Monthly Archives: November 2014

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.