It’s often entertaining and enlightening to read about history from a new vantage point. We didn’t learn everything in our high school and college history courses, and, of course, we know the curriculum had a certain Eurocentric point of view. Alan Mikhail’s book God’s Shadow is a terrific repositioning of our view of European and Middle Eastern history in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Shifting political fortunes made it a volatile–and violent–time and Mikhail has some interesting things to say, especially about the geopolitical considerations that sent Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s different from what we learned in high school.
The history that Mikhail tells so well focuses on the Sultan Selim, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1512 to 1520. His father, the Sultan Bayezit, had several sons by several concubines. In the royal court, once a concubine had given birth to a son, her obligation to the sultan was done. She was then expected to teach her son all he needed to know in case he became the next ruler. A strong bond between mothers and sons meant that many of these women, who often started life as slaves, became powerful members of the court, even sometimes the power behind the throne. There’s a great story in how Selim–the third in line for the throne–and his mother finessed their situation to his advantage. Family loyalty was not encouraged.
As sultan, Selim oversaw a great expansion of the Ottoman Empire; from Egypt in the West to Iran and Azerbaijan in the East. In his eight years as sultan, he spent most of his time leading his armies in these conquests, which paved the way for the much more peaceful era of his son, Suleyman the Magnificent. According to Mikhail, the growing power of the Ottoman Empire under Selim threatened the western European countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal, which were barely nation states compared to the huge and well-organized Ottoman Empire. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had just finished an exhausting–and violent–Reconquista, expelling Muslims (and Jews) and subjecting those that remained to the tortures of the Inquisition.
Selim controlled the best trade routes to the East, threatening access to lucrative trade with India and points farther east. In Mikhail’s explanation, Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic was to make contact with a Great Khan in China who was rumored to be a convert to Nestorian Christianity. The plan was to make common cause with this ruler and, in a pincer movement, destroy the Ottoman Empire. Mikhail’s evidence for this theory is both fascinating and very compelling.
I enjoyed this book for so many reasons. The story is absorbing and the writing is perfectly matched–graceful, straightforward and clear. I was looking forward to learning more about this period but didn’t expect such a page turner. God’s Shadow clarified and expanded my understanding of a pivotal period of history. If you have any interest in how religion and geopolitics around the Mediterranean in this era shaped our world, this is a great read.
Note: If you enter the search string “that changed the world” in your library’s catalog, you’ll find lots of results. I’m thinking of books like Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World; Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, also other books like Guns, Germs, and Steel whose authors claim that their point of view and subject matter will give you a different understanding of world history. I enjoy those books and so does my book club.