Jason Goodwin is a prize-winning historian and travel writer who, mid-career, created a fictional detective, Yashim, and plunged him into a series of terrifying adventures set among the dark alleys and subterranean passages of old Istanbul.
Yashim has proved to be a wholly original creation, for he is a brilliantly deft cook, a half-Greek, half-Turkish Muslim who is a proud (if determinedly freelance) member of the old Ottoman court. He is also a eunuch, but one trained up in the palace school, so he can wrestle like a janissary, conduct himself with the modesty of an Ottoman gentleman-scholar and speak as many languages as a vizier.
What he shares with that otherwise determinedly Western pantheon of fictional detectives is a sharp eye for detail allied to an intuitive genius, with a mind more interested in unravelling the truth than upholding any state- sanctified standard of justice. He is also, like many of the detective breed, a self-contained individual, indifferent to fame and fortune, but with a subtle dependence on a few deeply trusted friends – such as Preen, the louche directrice of a theatre-circus troupe, and Palewski, the shabby, wine-loving scholar-ambassador of Poland, who has been marooned in old Istanbul in a disintegrating legation since the annexation of his nation by its three predatory neighbours. There is also the charming but world-weary Valide Sultan, the ancient Dowager Queen Mother, to whom Yashim is a devoted and entirely respectful servant.
These secondary characters are vital aspects to the success of the Yashim detective novels. For they create a varied spread of prejudice and insight which further expands our experience of the old Ottoman Empire. And although you are utterly caught up in the devilish intricacies of the plot, what you are left with at the end of a Yashim mystery is a complex picture of Istanbul and its deeply grained history.
Without revealing the plot, I can warn readers of some of the subliminal pleasures that await a reading of An Evil Eye. Swift-moving caiques on the dark waters of the Bosphorus, the scent of grilled fish (and a mouthwatering recipe for stuffed mackerel) and a richly evocative re-creation of the 19th-century imperial palace at Beşiktaş, with the harem revealed as a place of dignity and immaculate order as well as intrigue.
The historical background is so skilfully intermingled with the fabric of the plot (the Ottoman Empire caught between the ever-rising power of Russia to the north and khedival Egypt to the south) that before you know it you have received a subliminal lecture in early 19th-century diplomacy. Translated as he is into 40 languages, Yashim has probably done more to reverse five centuries of European prejudice against “the Turke” than any flesh-and-blood ambassador.
The First Balkan War, a hundred years ago, is an obscure affair, overshadowed by the First World War that followed. But it ended the Ottoman Empire in Europe and came close to ending Turkey itself. It left almost half a million refugees and three times as many dead. David Barchard tells the story of a catastrophic conflict
With a taste for adventure Indiana Jones would appreciate, the Dutch architectural historian Machiel Kiel has risked life and limb in his mission to expose the annihilation of Ottoman monuments in the Balkans. The art historian Holta Vrioni pays tribute to his work and exploits
When Amsterdam’s renovated Rijksmuseum reopens in 2013, the public will be able to visit the Turkish Cabinet of Cornelis Calkoen, the Dutch republic’s ambassador to Istanbul from 1727 to 1744. For more than a century now the museum has been the keeper of his collection of paintings.
‘Never swim before the first watermelon rind falls into the water,’ goes an old Istanbul saying. By the time they ripen, the sea will have reached just the right temperature for swimming.
She was born to be a New York society beauty, but the late Josephine Powell’s chosen world was that of the Anatolian Nomad. Five years after her death, her archive of photographs recording old Anatolia in all its glory will see the light of day in Istanbul
As Turkey and the Netherlands celebrate
400 years of fruitful trade with a series of spectacular exhibitions in both countries, Philip Mansel, author of a new history of the Levant, reflects on the curious role of the Dutch at the Sublime Porte
Not far from the World Heritage city of Safranbolu lies the quiet village of Yörük Köyü, once famed for its valiant cavalry. Berrin Torolsan continues her series on Anatolia’s country houses with a visit to the Sipahioğlu Konak, a beautifully built mansion of satisfying simplicity and unassuming flair.
Rather than follow the crowd and dismiss Ankara as a dull, soulless modern capital, says Patricia Daunt, visitors should take time to discover why the famed Angora of old, twice capital in ancient times, is back on the map.
Over the past decade Turkey’s wine industry has come of age. It is now more than ready to join the grown-ups of the wine-producing world. Kevin Gould and the Cornucopia team pick the best of a sparkling bunch. Photographs by Berrin Torolsan.
Cornucopia’s self-guided wine tours