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Cornucopia begins a regular series on the riches of the Ottoman Empire with a grand tour of Damascus. The perfect starting point is Brigid Keenan’s new book on the old city, with photographs by Tim Beddow.
I can pinpoint the moment my passion began – it was the first time I went inside one of the great courtyard houses of the old city. The house was Bait Mujallid and I was completely unprepared for what I was going to see, and utterly overwhelmed by its magnificence. Then, when I realised what a poor state the building was in, I was filled with anxiety and rushed back to try to persuade my husband that we should sell our home in England and rescue a Damascene palace instead. Luckily, someone else stepped in to save Bait Mujallid, and I decided to concentrate my efforts on writing this book instead – in the hope that it will convince others of the uniqueness of old Damascus and the necessity to preserve it.
A traditional way of life continues in the narrow alleyways and crowded souks within the ancient walls. Heating oil is delivered by horses in beaded bridles and ostrich feathers; earnest small boys weave through the crowds carrying trays of food from restaurants for their employers; men wheel carts loaded with plants growing in old tins – damask roses, vines – to tempt the owners of the courtyard houses…
Levnî and the Surnâme, by Esin Atıl, gives a spirited and vivid pictorial narration, from the brush of arguably the greatest of all Ottoman miniaturists, of the last great Ottoman festival. This was held in Istanbul in 1720, with all the splendour and magnificence for which the empire was famed. Christine Thomson reviews the Koçbank publication.
It was not until the sixteenth century when Catherine de’ Medici introduced spinach to France on her arrival from Florence as the bride of Henri II, that it was recognised as a food in its own right. Any dish with spinach is still ‘a la florentine’.
More cookery features
Cornucopia was instrumental in reissuing a forgotten novel by Harold Nicolson, set in Istanbul. First published in 1921, Sweet Waters draws heavily on Nicolson’s experience as a diplomat in the city in the 1910s. It is also a highly autobiographical reworking of his courtship of Vita Sackville-West, as a new foreword by their son, Nigel Nicolson, reveals. By Aslı Aydıntaşbaş
It was only to stop a property dealer painting the selamlık blue that the Germen family acquired a Bosphorus yalı to look after. This pavilion, on a glorious stretch of the Anatolian shore, enjoys southerly views all the way to the Topkpapı and sunsets to die for. Patrica Daunt meets the latest owners of this former royal residence
These are the last great heathlands of Eastern Europe, one of the world’s rarest natural habitats. Unless they receive a last-minute reprieve, they will be bulldozed out of existence. Andrew Finkel reports on the dilemma facing the planners in Istanbul. Botanical notes by Andrew Byfield
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