Historical semantics is nothing new. It is a subfield of intellectual acrobatics that took hold in the humanities decades before 1967, when Richard Rorty informed us of a “linguistic turn” in academe. Semantics as scholarship became particularly pronounced in the field that came to be known as “postcolonial studies,” even before the subject area had a name. One of the earliest entries into the nascent postcolonial discourse was Denys Hay’s Europe: The Emergence of an Idea (1957), which asserted that Europe, heretofore a collection of heterogeneous and self-interested states, did not exist as a commonly understood space or identity until it confronted a distinct foreign culture. Hay contended that, beginning in the eighth century, the West, united under the banner of Christendom, coalesced around the concept of Europe in direct response to the threat that Islam posed to its political, spiritual, and cultural hegemony. Hay regarded this set of inclusions and exclusions as the defining source of European Continental identity from the age of Charles Martel all the way through the Crusades and the more than seven-hundred-year reign of the Ottoman Empire.
Alan Mikhail’s God Shadow, a globally minded history of Selim I’s reign as the Ottoman Emperor, is an excellent addition to the body of literature that Hay helped set in motion more than sixty years ago. The grandson of Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, Selim I (“the Grim”) reigned as Sultan from 1512 to 1520 after pushing his way to the front of the line of inheritance from among his father Bayezid II’s nineteen children. He was Bayezid’s fourth son and the child of a concubine. Once he established his position, Selim never wavered in his willingness to act decisively against any challenge to his power, real or perceived. Mikhail notes that, in “an accident of history,” Niccolo Machiavelli, a great admirer of the Ottoman Empire, completed The Prince in 1513, the same year that Selim purged two of his half-brothers to secure control over the “Sublime Porte,” as the Ottoman’s seat of power was often known. It is no wonder that Machiavelli ranked Selim as the greatest Ottoman sultan of his lifetime.
The author masterfully juxtaposes the triumphs of Selim I’s reign with events taking place elsewhere in the rapidly globalizing world of the early sixteenth century. The Ottoman conquest of the rival Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt and subduing of the threat from Safavid Persia are situated alongside the Iberian pursuit of a passage to the East and exploration of the New World. The declaration of the Ottoman Caliphate, which gave the Empire both the privileges and duties that come with being the defender of Sunni Islam, is similarly juxtaposed with the desire of conquistadors to claim the Americas for Christendom, which was facing a mortal threat from Ottoman expansion into Europe.
The warring, expansionist empire that Selim’s son, Suleiman the Magnificent, brought to the gates of Vienna eventually evolved into a settled state. At the same time, Western powers long hemmed in by Muslim kingdoms to the south and east took to the seas and built global, mercantile empires that eventually surpassed the wealth of their former rivals. The emergence of Christian Europe as the world’s dominant political and economic region did not end its preoccupation with its old adversary, however. Mikhail cites numerous examples of the persisting “Turkish Fear” in the West, long after the “sick man of Europe” had taken to his bed. These fears of Ottoman treachery came not only from the conquistadors’ descendants in Spain and Portugal, but also from Britain, France, and America.
God’s Shadow is a revisionist history in the best sense of the term. It offers readers a distinct prism through which to view a familiar and, at times, unfamiliar chronicle of events. Mikhail makes a convincing case that, far from being marauding, uncivilized invaders, the Ottomans were a force for both stability and progress in the Levant. Selim I and his successors created a connective tissue between East and West, overseeing a polyglot Empire and a Pax Ottomanica that prospered during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Mikhail, the chair of Yale’s history department, writes in accessible prose. For readers unfamiliar with pre-modern Middle Eastern history, God’s Shadow will be an excellent starting point. The author situates the heyday of the Ottomans within the context of the empire’s rise, as well as within that of the international political intrigues of the sixteenth century. Mikhail’s erudition is global in scope, enabling him to make concrete connections between contemporaneous events in the West and the Middle East. He never seems to grasp at straws in his efforts to demonstrate the worldwide influence of the Ottoman Empire. It is also a beautifully illustrated book: the collection of maps makes for a handy reference, and the color insert includes a number of vivid period paintings of Ottoman military conquests from the Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul. God’s Shadow is an excellent and readable work of scholarship, and will make a valuable addition to any library of world history.