A few words about harem
300 concubines: debunking the fantasies
A Note From the AuthorPreface
Most of the translations from Italian, German, Latin, Greek, Russian and other languages are my own, unless otherwise stated. Copying of any author's fragment and publishing on other resources is restricted without the permission of the author.
I would like to thank my friend Sofia Aguinaco for helping me with translating the texts of Giovanni Maria Angiolello and Jacopo Promontorio, and Helen for the editor’s work.
Many historians who are studying late Middle Ages of Europe and the era of Renaissance are familiar with the character of Mehmed the Conqueror, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453. In academic works much is written about his conquests, military campaigns and political activities, but little is known about his personal life.
Usually the books on the subject of Ottoman Empire only abstractly mention the names of members of his family and his male favorites, and those historians who widely talk about the nature of his relationships and intimate affairs are, unfortunately, often mistaken. In books and publications, readers can find everything from references to secondary or later sources, often ignoring the facts. Referencing the wrong information, many don't think to check the original sources or the accuracy of translation.
It is rather inappropriate to talk about the distorted facts shared by "historians" who pervert the history, after which all popular works are stamped out: the historical and adventure novels, romantic stories and popular fiction, which are advertized as bestsellers, but have no historical value.
All myths have their beginning, a certain motive, which facilitated to emerge the prejudices and topoi. The purpose of this publication will be to raise the question of the reliability or the evidence of inaccurate information that is findable even in the original sources.
For many readers interested in the history of Mehmed and Ottoman times it is hard to study the whole volumes of original documents, thus the inattentive author, relying on a short summary of well-known historians (such as L. Pierce and J. Freely), neglects referencing the original source and ignores the logical analysis of historical texts. They copy all available or well-known texts, and this contributes to the widespread misunderstanding of the period.
To begin with, one must credit historians who have devoted proper time to the subject and attempt to judge without bias (I can't help but mention F. Babinger and J. von Hammer-Purgstall). Yet even serious researchers make mistaken references to doubtful statements, but this is not a fatal issue when the main idea is correct.
A better approach is to not interpret as one pleases, but to hand out all the texts and accounts that are present in the sources, without proper comment, to the reader's judgement will only confuse everything. As a result, the superficial knowledge can not give a complete picture of the historical personalities and events.
In order to represent the past era, the thoughtful researcher should thoroughly study all the information from the life of previous centuries, it is important to comprehend not only one sphere, but also cover all the aspects: the culture and mentality, religion and law, customs and morals, and, above that, to remain objective, even touching on taboo subjects.
Due to prior knowledge of the East, I decided to draw up a separate study on the relationship between Sultan Mehmed II and his women, considering the huge number of myths around this theme. I did not solely rely on existing academic translations, and therefore checked the controversial fragments and terms with an original Latin or Greek script, and translated the text by myself, verbatim and trying not to allow any distortions.
Few words about Harem
When one is told about an oriental ruler, many think of the first word: the harem. The very notion of a harem now has not the same original meaning that was invested in it. Of course, before learning about the personal life of a particular Ottoman sultan, it is certainly necessary to understand; what is harem?
It is important to understand that harem is firstly a family hearth, and the royal harem is an institute, an entire structure of the court life with its established laws and rules, that were forbidden to violate. The strict hierarchy and order reigned in the palace harem.
The harem was divided to old and new palace; in the old palace lived the elder women, in the new, the younger ones. The chief woman in the harem was the mother of the ruling sultan, or their first spouse. Even the sultan could not neglect their opinion. So, for example, for taking the concubine or a second wife the husband was obligated to ask for the permission of the first wife, and even the ruler had better to follow the tradition of the ceremonial respect, otherwise the offences would lead to a rupture of the marriage and unwelcome rumors.
Another important fact: relations of Ottoman Sultan with the harem were always controlled by the chief eunuch of the harem – Kizlar-aga – the black eunuch, who was responsible for the inhabitants of the harem. Under his guide there were another 20 eunuchs, mostly black, as the white eunuchs served solely on the male side – the Enderun. This was because in contrast to the black eunuchs (African slaves) they were not completely castrated. The Syrian scholar Taki al-Din al-Subki (1284-1355) writes about types of castration and difference of eunuchs (see Mu'id al-nicam wa-mubid al-nikam). Slaves from Ethiopia were more enduring in terms of health, and therefore from the time of the reign of Mehmet II they were recruited for palace service, apparently to become eunuchs.
Like everywhere in the gender-segregated society of the East, there was a division in the dwelling places, rooms and places into the male and female side, which also required the separation of the palace into two distinct areas: the harem and the Enderun. In the Enderun lived the sultan himself, his oglans (boy-pages) and other servants with the supervision of aq-hadim (white eunuchs) who served this main part of the palace.
The society was homosocial (homosociality: orientation toward relation with the personalities of one's own sex), whether the person wanted it or not, and to a greater extent communication was with people of the same sex: men with men, women with women.
"The household of the Ottoman sultan was curiously divided and limited. An essential difference between the courts of Christian and Moslem monarchs was created by the seclusion of women in Mohammedan society. In the West, women appeared with the men of the court not only on occasions of amusement and diversion, but also in public parades and ceremonies of less and greater importance, and the ladies of the royal family led the fashionable society of the land. In the East, on the other hand, the visible court and retinue of the monarch was wholly ungraced by the presence of the fair sex; all the great ceremonies and cavalcades were participated in by men alone. It seems to be a fact that, before the middle of the reign of Suleiman, no woman resided in the entire vast palace where the sultan spent most of his time".Greece held a system of gynaeceum, a part of the house reserved for the women, and male quarters - andron. In Turkey, the harem, from the Arabic “haram” means the forbidden, unlawful, was nothing more than part of the palace, to which for outsiders was forbidden to enter. Temporarily or permanently there lived not only wives and concubines of sultan, but also women who played a role in the palace or politics, for example, relatives of the royal dynasty, younger members of the royal family, daughters of these women and their little sons (up to 7 years), and their slave-girls (whom the sultan had no right to touch.)
Albert Howe Lybyer (1876-1949) in "The government of the Ottoman empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent" 1923. (p. 121)
I'll keep myself from giving more details about the structure of the harem - many serious academic works have been dedicated to this subject and they are worth reading for those who do not believe in myths about the "Sultan's brothel," as if every person who got into the palace harem immediately enters the list of those whom the sultan should sexually use.
Such misunderstanding is often repeated both by European and Turkish historians: the latter often fail because they do not properly examine their own cultural stereotypes, and the former because of ignorance of a wildly different culture.
To give an example, the wives of the ruler or simply the women of the harem were called "hatun", which means lady or miss/Mrs. This can refer to any woman or someone's wife. While any respected man was addressed “chelebi” or “efendi” - lord, master, sir, the same applies to any woman “khatun”. However modern historians, erroneously assume that any "hatun" in the harem of sultan always refers to a mistress, or even his wife, but this is a serious misconception.
In other publications I have written about Mehmed's relations with his male favorites. However in this article I will give all historical information related to Sultan Mehmed and his women. Both those who were really connected to him and those who have been mistakenly attributed.
Why the myth? If you take the original texts and the oldest sources, which are the least distorted by legends and stories about unfortunate slaves and martyrs, Mehmed had only four wives and four children. Information on this can be found in documents and archives of foundations.
But what about the other women? Those supposed concubines and mistresses, of which only a few words are mentioned in the chronicles and letters? I address the words above, because the stereotypes in history must be dispelled.
" The Ottoman sultans’ harem, characterized by the seclusion of the women who resided there who had limited contact with outsiders, has provided fertile ground for the invention of tales that have often been incorporated into the historical tradition".
300 concubines: debunking the fantasies
a) The first storytellers
Many who are at least are superficially familiar with the history of the East know that the eastern rulers had many concubines. The number often attributed is 300. Erudite authors dare to write about the ceremony of "throwing a handkerchief" to the woman whom the Sultan desires in bed. Many modern writers, and even historians hastily take such information and relate it as truth, and readers fail to question the sources of the information. Here the fantasy ends. The best they can give is only secondary sources and do not hold any references to any reliable sources at all.
I’m going to inspect this issue in detail here: where did these 300 concubines of Mehmed II came from? One of the first authors who wrote myths about the Ottoman sultans was the late Byzantine author Theodore Spandounes (b. circa 1453, d. after 1538) in his work "On the Origins of the Ottoman Emperors" (De la origine deli imperatori ottomani). Although Spandounes did not write specifically about Mehmed, and his work was done in the times of the reign of Mehmed’s grandson Sultan Selim I, however, Spandounes wrote about the customs of the Ottoman court, especially the harem.
It is important to note that in his account of the number 300 Spandounes implied male-slaves, not slave-girls, but it was he who first wrote about the “handkerchief legend” and other, even more ridiculous fables. Here’s what he relates:
“Outside the court and palace of the Sultan and in a walled enclosure live the women collected far him from many places wherever he found them to be fair and comely and had them given to him; there are also slaves all to the number of 300. They have 100 eunuchs; to look after them, and all are paid by the Eunuch Treasurer. The Sultan is wont to visit this seraglio of his ladies every morning when he rises, they being always enclosed and forbidden to speak to any other man, not even to their fathers. The eunuchs lead them out into a great salon and array them in ranks on either side of the room; and they lift their veils with which Turkish women cover their faces. The Sultan walks along the line of them and throws a kerchief which he carries to whichever of them pleases him best. The chosen one picks it up, bows, and kisses the hem of his robe at his feet. Her eunuch (for every ten ladies have three eunuchs to look after them) then takes her to be perfumed and leads her to the Sultan's bed. Those: of the ladies who are thus chosen and impregnated are held in much greater respect by their servants. But when one of them has been used by the Sultan for forty days he no longer frequents her: and it is rare for a Sultan to have more than one son by the same lady”.There are a lot of absurdities in this legend and I’ll go through them:
(Theodore Spandounes “On The Origins Of The Ottoman Emperors”, p. 112)
- It is not clear whether under the walled enclosure is meant the old palace? But the harem may also be located in the new palace;
- Sultan never actually visited the harem in the morning;
- Women were not chosen to the harem only for beauty, but also for talent and special abilities;
- Ladies of the harem did not wear a niqab (the headdress covering the face, with a slit for the eyes), because in front of family, children and slave-girls it was acceptable to reveal their faces;
- Myth with a handkerchief and other dissolute ceremonies have already been debunked by Lady Montague;
- Eunuchs never touched women; it is female slaves who were directly associating with them. Eunuchs were only messengers and guides in the harem;
- The use of women only for 40 days is untrue. Rather the sultan could spend the wedding month with the bride, and as soon as she became pregnant, then he would stop the relationship, because his obligation was fulfilled. However, there were sultans, who throughout their life maintained relationships with their wives.
“When the Grand Signior resolves to choose himself a Bed-fellow, he retires into the Lodging of his Women, where (according to the story in every place reported, when the Turkish Seraglio falls into discourse) the Damsels being ranged in order by the Mother of the Maids, he throws his handkerchief to her, where his eye and fancy best directs, it being a token of her election to his bed. The surprised Virgin snatches at this prize and good fortune with that eagerness, that she is ravished with joy before she is deflowered by the Sultan, and kneeling down first kisses the handkerchief, and then puts it in her bosom, when immediately she is congratulated by all the Ladies of the Court, for the great honour and favour she hath received.”As one author clearly notes of Rycaut 's account that the Sultan's harem was a mere brothel full of an “Army of Virgins” eager to be invited into the master's bed. This notion vividly expresses a widespread cliché which remains indelible from the fantasies of readers who thirst for exoticism.
(The History of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire, Book 1, p. 72)
"Europeans were intent on discovering the harem as a magnificent brothel peopled by sexually insatiable sultans and their equally libidinous concubines".
(French Orientalism: Culture, Politics, and the Imagined Other. Desmond Hosford, Chong J. Wojtkowski)
And the similar descriptions of Genoese merchant Jacopo Promontorio (circa 1410-1487) that Mehmed’s palace held around 400 “most beautiful” women already arouse the dreams of limitless sexual access to any kind of pleasures.
“Seraglio of the Signor’s women and all slave-girls who dwell near the seraglio: harem contains 400 women. 150 of them are the most close (to Sultan), if not the most beautiful in the World, then most pure and lovely, all well-dressed in different fabrics of silk, brocades, gold, silver and pearls with other adornments... The Second Palace of women was located farther: in first two miles, and around 250 women lived there with eunuchs”.The truth is that Promontorio had never been able to see the harem, even over 25 years of work in Turkey. He was still a man and therefore the entrance into the harem was strictly forbidden, and the entrance to the Sultan's house was carefully guarded. Therefore, all the records about the "most beautiful" women in the World, their quantity and even what they were wearing was more likely the result of gossip and fantasies of foreigners.
(My translation from Italian “Recollecta”(1475) Jacopo Promontorio)
The ungrounded information continues to exist even in historical works; it has been upheld by academics and professors, and is still repeated in many books, novels and other publications about the Ottoman Empire. However, repetition is not a proof of the accuracy of these accounts: such consumers are not interested in accuracy, but in the illusion that continues to titillate and fascinate.
Fortunately, there have been steps to redress the inaccuracy. Many modern historians and researchers are questioning long-held assumptions. As Professor Christine Isom-Verhaaren clearly notes:
“The harem had become a symbol of the ultimate results of despotism; as a symbol, the accuracy of their information concerning the harem, either that on which they based their writings or what they wrote themselves, was of minor importance. Repetition is not proof of the accuracy of these accounts; rather, they project an image that is inaccurate but accepted. Later authors to support their claims resort to the argument that since all “observers” related similar scenes, they must be true. Accuracy is of little importance; what matters is the illusion”.
“The space of the harem was not a place of isolation and exclusion for women as if it were a private prison or brothel”.
(Imagining Arab Womanhood: The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems. A. Jarmakani)
Alain Grosrichard in his book "The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East" uses records about the harem written in the 17-18 century. This style of writing by Western authors about the harem raises suspicion, since they seem to perpetuating the myth. In this case, the story about the handkerchief goes back to Spandounes, while the rumor about 300 and more concubines belong to to Promontorio. There are several other contemporary authors in the list, but these are the most influential.
“Now it is striking to observe just how much the descriptions of the seraglio of the Grand Turk—the obligatory topos of all the accounts of travel in the Orient—are alike, to the point often of repetition in the very same words. This is not to be taken as evidence of corroborative information, nor as proof of their accuracy. Quite the contrary: there is repetition, there is copying (each time with the pretense of contributing something new, something never heard before), because the stereotyped image of the seraglio which was produced at the beginning of the seventeenth century, probably coincides exactly with what is expected”.
(Alain Grosrichard, The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East)
b) Debunking the fantasies
Despite the fact that at different courts and during the reign of individual sultans there were rules and conditions that differed (they are described in the kanunnames – the books of law); the traditions and ceremonies were usually preserved. For example, if the sovereign wanted to visit the harem, he did not have the right just to enter it without notifying the dwellers. He also rarely spent time with his spouse or beloved woman on the territory of the harem, and for a private meeting, he would call the lady into his quarters, so as not to cause questions and jealousy from others. The sultan would usually sent a secret gift through the eunuch who handed it to the eldest woman the kahiye-kadin, and this gesture served as a sign that the master wanted to see his beloved person. The woman would then be prepared and discreetly led into the chambers of the sovereign.
The sexual life of the Sultan in the Ottoman Empire was a private and intimate matter, and neither the Sultan nor his escort regarded this as a show. If a woman who belonged to Sultan was heading to his chambers, or the sultan visited her, only personal servants and eunuchs could know about this. It is reported that even the presence of the Sultan in harem aroused a burning envy among the women; they felt jealousy even of a benevolent glance which sultan might cast on someone distinguished, and this person would be called gozde. Therefore, in order to avoid friction and jealousy, the appointments were held in private, without unnecessary hostilities.
Many myths described by European travelers to the East were dispelled by the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) in her journey to Ottoman Empire between 1716-1718. This included the bizarre ceremony with a handkerchief which she disproved after meeting directly with a favorite of the late Mustafa II (1717-1774), the Hafise Kadinefendi. Moreover, Lady Montagu is very critical about the records of harems by men:
“You will perhaps be surprised at an account so different from what you have been entertained with by the common voyage writers, who are very fond of speaking of what they don't know. Your whole letter is full of mistakes from one end to the other. I see you have taken your ideas of Turkey from that worthy author Dumont*, who has writ with equal ignorance and confidence. Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removed from truth and so full of absurdities I am very well diverted with them. They never fail to give you an account of the women, which 'tis certain they never saw... I have had the advantage of forming friendships with Turkish ladies and of their liking me, and I can boast of being the first foreigner ever to have had that pleasure. I have visited a Sultana, widow of the late Emperor and by this means I have learned all about the intrigue of the seraglio. She assured me that the story of the handkerchief, so firmly believed among us, has not a syllable of truth”.
*Jean Dumont (1667–1727) French publicist and historian
(Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, ed. Malcolm Jack. Letter 38)
As Montagu herself claimed in her letters: “Nothing seems to me so agreeable as truth” (Letters, I: 34).
“I went to the see the Sultana Hafise, favourite of the last Emperor Mustafa . . . I did not omit this opportunity of learning all that I possibly could of the seraglio, which is so entirely unknown amongst us. She assured me that the story of the Sultan’s throwing a handkerchief is altogether fabulous and the manner upon that occasion no other but that he send the Kuslir Aga to signify to the lady the honour* he intends her. She is immediately complimented upon it by the others and led to the bath where she is perfumed and dressed in the most magnificent and becoming manner. The Emperor precedes his visit by a royal present and then comes into her apartment. Neither is there any such thing as her creeping in at the bed’s feet”.
*Pastime with the sovereign is implied here, not necessarily sexual activities
It is obvious that the institution of the harem was of a completely different nature: ceremonial and orderly, not like the majority suppose, as if there was a complete debauchery and violation of ethical norms.
Yet Lady Mary’s letters made little impact on the traditional European view of the harem, which was developed by men who had never been admitted to the harems of the elite of the empire. It is their writings that continue to be the sources for the authors of popular fiction.
Montagu's records of real Turkish harems and women are disadvantageous to those authors who openly or unconsciously wish to sexualize the Oriental dream of the unlimited pleasures of a harem. Lady Mary desexualizes and domesticates the harem. She carefully takes care not to fall into the orientalizing cliches of early authors in their travel accounts, which typically represent Muslim women as enslaved, sexually preoccupied, and living in a harem ‘prison’.
Although she somewhat idealizes women, yet, her valuable descriptions give a completely different look to the Ottoman harem. One in which women live a chaste, educated, courteous life; those women were faithful to their men, humble but proud and not devoid of emotions, while at the same time independent and quite human.
с) Other side of the story
Lady Montague was able to fully explore the feminine side of her life in the Ottoman Empire, but she is unable to compare the male part, and needless to say in the strictly gender-segregated society of Islamic Turkey, that for her safety she did not have the right to remain in the male company, and as an author she is only concerned with the descriptions of women and the conditions surrounding them.
On the other hand male authors were unable to see Turkish women, and could only describe what they heard from rumors. Jacopo Promontorio, who, although he spent 25 years in the Ottoman Empire (around 18 years at the court of Murad II from 1434, and 7 years under the rule of Mehmet II), and Theodore Spandounes was closely acquainted with both princes of Paleologi family, Mesih Pasha and Hass Murad Pasha - the slaves of Mehmed the Conqueror, in spite of this all, these observers could not know about what was unavailable to them.
Instead, these men are well informed about the male side, in particular the broad and detailed descriptions of the ranks and official’s positions in the Ottoman military and court of Spandounes and Promontorio appear accurate enough and do not resemble the myths that both authors sometimes enter into their narrative, especially concerning the opposite sex. For example, after a description of the service of the Sultan’s pages and eunuchs, Spandounes mentions an anecdote about a castrated mule – in fact, this story did not happen in the period of Mehmed’s rule, but was a folk tale from the times of the Persian kings.
It might be true that Mehmed had about 300 women at the court, although this number has not been confirmed anywhere in the ottoman source, there could be less or more, but these women were nothing more than just inhabitants of the female side of the palace – the harem, and the vast majority of them were servants, not sultan’s concubines who represent a very different role.
Apart from this, on the male side of the palace, Mehmed had more than 340 male-slaves and 100 eunuchs. Jacopo Promontorio reports even greater numbers:
"Even if the Signor only had dinner, more than 400 servant boys of the Signor came beforehand, and a third part of the servants also arrive."
Personally Mehmed had 32 pages who were youths and young boys named “oğlan”, who served in Has Oda (The Privy Chamber or men’s chamber) which was established by him in his book of law “Fatih Kanun-name”:
"The Has Oda with 32 oglans (servants, lit. boys) is established, among them included one silahdar (sword bearer), one rikabdar (stirrup holder), one çuhadar (the keeper of the garment), one dulbend of oglans (or dülbend oğlani - keeper of the linen). The responsibility for observing the servants of Hass is placed on the Oda Bashi (chief Janissary)"
(Fatih Sultan Mehmed Kanunname-i Al-i Osman)
*The oldest kanunname was issued at the end of the fifteenth century by Mehmed II
Theodore Spandounes describes in more detail the duties of the oğlans, eunuchs and their immediate proximity to the Sultan:
“Other eunuchs in the palace, once 80 but now too in number, serve the Sultan as his guards under the command of the Kapıcı başi ('Capigassi') or head-gatekeeper who guards the gate nearest to the Sultan's person. He is a very important man, being closest to the Sultan and privileged to converse with him wherever be wants. He has to sleep alone in the chamber next the Sultan, along with thirty other eunuchs and pages to guard the Sultan”.
*Kapıcı başi — Palace Doorkeeper and the head of the palace guard.
With amazing attention to detail Spandounes describes the structure of the Ottoman palace. Оf course as a man, it would not have been difficult for him to learn about this:
“First let me say that the Sultans keep in their quarters 300 boys who sleep in various rooms in what they call the Oda or Chamber. The present Sultan [Suleiman] has increased this number to 400. Each Oda is managed and served by eunuchs. There are also resident teachers of Turkish letters for the boys, all of whom are sons of Christian parents and brought captive from Christian territory. Some of them belong to the Sultan; some have been given to him and live in his private household. These are called the Içoğlani ('Icioglanlar'), which in Italian signifies intimate pages. Four of them are specially privileged by the Sultan and are supervised by the Odaoglarlar. Two of these sleep in the palace and keep guard while the Sultan sleeps; and they carry torches, two at his head and two at his feet, and daggers which they call 'Canzar' and also swords embellished in gold; and the two take turns in keeping constant guard over the Sultan's person.
And when the Sultan goes out, one of them carries his cloak; he is called the çuhadar ('Zochadar'). The other, called the Sharabdar ('Chipter'), bears a jug of water called 'Matara', for the Turks wash very frequently. Another of the boys has charge of the Sultan's sword and hands it to him when commanded; another carries his bow and quiver; and the rest of them up to 400 boys follow behind. Some of these pages are often presented by the Sultan, at his own whim or convenience, to officials and dignitaries of his court. But the four specially privileged ones are made what they called the Mütteferika (‘Mutafaracha’) [or elite palace guards] and get paid 100 aspers a day; and some rise to become Agas or Sanjak [beys]. 300 other such pages are kept in other centres Such as Pera or Adrianople, with their own eunuchs and teachers.”
Just compare how real these records seem in contrast to the many sexualized tales about the harem and sultan’s women. Many observers and readers ignore the obvious homosocial context of these accounts which give a firm ground for speaking up about the widespread homoerotic culture in the Ottoman Empire. Spandounes always notes the great number of young servants and that they belonged to Sultan, who in his turn could keep them or either present them to his officials.
Likewise, this is confirmed in the reports of Jacopo Promontorio, who repeatedly asserts that 400 young men (ital. giovinetto - boy, youth) served in the palace of Grad Turk (Mehmed the Conqueror), and that they stayed in the proximity to the Sultan, where women were not allowed to:
"In these pavilions and halls only the Signor lives with 400 young men and 4 chief eunuchs. The three pavilions are really enormous, and there are weapons for the court held. No one is allowed there, except for the young boy-pages (excepto li giouinetti). "
(My translation from Italian)
It is then obvious that sultan was surrounded by men only, and these servants were to be the most beautiful, the most talented and capable young people. As the Athenian contemporary historian Michael Critobulus mentions in his account of Siege of Constantinople: "And well-born and beautiful young boys were carried off [by the turks]" (Critobulus, 242) more than that, the best among the young men were presented to the sultan as a gift, and the finest Mehmed even bought from his soldiers: “And the handsomest boys, some of whom he even bought from the soldiers.”
But only few people dare to suppose that all 400 handsome young men of the palace lined up for the master's bed. Moreover, historians and authors continue to completely ignore the fact that the Persian rulers of Islamic period allowed themselves to engage in the sexual intercourse with the "ghulams" (turk. kulam, from arab. غلام - servant, boy, youth. It is used to describe young servants in paradise, but also used to refer to slaves and slave-soldiers). It was not only permitted, but even recommended. And this information is written in the 15th chapter of the book Qabus-nama (1082) - the Mirror of Princes, and that major work of Persian Literature is known as a reference book not only for the Persian padishahs, but also for the Ottoman sultans.
"As between your women* and youths*, do not confine inclinations to either sex; thus you may get pleasure from both kinds, and none of them would be enemies to you. As I have said, excessive intercourse* is harmful, but not engaging in it is also dangerous... In the summer let yourself desire youths and during the winter - your women, but let be spoken brief about it in this chapter”.
(Qabus-nama, Chapter 15, “On receiving pleasure”)
*Zanan - women
*Ghulaman – youths, boys, young male servants
*Mujamat – sexual intercourse
This is only a passage of my translation from the original Persian text (can be found in “Nasihat-Nama Ma'roof Ba Qaboos-Nama" Saeed Nafisi, 1943 and new transcript may be found in my article in russian on Samizdat). There is another earlier version in English done by Professor Reuben Levy (A Mirror For Princes: The Kabus Nama. 1951) which is also good.
Before Mehmed’s reign the book was translated numerous times. After the "Muradname" (1427) by Bedr-i Dilshad which was almost a copy of Qabusname, the most famous version is made by İlyasoğlu Mercimek who in between 1431-1432 (note: Mehmed was born in 1432) under the decree of Sultan Murad II (Mehmed’s father) made a translation of Persian Kabusnama into old Turkish, in which all 44 chapters are present without excluding any parts. The exact date of translation completion is 835 AH, 23th day of 8th month Sha'ban according to the Islamic calendar, which is according Gregorian calendar: on April 24, 1432 (the newly-born Prince Mehmed was only 25 days old). The version of Mercimek not only reckons in the 15th chapter, but it is most accurate and even enlarged translation of Qabus-name that ever existed.
Another translation of Kabusname is produced during the reign of Fatih. The author is anonymous and the exact date is unknown, but the translation is probably old, as it is written in the Anatolian Turkish dialect (a copy of the manuscript is kept in the British Museum in London). There are suggestions that it was made around 1456, some years after Mehmed conquered Constantinople.
Those who study history usually neglect the more alternative details mentioned in Byzantine or Italian accounts on the "inclinations" of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. From around the 1700’s and even continuing into the present present day, authors write and talk about matters for the expectations of the reader: they couple Mehmed with various women, and often non-existent ones. Heterosexual fantasy is pleasant for common tastes, while the homosexual reality is unacceptable for the dominant norms. Even if same-sex relations took place, the information about this will be withdrawn or denied.
Therefore, no one even considers what unconventional details the other side of the story holds. What does Promontorio and Spandounes say? What, for example, does the latter tells about the important but rarely discussed subject of homosexuality among Ottoman Turks? Unfortunately, it remains disregarded by most modern historians and authors, although it should be revealed and examined as a major part of Ottoman history.
Spandounes claimed that sodomy was widespread among the Turks, and is commonly and openly practiced "without fear of God or man" (see ‘On the origins of the Ottoman Emperors’). Surprisingly, for some reason no historian shares his quote, which was placed just after the paragraph on the myth about the "slave-girls" of the harem:
“They are the most self-indulgent men in the world. They keep many women because their law encourages the propagation of children. But they also cohabit with quantities of men. For all that Mahomet explicitly forbade sodomy and recommended the stoning of those guilty of it, this vice is commonly and openly practiced without fear of God or man”.
Further, Spandounes writes on the great difference with which the Turks treated heterosexual fornication and same-sex activity.
“If a Christian or a Turk is found in bed with a woman not his wife, he is paraded around the town sitting backwards on an ass entrails on his head and the animal's tail in his hand. A man of status in these circumstances escapes the penalty and the shame by paying 1,500 ducats (gold coins). But if the Naib (deputy judge) finds a man with a boy, the man is fined only 5 aspers (silver coins). Thus is the vile sin of sodomy made prevalent throughout Turkey”
(n. 238, p. 130-131)
Jacopo de Promontrio also reports about the less known facts, he attributes the low birthrate of native Turks to the prosperity of same-sex practices:
"This is explained by Master Jacopo that because of the endless debauchery with the various slaves and young boys* to whom they (Turks) give themselves, it prevents the birth of any sons. All this is because these sons of Christian slaves are apostates, after they saw any ruler, they turn away from the Christian faith and took up arms."
(Jacopo de Promontrio, 1475, Recollecta)
* Putti – ital. boy, young man, in the text the young boy prostitutes might be implied, as Western authors viewed the eastern system of slavery as debauchery.
(My translation from Italian. Another variant of this citation: "The infinite lechery of various slaves and young boys to whom they give themselves, [so] having more than one son was rare” quoted by F. Babinger 1978, 450)
This explains the quite unusual phenomenon of positive attitude towards same-sex culture in Ottoman society.
“In Ottoman society, sexual or erotic relations between men or men and boys were seldom punished, especially if they were carried on in private, and homoerotic relations were in a much less serious class of crimes than illicit sexual contacts with women, which could, in theory, result in death by stoning.” (The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved. By Walter G. Andrews, Mehmet Kalpakli)
Fantasies are debunked, stereotypes are broken. Certainly there is nothing wrong with legends and fables, but their modest place – is fiction. History – is the opposite; history needs reliable sources. And I will try my best to give them.
To be continued in "Part 1"
The tale of Red Peri and his brother
Trapping the Ticklish Babysitter
Business Woman Meets Erica! F/F Tickling Story!
You are doing God's work by debunking the myths imposed by biased history investigators.
If you don't mine, I'll share this with a couple of friends that are interested in the subject. I will probably come back later with another comment once I read it in-depth.
Also helping you with those Italian translations was a pleasure (I am Sofía Aguinaco from VK! ) and I'm very happy you mentioned me.
You're very welcome!
Also wow I'm impressed XD It's a huge work to translate all of this, and there are even more parts!
Thank you for the review. Yes, I'm planning to continue.
Thanks for sharing it with us
I always found it super annoying when male historians talked about the harem which obviously makes zero sense since
1. They were foreigners
2. They were men not related to any of the men or women of the court and even then they're still me
3. They would barely be allowed anywhere else in the palace since relations where strict
Along with a million other reasons.
I once read a book a historical-fiction from the point of view of a harem woman and a white eunuch and it was amazingly accurate if a bit wonky here and there. It had zero gross fetishizing sexy slave girl scenes, no gorss eunuchs or horny sultan or any of those cliches.
I'm so happy to see formal work like this that easily debunks common myths and misconceptions
Relations to men were only available, at least for "royal" foreigners not some simple travellers. For example Theodore Spandounes (who has relations through Mahmud Pasha Angelovic and Mara Brankovic - she was christian elder Lady) or Giovan Maria Angiolello who was the slave of Mehmed's son Mustafa - both historians from 15 century. Most their account on male matters were correct, but as for women - too much myths. And these myths nowadays are believed to be true.
Alas, most historical-fiction are so much rubbish it hurts me to read them, after I studied so much historical accounts on the matter of history of Ottoman Empire. Because the scale of distortion and misrepresentation is so great - it's ugly. And it's not only about fetishizing women, making them playing main role in the book or movie because their sex attracts the reader the most, it's also about ignoring homosexual impact which can scandalize the crowd's mind. Many authors if not ignore the homoerotic influence in ottoman society, but then portray it improperly from their western perspective - with too much negative pattern of homophobia. No the homophobia is in their conservative minds, but not in the hearts of sultans, poets and simple men who openly expressed their love for their male beloveds.