The ottomans

Masters of the opium trade: the fabulous wealth of the Sassoons

Just before I started to read this book I had been immersed in the letters written by Jewish merchants based in Cairo from the tenth to the 12th centuries describing the trade they conducted across the Indian Ocean all the way to the Malabar coast. These letters are written in a difficult cursive Hebrew script and in a Judaeo-Arabic dialect, so one needs greater expertise than I possess to read them in the original. It was therefore with what was almost a sense of dejà vu that I encountered Joseph Sassoon’s fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Sassoon family, from the beginning of the 19th century to

The Greeks’ bitter fight for freedom

Last year was the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the war of Greek independence in March 1821. It has been celebrated by a flood of books and events, a particularly instructive exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens and this gruesome page-turner. Mark Mazower, professor of history at Columbia University and the author of many books on modern Greece, stresses the passion for freedom, exceptional stamina and heroism which helped Greeks establish an independent state between 1821 and 1830. Greeks had long felt oppressed as subjects of the Ottoman empire. One of them called it ‘a tyranny so frightful… neither equal nor comparable to any other and so unjust’.

Has nostalgia become the Greeks’ national disease?

Imagine a new take on the Greek myth of Pygmalion. A love-shy artist makes a woman out of marble who is so beautiful that he falls for her and prays that she will come to life. For a moment he thinks his wish will be granted, but it is only his imagination. Now, in his sadness, he feels as if he himself is turning to stone. This, in a sense, has been the story of the Greek nation since, two centuries ago, a gang of brigands and diplomats took up arms to breathe life into the Parthenon marbles and revive the glory that was Greece. Thus began the phenomenally bloody