Lead book review

Truly magnificent: the splendour of Suleiman I

Suleiman I richly deserved his epithet, as this vivid account of his early years illustrates, says Jason Burke

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

The Lion House: The Coming of a King Christopher de Bellaigue

Bodley Head, pp.320, 20

In this luminous, erudite book, Christopher de Bellaigue tells the story of the early years of Suleiman the Magnificent, the best known and most powerful of the Ottoman sultans.It is far from a standard narrative history. Drawing on sources in English, French, Italian and German, de Bellaigue has written a gripping account that evokes an epic poem, saga or ‘book of kings’ rather than a familiar biographical plod. It is as ‘immersive’ as the blurb claims, conjuring the world of the eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia and south-eastern Europe in the early 16th century with the limpid clarity of the many gems that stud its pages. The maps alone are worth the price of entry.

De Bellaigue has done this in a variety of ways, all audacious, all largely successful. The first is the use of an enormous amount of detail, meticulously culled from eyewitness accounts and utterly believable. Early on we learn that there is no bed in the sultan’s chamber, but that in a corner there are three mattresses of crimson velvet, two filled with cotton and one with feathers, with two covers of crimson taffeta, and three similar pillows, from which hang a slip of green silk with a gold button attached. The author — or whoever is talking to us —does not stop there:

In the evening, the pages spread these mattresses on the floor over the carpets, first the cotton mattresses, then the finer one with feathers, so that all three reach the height of a man’s knee, preparing the bed away from the wall so that one can walk around it; and at each corner they place a silver candelabrum, each with its white candle, and overhead, with silk cords, they hang a gold baldachin, which covers the bed, and when they have arranged everything they light the candles and call the sultan.

Is this detail entirely necessary? Well, yes, if you are recreating a world with this level of care and precision. It is also a simple pleasure to read.

The descriptions of treasure and military forces are equally rich, reminding us of the splendour of the Ottoman empire at its height. Even the greatest rulers of western Europe paled in comparison with Suleiman, who took power in 1520. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Francis I of France were the only two European monarchs with sufficient money and manpower to fight the Turks, a contemporary Venetian diplomat reported. Henry VIII of England was ‘poor, absorbed with matters of the bedroom and no more concerned with the Turk than if he threatened India’.

We learn about other rulers too. ‘A premature birth, King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia was incubated inside a slaughtered pig’ and ended his life ‘drowned in a puddle under the weight of his own armour’. De Bellaigue rightly eschews the lazy and misleading ‘Assassin’ label when describing the killer of a Seljuk vizier in 1092.

Even more than the detail, it is the characters that intrigue and often inspire. Here, the author has chosen half a dozen to power his narrative. There is the new sultan’s favourite, a companion and slave who eventually becomes Grand Vizier. ‘The Frank’, as he is known to his detractors, is thin, pale and physically unimposing, with few and crooked teeth:

But he compensates for his ugliness with charm and eloquence. He loves life. He loves his fiddle, Piacenza cheese and muscatel. He knows Italian, Greek, French, Turkish, Arabic and Persian, though his Arabic script is that of a child and his Italian more than a little whimsical. He enjoys learning about the lords of the world, about places and things. He has a musician from Iran in his suite with whom he composes. He shares his pleasure in these things with his lord. The sultan is lonely. It is only natural.

Later, in the full early flight of his power and wealth, with a ministerial salary of 150,000 ducats, the Frank’s morning routine is nothing if not spectacular. De Bellaigue tells us:

After being dressed in the morning, he comes down to the courtyard and mounts his Arab stallion, black with a white muzzle and fetlocks, alert and well proportioned. To get from the courtyard to the Hippodrome floor, he rides down an ornate ramp that runs flush to the facade. Then he crosses the Hippodrome, preceded by slaves, guards and members of his ministerial and personal staff, all on foot. Pipers and drummers warn people to get out of the way — but please don’t forget to stare. And the Grand Vizier is undeniably arresting in a green tunic, an azure kaftan embroidered with gold thread and a white turban as big as the sultan’s. He wears the 17-carat diamond that was a gift from his master against his skin.

Then there is the fabulous Venetian Alvise Gritti, a polymath, polyglot, banker, merchant, diplomat, politician and sometime spy. This extraordinary man and his colourful story are worth a volume alone. Alongside, Suleiman himself seems almost bland.

De Bellaigue uses the present tense throughout, which brings an effective immediacy. Quite who is talking to the reader is unclear, but their 500 years on this Earth have clearly yet to impair his, or indeed her, memory.

This narrator certainly has a gift for pithy, evocative description of both people and events. One incidental character is ‘an abundantist’, who ‘dumps the news into his diary with the same matter-of-factness as his neighbours emptying their bedpans into the canal’. The Ottomans battle across Hungary, their wooden siege engines ‘towers of faggots leering over the defenders’. In ‘the vacancy left by the silenced guns’ at the end of one desperate struggle, Moldavian soldiers ‘wander right up to the walls, marvellously insolent, and inspect the defences while scratching their testicles thoughtfully’. At Konya, the sultan ‘settles himself beneath the conical dome, liquid with turquoise faience’. This is a wonderful phrase. When a sudden blizzard buries their tents, Ottoman soldiers find ‘there is nothing to do but embrace one’s comrade and die in the attitude of one telling a secret’. But then, after this disaster, ‘the army surges southwards like a shoal towards warmer waters’. Such prose is rare in historical writing.

But this confidential, conversational voice has drawbacks. Sometimes its tone — that of an elegant, informed and clever raconteur situated out of time and space and well aware of the ironies of life — rings false. ‘The Grand Vizier’s opulent palace is a ‘fuck-off statement’. After one victory ‘the tax take is off the scale’. A deliberately cheap gift is derided as ‘crap’ that ‘you wouldn’t get 200 ducats for if you tried to sell it’. Janissaries ‘trash’ a palace. This is jarring when we know so little about the undoubtedly attractive but mysterious person who is addressing us.

There is also an underlying — and very contemporary — moral to the story he (or perhaps she) is telling us. This is something that has informed much of de Bellaigue’s work. Not for nothing was he a reporter through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Facile generalisations about ‘Islam’ or ‘the West’ have little place in the world he creates in The Lion House. So, he tells us, to refer to Istanbul–Constantinople, ‘the city of the world’s desire’, by just one of its names would be misleading, ‘for it has two selves’: ‘It is Mecca and Rome, Persepolis and Corinth, East and West. And these two selves are both healthy, crawling over each other like crabs in a bucket.’

The book leaves the reader with Suleiman truly magnificent. It is 1534 or 1535:

The first tulips are out, the plane trees are coming into leaf and squalls off the Black Sea are being put to flight by warm currents from the south. The city is suffused by the fumes of sheep fat, while the people make merry with drums and arrack. After returning from the mosque the sultan visits his Treasury, which the pages have decked with magnificent objects acquired by gift and conquest since the dynasty’s foundation, and thanks God for making him the possessor of such riches.

This is a passage that joyously recreates a lost world, its inhabitants, sensations and sensibilities. It is a fine way to end a rewarding and original history.

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