Saturday, 28 September 2013

The man who saved the world

The early hours of 12 September 1983.  Stanislav Petrov, a civilian in a military system, is on duty monitoring the USSR’s nuclear war early-warning system. The computer registers an incoming US missile strike. The siren howls. His screen lights up and flashes the peremptory order ‘Launch it’. Petrov is under default order to press the button. He has to act. What should he do?

Monday, 2 September 2013

Searching for the sultan's heart

In September 1566, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was bogged down before the walls of Szigetvar, an insignificant Hungarian fortress. He was seventy two years old. It was his eleventh campaign. Suleiman had spent years in the saddle, extending the reach of the Ottoman empire. He had shattered the Hungarian before, at Mohacs in 1526; the skulls of the defeated still whitened the plains, but the wars went on, were never ending. Frustrated by the resistance of this military pimple disturbing the projects of the 'The Shadow of God on Earth' he seemed to have become enveloped in gloom. His long and brilliant reign had been dogged by tragedy, revolt, disillusionment. The sultan had become reclusive, pious and grave. 'This chimney is still burning, and the great drum roll of conquest has yet to be heard', he wrote from his magnificently embroidered tent. A few hours later he was dead.


The elderly Suleiman, haggard with the cares of office.

The body was embalmed secretly, packed into a chest and trundled back to Istanbul, whilst a body double, seated in his imperial carriage behind a curtain, preserved the illusion that he still lived - until the time was right to proclaim his successor and only surviving son - Selim. All the others had died or been executed for fear of insurrection.

His heart, though, was apparently buried at Szigetvar, which was totally destroyed in the final collapse of a heroic defence. And now a team of Hungarian researchers are looking for it.

The Ottomans are big in the modern Turkish imagination. A fantastically popular TV costume drama has ignited interest in the greatest sultan as Turkey seems to be propelling itself forward in a new era of Ottoman-inspired influence. They'd love the heart to be found. And the Hungarians would love to find it - fantastic for the tourist trade! Read the BBC story here.

I'm off to Istanbul on Wednesday to take part in a cruise round the Black Sea. Maybe I'll find time to tip my turban at the great man's tomb - even if he is lacking a heart, so to speak.