God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail

In the decades around 1500, writes Alan Mikhail at the start of this captivating book, the Ottomans “controlled more territory and ruled over more people than any other world power.” A monopoly on maritime and overland trade routes to the East, combined with formidable naval and military muscle, not only supported a sophisticated bureaucratic apparatus and jaw-dropping wealth; it also acted as a barrier to and a catalyst for others. Merchants and sailors in other parts of the world were forced to become “global explorers,” obliged to try to cross treacherous oceans and traverse continents, “all to avoid the Ottomans,” writes Mikhail.

God’s Shadow sets out to re-insert the Ottoman Empire into the wider canvas of global history and to link it to developments ranging as widely as the rising availability and popularity of coffee in early modern Europe to the views of Martin Luther at the start of the Reformation. The Spanish who arrived in the New World saw shadows of their Muslim rivals in Europe and the Mediterranean wherever they looked, argues Mikhail, noting that buildings in the Aztec world looked like mosques, the population was ruled by a “sultan,” and that some groups of enslaved indigenous peoples were later called genízaros, a corruption of the Ottoman word for “janissary.”

The Ottoman Empire receives little attention from scholars, so this book offers a welcome and important corrective. Mikhail’s recalibration of the early modern era is ambitious and provocative—not least since he insists, too, that we look beyond the two most famous Ottoman rulers, Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, and Süleyman the Magnificent. In fact, says the author, “the most magnificent sultan in Ottoman history” was Selim, who ruled from 1512 to 1520.

Selim the Grim

Nicknamed “the Grim” (yavuz), Selim was the son of Bayezit II (reign 1481–1512), himself famed for offering sanctuary to Jews forced out of Spain after the Reconquista of 1492. Selim’s early life was one of wealth and luxury: as the 4th of 10 sons, he was expected to enjoy himself until one of his brothers took the throne—at which point, he would likely be murdered to prevent him from posing a threat to the successful candidate.

Selim proved to be not only resilient but resourceful: guided by his mother, the indomitable Gülbahar, he cut his teeth as the governor of Trabzon, the Black Sea emporium, building himself a power base over a spell there that lasted more than two decades. He gathered a “ragtag coalition” around him, welcoming upstarts, exiles, opportunists, and the aggrieved—and learning how to get his own way. In the process, he built up an armed force that was a quarter the size of that controlled by the sultan himself.

The expectation was that Selim should enjoy himself until one of his brothers took the throne—at which point, he would likely be murdered.

He proved adept at winning the loyalty of those around him and at bolstering his reputation. One raid to take slaves from Christian Georgia was celebrated in the Selimname, a text produced to glorify Selim and his achievements, which waxed lyrically about “beautiful, graceful and rosebud-mouthed” women who had been taken prisoner—before being raped and sold. If that played a part in earning him a name as a heartless, violent man whose “eyes betray a cruel streak,” as the Venetian doge Andrea Gritti put it, then so did his ruthlessness in turning on his own father.

By the summer of 1511, Selim had been plotting the overthrow of his father for more than a decade, says Mikhail. He seized his chance, deposing Bayezit, who died soon after he was sent into exile. Selim’s seizure of the throne and of the imperial capital meant that “the most brilliant sun rose over the world; grief departed from the world entirely.” That might have been how some people saw it, but it was certainly not how many understood what was happening.

World War Zero

After taking power, Selim set about what Mikhail calls a series of “world wars.” First, he hunted down his brothers and had them murdered to secure his position. Then he turned on Safawid Persia, the empire’s neighbor to the east, seeking to humiliate Shah Ismail diplomatically, politically, and then militarily. His successes forced Ismail into a state of shock and despondency, with the Shah taking to wearing black mourning robes and a black turban, and downing “goblets of purple wine and listening to the strains of music and song.”

“God’s shadow on earth,” as he was later referred to, then turned his attention to the Mamluk empire, the Ottomans’ other great rival in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Near East, and the Islamic world. He caught the Mamluks at the perfect moment, capitalizing on a combination of inept leadership, a failing economy, and new threats in the rear from the newly arrived Portuguese in the Red Sea and beyond. The result was a massive expansion of Ottoman territory, the empire now rooted not only in Europe and Asia but in Africa too.

This was just the start, says Mikhail. Selim was determined to take the whole of North Africa, then Spain and West Africa—and to move into the Americas, too. “He intended to make the whole world Ottoman,” he writes. That seems to be something of an overstatement, partly because it is not clear that any such plans were ever seriously contemplated. There is no question that the conquest of the Mamluks was enormously important for the Ottomans and, indeed, for Islam—but that was because of the implications to the east, not the potential future excitements to the west. After 1517, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem were all in Ottoman hands, giving Selim and his successors a status and importance that were regionally and religiously only matched by the time of the earliest expansion of Islam from Arabia.

“He intended to make the whole world Ottoman.”

Mikhail writes authoritatively, as one would expect from so accomplished a historian. He writes accessibly and vividly, too, which means that, while scholarly, the book is readable, enjoyable, and relatable. Edirne, for example, was a “Camp David” for Ottoman sultans, while the harem was a “laboratory” that “perfectly incubated future sultans,” by training them to observe and understand what was going on in front of and behind the scenes.

While the book spans many topics, and does so persuasively, it is very much set as a biography of a single individual who, “more than any other, made the Ottoman Empire the transformative global power that it was.” Of course, this risks losing sight of questions about the agrarian and urban economies of the time, about political, social, and artistic culture, about the significance of religion to Selim and within the empire as a whole—and about whether, why, and how these changed during his reign. Mikhail nods to the importance of the administrative reforms carried out by Selim but without going into detail or explaining their contemporary significance.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific guide to the Ottomans during a period of profound change. Selim died in 1520 after just eight years in power. His rivals, including in Europe, rejoiced at his demise. The historian Paolo Giovio, writing for the Medicis in the 1500s, noted that a “furious lion had left a gentle lamb as his successor.” Selim’s son Süleyman was not the first Ottoman ruler to be underestimated by historians. But Mikhail has done a fine job to ensure that it is Selim who retakes center stage. It is no coincidence, for example, that the new bridge across the Bosporus, which opened in 2016, is named Yavuz Sultan Selim Köprüsü—the Sultan Selim the Grim Bridge. History matters in the present as well as in the past.

Peter Frankopan is a professor of global history at the University of Oxford and the author of several books, including, most recently, The New Silk Roads