Archive for November, 2006

The Harem and the Black Eunuchs

November 23, 2006

You take a rushed tour with fifty or more other tourists around the Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces. In 16th century Topkapi you file around a rabbit warren of courtyards, beautifully tiled rooms, baths, and dank, dark and musty corridors. In 19th century Dolmabahçe you see enormous dowdy drawing rooms, all ready, apparently for visitors for tea. The harem is almost as big as the palace itself. When, in 1909 the Young Turks expelled Sultan Abdul Hamid and opened up his harem to the world, they found over nine hundred women who had been bought in the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire. Most had never ever seen the Sultan, let alone become his concubine. Messages were sent around what was left of the Empire for brothers and fathers to come and fetch their sisters and daughters.

Harems started as a way for Ottoman warriors to “protect” their women when away from home for long periods, and eunuchs would act as guards. The system was adopted by the Sultanate, and every member of the harem was a slave, thus every Sultan was the son of a slave, in the same way that every member of the Janissary guard was a slave, at least until the 17th century. Slaves, whose lives depended on the Sultan, would be easier to control than free Muslim women, who by law had certain rights.

The Sultan should be happy with a variety of partners chosen from the prettiest and healthiest slavegirls of all the Empire, and, as long as all was functioning well with him, they would provide a reserve of possible male heirs. Sundry heirs would be eliminated. Mehmet II, Conqueror of Constantinople, recommended: “Whichever of my sons inherits the Sultan’s throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order [the Ottoman Empire]. Most of the jurists have approved this procedure. Let action be taken accordingly”. Of course, this was done in order to prevent wars of succession, such as took place in Austria and Spain. Mehmet executed his two brothers; Selim I had two brothers, three sons and four nephews strangled. On the accession of Mehmet III in 1597 nineteen of the new Sultan’s brothers were taken out of the harem, circumcised and strangled with a silken handkerchief. In the history of the Ottoman Empire some 80 princes were killed, usually strangled with a bowstring, in order not to spill the sacred Ottoman blood. Such apparent callousness as Richard III’s murder of his brother, two nephews and sundry counselors was relatively commonplace.

We know little about life in the Harem. Only in the 19th century were girls giving some kind of formal education. Before that they learnt certain skills such as embroidery, coffee making, and the organization of a community of up to a thousand women would bring out the management skills of some, but few learnt the complex Ottoman script, and there was no real education, at least until the harem’s final throes in the second half of the 19th century. Occasional outings, veiled of course, and attended by eunuchs. The greatest regular pleasure was probably the bath. Naturally lesbianism existed, but all cucumbers had to be sliced before they could enter. An occasional Lothario might try to pass a billet doux and might suffer the whip of the eunuchs. Few had the luck of Pierre Loti, or at least the fictional Loti, whose affair with Azyiadé, member of a harem,  told in the novel of the same name, evoked the mystery and romance of the veiled women of the harem to the readers of Western Europe at the end of the 19th century.

Once the concubine had produced a male heir she had served her purpose and would not be visited again, and she would devote the rest of her life to the furthering of her son’s future possibilities. Some who failed to attract the attention of the Sultan were married off to civil servants; others were relegated to the Eski Saray, the Old Palace, and gathered cobwebs until they died, alone, forlorn and forgotten.

But not all were. In the late 16th and right through the 17th, centuries the Queen Mother, the Sultan Validé, and occasionally a concubine herself, rose to prominence. Suleiman the Magnificent, or the Lawgiver, as her is known in Turkish, under whose reign from 1520 to 1566 the Ottoman Empire was at its most extensive, almost reaching Vienna, did the almost unthinkable and actually fell in love with a Russian slavegirl, Hurrem, or Roxelana, who gave him a son. He even enjoyed discussing affairs of state with her. But she was only the second Sultana, and Gülbehar, Rose of Spring, had already produced a son, and there was a strict precedence in the harem. The two women fought. Rose of Spring scratched Roxelana’s face. Roxelana refused to visit Suleiman because of this disfigurement. This won him Suleiman over, and Rose of Spring and son Mustafa were transferred to the provinces. The Queen Mother died, Roxelana now ladied it over the harem and demanded Suleiman marry her. Despite the general astonishment, the festivities were sumptuous, and now the Harem was at the centre of power. Roxelana persuaded Suleiman that his friend the Grand Vizier, the chief minister, was menace to his power and had him strangled, and then, nine years later, she had Mustafa, his son by Rose of Spring, also strangled, so her son, Selim, could be next Sultan.

Thus began the period of the Reign of the Women, the Kadinlar Sultanati, when, for some 150 years, the Harem ruled the Empire, and a continual battle was waged between the Sultan Validé, the Chief Kadin, or wife, and often the Chief Black Eunuch. As N. M. Penzer, in The Harem, writes, “While the Sultans were indulging in orgies of drink or vice, according to their taste, it was the women who crept to the secret grilled window of the Divan, listened to State secrets, and played their cards accordingly” (p.186).

My friend George Junne is studying the black eunuchs of the harem. They were often Abyssinian slaves who had been emasculated by removal of penis and testicles. But at least on one noted occasion the operation was botched, as just one testicle was removed. Despite the absence of a penis, it was still possible to produce sperm and impregnate, and on this occasion, this actually happened. A European traveler to Egypt reported seeing a eunuch being taken back to Istanbul in chains to be punished, as a dark child had been born in the harem.

African eunuchs were noted in the Byzantine Empire and their roles continued under the Ottomans. The White European eunuchs were first in charge of the harem and the religious foundations, the vaqfs, and the Sultan himself. The Black African eunuchs had been planning to usurp the powers of the White eunuchs but had to wait until the death of the powerful Chief White Eunuch, Gazanfer Aga (d. 1587). Beginning in the late 1570s, the Black eunuchs made their move, taking over the power and roles of their European counterparts. Chief Black Eunuch Mehmed Aga (c. 1587-1590) consolidated the position to the extent that those African eunuch slaves following him in office became the third most powerful men in the Ottoman Empire after the Sultan and the Viziers.

From 1587 until the end of the Empire, over 70 Africans advanced to the status of Chief Black Eunuch. Because he and the other 200 to 400 other Black eunuchs were the closest physically to the sultan and his family, and because they supervised the education of the Sultan’s sons as well as handling the Sultan’s and family’s personal treasury, the eunuchs exerted a lot of influence over the Empire. On a couple of occasions, they were involved in running the Empire. The amount of money the Chief Black Eunuchs controlled would run into the tens of millions of dollars today.

During the 1800s the city of Athens was under the direct control and supervision of the Chief Black Eunuch. They were also responsible for the eunuchs working at the mosques at Mecca and Medina. Further, they were responsible for relics of the Prophet kept in the Topkapi Palace. Some built mosques in Istanbul and elsewhere and also, provided funds to convert churches into mosques. They also built fountains, many of them still in use today.

After the creation of the Republic of Turkey, several of the last of the Black eunuchs purchased houses together around the city. Many people can still remember them in the coffee houses of Pera in the 1970s.

My thanks to George Junne


From Robert College to Boğaziçi Universitesi

November 12, 2006

Go into the campus past the pastry shop and the mosque, glance at the portakabin where  Islamic girls enter bescarfed and exit with wooly hats, not a Boğaziçi fashion, as I suspected, but rather a ploy, a jeitinho, to get around the “no headscarves allowed at any school or university” law. Amble down the hill overlooking the yachts of Bebek and arrive in the main quad. Switch off for a moment and you are in an Ivy League university in the US: Cornell, Harvard, Berkeley. Blue limestone mansard buildings constructed from 1850 to 1920s. A nice day and students are throwing frisbees on the lawn or just chilling out.

A pause in the class. I hear the dogs of Istanbul barking. Be careful when you’re out in Taksim, I’m told, for an English sailor, not so many years ago, after taking one too many, lay down to rest. In the morning all that was left of him were his bones.  

In Constantinople, written in 1878, Edmondo de Amicis writes that each district has its fixed population of dogs, which have their own police patrols, and woe betide any strange dog entering! Although Muslims didn’t keep dogs as pets they fed them, and the dogs had a much better life than in Christian and Jewish Pera across the Golden Horn. Indeed, on  Boğaziçi campus they have a special pen and volunteer walkers. 

In 1910 they were removed to the nearby Sivriada Island in the Marmara Sea, one of the nearby Princes Islands, where their howls, as they devoured each other, could still be remembered by old men some fifty years afterwards. But Istambul was soon repopulated.   

I can almost touch the towers of Rumeli Hisari, the castle built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452, at the narrowest part of the Bosphorous in order to prepare for his conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and to prevent the Byzantine fleet from escaping. Thus fell the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.   

Boğaziçi (don’t pronounce the soft “ğ”, and the “ç” is a “çh”) or Bosphorous, University was set up by North Americans Dr.Cyrus Hamlin,an educator, inventor, technician, architect and builder, and Mr. Christopher Rheinlander Robert, a well-known philanthropist and a wealthy merchant from New York in 1863 as Robert College and remained thus until 1971, when, due to increasing financial burdens and an endowment system that never really worked, it was handed over to the Turkish government. But the language of instruction remained English. The majority of professors got their PhDs in English speaking countries. English in the classroom, but Turkish for tutorials and for tea. Another invasion, I wonder, but this would be too simplistic. There seem to be no protests over the use of English, and it gives students an important differential on the job market. No sense of Turkish nationalism seems to have been offended. Indeed, the campus is full of busts of Atatürk. 

The grass is manicured but salaries are low. A full professor earns no more than US$1000 a month. A two-bedroom apartment in a far from posh area will take up at least half of that. Those who need money also work elsewhere: my colleagues here translate, interpret, teach at the much better-paid private universities set up by private foundations as profit-making concerns, and give TOEFL crammer classes on Saturdays and Sundays. Coming to Boğaziçi may even seem a pleasant day off after the tension of the cabin, the solitude of the computer or the frustration of attempting to force information into denser students. Have lunch at the faculty restaurant while looking at the ships passing along the Bosphorous on a gorgeous autumn day, rub shoulders with the Great and the Good of Istanbul. And teach students who are bright, polite, concentrated and respectful. Many even seem interested in what the profs have to say. 

And Boğaziçi gives you the status to get these other jobs. Students have few problems getting employment. Most of those who qualify from the Translation and Interpreting course actually work as translators and interpreters. The Alumni Club is the most sophisticated place on campus, with its state of the art gym, chic restaurant and bar and swimming pool. Money ran out for the residence I’m staying in, but it was baled out by the Koç foundation and Yapi Kredit and Garanti banks, after which the halls are named and where many Alumni work.   

I enter the Superdorm, not Superdome, as I thought it was called, residence. As we enter we see the on the billboard an Atatürk looking up, and the words “The future for you is full of light”. The porch containing pictures of and poems on Atatürk has been named “Atatürk Corner”, for on 10th November 1938, at 9:05 a.m., Atatürk died here in Istanbul in the Dolmabahçe Palace.

On Friday Turkey stopped and remembered. In my neighbouring primary school the pupils lined up in the playground. At 9.05 a.m. the sirens sounded. A wreath was laid at the Atatürk bust. The national anthem was sung. Speeches were made. Students read out essays on Atatürk. And the same was happening all around Istanbul, and all around Turkey in Gazantepe, Izmir, Anatalya, Bursa, and particularly in Ankara, which Atatürk made capital, and the eastern Anatolian cities of Erzurum and Shivas, from where Atatürk started his revolution of 1920-1923. 

Yesterday in Ankara at the funeral of veteran Republican politician Bulent Ecevit crowds chanted “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” and booed the arrival of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK party has its roots in political Islam and favours a lifting of the ban on headscarves in schools and universities. But Erdoğan is popular, and the economy is stable. Erdoğan may run for President in May 2007. His wife wears a headscarf. This may be the biggest problem for Turkey to face next year…