Who did Shakespeare have in mind when he wrote about Othello, the “noble Moor” of Venice? It’s entirely possible he was thinking of the dashing Muhammad al-Annuri, Moroccan Ambassador to London, who arrived in London in 1600 to propose an audacious alliance between Morocco and England, in opposition to the Catholic European powers of Spain and France.
The ambassador’s arrival must have created quite a stir. His portrait shows a tall, dark-bearded man with intense eyes, a white turban and robe, black cloak and ornate scimitar. He and his 16-strong entourage spent six months in London, attending jousts at the Accession Day Tilts in Whitehall, meeting Queen Elizabeth in Nonsuch Palace and staying on The Strand. And Morocco was not the only Arabic country courting Elizabethan England. The sultan of the Ottoman Empire engaged in a 17-year correspondence with Elizabeth, negotiating trade deals, prisoner releases, exchanges of gifts and discussing possible military action against Spain.
The story of these years, when Elizabethan England – severed from Europe by religious dispute – turned to Turks and Moors for alliance, is told in This Orient Isle, a fascinating book by Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London. To anyone who thinks they know the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the book does a marvellous job of filling in the gaps, putting into context their references to Turks, Moors and others. It even explains some of the jokes in Twelfth Night, not to mention the state of Queen Elizabeth’s teeth.
Reading This Orient Isle today, as conflict rages in the Middle East, Britain votes to (again) sever itself from Europe, Islamophobia rampages and Turkey gets dragged into a dispute about the European Union, does help give a longer view of the topic. Self-interest was clearly the strongest motivator in these diplomatic moves, with Elizabeth and her advisors glossing over their religious differences in pursuit of commercial and imperial advantage.
I bought the book on impulse, stopped in my tracks by a striking window display in Hatchards, featuring that most English of Turkish artefacts – a Turkish carpet. I’m so glad I did.