peeping thomas and the organ grinding sultan

The comings and goings in the Grand Seraglio would make a Dostoevsky novel look like a child’s short story. No, call this Persian Goth mixed with a surreal world that was so over the top so as to seem like a horror flick transposed into real life. Within the walls of the Grand Seraglio, Turkish Sultans in their own dysfunctional and chaotic way were shambling, almost Zombie like, towards an answer to an ancient question: Can absolute power bring absolute bliss….

---In 1599 the English organ builder Thomas Dallam personally accompanied to Istanbul an instrument he had built for the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III at the behest of Queen Elizabeth. The gift was intended to smooth relations in the hope of gaining access to Ottoman caravan routes. The instrument, which could sound a fanfare, chime the hours, and play several pieces by itself due to controlled wind release, delighted the Sultan, who declared a festive occasion with amnesty for over 300 prisoners.---Read More:

The Throne Room Without was as far into the Seraglio as any foreigner or any Turk who did not belong to the palace was supposed to go. Beyond lay the Grand Seigneur’s private apartments; the harem; the privy gardens; the quarters of pages and eunuchs; a mosque containing a mantle, a tooth, and some of the beard of the Prophet; and the Sultan’s private treasury. All of these regions were so sacrosanct that in 1600 a Venetian who peered at the walls through a spyglass from the other side of the Golden Horn was put to death at once.

---Pool in a Harem by Jean-Léon Gérôme, circa 1876. Writers and artists of this period strove to keep the mystique of the harem, instead of being factual, to give the public what they wanted.--- Read More:

One of the few outsiders who got this far was an Englishman named Dallam who was sent by Queen Elizabeth to set up the organ she had given the Sultan. He managed to bribe a eunuch to let him peer through a grille into a courtyard full of harem girls:

When I came to the grait the wale was verrie thicke, and graited on bothe the sides with iron verrie strongly; but through that graite I did se thirtie of the Grand Sinyor’s Concobines that weare playinge with a bale in another courte. At the firste sighte of them I thoughte they had bene yonge men, but when I saw the hare of their heades hange doone on their backes, platted together with a tasle of smale pearle hanginge in the lower end of it, and by other plaine tokens, I did know them to be women, and verrie prettie ones in deede.

Theie wore upon theire heades nothinge bute a little capp of clothe of goulde, which did but cover the crowne of her heade; no bandes a boute their neckes, nor anythinge but faire cheans of pearle and a juell hanginge on their breste, and juels in their ears ; their coats weare Uke a souldier’s mandilyon,^ som of reed sattan and som of blew, and som of other colors, and grded hke a lace of contraire collor ; they wore britchis of scamatie,^ a fine clothe made of coton woll, as whyte as snow and as fine as lane;^ for I could desame the skin of their thies throughe it. These britchis cam doone to their mydlege; som of them did weare fine cordevan buskins, and som had their leges naked, with a goulde ringe on the smale of her legg ; on her foute a velvett panttoble * 4 or 5 inches hie. I stood so longe loukinge upon them that he which had showed me all this kindnes began to be verrie angrie with me. He made a wrye mouthe, and stamped with his foute to make me give over looking; the which I was verrie lothe to dow, for that sighte did please me wondrous well.^ Read More:


The  organ he set up was sixteen feet high and had a clock on top of it with a “holly bushe full of blacke birds and thrushis, which … did synge and shake their wynges. ” When Dallam demonstrated this to the Sultan, His Majesty asked an attendant “yf it would ever do the lyke againe.” The attendant answered that “it would doo the lyke again at the next houre.” “I will see to that,” said the Grand Seigneur and sat down to wait. As the birds had been adjusted to sing only every fourth hour, Dallam, feeling dreadfully ill, had just sixt minutes to make intricate changes in the clockwork. He manged to get the birds in line and tune and caught the next boat back to England.


( see link at end) …Four years later the Sultan, Murad III, died, and with the accession of Muhammad III it became necessary for the company to renew the capitulations, which meant letters of congratulation and hand- some presents from the Queen of England. The

mer, with
Burghley’s assistance, were forthcoming, but the latter had to be supphed by the company. This fact was naturally kept a dead secret, and the gifts were offered as from Ehzabeth, and nobody was any the wiser. ^ There was, however, a long delay, and they were not dispatched until 1599. By this time Barton had died, and it was his secretary, Henry Lello, who actually presented the gifts.

Chief among them was the elaborate organ that had been especially built by Thomas Dallam. Owing to its highly technical and com-
plicated construction Dallam was sent out with it in order to erect it on arrival and make sure it was in perfect working order. From this man, then, we have the first account by an outsider, meagre and not very intelligent though it may be, of the Seraglio. Read More:
At last it was time to play the organ and a spokeman for the sultan approached Dallam and told him to play. “I refused to because the Grand Signor sat so near that I would embarrass him by having to turn my back to his presence and touch his knee with my britches…”

He then sat in a very rich chair of estate; upon his thumb I noticed a ring with a diamond half an inch square. He stood up whereby… he might see my hands. He then gave me a thrust forward in such a way I thought he might be drawing his scimitar… So I stood and played the organ until the next chime of the clock. I bowed my head as low as I could and went from him in this crawling position…

At that point, despite the British Ambassador’s concern, the sultan gave an order and Dallam received a gift. “It consisted of forty and five pieces of gold… I was indeed joyful over my success.” Read More:


Related Posts

This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>