London — Britain is divided as never before. The country has turned its back on Europe, and its female ruler has her sights set on trade with the East. As much as this sounds like Britain today, it also describes the country in the 16th century, during the golden age of its most famous monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.
One of the more surprising aspects of Elizabethan England is that its foreign and economic policy was driven by a close alliance with the Islamic world, a fact conveniently ignored today by those pushing the populist rhetoric of national sovereignty.
From the moment of her accession to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth began seeking diplomatic, commercial and military ties with Muslim rulers in Iran, Turkey and Morocco — and with good reasons. In 1570, when it became clear that Protestant England would not return to the Catholic faith, the pope excommunicated Elizabeth and called for her to be stripped of her crown. Soon, the might of Catholic Spain was against her, an invasion imminent. English merchants were prohibited from trading with the rich markets of the Spanish Netherlands. Economic and political isolation threatened to destroy the newly Protestant country.
Elizabeth responded by reaching out to the Islamic world. Spain’s only rival was the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Sultan Murad III, which stretched from North Africa through Eastern Europe to the Indian Ocean. The Ottomans had been fighting the Hapsburgs for decades, conquering parts of Hungary. Elizabeth hoped that an alliance with the sultan would provide much needed relief from Spanish military aggression, and enable her merchants to tap into the lucrative markets of the East.
In the 1580s she signed commercial agreements with the Ottomans that would last over 300 years, granting her merchants free commercial access to Ottoman lands. She made a similar alliance with Morocco, with the tacit promise of military support against Spain.
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.
Queen Elizabeth I, 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.
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.
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.