Romancing “American Selim”

"We certainly have no issue with discussing the content and arguments of our review, or indeed of Mikhail’s book. We in fact welcome this opportunity to expand on our critique of the book rather than dwell on the curious set of personal attacks."

Alan Mikhail closes his recent book God’s Shadow (Liveright, 2020, cited as GS), centered on the Ottoman Sultan Selim (r. 1512-20), with a striking anecdote (p. 403). He writes: “In 2005, thieves stole a kaftan and crown that Selim had worn during his life and that adorned his tomb”. He adds that “a few months later, baggage screeners at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport discovered the items in the luggage of two men” and goes on to argue that “Selim’s kaftan and crown symbolize the caliphate, so their possessor symbolically becomes Selim’s successor, as both sultan and caliph”. By way of documentation, he cites two newspaper articles, one in the Hürriyet, the other in the Arabic edition of the Daily Sabah. But the first article categorically denies that there was any theft, merely that the kaftan was sent for restoration. The latter story (in Sabah, a pro-government paper) does indeed claim that so-called Gülenists attempted a theft but provides none of Mikhail’s melodramatic details. Another Hürriyet story (not cited by Mikhail) suggests that certain bureaucrats associated with the Gülenist movement had tried to take it to the US via legal channels on the pretext of restoration, but the then-minister of culture ordered that they find a restorer in Turkey. In none of these accounts does a crown appear, and in fact we have absolutely no evidence that Selim had a crown that symbolized his sultanate and “caliphate” to his subjects. The crown as a symbol of sovereignty was alien to Islamic traditions of the time (the Safavid taj is not a crown). Episodic ceremonial display of a crown by later rulers like Süleyman in his German campaign of 1532 seems to have been based on competition with European sovereigns and was a case of strategic syncretism directed at Christian European audiences. Only an historian profoundly ignorant of Ottoman sovereign rituals in the early sixteenth century would make claims about Selim’s alleged “crown” and its importance. The sensational story of the theft and airport interception also seems to have no basis.

Should we care about such things while reading and evaluating a book? If one reads a text recently put out in boundary2 online  by two scholars, Efe Khayyat and Ariel Salzmann, entitled “On the Perils of Thinking Globally while Writing Ottoman History: God’s Shadow and Academia’s Self-Appointed Sultans”, the answer is emphatically no. In what is ostensibly “a response to reviews of Alan Mikhail, God’s Shadow”, but in fact an attack on one single review published by us in Cromohs, Khayyat-Salzmann (K-S) characterize our review as a “screed”, which “misrepresent(s) and mischaracterize(s) the aims and methods” of the book it reviews. They claim it is full of “willful distortion”, and “repeated ad hominem attacks”. On the other hand, K-S then themselves deliver a repeated set of low ad hominem attacks, while ascribing nefarious motives to a legitimate and fairly detailed critique of factual and interpretative errors. They also produce a full-throated endorsement of Mikhail’s book and its significance.

We certainly have no issue with discussing the content and arguments of our review, or indeed of Mikhail’s book. We in fact welcome this opportunity to expand on our critique of the book rather than dwell on the curious set of personal attacks.  For our part, we will refrain from addressing K-S’s motives, just as we have not addressed those of Mikhail. We wish merely to address their errors, omissions, and the misleading claims and logic of their essay and of the book it is defending.

In our review we made a number of points. K-S chose not to address most of them: Mikhail’s resort to “primordialism”; his blatantly false claims on the extent of Selim’s political, commercial and religious influence in the Islamic world; his grave misattribution of documents on Ottoman-Safavid relations; his misreading of crucial documents on the Ottomans in the Indian Ocean; his misrepresentation of the extent of Ottoman influence on Europe before 1520; his misreading of the history of coffee and coffeehouses. K-S make a feeble attempt to defend him on this last point, which is an important part of Mikhail’s approach to endearing Selim to American audiences, and immediately resort to blatant untruths. Here is what they say: “Let’s take the Ottoman role in disseminating coffee and coffee drinking (two pages in Mikhail’s 450-page book). Citing page 318 of the book, they [CF, CK and SS] claim that Mikhail says that ‘it was Selim’s military that first discovered’ coffee. In fact, he does not say that, but rather explains that it was ‘the intercontinental unity Selim achieved’ that allowed coffee to become a global phenomenon, one the Ottomans would monopolize for centuries”. This is a case of quoting one thing to deny another. Instead let us quote directly from Mikhail. “In 1517, as Selim’s ‘numberless troops’ streamed southward from Syria along the eastern coast of the Red Sea, they stumbled upon something none of them had encountered before – a bush with a strange, bright-red berry”. And he adds: “What Selim’s army found in Yemen was coffee”. And all this culminated in the ubiquitous locale that Selim bequeathed to humanity – the café”. (GS, p. 318). What could be clearer than that? As we have explained, this is a false description of how coffee was first discovered and then disseminated in terms of the agents, the chronology and the larger process. But K-S are so attached to Mikhail’s untruths, which became a central selling point in his Washington Post essay, that they embroider on them. They refuse to engage with the complex history of coffee in the Ottoman world and beyond.

Mikhail’s account of coffee is a very good example of the kind of great man history that, we argued, is dated for good reason. It is retrograde. Here is the revised version of his Washington Post article, after the newspaper corrected it: “The Ottomans began to brew this berry, and with it created institutions devoted solely to drinking coffee: We (and Starbucks owner Howard Schultz) have Selim to thank for the coffeehouse”. Not exactly. If one reads that the British began to brew tea leaves, without any reference to uses of tea beforehand, what would that reader be led to understand? That the world has Queen Victoria to thank for tea?  Are we not supposed to ask what work this peculiar narrative choice does? The Yemenis and Ethiopians, long before the Ottomans reached those lands, began to brew coffee and Arab entrepreneurs of the fifteenth century started to create pioneering institutions. As for the coffeehouse, it is Selim’s descendants who owe the institution to two Syrian merchants who in the mid-sixteenth century established the very first one in Istanbul, according to the Ottoman historical tradition. Would it not have been worth underlining their agency rather than that of a sultan who himself had nothing to do with coffee or coffeehouses? In this day and age when recognition of the deep cultural traditions and contributions of Syrians is most needed across the globe? Who would write a history of cafés in Paris, or Europe, by neglecting Procope but giving all the credit to Louis XIV? And who would consider this unfounded lionizing of a powerful ruler, and the resultant denial of the agency of others, progressive history-writing? Could it be that a “tangible hook” is a good idea but that Selim is not the right one?

It is hard to understand the holier-than-thou attitude of K-S who are proudly pushing for an agenda in which the gratuitous recognition of the role of an emperor is the next big welcome step in global history, whereas one could frame a similar narrative by referring to many agents of lesser rank and social standing, but far more deserving in this world-changing story of coffee, and that would be closer to what we know as facts. The two merchants, whose exceptional entrepreneurial ingenuity is what we should actually be speaking about, found a congenial clientele among the ordinary folks of the Ottoman capital, who invented and cultivated new uses of this beverage. Of course, companies like Starbucks owe a big one to Middle Easterners, Africans, and to the Ottomans but not really to a specific sultan. It is Yemenis, Ethiopians, Syrians and the middling sort and less fortunate members of Ottoman urban society who deserve the credit here, even if it makes the story a bit less sensational. (If we were to ask Mr. Schultz to engage in an act of acknowledgment, we would ask him to commemorate the two Syrian coffee merchants with monuments in Istanbul and Seattle.)

With that in mind, let us revisit K-S’s claim that “coffee arrived in Europe through Ottoman connections”. Yes, but who are those who constituted those “Ottoman connections” in this story? Jewish neo-Kabbalists from Safed who took the substance and the habit to northern Italy in the early seventeenth century; an Armenian merchant who seems to have been the first to open a café in Vienna (long before 1683); Ottoman ladies who hosted their European guests with cups of coffee; ambassadors sent to European capitals in the seventeenth century. To give the credit to Selim in this matter is like speaking of the “Grand Turk” as representative of Ottoman society as a collectivity. And this for the sake of some new and innovative world history?

Artwork of the Battle of Chaldiran at the Chehel Sotoun Pavilion in Isfahan (eighteenth century)

Of the “sober” reviews mentioned by K-S, the one by a historian of Ottoman society, Caroline Finkel, shares our assessment of the book in general, including bafflement in front of its reckless attitude to facts. This is for good reason. Let us mention a small selection of some other egregious errors in the book, which K-S find so commendable in terms of not compromising “from historical and philological scrutiny” (K-S), even invoking Erich Auerbach in their support. Here for example is how Mikhail introduces the rivalry between Selim’s father (Bayezit) and half-uncle (Cem) that would create circumstances of a civil war in 1481-82 and constitute a formative event in the early life of the prince: “Around the time that Bayezit became the governor of Amasya in the mid-1450s, Cem assumed the governorship of Konya” (GS, p. 33).  But Cem was born in 1459 (as noted in the chronology appended to GS); the Ottomans captured Konya only in 1468, when Cem’s elder brother Mustafa became governor there and served until his early demise, to be followed in that role by Cem who indeed “assumed the governorship of Konya” only in 1474. The confusion here may be due to the fact that Mikhail uses the Wikipedia article for “Konya” (one of twelve Wiki articles cited in the book) which states: “In 1420, the Beylik of Karamanoğlu fell to the Ottoman Empire and, in 1453, Konya was made the provincial capital of Karaman Eyalet”. Need we really underline the perils of a blind reliance on Wikipedia?

Alas, that is not the end of Mikhail’s torturous treatment of poor Cem. Some mysterious “Kasıms” appear –thirteen times (GS, pp. 41-44) – as allies in a totally romanticized version of the story of the unfortunate prince, full of clichés (with “maidens throwing themselves at his feet”, in “much-embroidered tales” Mikhail writes; but these readers would like to know who embroidered them). No such “tribal principality” is known to scholars or popular historians or even to television shows. We can only presume Mikhail has the Karamanids in mind whose last ruler was called Kasım bin İbrahim. At this point, we are left wishing that the enigmatic Fatih Akçe had written a book on Cem as well for then, at least, the chronology and the relevant names would be accurate.

Does this look like a book marked by “historical and philological scrutiny”? When dozens of such instances can be easily identified, including gross errors in the understanding of Safavid history, where Isma‘il’s actions are confused with those of his grandfather Junayd (GS, p. 193); in the maps and even in the attributions of illustrations, where the expulsion of 1492 is taken for the subsequent morisco expulsion of 1609? Indeed, in the matter of such errors, GS is a gift that keeps giving, and one can pretty much open a page at random (in the style of old-fashioned prognosticators) and find some. (Just have some fun, if you wish, by visiting the tweets of Abdürrahim Özer and appreciate his close reading and humor.) To take another gem, Mikhail states with no references (GS, p. 108), that for fifteenth-century Iberians, “pagan equaled Muslim, making it possible for the Portuguese in West Africa to understand both Muslims and non-Muslims as part of the same conceptual category of ‘Muslim’”. Anyone who has actually read the Portuguese chroniclers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – Zurara, Barros or Castanheda – must marvel. That is if truth still matters in history-writing, of course, no matter what the genre.

And who besides Mikhail still believes that Constantinople was renamed Istanbul (GS, p. 9) after the Ottoman conquest? The word Istanbul appears in the sources of the Islamic world since the tenth century and in Armenian sources since at least the twelfth century as one of several names for the Byzantine capital. After the conquest, the Ottomans continued to use most of them, with a clear preference for Kostantiniyye (the City of Constantine) in chancery documents and, even more emphatically, on their coinage. (Renaming conquered cities is evidently an Ottoman tradition according to Mikhail, since his chronology also states that Adrianople was “renamed Edirne” in 1369 …).

Selim’s entry into Damascus and visit to the shrine of the thirteenth-century mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, who was said to have prophesied the sultan’s conquest of Syria, offers Mikhail an opportunity to embroider another Ottoman tradition: “Some accounts take the story a step further, claiming that the spiritual adviser of Osman, the progenitor of the Ottomans, had studied under Ibn ‘Arabi. This tied Ibn ‘Arabi to the very origins of the Ottomans” (GS, p. 346). “Some accounts” once again boil down to the indefatigable Fatih Akçe, whose work is indeed one of the most important sources for GS. Considering how significant the cult of Ibn ‘Arabi is for Selim’s construction of his image and legitimacy, even this specific instance is hardly a trifle, no matter how hard K-S try to downplay Mikhail’s reliance on this book. They write that we, and Finkel to whom we refer, are making too much of Mikhail’s “supposed overreliance” on this author, for “thirty-one citations is hardly a lot in a book with over 1,300 total citations”. Let us revisit those numbers: of the 812 page-notes, twenty-six have Akçe as the sole reference. Is it not remarkable that this one book takes three percent of the credit on its own? As for the “ceremony to invest Selim with the caliphate”, something we called a critical fabrication not attested in primary sources, this assertion in GS has only Muir (a sadly dated book on the Mamluks from 1896) and Akçe for references. We are speaking of investiture with the caliphate in a book about the world-changing role of a sultan, and “Mikhail does not rely on Akçe for any substantive part of his argument” (K-S)? Does Ibn Iyas, the Egyptian chronicler whose name K-S bring to the rescue in a disingenuous fashion, write about this in his “eyewitness account”? Not a word. As Faruk Sümer stated in an authoritative essay on the question: “Not a single contemporary source from the period states that the Ottoman sultan Yavuz Selim took over the caliphate from the last ‘Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mutawakkil ‘Ala’llah Muhammad”. 

To continue with the basics, in describing the Ottoman “institution known as the devşirme”, for instance, Mikhail writes that “[t]eenage Christian boys were seized and taken to Ottoman centers of power. With all family ties severed, these boys converted to Islam, received every material advantage” (GS, p. 20). By now, Ottomanists know well that for many devşirme recruits “all family ties” were not severed: a grand vezir like Sokollu Mehmed Pasha (Sokolović) maintained close ties throughout his life with his brother who was eventually appointed to the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć; Sinan, as Chief Architect, intervened on behalf of his Christian relatives in a village of Kayseri to prevent their forced migration to newly-conquered Cyprus; even some rank-and-file Janissaries could contact and communicate with kin. It is also odd that in this earliest depiction of the institution in the book, these boys blandly “converted to Islam” as if it was their choice. Since  Mikhail is certainly aware of the forcible nature of this conversion, this must be a slip, but it says something about his slipshod attitude toward identifying Ottoman coercion as such, which dovetails with our next point.

From matters of fact, we can turn to those of perspective. Having been given by her father “to the sultan as a concubine … the benefits were … considerable” for Gülbahar, who would eventually give birth to Selim. “Not only would she live a more comfortable life in the palace than she would in her native village (where, instead of being owned by a sultan’s son, she would simply have been owned by her husband), but she also had the chance of becoming the mother of a sultan and therefore the most important woman in the empire – truly one of the most powerful women in the world”. (GS, p. 20). What exactly are we to draw from this reasoning? That a peasant girl would naturally prefer the comforts, such as they were, of the imperial harem to life in her native village since it came with the prospect of distinguished progeny and power, in some American fantasy of upward mobility? It is certainly a giant step that the field has taken in recent decades to recognize that  the harem, as depicted in Orientalist literature, is “often an object of fantasy and myth”, but one wonders if Mikhail’s depiction of it as a “schoolhouse rather than a seraglio” (GS, p. 22) does justice to the servile lives of many of its denizens, who numbered in the thousands, lifelong. And one is struck yet again by the alignment between this line of reasoning and neo-Ottomanist apologetics.

In that light, let us also deal briefly with the matter of Selim’s treatment of confessional differences and his massacres.  Our initial comment was in response to Mikhail’s assertion that Selim was the ultimate factor behind Europe’s confessional divide and ensuing violence. Far more relevant, we argued, is Selim’s legacy with respect to the confessional topography of the Middle East since the sixteenth century. And GS gives short shrift to that. K-S seem to establish a new criterion by saying that there is no room for criticism since AM “mentions” the massacres twice (we also said so in our review, where we did not claim he totally neglected it). Can we consider “mentioning” a major sociopolitical event of collective suffering and trauma, such as slavery or ethnic cleansing, a sufficient criterion for writing good history, in a trade book or otherwise? We are not looking for a gesture of acknowledgement, of nodding in the direction of a particular position, but the subject matter is one that deserves scrutiny and analysis, a proper historical treatment rather than mention. If we were to exchange Selim with Cortés, it would be interesting to see how the readers would feel about the logic of K-S. Ultimately, if one were to look for disingenuousness, the bald contrast drawn by K-S between monumentalizing a historical figure and speaking of them as “violent and conniving” certainly qualifies as a case. Many admirers of Churchill who think of him as a monumental figure in world history would not balk at the suggestion that he, too, had been violent and conniving – in good measure and for a larger vision, they would say. Admirers of Selim admire him not despite the fact but precisely because he was, among other things, yavuz (grim, his epithet). Great man histories are rarely about saints.

K-S also make a number of claims about historiography that any serious historian of the period will find ridiculous. This includes giving Mikhail credit for ideas that have long circulated. We did not need Mikhail to make the connection between Spanish America and Islam: this had long been done by Barbara Fuchs, Thomas Goodrich, Patricia Seed, Abbas Hamdani, Alain Milhou, Serge Gruzinski, and several others, including Carina Johnson (whose serious work should not be compared to that of Mikhail). We certainly did not need him to tell us that the histories of the Islamic world and the Christian West were linked, an utter banality. Nor did we need him to somehow invent early modern global history for us, whether with respect to the Islamic world or the Mediterranean. Anyone who claims the contrary can only be ignorant of not one but several generations of historiography.

The real issue, which K-S fail to see or address, is a question of method, that is how Mikhail goes about producing his global history. It is our central contention that global history should not be used as an alibi to write sloppy history. But methodological rigor does not seem to form a part of their (and Mikhail’s) slapdash conception of global history as an indigestible ratatouille made from half-cooked ingredients. Certainly Mikhail – unlike his colleague Stuart Schwartz in his All Can Be Saved, Natalie Zemon Davis in Women on the Margins, or Mercedes García-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers in A Man of Three Worlds – has not engaged in a careful reading of primary sources, with which he seems largely unacquainted in this book. Nor does he believe in a careful consideration of secondary literature, given both his numerous omissions and his curious inclusions. Rather his principal technique is making sensationalist leaps, as if he were playing a videogame rather than writing a history book. We are just a step away from the lunatic fringe of Catalan nationalists, who would have us believe that Shakespeare and Da Vinci were in fact Catalan; or Gavin Menzies who would tell us that the Ming discovered America. Surely this cannot be the new motto of “exotic” fields in history: how low do we have to stoop to attract the attention of the Americans? There are many, many historians who write global history without resorting to these desperate tricks, and that is why they do not attract the negative attention of their peers, not because of some crude conspiracy theory of the sort K-S favor. Further, Mikhail’s entire exercise is based on a form of “cultural cringe”, as if the only way Ottoman history can be valorized is if it can somehow be linked to American history, and this leads him to produce abject chapter titles such as “Selim’s Reformations”, and “American Selim” , transforming an Ottoman sultan of the sixteenth century into a pioneering figure for American neo-liberal entrepreneurs. This is cultural myopia and navel-gazing of the worst sort, where the appeal to “universal patterns” conceals a profound provincialism. It is also perfectly complicit with the neo-Ottomanism favored among many circles, including the authorities as well as the Gülenist movement, who published the book by Mr. Akçe, for which Mikhail has such a fondness in the matter of claims regarding the caliphate and related issues, including anti-Safavid polemics.

A last point may be worth making. Since publishing our first essay in Cromohs we have noticed that history departments at Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, and UCLA have been bombarded with free copies of God’s Shadow addressed to each and every department member. This probably extends to other history departments across the country and represents hundreds and hundreds of copies. This is certainly not a regular practice even for trade books in the US, though it is known to happen elsewhere, in the context of political mobilizations. It certainly suggests that the idea that Mikhail – currently Chair of Yale University’s History Department – is a puny David fighting the mighty Goliaths of Ottoman history is either an error or a cultivated misrepresentation.

Cornell Fleischer is Professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at The University of Chicago (
Cemal Kafadar is Professor of History and Turkish Studies in Harvard University (
Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Distinguished Professor of History at UCLA (