Our Man in a Maelstrom

The Queen’s Ambassador to the Sultan: Memoirs of Sir Henry A Layard’s Constantinople Embassy, 1877–1880 Ed. Sinan Kuneralp The Isis Press $80

Twixt Pera and Therapia The Constantinople Diaries of Lady Layard Ed. Sinan Kuneralp The Isis Press $35

Crimea The Last Great Crusade By Orlando Figes Penguin £12.99

When Sir Henry Layard arrived in Istanbul aboard Queen Victoria’s yacht on April 20, 1877, he was the sole ambassador of a great power in a city on the brink of war. His visit, he afterwards noted, encouraged speculation, excitement, hopes and fears.

Sir Henry’s time in Istanbul coincided with some of the darkest moments in Ottoman history: the loss of most of the Balkans, the arrival of a Russian army at what is today Yeşilköy, the Congress and Treaty of Berlin, the establishment and suppression of Turkey’s first parliament, and the beginnings of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s three decades of authoritarian rule.

As ambassador to the Porte at a time of mortal crisis, Layard held a dazzlingly influential position. No American envoy today enjoys the sort of ascendancy and access to the ruler that Layard had at the height of Britain’s power.

But it all went badly wrong. Able and brilliant though he was – as the best sections of these memoirs demonstrate – he was thwarted by two enemies whom he underrated. Abdülhamid did not want Layard’s mix of liberal and constitutional reforms and eventually found a new political balance for the empire by tilting towards Russia. Back in London, William Gladstone, the Turcophobe Liberal leader of the opposition, was denouncing the appointment of Layard, a fellow Liberal, in the House of Commons even as he was on his way to Istanbul.

The two men sparred in letters during Layard’s time in the city, with the ambassador irking Gladstone by accusing him of causing the loss of many lives by his failure to speak up for Ottoman and Turkish victims of Christians. In 1880, almost three years to the day after Layard arrived in Istanbul, Gladstone was elected prime minister. Almost his first task was to remove Layard, a lifelong Turcophile who never saw Turkey again.

Worse was to come. The earlier phases of Layard’s life had seen him enjoying a kind of stardom as a traveller, writer, politician, administrator, art collector and archaeologist, but his last years were overshadowed by deliberate humiliation and he remained a discredited figure long after his death. “His name faded into an oblivion partly induced by generations of specialists of diplomatic history nurtured in the Gladstonian tradition,” writes Sinan Kuneralp.

In what is clearly a labour of love that will be a major development for diplomatic historians and connoisseurs of the late-19th-century Ottoman Empire, Kuneralp has edited sections of Layard’s million-word diplomatic memoir which have lain unpublished in the British Library since his wife’s death in 1912. The outcome is a hefty volume of 700 pages which goes a long way to fulfil Layard’s hope of posthumous vindication, and to re-establish him alongside Stratford Canning as a towering figure among ambassadors.

Enormous amounts of political and administrative detail are lucidly set out. Layard was writing for his contemporaries and there are no indiscretions, but he was always a fine writer and sharp observer. A bestselling archaeological author in his own day, Layard provides riveting descriptions of going to dinner with Abdülhamid, and what the Sultan was like as a man. Admittedly the book reads in parts like a modern cabinet minister’s hyper-factual memoir, but this is one of the most complex and important phases of Ottoman history, and Layard the skilled diplomat is a helpful and reasonably impartial guide.

While the ambassador was writing his despatches, his wife, Enid, was writing her diary. The Isis Press has also published the entries from her Istanbul years. Her brief summaries of the daily domestic and social details that her husband ignored are well worth reading. The Layards’ mutual affection and their love of Turkey and their Turkish friends come engagingly through in every entry.

The couple’s grim wartime experiences in Istanbul came 21 years after the end of a war that Turkey – and its British and French allies – won against Russia. Despite Layard’s pessimism, Turkey survived the 1877–78 war against Russia, but if there had been no Crimean War, either Tsarist Russia would almost certainly have expanded southwards through the Ottoman lands all the way to the Mediterranean, or a much nastier war would have been necessary to prevent it doing so. What sort of country would Turkey be today if that had happened?

The Crimean War is important for other reasons. It was the first modern war, even if its generals did not grasp this at the time. The Crimea was, Orlando Figes writes, “the first war in history to be brought about by the pressure of the press and public opinion”, a circumstance that he links to technological change: the development of the railways and the speeding up of communications. But it was also a war of religion, not just a great-power collision with a profound impact on all the countries involved. How many people realise, for example, that the fight with the bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays reflects the British–Russian struggle?

Orlando Figes’s book on the Crimean War is the sixth hefty volume so far to emerge from a career mainly devoted to 20th-century Russia, yet it is the sort of book that takes many scholars a lifetime, using British, French and Ottoman sources as well Russian ones. What is more, it tries not to take sides, and the sufferings of both combatants and forgotten bystanders, such as the Crimean Tartars and Circassians who lost their homeland, come clearly into focus.

Both minorities figured on the edges of the war but later got painted out. Seventy-five years ago, when Harold Temperley wrote a classic account of the Crimean conflict, the Circassians got only a one-line mention and the Tartars none at all. Figes tells their story, sparing no detail of the cruel fate, virtual genocide in fact, which awaited Circassians and Tartars as a result of the expansion of Tsarist rule.

Figes is a marvellously lucid writer, and manages to compress an extraordinarily wide range of details into a narrative anyone can enjoy.

Forgotten individuals speak again through brilliantly selected quotations. The account of Turkish history is fair and clear – though here and there are small slips which might be corrected in a later edition.

Official executions for apostasy from Islam, as opposed to neighbourhood lynchings, were not taking place in the Turkey of the 1850s, and the last such execution happened in 1843, not 1844. One of the greatest Tanzimat statesmen, Aali or Âli, is mistakenly conflated with Mehmet Ali Pasha, a hated rival. Several of the dates given (both for his time as chargé d’affaires in London and as foreign minister) are not quite right, and there is rather too little about his role in the peace. Elsewhere, Fuad Pasha is wrongly given as an Ottoman delegate at the Paris Conference.

Small quibbles like these should not be allowed to spoil one’s enjoyment of a magisterial account of a tragic war, one which is often spellbinding and invariably illuminating for specialist and general reader alike.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 47
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  • The Daredevil Scholar

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  • The Curious Cabinet of Cornelis Calkoen

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  • A Nomad Among Nomads

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  • A Dutch Treat

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  • Yörük Köy: A Mansion of Perfect Modesty

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Issue 47, 2012 Queen of the Nomads
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