Book Review: God’s Shadow

God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World
Alan Mikhail
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2020 by the author

Mikhail opens with a note of curiosity. On the Mexican side of the mouth of the Rio Grande, there’s a town called Matamoros. In Spanish, that means “Slayer of Moors”. What is this reference to the Reconquista doing in the New World?

He goes on to explain that Spain’s system of colonizing the Americas involved land grants to that war’s veterans, and that encomendia system was a direct carryover from how Moslem lands were distributed back in Spain. He also notes that the major driver for Spain’s exploration was to find a way to outflank Moslem domination of the eastern Mediterranean, which had monopolized control of the trade routes to the Orient.

That’s his launching point for a look at the rise of the Ottoman Empire – and the sultan responsible.

Most of this work is a biography of Selim “the Grim”, the grandson of Mehmet the Conqueror who captured Constantinople, and the father of Suleiman the Magnificent. It’s a good biography, giving welcome insight into the Ottoman system of nobility, succession, and government. Selim learned the arts of rulership by getting appointed as governor of Trebizond at the age of 17. It was the standard practice to give the likely heirs dominion over small cities on the frontiers, where they could get vital on-the-job training in places where they couldn’t do much damage.

Advised and guided by his mother, Selim learned quickly and proved more than able to lead. When his father proved obstinate by refusing to die, the 42-year-old took matters into his own hands and staged a coup. His father was deposed, and his two surviving brothers were defeated on the field of battle and then put out of their misery….

On the throne, Selim led military expeditions east into Savafid Persia, eliminating that threat to his rule. He conquered the Mamluks of Egypt, and was poking at Northwest Africa when he died – after a reign of only eight years.

Naturally, his rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire greatly worried the rest of Europe. Here was a nation that was different in every way – religion, culture, language – even their way of writing was bizarre. They were the Alien Other, and could never be fully integrated into the European geopolitical web. A good deal of European politics in the sixteenth century would revolve around attempts to contain that threat.

That’s all well and good, but aside from it being a matter for Selim’s descendants, this “reactive politics” isn’t enough of a hook to support Mikhail’s primary thesis that the Ottoman Empire had a HUGE influence on the modern world. Sure, the New World was discovered because Spain needed to bypass the Ottomans, Martin Luther noted with some approval that Islam didn’t have a pope or bishops and allowed people to read the Qu’ran themselves to make their own decisions, and the Ottomans gave us coffee. But it’s really really hard to find a direct and unbroken connection from Selim to the 21st century world, no matter how much Mikhail tries.

It’s still a worthwhile book and entertaining read. Even though they don’t really fit in his narrative, the sections on the early life of Columbus (his early voyages took him as far south as Ghana in Africa, and as far north as the British Isles and maybe even Iceland) and the introduction of African slaves in the Caribbean (the first imported slaves were actually Muslims from West Africa, and they led a few rebellions in the early 1500s) are fascinating.

History buffs would do well to check this out. The Ottoman Empire spread out onto three continents and dominated the politics of eastern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Selim’s son, Suleiman the Magnificent, who benefited from his father’s conquests and internal reforms, is one of those leaders like Simon Bolivar whom everyone should know more about, if only because they are fascinating people. But that – like how the Ottomans faded away to become the “Sick Man of Europe” and wound up as little more than a comfortable padded footstool – is a matter for another book.

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