Sunday, 17 July 2016

Gjirokastra [Part 2] The city of stone

The finest example of an Albanian Ottoman house, built in 1813

Cascading downhill from the castle to the valley floor, the stone houses of Gjirokastra are unique. The tall buildings range from a simple tower structure, three or four stories high, to houses with one or two wings, as in the beautiful Zekate House near the top of the hill.

                           The finest example of an Albanian Ottoman house, built in 1813

The ground floor was for storage and defence. Living quarters were on the higher floors, with one room having a large chimney hood over a fireplace. this was the winter room. In the larger rooms there were balconies for life during the heat of summer.
                View across the town and the Drinos Valley from the summer balcony.
 The ‘guest room’, where visitors were received, was always the most ornate room, with carved and sculpted ceilings and fine rugs and cushions. All around the walls are divans, covered with kilims or rough linen sheets. These served as seating during the day and as beds at night.
Across the whole town the roofs of the old houses are made of thick, stone tiles. This gives the city a uniform appearance when viewed from above.

 From below, there is a mix of white, Ottoman style walls, with the local grey stone. It is an attractive city. However, while the Museum zone of the town is protected, illegal building work goes on. In addition, every year some houses collapse beyond repair.
The house of the writer Ismail Kadare is under restoration after being destroyed by fire in 1999. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Gjirokastra, hauntingly beautiful. Part 1, The Castle.

Gjirokastra is another picturesque Albanian city, which grew and spread out gradually from its imposing castle towering over the town. The castle is an enormous defensive fortification, brooding and watchful on top of its hill. It controls the Drinos Valley and the passes through the Lunxheria Mountains, a jagged mass topped with snow even in May.

The area inside the castle walls is vast. About half the internal area is currently closed for restoration. The main gallery that is open houses a display of cannon from various times.  

There are several large parade grounds, one of them enormous enough to house the staging for the International Festival of Folk Music.
In 1929, King Zog had the vaults turned into a prison for his enemies, with punishment cells. There is a brooding atmosphere about the place, which may be lightened when all the planned restorations are completed.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Rosetta Stone

It was on 19th July in 1799 that the Rosetta Stone was discovered near Cairo in Egypt. It soon fell from the hands of the French to the English and was brought to the British Museum in 1802.  The stone bears an inscription written in three alphabets: hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek. Many scholars attempted to unravel the hieroglyphs over many years before Champollion succeeded, helped in part by the work of Thomas Young.
Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone
My story, April and May, deals with an eccentric couple who devote their lives to Egyptian archaeology, while their niece, Rose, tries to keep the family in good order. In the following excerpt, they put on an exhibition of treasures they have brought back from Egypt at the British Museum. Rose, bored by the event, looks at the Rosetta Stone and wonders what the ancient language sounded like.
The exhibition was a success. Visitors had crowded in from the moment it opened. Two hours later, Rose could see her aunt and Helena still talking busily to a crowd gathered round the table where they had set out the papyri, together with sheets of paper showing some of the symbols. Judging by the noise in that part of the hall, everyone was excited by this ancient writing.
She glanced over to where her uncle and Max were escorting a group of gentlemen round the vast hall. She could hear animated talk and much laughter so it seemed they were enjoying their tour. All the artefacts found by the expedition had been set out, together with a number of statues and stone plaques brought back a few years earlier.
Rose’s task was to explain facts about the pots and figurines. She had a constant stream of young ladies and their mamas attracted to these fascinating items. She also kept an eye on the table where all her drawings of the pyramids at Giza were displayed. It made her smile to hear the exclamations of wonder at the grand scale of these buildings. To Rose’s secret surprise, Ancient Egyptian civilisation seemed set to become a fashion.
When at last there was a lull in the crowd, Rose wandered over to the Rosetta Stone with its perfectly chiselled lines of text in three languages. One day, perhaps, her aunt and Helena would work out the meaning of the hieroglyphs. She stroked a finger over the carved symbols, smiling a little as she wondered what that language would sound like.
Then a voice spoke behind her. She went rigid with shock, her finger still on the line of hieroglyphic text. Surely it was not possible… and yet, she knew that deep and mellow tone. Her heart began to beat faster.
Featured image

Friday, 29 April 2016

Review of APRIL AND MAY by Richard Blake

by Beth Elliott
Robert Hale, London, 2010, 224pp (hb)
ISBN: 978 0 7090 9042 7
When I was a boy, the local library refused to give adult tickets to anyone under the age of twelve. My grandmother came to the rescue by lending me hers. In exchange for being able to borrow all the moderately wicked stuff I could lay hands on, I only had to keep her fed with romantic fiction. Being a conscientious boy, I made sure to read everything before borrowing it for her. This gave me a taste for romantic fiction – especially historical romantic fiction – that has never entirely left me.
Therefore, I enjoyed the first chapter of Beth Elliott’s April and May. We are at a ball in London in 1799. Rose Graham is young and silly and in love with dashing Tom Hawkesleigh. He, of course, has designs on her that are not wholly honourable. He takes her into a quiet room and makes an advance she is more than inclined to welcome.
Sadly –
“How dare you conduct yourselves in such a disgusting manner?”
Her sister-in-law Augusta has caught them just in time. Tom is ejected in disgrace. Rose is told she will never see him again:
“After such a disgrace, that is impossible. You cannot be trusted, and he is only a younger son.”
Not a bad opening, and I expected the next chapter to move to Bath, with a foppish Lord or two and a villainous rake. Instead, however, we move straight to 1804, and are in Constantinople. Tom is a senior intelligence officer at the Embassy there. He is deep in negotiations with Kerim Pasha, who wants British help to modernise the Ottoman armed forces. Everything must take place in secret. Though some kind of modernisation is essential if the Empire is not to be pulled apart, the forces of conservatism are strong in Constantinople. Worse, the French still have ambitions in the Near East, and will do anything to stop an agreement with Britain.
Into this comes Rose – now Rose Charteris, but a widow. She had been in Egypt with some relatives, trying to make sense of the hieroglyphs. A bandit raid has left her in urgent need of help. Kerim Pasha takes one look at her, and is very eager to help. Tom is jealous and protective, but uncertain of his own continuing feelings.
From here, we move back to London, where the cast reassembles for what becomes a tight thriller – high politics, deception, attempted abduction, attempted murder. If you want to know more, I suggest you should find out for yourself.
What did I enjoy about this novel? I have mentioned the plot already. But there is also a talent for describing places. My imagination has been filled for over a decade now with Constantinople, and I go to Turkey every year. In the relevant chapters of this book, I could smell the City and feel the warm bath of its climate. London is unexpectedly dark and mysterious. The sub-plot about the Egyptian hieroglyphs is convincing. This is primarily a romantic novel, and, if that is what you like, you will find everything you want. At the same time, it has touches of Patrick O’Brien and a steely quality that should make it of general interest.
My only complaint is that I am not aware of a sequel. The politics alone make the story worth continuing – perhaps a trip to Egypt and a chase by French agents beside the pyramids. Also, if sketchily drawn, some of the characters are worth developing – Lady Westacote, for example. If I found Max a little dull, he would make a good murder victim in the ruins of Ephesus. Even horrid Augusta has potential. She could be abducted in Cairo by Bedouins, and go native in someone’s harem.
And so, my overall judgement is – give us more. A writer’s fictional world is like a child. If you go to the trouble of creating one – and doing it as well as Beth Elliott has done – you are only at the beginning of your duty. The closing kiss should not be the end of this story.
Richard Blake’s new novel Crown of Empire was published in London in April 2016.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

IN ALL HONOUR at Regency Reads

In All Honour by Beth Elliott

In All Honour
Sarah Davenport meets Gregory Thatcham when she visits her old schoolmate, Lizzie. Greg’s older brother has been killed in an “accident,” and he’s resigned his commission from the Horseguards. Both Sarah and Greg have learned of enormous debts owing to the sinister Lord Ramsdale. When they meet in Bath, their suspicions about Ramsdale are confirmed, but there may be no way to hold him accountable.

 Regency Romance by Beth Elliott; originally published by Robert Hale [UK]

This edition has been revised.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Ottoman mansions, tulip fever and caiques

The reign of Sultan Ahmet III [1703-1730] was a peaceful period, and the Sultan and his Grand Vizir sent ambassadors to many European countries, with orders to take note of any useful inventions, fortresses, factories and works of civilisation that could be adapted for use in Turkey. One result of this was to introduce baroque architecture to Istanbul. 

Baroque Fountain of Ahmet III at entrance to Top Kapi Palace, Istanbul [built 1728]

The Ambassador to France sent back sketches of the Chateau de Fontainebleau. Based on these plans, the Sultan had a new summer palace built at Kagithane on the Golden Horn. All along the Bosphorus, nobles set about building grandiose residences surrounded by gardens, where the dominant flower was the tulip. For more on the Turkish passion for tulips see heretulips

The reign of Ahmet III is known as the Tulip Period. Ahmet set up an annual tulip festival, which was held around the first full moon in April. 
The famous traveller, Evliya Çelebi, who visited the tulip gardens at Kagithane says:
Those who come here at tulip time go into ecstasies. 


Aynalikavak Kasri

This little kasir, or pavilion, is all that remains of a once enormous royal palace set in a vast park. The grounds were used to cultivate many varieties of trees and flowers. There are tulips there in season even now. 

All the huge wooden palaces have disappeared, through age, decay, and especially fire. Some have been replaced by stone buildings. The Ciragan palace was rebuilt several times and is currently a luxury hotel. The version in this picture is from about 1840.

The old Ciragan palace,

In the early 19th century, this enormous palace is where the Sultan took his court for the summer. If it was necessary to travel into the main city, caiques were the favoured means of transport. The number of rowers depended on rank and wealth. The Sultan could have 20 pairs of rowers, making his boat super fast. And he had a silk covered kiosk to travel in. 
When the court went on a visit from one palace to another, the spectacle of a flotilla of these boats gliding along in procession was breath-taking, according to the French Ambassador.

Pictures of some of these lost palaces can be seen in the paintings of the late 18th century artist Antoine-Ignace Melling and in the sketches of Julia Pardoe's 'The Beauties of the Bosphorus', 1840.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Reforming Rulers: 2, Sultan Mahmud II

Mahmud II was 23 when he became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1808.

He came to the throne in the most dramatic fashion in the midst of an uprising. The Janissaries were furious with the modernising reforms of Sultan Selim III, which threatened their privileged position. In July 1808 they rioted, burnt parts of Constantinople and broke into TopKapi Palace, where they strangled the Sultan. Their aim was to set his weak-minded nephew, Mustafa IV on the throne. However, to do this, they needed to kill Mahmud, whose claim was better. 

When the Janissaries stormed the Harem, where Mahmud was hiding, a slave girl called Cevri threw ashes from the stove in their faces. While they were blinded, Mahmud escaped through a window and hid on the roof. Loyal soldiers arrived in time to quell the revolt and Mahmud became sultan. Cevri was rewarded by being made chief Treasurer of the Harem. 
[There is a staircase in the TopKapi harem called 'Cevri Kalfa's staircase].

Mahmud immediately set about breaking with the past. He continued with Selim's programme of modernisation, knowing it was essential if the Ottomans were to defend their territories against modern European armies. From the start, Mahmud had to struggle against ultra conservative officials and entrenched feudal interests, but he had tremendous will-power. In addition, he looked every inch a sultan. Charles MacFarlane, the Scottish historian and traveller, describes Mahmud as 'an energetic potentate, full of life and health...[with] a robust vigorous frame, a magnificent breadth of chest, a most striking countenance, proud, haughty and handsome, and his large, jet black very peculiar eyes, which looked you through and through.'

Lord Byron and his friend John Cam Hobhouse were present at an audience with Sultan Mahmud on 4th July 1810. Hobhouse recorded in his journal that 'Sultan Mahmud was dressed in a robe of yellow satin, with a broad border of the darkest sable... Occasionally he stroked his beard, displaying a milk-white hand glittering with diamond rings. His eyebrows, eyes and beard, being of a glossy jet black, did not appear natural, but added to that indescribable majesty that would be difficult for any but an Oriental sovereign to assume: his face was pale and regularly formed.'

Mahmud pursued a Westernising programme of military, fiscal and economic reforms, as well as in dress. In 1829 he issued a decree forbidding the wearing of the old-fashioned costumes, except by the clergy. The head-dress now became the fez and men wore the black frock-coat known as the Stambouline. 

Mahmud felt that this new costume led to equality for all his citizens. He said: 'I distinguish between my subjects: Muslims in the mosque, Christians in the church, Jews in the synagogue, but there is no difference among them in any other way.'

Sultan Mahmud II about 1830

His own modern costume was splendid, as befitted the Ottoman sultan.

He maintained his attempts at reform until his death in 1839.