Category Archives: The writing life

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.

A Rose by any other name…

…would smell as sweet. Yet Shakespeare’s rule may not apply to books. After all, who these days would write a play called Henry IV Part II?

The late Anthony Blond was a brilliant publisher. In the Seventies he found himself stuck with a rather dull-sounding book by an Austrian academic on the subject of intermediate technology in the developing world. Blond thought up a clever new title. It sold millions.


When I wrote The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels in India and China in Search of Tea, I thought the title rather marvellous. The gunpowder referred to a type of green tea, and also to the legacy of the tea trade in the Opium Wars and the imperial project in British India. The gardens in question were tea plantations. My father-in-law, himself a publisher, referred to it as a canting title, by which he meant it explained nothing to anybody. I think, after all, that he was right. My next book was called unambiguously On Foot to the Golden Horn. The subtitle repeated the main title in a form anyone might understand: A Walk to Istanbul.


Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire was inspired by an inscription on a mosque in Bursa, placed there by an early sultan who described himself as ‘Lord of the Horizons, Burgrave of the Whole World.’ It seemed to sum up the Ottoman project nicely.

The titles of my Yashim novels, thrillers or mystery stories dealing with an investigator in 19th century Istanbul, have had a mixed run. The Janissary Tree was, I think, rather brilliant. Everyone knows what a tree is, but almost nobody recognised the word janissary, so their curiosity was piqued. The publishers were less enthusiastic. In Dutch, the book was called Istanbul Fire; and in Norway, where the term janissary is actually still used – applied to some sort of school choir, I believe – they thought it would cause confusion.


The title of the second book still irritates me. The Snake Stone was meant to be called The Serpent Column: like the Janissary Tree, the Serpent Column is a feature of modern Istanbul. In the event, the publishers won – but I still don’t know why they preferred one over the other. The third novel, about the search for a lost Bellini portrait, is called The Bellini Card in, I think, the sense of playing a card, or taking a chance. Some people tell me it’s their favourite book in the Yashim pack, but I have to admit the title stinks.

Book Four deals with intrigue and superstition in the sultan’s harem. I called it An Evil Eye. Strictly speaking it should have been The Evil Eye, to match the others in the series: but then it ran the risk of sounding like a history of malocculation. Later I was told that books with the definite article always sell better than books with the indefinite article. The trumps a every time. (Reminding me of my friend the scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who regrets doing the research for his superb book Dogs that Know when their Owners are Coming Home. Cat books, he assures me, outsell dog books five to one).

The latest Yashim novel, out next Spring, has the provisional title The Latin Reader. The publishers on both sides of the Atlantic hate it. It runs a serious risk, they say, of ending up among the Dead Languages section of the bookshop. It involves a group of hapless Italian revolutionaries who have fled to Istanbul to avoid prosecution in the Papal States. Polish ambassador Palewski, who admires their youthful idealism but doubts their staying power, has an affectionate but slightly contemptuous nickname for them. So, as I edited the final manuscript, a new title sprang out at me.

The Baklava Club.


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.

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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.

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The best new sleuth since Maigret

Disasters are said to come in threes, so maybe the same holds true of good things, too.

Last week, in The Week, A N Wilson chose The Janissary Tree as one of his six favourite books (between Wallace Stevens and St. Augustine’s Confessions). Wilson – whose new novel, The Potter’s Hand, is out this week – writes:

‘I am addicted to Goodwin’s detective stories set in in Istanbul in the 1840s. Yashim…is the best new sleuth since Maigret. The books evoke that great city and the plots are ingenious.’ 

Simultaneously I received my copy of the London Library magazine, with the cover story one I wrote about Ottomania, searching out the subject in the stacks of my favourite library.

On Monday I delivered a review of Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, to the Spectator, which came out on Friday.

Finally, our house was featured rather gorgeously in Ben Pentreath’s English Decoration, which is out next month – a copy arrived last week, too.

That’s four good things, you say? No, that’s one for my wife – revealing, as Ben writes, ‘the brilliance with which Kate puts together her rooms.’


Yashim – the soundtrack!

Complete joy! I did an event for An Evil Eye, talking about the harem, at the wonderful bookshop in Bath, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. It was rounded off by this appearance from the Bookshop Band… They’ll be on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, too.

Watch and enjoy – and share it with friends: the band deserves it!

As the band said, if Yashim’s adventures were done as a children’s tv programme, this would be the soundtrack.

Order, order

Over the course of the Istanbul series of Yashim novels it’s inevitable that new readers will begin to discover them in random order – which is why, like JK Rowling, I make sure the characters are re-introduced in each book, subtly enough (I hope) that regular readers won’t be bored.

Here is the Yashim hit-list (linked to in strict order of appearance:

1. The Janissary Tree

2. The Snake Stone

3. The Bellini Card

4. An Evil Eye

A fifth, provisionally entitled The Latin Reader, is currently entertaining me each day…

Image This is Gentile Bellini’s 1501 Turkish Painter, in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston

Liking stuff – including a duck shoot

Setting up a modern online publishing venture is like picking at a loose thread: before you know it you’ve made a hole in the world wide web and all your schedules are unravelling…

Sunita, the glamorous publicity director of Argonaut Books, insisted that The Gunpowder Gardens should have a Facebook page. Then, that the page should be liked by as many people as possible. So if anyone has a minute – and why should you? – please go over to and click Like: apparently it’s an open sesame.

More congenially, I took Yashim’s friend Palewski, the Polish ambassador to the Sublime Porte, duck shooting this morning. It’s September, barely dawn, just outside Istanbul at the Çekmece Lakes, where the duck comes in from the Crimea… Both lakes have bridges built by the masterly Sinan.