palace intrigue: little castle on the prairie

The court artists who were called upon to depict so august and all-powerful a personage as a sultan  were faced with a challenging task. The represented the sultan larger than those around him, their rich robes expansively filling out the majority of the picture space. The painters, like almost everyone else who lived and worked in the Grand Seraglio, the enormous royal palace at Constantinople, were basically discardable slaves on the same level as the water carrier and toilet cleaner.

Gentile Bellini made this exquisite drawing of a Turkish artist at work. Gardner Museum Boston. source: WIKI

A number of painters came from Persia, for the Turks thought of that country as the home of art, much as Americans not long ago considered France. Persian miniatures, which earlier had been influenced by the art of Turkish central Asia, now influenced Ottoman art. Yet there were differences traced to the old Turkish traditions based on Tribal conventions, ancient heroes, a more mythological realism where amorous scenes and gardens were juxtaposed by the subtext of militarism and terror as part of the exploits of ancient warriors.

---The selection of May 14 dates back to the reign of Mahmud II (1785-1839, see left). This Ottoman Sultan, well known for his extensive legal and military reforms, laid the groundwork for the Tanzîmât (Reorganization). The Tanzîmât, proclaimed on November 3, 1839, (not long after the Sultan's death on July 1) had a direct impact on Turkish law and society. This era of "reorganization" ushered in European style education, clothing, architecture, legislation, finance, and institutional organization. Among these "Western" reforms was the establishment of the Mekteb-i Tibbiye-i Adliye-i Sahane (Imperial School of Medicine) in Istanbul in 1827, a milestone in the Empire's medical history. ---Read More:

Persian influence on Turkish art was supplemented by Western influence. In the year 1479, Mohammed II asked the Venetian senate to send him a qualified portrait painter. The Venetians exported Gentile Bellini, who provided the sultan with a number of portraits and with erotic pictures as well- Both no’s no’s under the law of Islam, the word of the Prophet- and Bellini did not really sink roots into Turkish soil for too long; he left terrified and slightly traumatized: the sultan was not satisfied with a portrait he made of John The Baptist and he decapitated a slave in Bellini’s presence to show him , realistically, and boldly, what a severed head actually resembled. For his time, Bellini was like what the Nazis considered Degenerate Art. Or the sultan just wanted to have a little sport and amusement at Bellini’s expense. In any event, after Bellini’s hasty withdrawal from his functions, Western influences remained.

---Portrait of Sultan Ahmed I, 17th century; Ottoman Turkey Colors and gilt on paper 13 1/2 x 8 3/4 in. (34.3 x 22.2 cm) Rogers Fund, 1944 (44.30)---Read More:

Evidently, the sultans maintained high aesthetic standards. Indeed, their standards were so high that they required foreign ambassadors to dress in robes of silver or gold brocade , supplied from the palace storerooms, before they were welcomed into the royal presence. But it was hardly aesthetic considerations alone that formed the royal art collection. Greed was likely a significant consideration since the Ottoman rulers acquired art much the way they did territories, forced tribute, slave labor and vast inventories of women for the harem. Art was a commodity without true spiritual content, or using the later terminology of Clement Greenberg, spiritual considerations in art were chance and random by-products of the material dimension. Fetish objects. Booty. Desirous to possess ingenious and beautiful machines, Murad III was bowled over when Queen Elizabeth I sent a mechanical organ. Little survived of the Osman’s ancient dynasty, but there is always that dream that the East will rise again, in a supernatural fashion, only a question of time before they are at the gates of Vienna and marching through David’s Gate in Jerusalem…

---Roxelana (aka Hurrem) (1500 - 1558 (58)) rose from being a concubine in the imperial harem to Suleiman's very powerful chief wife. Thought to be of Russian origin, she was also the first consort permitted to live within the walls of the Topkapi Palace. (She moved there 'temporarily' whilst the old Harem was being renovated, and then refused to move back). Roxelana stopped at nothing to get her own way. When Suleiman's Grand Vizier and friend from youth, Ibrahim Pasa, became a threat to her position, she persuaded the sultan to have him strangled. Later, Roxelana performed her coup de grace. In 1553 she persuaded Suleiman to have his handsome and popular son and heir, Mustafa, murdered by deaf mutes to clear the way for her own son Selim to inherit the throne.---Read More: image:


( see link at end) …Consultation Place of the Jinn, or else from the hall of Murad Ill’s room. It is not open to the public, and owing to this fact

to its morbidly interesting nature I shall deal with it in some detail.

The Kafes has been the scene of more wanton cruelty, misery, and bloodshed than any palace room in the whole of Europe. To its institution are due the weakness, vices, and imbecility of so many of the Sultans and, to a large extent, the gradual decay and fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Ahmed's reign was known as the tulip age. The Turks developed a mania for tulips and depicted them often in their art; some stylized ones can be seen on the throne behind Ahmed's head. Image: Wiki

The enormous harem of Murad III had produced 103 children for him, and at his death twenty sons and twenty-seven daughters were still living. On his recall to the capital the eldest son and heir, the future Muhammad III, put his nineteen brothers to death and sewed seven of his father’s pregnant concubines into sacks and had them thrown into the Marmora, just to be on the safe side in case a possible claimant to the throne was born ! But this was the end of such drastic measures, for henceforth it was decided not to kill the Princes — at least, not at first — but to keep them safely locked up in a building in the Seragho which soon came to be known as the Cage. It was a two-storied building hidden away in the very heart of the seldmlik and surrounded by a high and dismal wall. It was not until the time of Osman III (1754-57) that the wall was lowered and more windows were unblocked. These unhappy men were kept without knowledge of the outside world, or even of pubhc affairs of the Empire. Their education was entirely neglected, except for what they could learn from their companions, who consisted of deaf mutes and a handful of sterile women who were allowed to form a harem to amuse the Princes. Although every care was taken to make these women barren — either by the removal of the ovaries or simply by the use of pessaries, made by the Seraglio physicians, of such ingredients as musk, amber, bezoar, aloes, cardamom, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, and cloves — yet mistakes did occur, and the child (and sometimes the mother as well) was immediately drowned.

It is hard even to imagine what such a life must have been like .The only thing that can be compared with it is the ‘ solitary confinement’ as enforced in certain State prisons of to-day. But such men at least have lived in the world, their brains and bodies have been allowed to grow and develop. But some of the Princes, such as Ibrahim, had been in the Cage from the age of two. Others, such as Osman III, were immured for fifty years, or thirty-nine years in the case of Suleiman II. When they came out they had all but lost the power of speech, and their minds and bodies were hke vegetables. And yet these men — these few ‘ lucky ‘ men, who had escaped the bowstring of the deaf mutes — were expected to take up the reins of government at a moment’s notice and rule over one of the most difficult and extensive kingdoms in Europe. No wonder, then, that
excesses occurred. Only a miracle could produce a normal man after such experiences. By some the particular form of ‘ revenge ‘ would
be sought in the over-indulgence of every conceivable kind of vice that a half-crazed brain could devise; for others a ruthless use of the
scimitar and an endless flow of blood would help to blot out the past.

But there were exceptions, among them Suleiman II, who during his thirty-nine years’ confinement had learned caUigraphy and spent
all his time copying out Korans and praying ; and when finally he came to occupy a turbulent and disquiet throne many a time did he wish himself back in the quiet sohtude of the Cage. Very bloody were some of the happenings that occurred here. I shall give but two examples.

Ibrahim grew up in the Kafes, never knowing firom day to day when the door might slowly open and the mutes enter with the fatal bowstring ready to do its deadly work. When the day came that the reigning Sultan, Murad IV, died the Seraglio attendants hastened to tell Ibrahim the good news and to proclaim him Sultan. He heard the noise of the approaching crowd just in time to barricade the door with the help of his concubines, and, crazed with fright, could see nothing but lies and traps in the explanations shouted through the door. Still he would not beHeve, until the door was broken down and the dead body of Murad was flung at his feet. For a moment he stood transfixed with a feeling of mingled joy and fear, and then, realizing the truth, danced round the corpse in hideous triumph, crying out, ” The Butcher of the Empire is dead at last ! ” Read More:

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