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This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World by Jerry Brotton

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World by Jerry Brotton


In September 1599, a blacksmith from Warrington arrived at the Topkapi Palace in Constantinople to show off a clockwork organ he had built for the sultan. Happily, Sultan Mehmed III, the ruler of the vast Ottoman Empire, was delighted with his new toy, a gift from Queen Elizabeth I. As a reward, he offered his young English visitor, Thomas Dallam, the pick of his harem – Dallam declined – and a big bag of gold. But such episodes were hardly exceptional, said Boyd Tonkin in The Independent. By the end of the 16th century, thousands of Englishmen could be found “from Morocco to Persia”, as we learn from Jerry Brotton’s account of Elizabethan England’s encounters with the Islamic world. Threatened by Catholic Europe, the Protestant English took a deliberate decision to overlook religious differences and seek “friends with clout” beyond Christendom’s borders. Brotton’s book is a story of “adventures, deals, conspiracies and misunderstandings” – told with “scholarship, assurance and not a little charm”.

The book’s heroes are the “maverick chancers” and “intrepid itinerants” who “traded, soldiered, settled, negotiated, spied and (fairly frequently) converted to Islam”, said Jeremy Seal in The Sunday Telegraph. In 1578, for instance, the “proto-diplomat” William Harborne secured from Sultan Murad III “full commercial rights” for English merchants, a deal that lasted until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1923. Trade flourished. London merchants sold the Ottomans lead and bell metal, taken from dissolved monasteries, for use in armaments, and sent shipbuilding timber to Morocco. In turn, said Kate Maltby in The Times, English tastes were transformed by access to Turkish carpets – the Earl of Leicester owned more than 80 – as well as Eastern delicacies such as pistachios, aniseed, nutmeg, turmeric and sugar (one reason for Elizabeth’s blackened teeth).

“Where Brotton excels” is in his exploration of the impact of the Islamic world on Elizabethan popular culture, said Dan Jones in The Sunday Times. Theatregoers were introduced to Muslim characters, from Marlowe’s “raging antihero” Tamburlaine, to Aaron the Moor, the “grotesque villain” of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus – as well as the “more nuanced” Othello. Brotton, a history professor at Queen Mary University of London, offers much more than “colourful narrative”: he reminds us that our fortunes and those of Islamic nations “have been intertwined for much longer than we might think”.

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