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Turkish Delights

By Philippa Scott (1946-2023)
Published by Thames & Hudson
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‘It is all here, in this short work – and not merely the aesthetic and historical importance of Turkish taste, but the romance, the magic, the pure beauty and, above all, the mystery of the East’
Alistair McAlpine
Book Review | Cornucopia 23

The Book of Delights

By Alistair McAlpine (1942–2014)

When the first travellers experienced the Turkish bath, they described Turkish towelling with enthusiasm. In Victorian Britain alone, 600 Turkish baths were built. This fact, however, demonstrates just two aspects of European enthusiasm for things Turkish. The tulip, coffee, the croissant, the sorbet, the sash, carpets, long-haired cats (now called Persian), all come from Turkey, along with angora (or Ankara) coats, the marbling of paper, shagreen, carpet patterns for tooled-leather book bindings. Our language adopted the use of Turkish words such as kiosk, ottoman, sofa, divan; and most carpets are called Turkish because they were traded there. All of this information is to be found in Philippa Scott’s Turkish Delights, published by Thames & Hudson.

There seems to be no limit to the influence Turkey and the Ottoman Empire had on European taste. Benvenuto Cellini copied gold damascene; country houses all over Europe used Turkish designs in their gardens; Turkish smoking rooms became a fashion. From tiles to wallpaper, from buildings to fabrics, Turkish taste was all the rage – and indeed it still is.

In a slim but easily written volume Philippa Scott chronicles all of this. Chapters on the turban, tulips, pomegranates, magic carpets, tents, pavilions, harems and hamams, coffee, tobacco, the fashion for Turkish dress and even the Orient Express: it is all here – approached with great charm, highly readable and beautifully illustrated.

This book is an exemplary guide to Turkish taste. The text moves at great pace, unencumbered by complex academic research; it fires facts at the reader with the speed of a machine-gun spitting out bullets. Smallpox inoculation originated in Turkey; Christopher Wren studied Turkish architecture before he designed the dome at St Paul’s; Red Turkey was the most desirable dye, based on a secret derived from Anatolian madder. The Christmas turkey, with its red face, gets its name from this dye.

Never boring, always informative, this book trots out fact after fact. Turks of position had servants to look after their turbans. The introduction of the tulip to the West from Turkey set off the Dutch tulip fever – which is hardly surprising, considering the Turks were obsessed with these elegant flowers. So highly did they prize the tulip that single blooms would be displayed in elegant vases: no clustering in bunches or cluttering up with other species was tolerated. In the language of flowers, the gift of a tulip conveys “I am on fire from your beauty”; its black base conveying that the lover’s heart is burnt to coal.

It is all here, in this short work – and not merely the aesthetic and historical importance of Turkish taste, but the romance, the magic, the pure beauty and, above all, the mystery of the “East”.

For those who may never visit Turkey, this is a taste of that country’s past, a canapé that delights but does not fill, leaving you only longing for more. For those who intend to visit Turkey, it is essential reading and will take about the length of your journey to read. As with all the best of this sort of book, it not only delights and informs, it also includes a useful directory of places where you can see Turkish delights in other parts of the world and buy some of them as well.

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