Book Review—God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World

Map of the Ottoman Empire, 1570   Everett Collection Historical, via Alamy
Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The following review of Alan Mikhail’s new book, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World appeared in the New York Times on August 18. It was written by Ian Morris, the author of Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of the Past and What They Reveal about the Future.

When the Ottoman Empire Threatened Europe — and the World

Coming down to Mexico’s Pacific shore one summer day in 1573, a merchant named Pero Ximénez saw something remarkable — “ships,” he told Spanish colonial officials, “of Turks or Moors.” Surely there was some mistake. But just weeks later, a report came of “seven vassals of the Great Turk, all men of the sea, the spies of the princes,” walking as bold as brass around the plaza of the town of Purificación. Sent to investigate, Spain’s Crown Agent concluded that “Turks or Moors” were indeed plotting with Native Americans to overthrow Christian rule.

What sounds foolish today — Turks invading Mexico — did not seem so in 1573. When Spaniards sailed the 13,000 miles from Cadiz to Java, they found Muslims all along the way. Was it really so silly to suspect that Islam had crossed the Pacific too? Today we know that the only Muslims in the Americas were the West African slaves Spain had been importing since 1501, but the conquistadors were never quite sure. Hernan Cortés claimed to have seen over 400 mosques while making war on the Aztecs.

In “God’s Shadow,” Alan Mikhail, a leading historian of Ottoman Turkey, makes two claims. The first, and less controversial, is that 16th-century Christians saw everything, including the Americas, through the lens of their struggleagainst Islam. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, the very year that Spain’s rulers destroyed Iberia’s last Muslim kingdom, he assured his royal patrons that his voyages were merely continuations of their anti-Islamic crusade. His aim in getting to Asia was to find the Mongol Grand Khan (widely believed to be pro-Christian) and talk him into a great pincer attack on Jerusalem. Even when Spaniards realized that the lands on the far side of the Atlantic were a New World, not Asia, the habit of seeing it in Turkish terms proved hard to shake. Many conquistadors had cut their teeth killing Turks in the Mediterranean and, after slaughtering Aztecs and Incas, plenty came home to fight the Turks some more. We should not be surprised that so many felt that fighting dark-skinned infidels in America was much the same as fighting them in Europe, Asia or Africa.

“God’s Shadow” is full of fine details of this cross-cultural encounter, but its most arresting aspect is Mikhail’s second claim: that “the Ottoman Empire made our modern world.” He calls his book “a revisionist account … demonstrating Islam’s constituent role in forming some of the most fundamental aspects of the history of Europe, the Americas and the United States.” From it, he says, “a bold new world history emerges, one that overturns shibboleths that have held sway for a millennium. Whether politicians, pundits and traditional historians like it or not, the world we inhabit is very much an Ottoman one.”

This is strong stuff although, in a way, the traditional historians might agree. Almost all accept that the high tolls that the Turks charged on caravans bringing Asian luxury goods through their empire encouraged Europeans to build better ships and find maritime routes to India. Saying that, however, does not prove that the Ottoman Empire was either a sufficient or a necessary condition for the making of our modern world; that requires asking the counterfactual question (one that cannot really be answered) of what Europeans would have done if the Ottoman Empire had never existed. Turkish tolls and military aggression incentivized 15th-century Iberians to invest in new kinds of ships, but should we assume that without the Ottomans, Europeans would never have got around to building them? Absent Islam, Columbus probably wouldn’t have sailed West in 1492; but just eight years later, Pedro Cabral bumped into Brazil anyway, while trying to pick up the winds to take him around Africa’s southern tip. Seaborne trade with India would have been more profitable than the overland route, even if the latter had been tax-free; so would there really have been no Cabral without the Ottomans? Or was Turkey’s role in Europe’s conquest of the Americas actually just to speed it up by a few years?

Mikhail steers clear of such guesswork, and instead makes his case by devoting the bulk of his book to a biographical account of Selim the Grim (reigned 1512-20), a particularly terrifying Ottoman sultan who murdered his half brothers (which was, admittedly, normal sultanic behavior) and deposed and probably murdered his father (which wasn’t). Selim also conquered everything from Syria to Algeria, and inflicted a devastating defeat on Persia. Mikhail sometimes struggles to integrate this story smoothly with his tale of the Spaniards in America; there is maybe too much detail on Selim’s campaigns, and some of the linkages, like the parallels Mikhail draws between Selim’s death and Montezuma’s (both in 1520), feel strained. However, the story is always interesting. Who would not want to know about the history of Yemeni coffee or the olive-oil wrestlers of Edirne?

Mikhail builds on this narrative to suggest that Selim’s contribution to the making of our modern world went well beyond just incentivizing Europeans to cross the oceans. Pero Ximénez only imagined seeing Turkish ships off the Mexican coast but, Mikhail believes, Selim did come close to sending them there. In 1518, he seemed poised to overrun the whole of North Africa. “If Selim had captured Morocco,” Mikhail says, “he would have completely reforged the history of the world,” because “if Morocco were made Ottoman, God’s shadow could stretch into the Atlantic — and perhaps even cross that ocean.”

Mikhail reads this into two of the anecdotes he tells about the grim sultan. The first describes the Ottoman captain Piri Reis showing Selim the first vaguely realistic map of the world in 1517. The story runs that Selim tore the map in two, keeping the piece showing the Old World but giving the New World back to Piri. The second story, though, says that three years later, an interpreter named Ali Bey presented Selim with another world map. This time, instead of tearing it in two, the sultan had a secretary cross out all its Italian and Latin names and replace them with Turkish ones. “Surely,” Mikhail concludes, “Selim now imagined that virtually all of the territories on the western portion of Piri’s map — the half that survives, the half that he previously chose to ignore — could be his. … He intended to make the whole world Ottoman.”

Four months later, Selim was dead, so we will never know. But had Alan Mikhail not written “God’s Shadow,” I suspect that few of us would even have asked the question. The highest praise for a history book is that it makes you think about things in a new way.

GOD’S SHADOW: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World

By Alan Mikhail

Illustrated. 496 pp. Liveright Publishing. $39.95.