William Dalrymple on the overlooked empire that created one of the great cities

Standing amid the arcaded pavilions of the Topkapi Palace, looking down the wooded promontory of Sarayburnu with Asia to your right and Europe to your left, it is easy to see why Istanbul was always going to be one of the world’s greatest cities, and the natural capital for an empire that straddled three continents.

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william_dalrympleAround 1600, a dramatic shift took place in Mughal art. The Mughal emperors of India were the most powerful monarchs of their day—at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they ruled over a hundred million subjects, five times the number administered by their only rivals, the Ottomans. Much of the painting that took place in the ateliers of the first Mughal emperors was effectively dynastic propaganda, and gloried in the Mughals’ pomp and prestige. Illustrated copies were produced of the diaries of Babur, the conqueror who first brought the Muslim dynasty of the Mughal emperors to India in 1526, as well as exquisite paintings illustrating every significant episode in the biography of his grandson, Akbar.

william_dalrympleIn 2004, ten days after I moved my family to a new life in India, I gave a reading at a small palace on the edge of the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur. Fourteen people turned up, of whom ten were Japanese tourists who had got lost. The next year, I helped organise a modest literary programme of 18 authors. Two failed to arrive, but with the aid of my co-director, Namita Gokhale, we gathered a respectable audience of nearly 100. Eight years later, however, by some strange yogic sleight of hand, the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival has shape-shifted into the largest free litfest in the world and the largest literary event in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

William Dalrymple’s colourful history of the first British campaign in Afghanistan draws effective parallels with recent events: Ian Thomson in The Guardian

return of a kingKenneth Williams, with his nasal, camp-cockney inflections, made a very good Khasi of Kalabar in Carry On Up the Khyber. The film, shot in 1968 in north Wales, satirised British imperial ambitions in Afghanistan and the Kingdom of Kabul (now Pakistan). Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond and his posh cor blimey cohorts find themselves out of their depth amid tribal bloodletting and jihadi mayhem. Qur’anic ideals of mercy are not shown the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment as they move up the Khyber.

A literary figure, a writer creates his/her masterpieces for readers. It’s a rarity that a reader is blessed enough to meet the writer he likes in person. A reader is related to a writer through the latter’s words, imagination s/he uses in his writings. The meeting in person was considered more of a fantasy and a dramatised dream in olden days. But now things have changed, literature has also seen an advancement and progress. One of the many examples of that can be Literary Festivals organised globally.

william_dalrympleWilliam Dalrymple’s duck-billed smartphone is a lot like the Jaipur Literature Festival that he co-directs: a clever core with a showy outer shell of fun.

The author and historian carries the bright-yellow-phone between venues of probably the world’s largest free literature festival as he moderates sessions on his beloved nonfiction, explains to young acolytes how he goes about his meticulous historical research, and thanks authors for attending.