how much I love that story and how it holds such a valued place on my bookshelf. This newsletter is thus inspired by that book by the Nobel Prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk is a beautiful writer, who clearly loves his city of Istanbul. I recommend reading any of his works.
One of Orhan Pamuk’s most impressive accomplishments is the creation of his museum/installation artwork and his novel of the same name, The Museum of Innocence (available on audiobook in Hoopla). Pamuk wanted to write a novel around a collection of objects that he began gathering nearly a decade prior to its creation. The objects would tell a story of an obsessive collector and disparaged lover. They would represent his need to take possession of his lost love so much so that he would build a shrine/museum to house all the objects related to the time of life they spent together. The story and the objects provide a look into Istanbul’s past and serve as a catalog of the actual Museum of Innocence that was built to house this fictional world made physically tangible. The book, published in Turkish in 2008, was written simultaneously with the creation of the museum. Like the museum, the book is considered to be a work of non-fiction housing a work of fiction. In the year the museum was completed in 2014, it won the European Museum of the Year Award. I hope to someday return to Istanbul to visit this museum.
Pamuk’s My Name is Red is a mystery set in 16th-century Ottoman Istanbul in the studio of classical miniaturists. This novel is a box-within-a-box, puzzle kind of a book. The protagonists are the miniaturists who are given equal space within the novel to narrate their recounting of the murder of one of their colleagues. Pamuk’s narrators make clear to the reader that they are aware of themselves as characters within the story. This book is reminiscent of another favorite novel of mine, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in that it is so much more than a murder mystery. These mysteries require an active reader to make the connections between the strata of past and present references. Pamuk’s story takes place during a subtle movement in historical time when Ottoman taste is shifting from the East to West. As is the case with most transitions, there is death and loss. My Name is Red is available on Overdrive in e-book format.
Saygin Ersin is a Turkish writer of fantasy, detective novels, and historical fiction. He was a former journalist and lives in Izmir, Turkey. His book The Pasha of Cuisine is set at the height of the Ottoman Empire, and features a young man who makes his way through the world via his talent for cooking. The protagonist whose name is never given finds himself in the kitchens of the Ottoman Imperial Palace, where he plans to use his gift as a weapon to save the woman he loves. The novel is not a mystery by any strict definition, but it contains elements of suspense and intrigue. Ersin captures the essence of the time period through his evocative use of food. In the author’s own words, “Most people don't realize this, but every taste is related to a memory or an emotion. Flavors are part of a person's past, and are the translation of emotion into another language.”
This is a wonderful book to explore the mysteries of the Ottoman Imperial court and its way of life through its culinary tastes. The author spent a great deal of time researching the food of the period, and found that through the study of food, one can be introduced to a broader understanding of the social history of an age. It is recommended to those who are fans of Ken Follet’s ‘Kingsbridge’ series. It is available as an e-book from Hoopla. I have added a link to the e-cookbook The Sultan’s Kitchen for those of you who might want to explore Turkish food.
Jason Goodwin is an award-winning British writer and historian who studied Byzantine history at Cambridge University. He has written several non-fiction books related to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. Goodwin’s award-winning historical mystery series ‘Yashim the Eunuch’ is set in 19th-century Ottoman Istanbul. Yashim is a brilliant sleuth whose crime-solving adventures take the reader into the luxurious world of the Sultan’s palace with a cast of unforgettable characters and thoroughly researched historical references. The first book in the series, The Janissary Tree, won the Edgar award for best novel. The Janissary Tree is available as an e-audio book in Hoopla. The Janissary Tree (Part 1 of the Yashim the Eunuch series) by Jason Goodwin; read by Stephen Hoye
I have included three non-fiction e-books, a Great Courses video series on the Ottoman Empire, and a distinguished podcast where historians, scholars and students speak on a wide range of topics. All of the titles referenced include links for immediate access. The e-books are available in Hoopla, while the Great Courses is available on Kanopy (all are free to you with a Mt. Lebanon Public Library card); the podcast is available for free online.
Emine Fetvaci holds a PhD in the History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University. Her research is concentrated in Islamic and Byzantine art. Her first book, Picturing History at the Ottoman Court (Indiana University Press, 2013), was awarded the 2014 M. Fuat Köprülü Book Prize by the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association. This book focuses on the illustrated manuscripts of the 16th-century Ottoman court and touches upon the cultural changes that were occurring at this time. This book would be a great companion to My Name is Red for those of you interested in taking a deeper dive into the historical period of the novel. Expect a scholarly and informative read. This book is available as an e-book from Hoopla.
Alev Lytle Croutier, known in Turkey as Alev Aksoy Croutier, was born in Izmir, Turkey. She currently lives in San Fransisco. She has studied Art History at Oberlin College and film at NYU. She is an author of non-fiction books and a documentary filmmaker. She has taught at Dartmouth, Goddard College and San Francisco State University. Her book Harem: The World Behind the Veil was an international bestseller that has been translated into twenty-five languages. The book focuses on the fabled harem of Topkapi Palace during the Ottoman Empire, as well as the harems of the world from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. This book is available as an e-book from Hoopla.
Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil was a renowned Turkish author, poet and playwright in the early half of the 20th century. His memoir, On the Sultan’s Service, provides a window into the life of the innerworkings and intrigues of the Ottoman Imperial Palace and its court life at the end of its empire in the early 20th century. The work has been translated for the first time into English by Douglas S. Brookes. Brookes teaches Ottoman Turkish at the University of California, Berkeley and is the author of serval books related to the Ottoman Empire. This book is available as an e-book from Hoopla.
For an immersive experience, I recommend checking out ‘The Great Courses: Ottoman Empire’ lecture series. The instructor for the 36-part series is Kenneth W. Harl, an American scholar, author, and classicist. Dr. Harl holds a PhD in Classical History from Yale University and is currently a Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans. He is an expert on ancient Anatolia and has won many awards for excellence in teaching. This series is available on e-video on Kanopy.
Ottoman History Podcast is dedicated to offering a multivocal and inclusive discussion of history in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere that showcases the numerous perspectives on the past within our field of study. Ottoman History Podcast is not a self-contained course or overview; it is a continued conversation that follows a circuitous path through the countless points of interest marked by research and scholars today. Our goal is to make discussion about the past lively and accessible to wide audiences. --Ottoman History Podcast.
The Ottoman History Podcast maintains a website with archived podcasts from its beginning in 2011. There are over 400 episodes that cover a broad range of topics and provide a depth of scholarly insight related to the Ottoman Empire. The podcast has an editorial board that ensures quality and diversity in the content. The author of Picturing the Ottoman World, Emine Fetvaci, is a podcast guest on episode 222, while Orhan Pamuk is a guest on episode 396.