Thursday 23 August 2018

To Save an Empire: A Novel of Ottoman History

to-save-an-empire, novel-ottoman-history, allan-gall, book

In 1876 the Ottoman Empire is in financial crisis and facing an invasion from Russia. Mithat Pasha, a respected reformer, feels that democratic reforms will bring Britain to their side and deter Russia. He orchestrates the deposition of the dissolute sultan only to find that his successor is mentally unstable, and he must turn to Abdülhamit. But Mithat’s vision for a constitutional monarchy sets up an immediate conflict with the new sultan.

Prior to his ascension, Abdülhamit is happily in love with his new Belgian wife, Flora Cordier, a shopkeeper in the fashionable, Francophile section of Istanbul. She surprises herself in accepting Prince Abdülhamit’s offer of marriage and is equally surprised by how little he knows of the workings of his country. She feels that as sultan he needs her as a trusted advisor. But he does not want her in that capacity, and she does not want a room in the harem.

Abdülhamit initially co-operates with Mithat, approving a constitution and a parliament. But Russia is not impressed and Britain is reticent to support the Turks. Feeling attacked from within and without, Abdülhamit exiles Mithat to Europe and rejects Russia’s humiliating demands.

Russia launches the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. We follow the war through the reports to Abdülahmit in his palace, from Mithat’s perspective in Europe, and through the eyes of Turkish Commander Osman Nuri Pasha and English soldier-of-fortune Commander Baker Pasha. The war reinforces Abdülhamit’s distrust of his military and civilian advisers and of his assumed ally, Britain.

The war allows the free expression of hatred among the ethnically and religiously mixed civilian population. Some 500,000 Muslim refugees and many Jews flee the Balkans to Istanbul, a haven for the religiously persecuted - especially Jews - since the 16th century. The plight of the refugees in Istanbul intersects with Flora’s search for a new and meaningful life. We follow the story of refugees through their lives and Flora’s efforts to help them.

Abdülhamit loses the war but not his empire. He skillfully negotiates to retain territory by sacrificing governing authority for tribute and recognition as sovereign. For Abdülhamit, suspicious of everyone, saving his empire becomes saving himself.

To Save an Empire is a story of war, but also of love - between lovers, between husbands and wives, between friends, among people thrown together by tragedy, among people sharing compassion for the suffering of others.

This window on history is also a mirror of our time. Nationalism and religious differences continue to be exploited. Russia and the West continue to interfere in the countries of the Balkans and the Middle East, which also continue to fight among themselves. Refugees continue to flee war. Leaders continue to prefer autocratic power to democratic balances of power.

Allan R. Gall lived in Turkey for eight years as a Peace Corps English teacher, as a grants administrator for the Ford Foundation, and as a Fulbright-Hays research fellow. He has a PhD in Near East Studies from the University of Michigan. The Turks’ conflicting opinions about Abdülhamit II and Mithat Pasha and the enticing era Turks refer to as their “first constitutional period” led him to the research for this novel.

To Save an Empire is available to buy now.

Are you interested in finding out more about the book? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. I loved this book--It's really beautifully written and well-researched. You don't need to know a lot about that historical period to enjoy it. And it isn't a dry book at all! It's really an epic story based on a truly fascinating time in history.