The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas
One night in 1877, the city of Constanta, Romania, fell to Russian forces. As the city was falling, Eleonora Cohen was born, brought into life by two Tartar midwives who appeared mysteriously and believed that her birth was the fulfillment of a thousand-year-old prophecy. Prophecy or not, Ellie proves to be an unusual child – a genius or a savant. She teaches herself to read at a young age, alarming her aunt Ruxandra, who married Ellie’s father when her mother died in childbirth. When her father Yakob, a carpet merchant, is called on business to the city of Stamboul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, eight-year-old Ellie stows away in his luggage. In Stamboul she stays at the house of her father’s friend, Moncef Bey, and discovers that Stamboul is lush and teeming with color and life. An American minister, maybe a spy, offers to tutor her and soon rumors of her brilliance reach Sultan Abdulhamid II, who summons her to his palace for an audience. Ellie’s first meeting with the Sultan draws her into a world of political maneuvering and intrigue. Before long, the entire city is whispering. Who is the precocious child whose advice the Sultan is taking on matters of war and strategy? Is she a prophetess or a spy? What will be her role in history?
The Oracle of Stamboul was a wonderful read. The writing was clear but evocative. I felt as though I had fallen into the cacophany of a Turkish bazaar or Ramadan fast-breaking celebration, as though I could hear the strings of the ouds being plucked by maidens in the Sultan’s palace courtyards and taste the flatbread, honey and olives Ellie ate in Moncef Bey’s yellow house. In style, The Oracle of Stamboul reminded me a little bit of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, only sweeter and more innocent. Even the political intrigues in the book were muted, perhaps because the protagonist was a child. I could read The Oracle of Stamboul again and again just to return to Stamboul in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, to taste the baklava and listen to the music and gossip, and to thumb through the pages of the books in the Bey’s library… and most of all, to revisit Eleonora, who exudes innocence and charm from the first page to the last. Highly recommended.