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The Lion House Christopher de Bellaigue
Opulence and brutality
The Lion House in Istanbul was once the church of St. John. But in the 16th century, its congregation was made up of wildcats, wolves, porcupines, leopards, bears, boars, elephants, and lions. Tended by Moorish keepers, this menagerie was kept for the pleasure of Suleyman the Magnificent, the tenth Sultan of the Ottomans, whose empire stretched from Baghdad to the walls of Vienna.
Suleyman became sultan in 1520, after the death of his father, Selim. Utterly ruthless in the pursuit of power, Selim had killed his brothers and nephews to gain control of the Ottoman Empire. He even tried to murder his own son with a poisoned robe. Suleiman was saved by his mother, who warned him just in time. An unfortunate servant who tried it on died instead.
The young Suleyman had “a dark complexion, an aquiline nose, a long thin neck, a prominent forehead, smooth cheeks and a thin, swooping, swallow-wing mustache”. But despite the fabulous wealth of the Ottoman court, he ate with a humble wooden spoon: “good enough for his ancestors, good enough for him.”
Unlike his tyrannical father, Suleiman liked to delegate. In 1523, he chose his favorite servant, Ibrahim, to become Grand Vizier, a position of immense power, including control of one of the empire’s most important armies. Born a Christian in Parga, Albania (and hence a subject of Venice), Ibrahim was abducted as a child and sold into slavery in Anatolia. But he became so close to Suleyman that they shared the same bedchamber: “It is as if they are one and the same, the seed of the Conqueror and a boy from a beach, the Shadow of God on Earth and his shadow.”
Christopher de Bellaigue’s memorable portrait of the first part of Suleyman’s rule is written with the imaginative insight and narrative drive of a work of fiction. It even opens with a roll call of characters, “Persons of the Drama”, as if it is a Shakespearean tragedy. Using the present tense, he tells the story of the Ottoman ruler through the lives of those around him, such as the cunning Ibrahim and Alvise Gritti – the bastard son of the Doge of Venice, a plutocrat and Machiavellian deal-maker who “doesn’ t see commerce as separate from power but as its agent of propulsion”. However, as de Bellaigue shows, the Ottoman court was a dangerous place even for wily operators such as them, and it didn’t end well for either man.
This is a brilliantly written account of the Ottoman empire in all its opulence and brutality. Rich in colorful historical anecdotes, de Bellaigue brings 16th-century statecraft vividly alive, and offers a chilling insight into the ruthlessness and loneliness of one of the most powerful men of the age.
£9.67 (RRP £10.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop
This month’s best paperbacks: Melvyn Bragg, Ursula Le Guin and more
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