Among the events that have most marked the history of humanity, from the modern age until today, there is, in my opinion, the First World War. Although little remembered, in 5 years of duration it has overturned customs and traditions, consolidated traditions and institutions that until then seemed unshakable: it radically changed the way of waging and conceiving the war, it was the detonator for female emancipation but, above all, it brought to the collapse of the Central Empires that for centuries ruled over large territories of the most diverse ethnic groups. We always remember the fall of the Austrian Empire, heir of the Holy Roman Empire, and the decline of the Romanov dynasty, Tsar of Russia for 300 years. There is however a reality often overlooked when studying the modern age that is the Turkish world and its model of civilization.
THE GREATNESS OF AN EMPIRE
Founded in 1299 and dissolved in 1922, the Ottoman Empire has been a world power for at least four centuries and at almost two hundred years it has been the Mediterranean superpower. A bridge between Asia and Europe, a melting pot of peoples and languages where the sword and scimitar, the elephant and the horse, Christians and Muslims, black and white, brought together. An alternative social and economic political model but with a certain success that in fact allowed him to hold out for over 600 years.
TRACES OF A LOST WORLD
When I happen to meet something, even a small one, that makes me remember this forgotten empire, it is love at first sight: recently it happened with a game of Turkish chess precisely, which, although incomplete and with pieces not in good condition – difficult to arrive unscathed if you are 100 years old and you are made of terracotta! – Immediately caught my attention. The detail of the manufacture, but also the imperfection of the same, makes them unique. They make me imagine a game of chess on a bar table in a small terrace of old Istanbul! At this point I must confess that one of the things for which I am grateful to the Ottoman Empire, and forgive the superficiality, is the introduction of coffee, my favorite drink. Many fall into the error of thinking that it is originally from Italy but, although it is certain that Venice, thanks to its relations with the East, was a pioneer in introducing coffee to Italy where the first coffee shops appeared in 1645, it is in the fifteenth century when the knowledge of coffee extended in the Middle East to Istanbul. Here its consumption took place in the meeting places of the time, tavern-like places where the Turks used to sit and consume it, often accompanied by a meddah or narrator, others dealing business or playing chess, while smoking a shisha.
Sitting in one of these Istanbul cafes, mentioned above, I see a man that I discovered in Tom Reiss’s beautiful book The Orientalist. That rebuilt by Reiss is an incredible and fascinating story: the biography of Lev Nussimbaum, a jew born in Baku in 1905, who pretended to be a Muslim prince and became the best-selling author in Hitler’s Germany; he would have disappeared during the war, while he was under house arrest in Positano, after trying to accredit himself as Mussolini’s official biographer. A reading not to be missed and that takes us back to a time of upheavals where histrionics was the best solution to survive.