Review — TO SAVE AN EMPIRE by Allan R. Gall (Turkey)

To Save an Empire: A Novel of Ottoman
Allan R. Gall (Turkey 1962-64)
Allan R. Gall – publisher
426 pages
March, 2018
$14.99 (paperback), $7.99 (Kindle)


Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965–67)

If, like me, you have been unfortunate enough not to have lived in Turkey for eight years, as Dr. Allan Gall did, then you may want to supplement your reading of To Save an Empire: A Novel of Ottoman History by watching the 36 video lectures of Ottoman history (Great Courses DVD) by Professor Kenneth W. Harl of Tulane University.  Or, read selected portions of Douglas Howard, The History of Turkey (second edition, 2016) and Thomas Maddan’s Istanbul (2016).  All three supplements were available to me through my local library.  These resources helped me understand the context of Gall’s novel, which only covers the seven-year period from 1876 to 1883.

Why did Allan Gall focus upon such a short portion of the reign of Sultan and Caliph Abdulhamit II (1876-1909)?

As Sultan he was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.  As Caliph he was steward and spokesperson for the worldwide Muslim community, or umma, the religious successor to Muhammad.  The answer is that To Save an Empire includes five different, linked, and compelling stories which highlight the first seven years of Abdulhamit II’s reign:  (1) the competing effort, 1876-1883, of Mithat Pasha to create a democratic republic with a parliament and relegate Abdulhamit II to the role of constitutional monarch rather than hereditary autocrat; and Abdulhamit II’s determination to rule in the style of traditional Ottoman Sultan-Caliphs who exercised unlimited power over a far-flung empire; (2) the  geo-political story of Abdulhamit II’s efforts to transform the Ottoman Empire into a modern state which could persuade “the Powers” (e.g. Britain, France, Germany) to help him militarily constrain the expansionist goals of Russia; (3) the story of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and the disastrous defeat and dismemberment of much of the Ottoman Empire; (4) the trials and travails of many different “ordinary subjects or peoples” who were victims of religious and ethnic warfare and who suffered privations that produced large numbers of wounded transients, refugees, beggars, thieves, prostitutes, and vigilantes who flooded into cities or preyed on others in the countryside or along highways; and, (5) the story of the summer romance and “marriage,” in 1876, of Prince Abdulhamit (before he became Sultan-Caliph) and Belgian business owner Flora Cordier, who moved from Paris to Istanbul to live and work.

These five stories present “the Empire” at the beginning of the final cycle of its existence, when it was described by some as “the sick man of Europe.”  Dr. Allan Gall examines the condition, the health as it were, of the Empire in 1876-1883 and the competing measures proposed to “save” it either in the form of its traditional body and with its traditional organs and life systems restored, or as a new political body with Western transplants replacing its vital organs:  heart, lungs, circulatory system. The virus of war with Russia and massive internal shock and hemorrhage represented by civil conflict and the refugee crisis complicated the diagnoses which Gall’s “doctors” described, the procedures and medicines they prescribed as necessary, and the prognoses of whether anything could truly and ultimately be done “To Save an Empire.”

What is it that connects these five stories?  It is Abdulhamit II.

Abdulhamit was born in 1842, the great-grandson of Sultan Abdulhamit I and the grandson of Sultan Mahmut II.  As a prince, he studied Arabic and Persian languages, literature and poetry, and he became fluent in French. Math, design, carpentry, piano playing, pistol marksmanship, and equestrian skills were ones he developed even as he followed world affairs as a young Prince.  By early 1876, he had no military or administrative experience and it appeared unlikely that he would ever become Sultan with his uncle on the throne and an older brother next in the line of succession.

Yet, he did inherit the throne through unusual circumstances in 1876 when three Sultans were recognized within a three-month period.  Instead of collaborating with the equivalent of a “prime minister” (Mithat Pasha) to create a Western European style parliamentary democracy with highly efficient government bureaucracies and a modern administrative regulatory system (Mithat’s vision), the Sultan-Caliph Abdulhamit II took personal offense at the challenge to Sultanate, Caliphate power.

Abdulhamit II was initially willing to permit a Parliament to be established and members selected from the various ethnic and religious communities of the Ottoman Empire because he hoped the gesture would persuade “the Powers” of Europe to financially and militarily support his efforts to prevent Russia from invading and seizing strategic waterways and lands and people which were an historical part of the Sultan’s realm.  When that concession to political modernization failed, Abdulhamit II dismissed the members of Parliament in February 1878 and Parliament did not meet again for 30 years.

Without personal military experience or the financial means to purchase the military and naval equipment necessary to defeat Russia on land and at sea, the Sultan had to rely upon his generals to devise defensive strategy and tactics which would save him and his capital, Istanbul, and to use personal diplomacy in a frantic but unsuccessful effort to form new alliances to save what he could of the traditional boundaries.  Though he was not responsible for the political, military, and financial circumstances he inherited, Abdulhamit II recognized that European governments and his own subjects held him responsible for the eventual fate of the realm. Such was his kismet, regardless of what he deemed just or fair.  Lonely and distrustful of other surrounding governments and of those domestic advisors who proclaimed loyalty and ultimate victory for their Sultan, Abdulhamit II withdrew into the confines of Yildiz Palace and gardens and suffered in silence, prey to the reports of spies, conspiracy theorists, and paranoia.

As the traditional autocratic head of state, Abdulhamit II felt personal responsibility for the welfare of all of his subjects, regardless of their language, ethnicity, gender, or religion.  It was personally painful to him to witness their distress during the turbulent early years of his reign and not be able to successfully negotiate a peace which would end their suffering. He did what he could to ease their conditions by working with government ministries, mosques, hospitals, and charitable organizations to provide food, and with the Ministry of the Interior to give farmland in unoccupied areas to refugees so that families could eventually feed themselves.

Finally, Prince Abdulhamit experienced for the first time a brief relationship with a woman, a European, based upon love but one which could not survive his investiture as Sultan:  she refused to be a part of the ruler’s harem (along with a handful of young consorts and his other wives and children) and he would not sacrifice the stature of his office nor compromise Sultanate traditions by recognizing her as his sole wife and female head of his household.

The five different but linked stories are, as noted above, told with Abdulhamit II as the lead actor who tries but fails, despite extensive efforts, to maintain the boundaries and protect the subjects of the empire he inherited.  Eventually, the historical result of his failed efforts was “Turkey,” a much smaller political entity than the Ottoman Empire. The tradition of the millet would end with the breakup of the hub-and-spoke political structure by which the many smaller political, religious, cultural, and linguistic entities selected local leaders to represent their interests to the Sultan and government leaders.  Although these representatives were not “elected” through a democratic process, the communities they represented had discretionary power regarding their local institutions, which they controlled: schools, associations, religious organizations.  Tolerance was practiced while differences were recognized, but no effort was made to unite the many ingredients of the empire via a blender into a single smooth mixture without lumps. It was a salad bowl of entities and the power of the Ottoman government historically kept all in order and in place, living as neighbors with different persuasions.

Abdulhamit II’s opinion was that only he–the Sultan–had the ability and historical, moral legitimacy to maintain this great superpower at the point where three continents meet.  Only he could solve the diplomatic, political, economic, and social problems besetting the Empire, not some parliamentary body of elected representatives in concert with bureaucrats not of his choosing.  Only he could oversee a millet which left subjects to maintain the different cultures which had been collected over the centuries by the military success of the descendents of Osman, the founder of the dynasty.  The potential consequences of the disappearance of the millet and its replacement by small, independent nation-states is discussed by two characters in Chapter 43, with one predicting ethnic and religious warfare in the Balkans and elsewhere as a result of small, independent nation-state polities replacing the millet.  A prescient prediction.

Gall’s perspective on the millet is included in his Epilogue on page 409:  “The Ottoman millet system under which its ethnically diverse communities enjoyed cultural, religious, linguistic, and judicial autonomy, was the hallmark of the empire’s successful administration of its extensively diverse population for centuries.  But it encouraged separateness of identity that the Russians and Europeans exploited for their territorial ambitions and that easily evolved into nationalism based on language, religion, and culture.”

The challenge to the traditional Ottoman authority structure and decision-making process represented by Mithat Pasha’s vision was a clash between two very different political ideologies during the time period of which Allan Gall writes–1876-1883–and only ends, in his novel,  with the murder of the exiled Mithat Pasha, who has dared, even abroad, to represent the goals of “the Young Ottomans” (as opposed to the later “Young Turks”) rather than support the traditional role as supreme decision-maker of the Sultan-Caliph. From the Sultan’s perspective, there were aspects of modernization and reform–ones relating, for example, to the military, education, banking, the economy, and infrastructure–which had been advocated by the “Young Ottomans” as part of Tanzimat (Reorganization) as early as the 1840s which would strengthen the power of the Sultanate against the machinations and territorial ambitions of the European “Big Powers.”  But, Mithat Pasha linked these types of modernization to political change which diminished the power of the Sultan within the boundaries of the traditional state.

Dr. Gall, who has a Ph.D. in Near East Studies from the University of Michigan, views Abdulhamit II as “the Sultan who wished to be blamed for nothing [but] was left accountable for everything.”  “Everything” refers to the charge that Abdulhamit II was “‘the red sultan’” because of his “bloody hands,” referring to the killing of Christian Armenians by Muslim militias during the Russo-Turkish war because the former supported the Orthodox Christian Russians.  Gall notes that the Armenians also killed Muslims, giving them “bloody hands” as well. Both sides, he continues, included ethnic minorities who used the war as a pretext to kill neighbors for personal or religious reasons. Such atrocities were true also of Bulgarian Christians and Muslims during the Bulgarian uprising of May 1876.  These hostilities were not the result of orders issued by Abdulhamit II, Gall admits, but they occurred during his reign and so he was held responsible. It is not clear whether Gall feels the Sultan was actually culpable for such internecine conflict, or whether the government simply lacked the military capacity to maintain security throughout the Empire while it was fighting the Russians on both the eastern and western fronts.

Gall does note that Armenian farmers in eastern Anatolia were oppressed by the Ottoman tax collectors and the Kurdish landlords and warlords.  The Sultan then sent “irregular forces,” essentially armed bandits and Muslim civilians, to oppose them, though this did not constitute the Armenian “genocide” of the later period in the early 20th century.   No European armies intervened to save the Armenians, a small minority population opposed by Muslim neighbors: Kurds, Turks, Circassians, Tatars, and Laz. Mobs killed some urban Armenians, perhaps 15,000. These deaths plus the death of the exiled Mithat Pasha explain why Abdulhamit II was called the “red sultan.”

The Sultan did not order “reprisals or prosecutions” of Armenians “for their acts of treason leading up to and during the Russo-Turkish war in the east,” all independently documented.  There were multiple violent Armenian acts against the government and the Sultan, but he allowed the Armenians to leave the country without reprisal.

Likewise, “Despite some success,” Gall says of Abdulhamit II, “his vision was narrow and his administration a traditional dictatorship.” (Page 404)   But this judgment regarding the Sultan’s “vision” is overly harsh when contrasted with the long list of economic developments and infrastructural improvements introduced during his entire reign:  e.g. a tram in Istanbul; the Paris-Istanbul railway and other railroad construction throughout the empire; natural gas lines; water and electrical lighting; the Museum of Constantinople; educational improvements for women as well as men; the construction of 18 professional schools; modern military officer training programs; the establishment of technological and industrial schools; dockyard modernization; establishment of a school of forestry; and, banking reforms.  Technical schools were built to teach engineering, medicine, civil administration, and civil law. Non-Muslim students were accepted. Schools for girls and a women’s teacher training university were opened. Separate trade and art schools for girls and boys were opened. Schools to train Ottoman bureaucrats were established; statistical bureaus provided data for decision-making and census records were maintained. Book publication was also encouraged.

“Fiscally,” Gall admits, “Abdulhamit brought economic stability.” (page 407)  He inherited enormous debt even before the Russo-Turkish war. He reduced spending and paid down the debt.  Commerce improved throughout the empire’s cities and towns. Manufacturing improved: clothing, cement, thread, glass, and tobacco production increased.  The Turkish lira stabilized and trade balances improved. Silk and mining (coal in particular) expanded. Muslims became entrepreneurs, joining Christians and Jews.  The Agriculture Bank offered credit as an alternative to “the exploitive moneylenders.” Abdulhamit II was an active Caliph, representing Muslims worldwide. The Arabs ignored his efforts but the Europeans were alarmed by his advocacy of Pan Islam.  Simultaneously, he promoted European culture and education. (p. 407)

The Ottoman Empire did not collapse during Abdulhamit’s reign.  Perhaps it was because his adversaries feared one another combined with, “Abdulhamit’s astute foreign policy decisions.

He recognized his military weakness and chose to solve disputes by negotiation.  He compromised on the terms under which territories would remain loosely a part of his domain and Russians and Europeans accepted this as the quid pro quo for having effective control over resources and geography, while recognizing his suzerainty and paying nominal tribute.”  Gall acknowledges that Abdulhamit II was responsible for “civil and diplomatic accomplishments” during his reign but feels that the Sultan must still be held accountable for the punishment of Armenian subjects who revolted in 1894 because of their earlier support in 1877 of Russia.  But, again, the Armenian campaign should not be confused with the Armenian “genocide” perpetrated in 1915, six years after Abdulhamit II was deposed.

By choosing such a narrow time frame, Gall has made his research and writing task more manageable, but it does make it more difficult to put the complete achievements of Abdulhamit II into perspective since his reign covered the entire period August 31, 1876-1909.  As Gall acknowledges, those achievements were extensive and positively helped the Young Turks of the republican era after 1909 to produce a country, Turkey, better equipped to meet the contingencies of the new world order following World War I (1914-18). Abdulhamit II was not the last Ottoman Sultan, but he was the last effective autocrat before the Sultanate was abolished in 1934.

Regarding the “summer romance” and “marriage” of Prince Abdulhamit and Flora Cordier (who converted to Islam prior to the ceremony and whom he calls “Nigar”), the latter is not generally recognized as either a “wife” or “consort” and no mention is made by Gall of the 13 wives of the Sultan Abdulhamit II nor his 17 children.  It was the mother, Pertevniyal, the sultan valide, of Sultan Abdulaziz, who suggested that Prince Abdulhamit introduce himself to Flora in order to learn more about the opinions of the Istanbul business community.  This led the Prince to invite Flora to dinner at his farmhouse residence, Kagithane. He developed, according to Gall, a fascination with a woman who was not a part of the harem, not a consort who could be summoned at will to the Prince’s bedchamber.  A Prince never had to resort to courtship or seduction. Flora had quite informed and independent opinions and when she left, following their first dinner, the Prince was in a state of sexual excitation.  This was lust, my friend! He immediately called for his long-time favorite consort, the fictional “Mela” (not included by Wikipedia in the list of consorts), to calm his new-found passion. At the second dinner with Flora, also at his rural residence, the Prince proposed marriage and Flora responded “Pourquoi non?” (Why not?) After all, it’s not every young Belgian woman who gets an opportunity to marry an Ottoman Prince–who just one day might become the Sultan.So, while the story is interesting,  Flora disappears from the historical record, Gall notes, once the Prince does, in fact, become the Sultan.  Still, Gall uses Flora Cordier as a model for those who worked during the internal crises of 1876-1883 to provide aid to the refugees displaced by ethnic and religious conflicts.  She gains an audience with Abdulhamit II not to persuade him to recognize her as his one and only “wife,” but to petition him for land upon which his hungry refugee subjects can till the soil and grow food to  sustain themselves. The Sultan, treating Flora as a subject worthy of respect, rather than as a “wife,” grants her request, thus setting an example of charity and compassion as commanded by the Prophet Mohammed and which should be emulated by the wealthy business community and landowners.  Later, Flora makes a second entreaty: send Interior Ministry officials to Istanbul’s mosques to explain that free land is available to Ottoman subject refugees for their resettlement. She is again successful.

The Background and Political Context

More than 200 pages of To Save an Empire, the first 27 chapters of the book, are devoted to the ideological test of wills between Mithat Pasha and Abdulhamit II to determine whether the Ottoman Empire will be transformed into a republic with a Parliament, a Constitution, and a constitutional monarch or retain its traditional character of an autocratic Sultanate-Caliphate.  With Mithat Pasha exiled to Europe, the story abruptly switches as the Sultan is informed by Minister of War Redif Pasha in April 1877 (page 229), “‘Russia has declared war, my sovereign.’” The war and its consequences occupies the next 170 pages.

To better understand the antipathy, the hate, and perhaps the fear which Abdulhamit II felt for Mithat Pasha, it is important to understand how and why the Prince, much to his surprise, became the Sultan. The book begins with the deposing of the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph Abdulaziz (Abdulhamit’s uncle) on May 30, 1876, by Mithat Pasha, a member of the Council of Ministers and President of the Council of State, and Huseyin Avni Pasha, the Minister of War, both acting on behalf of the Council.  Abdulaziz was accused of “squandering the wealth” of the Empire through excessive borrowing from European banks to pay for his lavish lifestyle, and that of the court in Istanbul, and the purchase of expensive ships and other military equipment. The Sheikh Ul-Islam (or mufti), acting on behalf of the Muslim community, issued a fetva (Arabic fatwa, a formal legal opinion based upon the Koran) approving the deposing of Abdulaziz.  These radical actions were taken to prevent the collapse of the empire, comprising Christians, Muslims, Jews and diverse ethnic societies living in a vast territory including North Africa, the Balkans, Persia, Afghanistan, a part of Iraq, and Anatolia and the control of connecting waterways:  the Mediterranean and Aegean, the Bosporus and Dardenelles Strait as well as the Black Sea.

Mithat’s second objective was to modernize the government and to transform it into a republic, with an elected Parliament and a Sultan-Caliph acting as a constitutional monarch (as in England), rather than the Sultan having supreme and unchecked power.  These reforms followed earlier measures taken by progressives in the 1840s–collectively called the Tanzimat (Reorganization).   The seeds of political, economic, and social reform can even be traced to Napoleon Bonaparte’s military invasion of Egypt and Syria (1798) via the Mediterranean Sea and his army’s unsuccessful attempt to take Constantinople (Istanbul) followed by a land and sea retreat to France (1801).  While France suffered military failure, Bonaparte’s army was accompanied by a large number of scholars, scientists, and engineers who produced a new wave of Muslim interest in Western technology (e.g. the printing press) and French Enlightenment ideas (e.g. liberalism and nationalism) which preceded the modernization of Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha and Egyptian independence from Ottoman rule.

The political and economic ferment of nineteenth-century Europe excited the nationalist ambitions of Ottoman Empire subjects, as well as the imperialist ambitions of France, Britain, Russia, Germany and other aspirants.  In hindsight, of course, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamit II could have chosen not to try and push back the tide of reform within the empire’s extensive boundaries. He could have chosen to collaborate with Mithat Pasha and a Parliament, but collaboration was anathema to him: a personal insult since it was proposed by a man he knew was responsible for the deposing of his uncle, Abdulaziz, and who, it was speculated, may have even arranged his death five days later and made it appear to be a suicide.  Although not much was expected of Abdulhamit II, given the few resources at his command and his government’s large debt, he actually managed to hold onto power much longer than most European statesmen predicted he would. Abdulhamit II introduced the many progressive economic measures listed above while simultaneously relying upon a large network of spies within the empire’s borders and beyond it to identify real and potential “enemies” and which also provided strategic information about foreign governments and even other members of the Ottoman network of spies:  spies spying upon spies.

Abdulaziz was replaced by his nephew, Murat V, who was considered a progressive and well-educated man who, Mithat hoped, would oversee a democratic unification of the multi-ethnic empire, although “real power” would reside in the hands of civil servants, parliament, and civil courts. The Ulema (clerical scholars) and students supported Mithat’s plan for establishing a constitutional government, arguing that Sharia law recognized “consultation” by non-Muslims in the affairs of state.  Religious school students also supported a Sharia-approved model whereby laws would be applicable to all subjects (Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others) equally.  This was a controversial position, though, as it gave non-Muslims equal status before the law with followers of Muhammad, “the seal of the prophets.”

No one, however, especially Mithat, foresaw the emotional and physical breakdown of the new Sultan, Murat V, who immediately upon his accession became a cowering figure who had none of the character traits expected by the Council as well as the public.  Huseyin, the serasker (Chief Soldier), had no faith in Mithat’s modernization plan anyway, believing that the Ottoman Empire needed more soldiers and more military strength, rather than political reform, to protect the diverse ethnic groups within its boundaries from the predatory practices of Britain, France, the Austrian Hapsburgs, and Russia, all interested in claiming various geographical parts of the empire should it be conquered or implode economically.  The Ottoman navy, Huseyin believed, was too weak in 1876 to protect the empire’s boundaries. And, Huseyin contended that a stronger military was necessary to pacify the rebellious Balkan Muslims and Christians, who were encouraged to act by Russian agents provocateurs.  But, this conservative military voice was soon to be silenced by a drug-addled  assassin’s gun and knife seeking revenge as a matter of family honor.

As Sultan, Murat V was fearful, wary, and reclusive.  He made no public appearances or any show of personal fortitude or leadership.  Consulting European physicians, Dr. Fonseca and Dr. Lilliesdorf, informed Mithat and the Council that Murat V was suffering from an advanced stage of alcoholism and was unlikely to recover and become a strong, mentally coherent, and resolute Sultan-Caliph.  Consequently, Murat V was deposed and within three months in 1876, the Ottoman Empire had a third head of state: the brother of Murat V, Abdulhamit II (or Abdul Hamid II, according to other writers).

Grand Vizier Mithat Pasha, who was exiled by Abdulhamit II and strangled to death with a silk cord in 1883, was initially successful in his modernization efforts and Abdulhamit was compelled to accept the establishment and opening of a Parliament in March 1877, the delegates being selected not by a popular vote but rather by leaders of the various ethnic and religious groups located within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire, a structure and process known as the millet.  The Parliament met once and was then sent into recess for thirty years by Abdulhamit II when he suspended the new Constitution in February 1878.  Having watched its deliberations and determining that the establishment of a Parliament did not carry enough symbolic weight to persuade France and Britain to support the Sultan’s government with economic and military aid, Abdulhamit II decided that he would rule the Empire in the same autocratic way his successful Osman predecessors like Suleyman the Magnificent  (or, The Lawgiver) or Mehmet II (who captured Constantinople in 1453) had done.

Abdulhamit II has been described as physically “not much to look at,” and was so frail that he found it difficult on the day of his enthronement to lift and carry, during the ritual of installation, the sword of Osman, founder of the dynasty.  He inherited a government that was deeply in debt to “the Powers” of Europe and lacked the allies, military means, or other resources to defeat the Russians during the short war of 1877 and prevent Russian annexation of strategic territory. Abdulhamit II’s government also faced the nationalist aims of Balkan subjects and those of the Greeks.  The leaders of France and Britain, empires themselves with colonial interests on several continents, wanted the Ottoman Empire to be strong enough, relying solely upon its own navy, to counter the expansionist goals of Russia and prevent it from controlling the Black Sea, the Dardenelles Straits, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. But Europe did not want to commit money or troops to support Abdulhamit II’s military forces.  And, Britain in particular wanted to maintain control of Mediterranean shipping lanes as well as the Suez Canal (completed in 1869). France invaded the Ottoman province of Tunisia in 1881, and the British gained control of Egypt in 1882.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877 lasted from April until December.  It occupies a substantial part of To Save an Empire:  approximately twenty-five percent of the book.  Gall realistically presents Abdulhamit II as a victim of the Ottoman Empire’s global circumstances and the Sultan’s lack of military and diplomatic experience and his dependence upon the information and opinions of the generals directing the campaigns against the Russians (as well as Balkan subjects in revolt) on the western and eastern fronts.  Abdulhamit II also devoted an extraordinary amount of time to the reading of European newspapers brought to Yildiz Palace in addition to the reports of his large network of domestic and international spies. These alternative sources of gossip, rumor, and genuine news of campaigns written by European reporters from the scenes of battle were consulted in order to test the validity of what his commanders were telling him.  He was assured that the Ottoman army would prevail in its plan to stop the Russian advance within the Danube Province and that Istanbul was safe from attack and Russian conquest.

In a search for allies and sources of support, Abdulhamit II turned to Germany on the one hand and to Muslim states within the region on the other, proclaiming a form of Pan-Islamism.  Both tactics were successful in different ways for a limited time period.

 Supporting Characters

To a large extent, it is the “minor characters” in To Save an Empire who carry the burden of living through the horrors of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and the ethnic conflicts of the Balkans and in the eastern component of the Ottoman Empire.  In his Epilogue, Gall writes that the “primary characters … as well as most of the minor characters are historic [sic] figures who experienced the events recounted in the novel.” (pp. 414-5)  Novelists, of course, use composite characters as a convenient way to tell stories in historical novels as well as in those of other genres. But, to transform an historical figure into a composite, one introduces confusion which could have been easily avoided by introducing a different “Good Samaritan” responsible for the actions attributed to the composite Flora/Nigar.

Here is Gall’s explanation of his treatment of this woman:  “The character of Flora, later called Nigar, is real as I present her up through Abdulhamit’s investiture as sultan and her refusal to enter the harem.  After this she is lost in historical record so far as I could find, other than some contradictory speculations. So, what I have written of her life following Abdulhamit’s accession to the throne is from my imagination.” (page 415)

Finally, following “Author’s Notes” (pages 414-5), Allan Gall has provided the authors and titles of 29 books readers may want to consult to learn more about the primary characters Abdulhamit II and Mithat Pasha and the period of time, the late-19th century, portrayed in To Save an Empire.  In the “Author’s Notes,” Gall recalls that during his eight years in Turkey, “I experienced a modern culture steeped in history.  Turks still referenced the Crusades as defining the attitude and politics of Western Christian countries toward Muslim ones. They spoke of repeated wars with Russia from the 17th century on–but particularly of the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, and World War I.  I met descendants of refugees from those wars. Among the historic Turkish figures often mentioned, Sultan Abdulhamit II and Mithat Pasha … were unusual in that their names were as likely to be mentioned in derision as in praise.” The story of the period 1876-1883, he writes, “was compelling because it is current.  The human emotions, historic events, and conflicts in the novel continue to be experienced by the people of the region and are reflected in today’s headlines.”

The book ends with a useful four-page “Pronunciation Guide and Glossary.”

Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia: 1965-67) lives in Portland, OR, and considers grandparenting, with wife Paula, his top priority now.  He remains active as a board member of the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association and still assists Elders in Action and RideWise with special projects and undertakes regular litter patrol duties with The Usual Suspects.  He has published two Kindle books at Amazon:  Dr. Dark and Short and Shorter:  Short Stories and  Poetry.  He is currently editing Highway 1 (the link in Vietnam between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) for publication in 2019 and has outlined his  novel “Hendryk” (the story of the building of Angkor Wat) and looks forward to both the research and writing over the next several years.  Robert and Paula still travel domestically and internationally, the inspiration for future novels set in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.


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  • Allan Gall, was Carl Sykes in your group or the one later? I worked with him in the mid-60’s at DHEW in D.C.

    • He was definitely not in my group. I don’t think I’ve ever met him, but I might have. The RPCV Turkey group in the DC area is extensive. Some participate more than others in organized events.

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