America, Protestantism and coffee all have a Muslim history
By Alan MikhailAlan Mikhail is professor of history and chair of the department of history at Yale University and author of the new book “God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World.”August 20, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
Most Americans don’t know that their morning cup of coffee connects them to the Ottoman Empire. Few are aware that this bygone Muslim state helped to birth Protestantism, America’s dominant form of Christianity, or that the European explorers who “discovered” the Americas did so because of the Ottomans’ and other Muslims’ stranglehold on trade between Europe and Asia. In fact, some Americans don’t even know what the Ottoman Empire was. When Americans think of the Middle East, they often view it as a theater for American wars and a region essential for its oil. Yet all of us owe important parts of our culture and history to the most important empire in Middle Eastern history, the Ottoman Empire, and specifically to one sultan who lived half a millennium ago.
This September marks the 500-year anniversary of the death of a singular, but forgotten, historical figure — Selim I, the ninth sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Selim’s life and reign spanned perhaps the most consequential half-century in world history, with reverberations down to our own time. He nearly tripled Ottoman territory through wars in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. More than Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, German Catholic priest Martin Luther, Italian diplomat and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli or others of his contemporaries, Selim’s triumphs literally changed the world.
In 1517, Selim and his army marched from Istanbul to Cairo, vanquishing his foremost rival in the Muslim world, the Mamluk Empire. Selim now governed more territory than nearly any other sovereign. He held the keys to global domination. He controlled the middle of the world, monopolized trade routes between the Mediterranean and India and China, and possessed ports on all the major seas and oceans of the Old World. His religious authority in the Muslim world was now unrivaled. And he had enormous resources of cash, land and manpower. Lording over so much, he fittingly earned the title “God’s Shadow on Earth.”AD