This is an extraordinary and fascinating book! I thought I would enjoy it and I did. I also thought I would be angered at what the ladies had to endure,
but in fact, it was the guys' treatment that made me cringe and shiver. All you males out there, if you read this one, make sure you tuck your privates away in a
safe place, like a suit of armor, because you will probably feel an overwhelming desire to protect them. Just a warning. It's pretty bad. What a
wicked world this is and always has been. The things people have done to other people is beyond my comprehension.
I expected this to be a book about life in the harem, and it is, and that part is easy reading. But first you have to get through the beginning, which is more historical and geographical. It is quite bewildering, because Penzer is describing the layout of Topkapi Palace, its courts, architecture, etc. and the photos included don't help much. At first. I did online research however, and as I continued reading, suddenly I realized it was quite simple and I was able to follow the route that he took. There is a numbered diagram in the back which he constantly refers to, and one can easily work their way through the whole layout.
But in order to make it easy for you, I will start with some helpful information that I derived from online research. Topkapi Palace was one of the main seats of the Turkish Sultans from 1465-1856 during the rule of the powerful Ottoman Empire. It is located in Istanbul, Turkey, which was previously Constantinople. Here's where it gets tricky and it took me quite a while to get my mind to visualize its location. After searching for an hour, the map below seems to be the best for illustrating. Istanbul lies in both Europe and Asia. The European side of Turkey is completely separated from the Asian part by water. The Sea of Marmora is enclosed within it, leading into the Black Sea by the Bosphorus, a strait pictured at the bottom of the page, and shown below right, in red. The yellow strait, leading into the Aegean Sea is called the Dardanelles. Topkapi lies on Seraglio Point, pictured below, in the lower-middle at the place where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, right at the tip, on the European side. There. Once you get that all straightened out, the rest of the book is easy.
Penzer gives a brief history of the Seraglio Hill, beginning in the 7th century
BC, and up to the present. (The Palace, or what remains of it, is now a museum. This book was published in 1936, so probably much has changed since then.)
He also cites writings of the rare Europeans who actually found their way inside the Palace during the reign of the Sultans, and includes their interesting
observations, trying to piece together how the whole complex must have looked during its days of majesty. When he visited, much of it was in ruin. I hope it
has been cleaned up. The article at
is quite long, and includes lots of beautiful modern photos. It looks like restoration work might have been done.
The word harem may mean many things, like holy, protected, sacred, and forbidden. It was the belief that women should be seen by no one but their husband, and the Sultan was a sort of husband to them all, ranging from hundreds to 1200, or at least he gave himself the privilege of seeing them. But no other male could dare, except the Black Eunuchs.
After the general historical information and layout of the palace, Penzer goes into detail about each of the four courts. The First Court was semi-public—not forbidden to the extent that the others were. Here he also discusses the janissaries—a military body made up of mostly of Christians taken by force and trained to be soldiers. But over the centuries, they became not only corrupt but dangerous to the Sultan himself. It got so bad that in 1826, Mahmud II was ready for their revolt. He had another army ready, and as the janissaries began attacking the harem and destroying property, the new army stepped in. 25,000 were killed, putting an end to the janissaries.
The Second Court was home to the Court of the Divan, where ambassadors were received, legal and civil complaints heard, and general business was transacted. The kitchens were also located in this court, ten in all, each assigned to serve a different group or person. Here he also discusses the responsibilities of the White and Black Eunuchs. While the White Eunuchs at first were more important, gradually their power was taken from them and given to the Black Eunuchs.
And here is where we get into some seriously disgusting material. Guys—you may want to skip this chapter, because it gives graphic details on how Eunuchs became as they did, and a rusty butcher knife might have been more merciful, all without anesthesia. Though some of these men actually made the choice on their own because rising to the top, especially to Kislar Agha, or Chief Black Eunuch was a position of wealth and power. Most of these guys, and lots of young boys were simply taken as slaves and not only lost their freedom but their manhood. And while it was supposed to make them safe around the women to whom they were responsible, it didn't always work, and in most cases they turned out to be downright evil son-of-a-bitches. Penzer believe that ultimately, it was the corrupt and miserable practice of castrating men, creating this unnatural human that caused the downfall of the Ottomans. He says:
Yet with all this dignity and importance the Chief Black Eunuch was a crude, ignorant, and corrupted man, and the thrusting of such power into his hands played a large part in the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire.
And a bit more on castration. I have been blissfully ignorant all these years
as to the process. I thought it was what I have had done to all my puppies and
kittens, safe and relatively painless, and in their case, really losing something they don't need. Not so. Here, the men lose both their testicles and
penis, cut off with a sickle-like instrument and then plugged up for three days, in which they cannot drink anything, nor urinate. When the bandages are
removed, the urine squirts out. Or should. But sometimes the passages have swelled up so much that they die in agony. Many did die. If they lived they had
to carry little tubes to pee through.
Really, the chapters on the harem were nowhere near as ghastly. Even though the women were slaves, getting chosen to sleep with the Sultan was sought after and fought for. The Sultan had his Sultanas, or kadins (concubines), and the one who gave birth to the male heir to the throne found herself in a real position of power. She would become the Sultan Validé, or Queen (mother of the Sultan) and she often ruled the roost.
The Turks recognize that a man can have many wives, that he can get rid of unwanted ones and take others at will, but that he can have only one mother, and it is she, therefore, who occupies the unique place of honor that nothing can alter save death. To her, then are entrusted the most personal and private belongings of her son—his women. The power of the Sultan Validé is enormous, not only in the harem, but throughout the empire.
Of course the whole thing to the modern western world is disgustingly
patriarchal, but interestingly, the Ottoman Empire went through a period when it was really ruled by women. Suleiman the Magnificent (don't you just love the
arrogance of these names) reigned from 1520 to 1566. He became obsessed with a Russian slave called Roxelana, who was only Second Kadin, but plotted her way
up to the top. He eventually took her as his legal wife—something not done
since Bayezid I (1389-1403). Even more amazing is that they actually lived together, rather than her occupying the Old Palace, as the Kadins did and
became, says Wikipedia, "one of the most powerful and influential women in the Ottoman history and a prominent and controversial figure during the era known as
the Sultanate of Women."
After the chapter on the harem, where both the physical living quarters and social life are discussed, Penzer then turns to the housing of the Sultan, and I personally found that level of ostentatiousness, wealth and luxury beyond what any human being on the planet deserves. All this money wasted on their useless and wicked selves while the poor suffered.
The chapter on the baths was one of the longest because cleanliness and the relaxation of bathing was such an important part of these people's lives. This chapter also was humorous. Penzer himself paid a visit to the famous Turkish baths.
I am at once put into a small marble bath where I boil for about twenty minutes in water I can hardly bear. I am then conducted to a marble slab, and the massage begins in real earnest. It consists of two distinct parts, massage with the glove and massage with the bare hand. The first is quite pleasant, and the novice is intrigued by the rolls of dried skin and dirt that are triumphantly shown him by the masseur. The glove having been discarded, the manual massage starts—with a severity that would make the feeble collapse. The powerful fingers are worked in between the shoulder blades till they crack, and the backbone is pressed so hard that one can only just endure without calling out or trying to do something by way of revenge. For by this time I had ceased to regard the masseur as a friend, but rather as a fiend who for some reason entirely unknown to myself was determined not to leave a whole bone in my body if he could help it. But the torture continues. The arms are now pulled out to their furthest extent, likewise the legs, and both are submitted to such a drastic treatment that I was surprised to find they hadn't been wrenched from my body. One certainly has a greater fellow-feeling for victims of the inquisition than one ever had before.
He discusses that in the Sultan's time, men had to keep their privates covered, but the women had more fun.
And as regards the female baths, what a difference can time effect in the behavior of a hundred naked women out to enjoy every moment of their temporary freedom with idle chatter or scandalous gossip.
The Turks also considered it a sin for there to be any hair on their bodies, and
Penzer give details about the removal of pubic hair. This guy covered the nitty-gritty, didn't he?
The last two chapters are on the Third and Fourth Courts, the latter being only a few pages. In all a very readable and interesting look at a life that most of us couldn't possibly imagine. Recommended.
Below, modern Topkapi Palace, and below that, the Bosphorus.
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