Lost histories: the chief black eunuch of the Ottoman Harem, 1912 © Wikipedia

Adventures with the Ottomans

An entertaining travel book is packed with extraordinary true stories
November 14, 2018

Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather was kidnapped from west Africa and served in the court of Ottoman Sultan Ahmet III, when, aged six, he was given as a gift to Peter the Great. Alev Scott’s informative and entertaining book is packed with similar extraordinary true stories.

Dotted through the narrative are quirky references to the wide Ottoman-descended diaspora: figures from Boris Johnson (Turkish great-grandfather publicly lynched for his politics) and Vidal Sassoon (son of a Jewish émigré from Thrace) to Tracey Emin (Turkish Cypriot father with slave ancestry) and Kim Kardashian (descended from Ottoman Armenians). Scott spans continents, centuries, empires, identities and culture high and low in her quest for the human legacy of the Empire.

Her wonderfully anarchic cast of interviewees make incisive points about the current political divisiveness—Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently harnessing dreams of past Ottoman greatness to rally Turks to his belligerent worldview. There is a welcome focus on forgotten communities struggling with their place in society.

One of the most touching sections profiles Afro Turks in the western Aegean—many descendants of slaves. They are barely acknowledged in modern Turkey, a nationalist republic built over a multicultural past it has spent the past century disavowing. Other groups she speaks to make up a rich tapestry of identities: ethnic Turks from Crete; Arabic speakers from the multi-faith Syrian borders; Armenians and Jews.

Some tales are sad and hopeless, but there is also a growing impatience with ethnic hatred. This new feeling is best summed up by a baker from north London. With a Greek Cypriot father and Irish mother, he is familiar with sectarianism: “Both are from segregated islands. I’ve had enough of that shit.”

Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott (riverrun, £20)