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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 16:25 GMT
An eye for detail
Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to the Cook Islands
The giving and receiving of gifts is a diplomatic tool

By Lisa Jardine

It's a story you think you know through and through. But how often does it turn out that in the retelling, a crucial detail has been misremembered?

Once again a listener has set me off on a productive train of thought. A small correction has prompted me to reflect on the way that we historians, in the very act of reaching out to recover the forgotten connections between ourselves and our forebears, run the risk of overlooking what is right under our noses.

But I begin with a little known story retrieved from the archives, that sheds some intriguing light on a piece of long-buried Elizabethan history. In the Beyazit Devlet Library in Istanbul is a document in Turkish, which contains an account of an exchange of gifts between the rulers of England and the Ottoman Empire in the 1590s:

"During the sultanate of Murad [it runs], the ruler of [England] was, it is said, a woman, Queen of a sizeable kingdom. This person, in order to approach the Abode of Majesty and the shadow of its protection, sent [Sultan Murad] as a gift a masterpiece of craftsmanship, a clock."

Lisa Jardine
Being one of those who can recover glimpses of the past from the glorious relics among the records carries with it responsibilities

The so-called clock was in fact a highly ornate clockwork organ, "a work of art, studded with jewels" on which, according to the manuscript, the skilled technicians who accompanied the gift "laboured for many years, toiling to complete and perfect it".

And although Elizabeth I intended it for Murad III, by the time the organ had completed the long sea voyage from London in 1599, it was his son Mehmed III who received it enthusiastically, and had it assembled and tuned in the seraglio for the entertainment of his harem. Mehmed responded with lavish gifts in the Turkish style.

Shifting relations

Their glamorous gifts to one another were part of a deliberate policy of cementing cordial relations between the countries. England and the Ottoman Empire had signed an agreement in 1581, granting English merchants preferential trading rights in the region, superior to any currently in existence with other European nations. Now, it was hoped that an Anglo-Turkish alliance might play a key role in creating an effective East-West force, to divide the military focus of the dominant and aggressively expansionist European power, Catholic Spain.

There are to be found in your kingdom rare distilled waters of every kind for the face and odiferous oils for the hands
Letter from Sultana to Elizabeth I
A generation later, however, the more austerely Islamic sultan Ahmed I had the clockwork organ destroyed. Nothing remains to tell us of its existence, except the documents in Turkish, Italian and English filed away in archives in London and Istanbul.

While this story is remarkable as a cordial 16th Century exchange between the Protestant West and Islamic East, it has a yet more unexpected sequel.

The musical mechanical marvel was not the only gift delivered to the court of Mehmed III. There was also a fine ceremonial coach, which was presented, with an accompanying personal letter from Queen Elizabeth herself, to the Sultan's mother, the Albanian-born Walide Safiye, who had enormous influence over the Sultan.

The Sultana was delighted. She wrote an effusive thank you letter to Elizabeth in Turkish, in which she promised to use her best endeavours to ensure that her son stood by the treaty of cooperation he had signed with England: "May you, too, always be firm in friendship! God willing, it will never fail."

Accompanying the letter was her own gift - a robe, a girdle, a sleeve, two gold-embroidered handkerchiefs, three towels, and a crown studded with pearls and rubies.

Women's talk

These were the formal communication and gifts to go through official channels. But delightfully, Walide Safiye sent a second, less formal letter, written in Italian on her behalf by her entrepreneurial "Kira" - or intermediary - between the harem and the outside world, Esperanza Malchi, an Italian Jew (a woman one of the English delegation described as "a short, fat trubkin").

Anne-Marie Duff in the BBC's The Virgin Queen
Cosmetics, Tudor style
"On account of Your Majesty's being a woman," she wrote, the Sultana could without embarrassment ask a personal favour. Would the English Queen send her some English cosmetics, the renown of which had reached Istanbul. "There are to be found in your kingdom rare distilled waters of every kind for the face and odiferous oils for the hands. Your Majesty would favour me by sending some of them by my hand for this most serene Queen; by my hand as, being articles for ladies, she does not wish them to pass through other hands."

This long-distance relationship between an English Queen and a Turkish Sultana was short-lived. In 1600 there was a coup in Istanbul in the course of which Esperanza Malchi was murdered. Three years later, England was ruled by a Scotsman, King James I.

Nevertheless, this extraordinary sequence of documents - all to be found in the original and in contemporary Italian translations in the British Library in London - is evidence of contact and understanding between Eastern Islam and Western Protestantism long before most people would expect.

Archival jewels like these Turkish letters have lain undiscovered for centuries in national and local libraries across Britain. No wonder the National Council on Archives - which campaigns for "archives awareness" - maintains that the nation's collections of historical documents ultimately contain everything we could possibly want to know about ourselves.

In themselves, however, documents are effectively lost, unless they are reawakened by the attention and skill of an historian. It was only in the 1960s that the distinguished Ottomanist scholar Susan Skilliter brought the Turkish letters in the British library to more general historical attention. And being one of those who can recover glimpses of the past from the glorious relics among the records carries with it responsibilities.

Misremembered facts

It was while I was working on this story that a courteous e-mail arrived from Dr Rozina Visram, pointing out a piece of misremembering on my part in my last Point of View column. It made me rush off to the library of the Warburg Institute in London, to check that I had remembered the Ottoman Kira, Esperanza Malchi's letter correctly, and to retranscribe its detail.

Srinavasa Ramanujan
Ramanujan died aged 32
Others may already have noticed the slip I made in the course of telling the story of the Indian mathematician Ramanujan. I remarked in an aside that Ramanujan was the first Indian national to have been made a Fellow of the Royal Society. And I wrote that sentence while sitting at my desk within the Royal Society's Library, with the entire resources of its almost 350 years of archives and records at my disposal.

Had I thought to check what I had, I believe, always been told, I would have found in a matter of minutes that Ramanujan was not the first but the second Indian national to become a Royal Society Fellow. The Parsi engineer Ardaseer Cursetjee from Bombay had been elected to a Fellowship almost 80 years earlier on 27 May 1841. His nomination paper (lodged in the society's archive) describes him as a "gentleman well versed in the theory and practice of Naval Architecture and devoted to scientific pursuits", and it credits him with having "built a [sea-going] Vessel of 60 tons to which he adapted a Steam Engine" and introducing gas street lighting in Bombay.

The incident reminded me of the fragility of the jigsaw of human history we reassemble from its scattered documentary pieces. The 16th Century Ottoman Sultan's presents and letters belong to distant times and places. Recovering them requires all of our endeavours. Yet while we historians extend our efforts to try to give the past the depth and global reach needed to explain Britain's rich diversity today, our history closer to home may get forgotten.

Dr Visram assured me in her e-mail that my error was "not of much consequence, and does not in any way detract from what you were saying". Perhaps so. But it is a timely reminder to those of us toiling in the archives that while we labour to recover the overlooked from the disparagement of history, we must also always take care not to be forgetful ourselves.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Welcome to the 21st century. The days of skills being rated by what is remembered are long gone - there's simply too much to remember. What you have to do now is make use of new technology to make this information available at your fingertips and then use your knowledge to find it quickly and accurately. Google and Wikipedia are the start, people like you who can see the shortcomings of the traditional system need to build on them.
Mike Birch, USA (ex-UK)

This article maginificently shows the failings of the present Technology. The electronic storing of information is totally dependant on someone putting that information on the system in the first place, accurately. Information is absolutely useless if you cannot retrieve it. The present Technology also does not take into account the human diversity of enquiry. We are all different.
Ian Townley, Hampton, England

Elementary legal training in least when I graduated in or around 1953!!!i.e always check facts.........however certain we maybe.
Frederick Levine, Glsgow, Scotland

There is so much that society has forgotten it is unbelievable. I came across a passage in Andre Gide's novel - The Counterfeiters. A character has survived a shipwreck. One of the great passenger liners. She remarks that the officer in each lifeboat had a knife or cleaver which they would use to cut off the hands or fingers of anyone trying to climb aboard the already overladen lifeboats as too many people would sink the boats. This is a tiny piece of history we have conveniently forgotten. You won't see it in films about the Titannic. There is so much like that, and the sort of thing that I love, and so few historians.
Pete, Leeds

Insightful and intriguing article. I suspect that the majority would say history has no relevance. You may have begun the argument that it certainly does, and that it therefore merits greater study by a greater number, starting with our own history in these Isles.
Dr C. James Bacon, Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Being a historical linguist, I am well aware of the difficulties involved in having little details of a story wrong. Sometimes, however, it is quite the other way to: Many years ago I used to stay at a small hotel in Ebury Street, London. Years later I came back to Ebury Street just to see it again. I remembered the hotel being on one side of the street, and a wine bar being on the other, a little further along at a corner. To my surprise, the hotel was no longer there - or rather, there was a hotel there, but with a different name. I enquired, and found that this had been 'my' hotel; it had removed to the other side of the street, and the current hotel had moved in. My memory was correct after all, which was a relief!
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

The mistake is fully understandable. But, it does give one pause to consider the vastly greater and more numerous opportunities to err in the historical records from times much earlier when the facts of history were transferred in the oral tradition, there being no scripts for encoding the phonemes, words, phrases, sentences, and grammatical structures of languages. And so, today, we are living with the fallout -- great tales of dubious prophets wrapped in cohesive but illogical and conflicting packages known as religion.
Scott MacKenzie


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