Mikhail ends by reflecting on how Islam and Selim’s empire echo in today’s United States and Turkey. In the former, Islam continues to figure as an existential threat despite being largely misunderstood. In Turkey, President Erdoğan has contentiously elevated Selim into a paragon of national pride, naming the third Istanbul bridge linking Asia with Europe after him. Debates over Selim’s reputation – heroic conqueror or cruel fanatic – began with his death in 1520. While noting that Selim was “monomaniacally obsessed with accruing power”, and prone to slaughtering Anatolian Shia/Alevi villagers, Mikhail avoids taking sides. Some historians may balk at Mikhail’s narrative method, but his argument that the histories of Islam and Christian Europe were not “exclusively or necessarily oppositional or divergent” aligns with recent work by several European historians, most notably Noel Malcolm’s magisterial Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in western political thought, 1450–1750 (2019). By extending the argument across the Atlantic and demonstrating how Islam and the Ottomans played a key role in “Europe’s expansion to the New World”, Mikhail convincingly puts the Ottomans at the centre of modern global history.
Mikhail’s ‘revisionist’ account of Selim’s life and times is shoutily that. The point about revisionist history is surely that the existing edifice must be carefully dismantled before being reassembled. Revisionism requires that the author performs the balancing act of staying faithful to the demands of their craft while at the same time not short-changing a readership who may have no knowledge of, in this case, middle-period Ottoman history. Time will tell if a new take on world history lies beneath the overblown assertions of God’s Shadow.
One gift Selim did leave us is even more underappreciated than the rest of this man’s remarkable life (he died of plague or anthrax in 1520, at the age of 49). By bringing Yemen into an empire that stretched into Europe and across north Africa, he provided it with a market for its greatest export: the coffee bean. The café was an Ottoman invention and if its present cultural epicentre is Seattle, that only makes Selim’s map-ripping behaviour all the more of an irony. If he had taken Piri Reis’s hint, he might have spared us the americano.
Mikhail offers a refreshingly Ottoman-centric picture of the 15th- and 16th-century Mediterranean. He presents Christopher Columbus’s bloody explorations in the Americas as the result of Ottoman supremacy closer to home. Yet one feels he is never entirely fair in his assessment of western Christendom when judged against eastern Islam. He writes of ‘Renaissance Europe’s blood lust against Islam’ while remaining silent on its mirror image. He attributes to a young Selim ‘Ottoman Islam’s ecumenical view of the world vs European Christianity’s violent efforts to achieve religious homogeneity’, while neglecting to add that there was very little ecumenical about Selim’s later wars against Shiite Iran. While self-criticism is necessary, self-flagellation is indulgent.