absolute bliss and the grand seraglio

Within its walls, the Turkish sultans sought the answer to an ancient question: Can absolute power bring absolute bliss? ….

The Grand Seraglio in Instanbul. Until 1852 this was the Sultans’ residence, a palace known in the West as the Grand Seraglio. But, a visitor of no more than average inquisitiveness usually never learns that this palace was once more splendid than Versailles, more bloody than the Kremlin, and, though in Europe, as mysterious to Europeans as the Imperial Palace in Peking. Its extraordinary history shaped millions of lives, from the Arabian peninsula, halfway across Europe and the Mediterranean, and took place among brainwashed slaves behind an iron curtain that remained drawn from shortly after the conquest of Constantinople, in 1453, to the middle of the nineteenth-century.

---"Ottoman princesses were also called sultan, but their title was put after their first name. These women were born into a world of majesty and magnificence. From the moment a princess opened her eyes, she was surrounded by splendor. The royal family ceremonially celebrated the births of both princes and princesses. A large room in the imperial harem would be set aside for the royal birth and decorated in a manner that clearly reflected the magnificence of the Ottoman court. The cradle and the mother's bed were furnished with new luxurious covers decorated with pearls, jewels and gold and silver thread.---Read More:http://www.muslimheritage.org/topics/default.cfm?TaxonomyTypeID=23&TaxonomySubTypeID=160&TaxonomyThirdLevelID=-1&ArticleID=1146

To the moderner, the whole palace, inside and out, seems drab and rattletrap, and it is hard to understand how the seventeenth-century French traveler Michel Baudier could have reported, ” the baths, halls and galleries of this place surpass in their magnificence the force of the imagination.” Indeed, few travelers from those days ever got inside the palace, and fewer still got out again; trespassers anywhere on the premises were beheaded, while trespassers in the harem were skinned alive and their skins tacked to the harem gate. But those who did manage to see it concurred with Baudier: the place was dumbfoundingly splendid.

---No one knows exactly what the interior of the harem looked like. The drawing above was made by an architect who, although he could not enter the harem, had many conversations about it with the sultan's sister. In it, he tried to introduce all the daily activities of the women from praying to warming their feet. Image:http://riskyregencies.blogspot.ca/2009/06/images-of-harem-but-whose-point-of-view.html

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who passed that way in 1717 when her husband was a British envoy, wrote that the royal gardeners were so gaily dressed that “at a distance they appeared like a parterre of tulips.” Entertained at dinner by a wife of the Sultan, Lady Mary observed among the trinkets her hostess was wearing “200 emeralds, everyone as large as a half crown piece,” and four strings of pearls “every one as large as the Duchess of Marlborough’s.” The knives were gold set with diamonds and the tablecloth and napkins were embroidered with silk and gold.

Paul-Louis Bouchard. After the Bath.---The Imperial harem (also known as the Seraglio harem) contained the combined households of the Valide Sultan (Queen Mother), the Sultan's favourites (hasekis), and the rest of his concubines (women whose main function was to entertain the Sultan in the bedchamber). It also contained all the Sultanas' (daughters of the Sultan) households. Many of the harem women would never see the Sultan and became the servants necessary for the daily functioning of the harem. The reasons for harem existence can be seen from Ottoman cultural history. Ottoman tradition relied on slave concubinage along with legal marriage for reproduction. Slave concubinage was the taking of slave women for sexual reproduction. It served to emphasize the patriarchal nature of power (power being "hereditary" through sons only). Slave concubines, unlike wives, had no recognized lineage. Wives were feared to have vested interests in their own family's affairs, which would interfere with their loyalty to their husband, hence, concubines were preferred, if one could afford them. This led to the evolution of slave concubinage as an equal form of reproduction that did not carry the risks of marriage, mainly that of the potential betrayal of a wife.---Read More:http://starlitecinema.multiply.com/journal/item/16?&show_interstitial=1&u=%2Fjournal%2Fitem

The significant point about the Turkish court seems to be that its dazzle was not created by architecture, which had no particular appeal to a people so recently out of tents in Central Asia, but by the portable grandeur inside the buildings. The silks have worn out, the gold and jewels have been nearly all dispersed, and the Grand Seraglio, where three centuries of extraordinary drama were enacted, comes down to us as bare, dark stage.

Except for the Sultan and his children, every soul in the Grand Seraglio, even the Grand Vizier, the General of the Armies, and the Queen Mother, was a slave, and not one of them was a Turk by birth. They were brought to the palace as children, between the ages of ten and fourteen. The girls were obtained through slave dealers and the boys, under a law of the land, were kidnapped from subject Christian states in lots of two to three thousand every three or four years. The most intelligent, most prepossessing boys were taken, and their kidnapping was by no means always opposed by their parents, for a place at the Sultan’s court was the one available route to wealth and power.

The brightest of these bright children were enrolled in the Palace School inside the Grand Seraglio. Here they underwent a twelve year brainwashing from which, if they survived, they emerged oblivious to their earlier life, devoted to the sultanate, and fanatical followers of Islam. A seventeenth-century Venetian, Ottaviano Bon, reported of this school that ” there is great severity used in all the orders of discipline… the masters are all white eunuchs for the most part and very rough and cruel in all their actions…. for the blows which they suffer, and the fastings which are commanded them for every small fault, are to be admired: …some of them are so cruelly handled…”

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( see credit at end) …The Grand Seraglio functioned more as a metonymy than a symbol, however, in the way it physicalized the relation between the Sultan’s court and household, and the potency of his arbitrary will. Ottaviano Bon’s description of Ottoman culture begins with a boat’s-eye view of the Grand Seraglio’s natural defense barrier: the palace, he writes, stands “upon a point of the Continent, which looketh towards the mouth of the Black Sea: and is in form triangular, two sides whereof are compassed with the Thracian Bosphorus, and the third joyneth to the rest of the City.” Bon then moves up and in, past thick walls, watch-towers, and tiers of armed guards, through terraces and public halls, before arriving at the living areas, where he sees the methodical despotism of the empire specified in its many and various “household” offices.22 The inhabitants’ basic state of enslavement stands in for all those ruled by the Sultan:

all they which are in the Seraglio, both men and women, are the Grand Signiors slaves (for so they stile themselves) and so are all they which are subject to his Empire. For, besides that he is their Soveraign, they do all acknowledge that whatsoever they do possess, or enjoy, proceedeth meerly from his good will, and favour: and not onely their estates but their lives also are at his dispose.

…The seraglio’s harem or women’s quarters, where the Sultan reputedly had stocks of virgin slaves trained and at the ready to indulge his every whim, was a particularly common focal point for contemplating the intersection of political, architectural, and intimate structures of power and subjection. In Harems of the Mind, Ruth Yeazel views the conceptual conflations in the English meanings of harem and seraglio as a primary record of a western obsession with women’s sexual imprisonment. “The word ‘harem’ derives from the Arabic for ‘forbidden’ or ‘sacred,’ and has come to refer both to the women themselves, who remain inviolable by adopting the veil when they venture outside, and to the part of the dwelling reserved for their use.” Though these quarters were not locked as a rule, Europeans tended to superimpose that idea. “In Turkish, haremlik literally means the place of the sanctuary,” she explains. The term seraglio, more completely a western construction, also points toward sexual slavery:

Europeans mistakenly associated the Turco-Persian word for palace, saray, with the Italian serrare, to lock up or enclose—by which false etymology the English ‘seraglio’ and the French sérail came to signify not only an entire building (as in ‘the Grand Seraglio’ at Constantinople), but the apartments in which the women were confined and even the women themselves.. ( from The Shape of Intimacy: Private Space and the British Social Imagination, 1650-1770

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