On May 29, 1453, the unthinkable happened. Sultan Mehmet II “the Conqueror” entered Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, after a siege lasting 53 days. The fall of the great city was the result of two factors: huge cannons which tore apart the walls of the city—walls which had long been considered impregnable—and a fatal mistake by the defenders, who left open a small sally port in the wall, called the Kerkoporta. Led by the Janissaries, the elite infantry of the Ottoman army, the Sultan’s forces captured the city and made it their own.
The Janissaries became so successful and so esteemed as a result of their effectiveness as fighters for the emperor that they began to demand higher wages and greater privileges. They revolted several times and ultimately wielded so much influence over the government that the sultan raised a new army, the Sipahi cavalry, as a means of regaining control. On June 14, 1826, the Janissaries revolted one final time and were forced to retreat to their barracks. The artillery was turned on the barracks and the Janissary troops suffered massive casualties. The survivors were either executed or banished, and the Janissary corps came to an end, an affair that came to be known as The Auspicious Event.
This is the context for Jason Goodwin’s novel The Janissary Tree, set in Istanbul in 1836. A series of disturbing murders occurs shortly before the sultan is planning to make a potentially destabilizing decree. Both the sultan and the seraskier, the head of the sultan’s new Western-style army, turn to a eunuch, Yashim, to solve the mystery before the date of the planned announcement. With help from some unlikely sources, Yashim searches for a pattern and motive for the killings that will lead him to the mastermind behind them.
The mystery aside, the book provides a revealing picture of life in nineteenth century Istanbul. We get a taste of life inside Topkapi Palace and what it was like in the harem. We learn about the experience of the common worker, in this case, tanners and sellers in the marketplace. We discover the public baths, the influence of the imams, and the power of orthodoxy. The author even challenges our conception of life as a eunuch. Most of all, though, we experience the conflict between old and new, between tradition and progress—tradition as embodied by the Janissaries.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and the insight it provided into a culture I wasn’t very familiar with. However, the author did seem to jump around a lot. Many of the chapters are quite short, and I wasn’t always sure how certain chapters related to the story. Also, some of the connections between people and events weren’t clear. As a mystery, the book was a little weak, but as a window into nineteenth-century Istanbul, I recommend it.