WINNER: Margaret Congratulations!
It seems rather tame now, depicting some veiled, long robed women gathered under Oriental arches, but it lit a fire under the public imagination of the time. European artists were soon flocking to the train stations and the docks with their easels under their arms heading to Turkey to paint dream-like canvases of half naked young women, soaping each other in Asiatic day spas.
Such images still inform much of how we imagine the Ottoman harem today.
Did the sultan really flick his handkerchief at his girl of choice for each night? In theory - yes.
Were rebellious concubines put into weighted sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus? Apparently - also true.
Did the Sultans surrender themselves to debauch and die content?
First, let's look at how girls were chosen; it's a common fantasy to imagine the Sultan sleeping with a different woman every night, and it is true that some Sultans gave full rein to their appetites. For example Moulay Ismail, the Sultan of Morocco from 1672 to 1727, fathered 867 children in thirty years. It was said he had over 500 concubines at any one time.
But more commonly the Lord of Life, as the Ottoman Sultan was known, spent his nights with one of his favourites. He had a secretary to keep a diary of his nocturnal visits to ensure he shared himself out fairly, in an effort to prevent jealous disputes among his women. It wasn't that these ladies adored him so much; this was about status. It was about children. Ultimately it was about power.
For any concubine the only way out of a life of boredom and neglect was to insinuate herself into the Suleiman's bed, became a favourite and then bear him a son. If that son then ascended to the throne she then became the most powerful woman in the Empire while still remaining, technically, a slave.
Imagine a palace full of a hundred scheming, jealous Ann Boleyns and one Henry and you are starting to form a clearer picture of the Ottoman harem.
Were rebellious or wayward concubines tied in a sack and drowned in the Bosphorus? This was certainly true. Although it cannot be proved that Sultan Ibrahim 1 actually did drown all 280 girls in his harem on a whim, many girls did meet a grim end this way. It was the traditional way for a Sultan to be rid of his brother's wives when he assumed the throne, or to punish a girl who had somehow found a way to get pregnant by one of the white eunuchs.
The white birds that wheeled silently above the Bosphorus were known to the Stamboulis as the Damned Souls, for it was believed they contained the spirits of the houris who had been drowned in the waters below. The mud at the bottom of the harbor was said to be thick with the whitening bones of former wives and odalisques.
Were the Sultans happy? Their greatest Sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, found no measure of contentment, as evidenced by the writings he left behind. It was his story that first attracted me to this place and time.
On the face of it, it was the perfect love story.
He gave up his entire harem for one slave girl, Russelana. He freed her from slavery, brought her to live in his palace and even, against all Ottoman tradition, married her and made her his queen.
And yet his life after that was riddled with tragedy and at the bottom of every desperate act we see the shadow of another hand; that hand may well have belonged to his queen. But why and how?
The why and how is the reason I came to write the book. The Ottoman harem was no paradise on earth. It was a snakepit. Ann Boleyn? Elizabeth the First? They would have lasted five minutes. Russelana would have had them for breakfast.
As Suleiman wrote at the end of his life: "What men call empire is worldwide strife and ceaseless war. In all the world the only joy lies in a hermit's rest."
Colin Falconer has been published widely in the UK, US and Europe and his books have been translated into seventeen languages. You can find him at his blog at http://www.colin-falconer.blogspot or his web page at http://www.colinfalconer.net/
HAREM is available on Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Harem-ebook/dp/B006JV8IW6 or Amazon UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005MLA3Q8
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