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Marco Polo Book Club Part II – Ottoman art, history, and cuisine

June 9, 2009
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design2Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,

A flask of wine, a book of verse — and thou…”

– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Chers Amis,

Our book club study of Marco Polo lead me to a much deeper and longer encounter with Turkey.  While the kids are in full summer gear with nary a workbook or assignment in sight, I am following my own path delving into Turkish cuisine, the Ottoman Empire, the history of Islam in Europe, and Turkish and Persian miniatures and illuminated manuscripts. Fabulous! I realized how little I really knew about the history and culture of this region.

My current non-fiction read is God’s Crucible Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Lewis.  This is not light reading, but it is fascinating.  I have always wondered what was happening in world history before, during, and immediately after the fall of Rome.  My history classes virtually ignored the other major empires of the time skimmed over the ‘dark ages’ and skipped ahead to Medieval Europe.  What was going on in Persia and the Arabian Peninsula? How did Islam rise so quickly? Who were the OTHER major players? I checked this book out from the library, but will need to buy my own copy so I can mark the pages and spend more than my allowed 3 weeks with this tome as it follows the spread of Islam into Europe over nearly 650 years.  Dense but interesting.

For fiction, I am also reading “My Name is Red by Nobel Prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.  This is a beguiling murder mystery set in sixteenth century Istanbul where a master miniaturist and illuminator of books  has been bludgeoned to death by an unknown assailant and dumped into a well. Prior to his demise he was one of a select group of artists identified only by code names (Elegant, Stork, Butterfly, Olive, etc.) who were commissioned by the Sultan to produce a book to celebrate his life and times mixing (unbeknownst to them) the style of the Islamic masters and the heretial perspective of the Venetian infidels. Each chapter is named after the character speaking (i.e. I am Black, I am Red, I am a corpse, I am a dog), giving his or her testimony on the events.  Its rich brocade of history, intrigue, philosophy, faith, mores, unrequited love, and veiled actions reminds me of a Persian miniature where characters intertwine on a single page surrounded by gilded borders, arabesques, and calligraphy.

For a wonderful resource on miniatures check out the on-line exhibit “The Arts of Islam” at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Gallery of Art. For a real treat visit Haft Awrang which is an interactive exhibition of a series of Persian miniatures with a narrator, music, clues, and a clever zoom function. Love it!

My last personal read on this topic is Classical Turkish Cooking: Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen by Alya  E. Algar. The author has done an amazing job researching the roots of Turkish cuisine throughout the centuries.  It is half culinary history, half fabulous cook book.  The author sums it up with the opening quote she selected for her introduction, “One should not pass over these things, simply saying they are food.  They are in reality a complete civilization. — Abdulhak Sinasi, Camhcadaki Enistemiz. Well said!

Well, this post has grown longer than I anticipated and I haven’t even listed the picture books we loved for the kids so that will have to be Part III.  Until then, I am off to the dentist with Caddie.


reading 4

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