A Sultan, taking a tour through the ladies’ quarters of his palace, had no more than to glance at a girl, make some trivial, admiring remark, and she was marked. She was given the epithet guzdeh — ‘in the eye’.
The girl would be installed in her own apartment with a fleet of servants. The Keeper of the Baths would take her to be massaged with perfumed oils. Her hair would be washed with water from silver ewers and plaited with pearls. Her body would be shaved and plucked, her nails painted. She would then pass into the chambers of the Keeper of the Lingerie, the Mistress of the Robes and the Head of the Treasury to be dressed in silks and jewels.
Only then would she be led to the Sultan’s bedchamber where she would be nudged through the door by one of the palace’s many eunuchs — castrated slaves from across the Ottoman Empire. She would have been instructed to gracefully, modestly (and, no doubt, apprehensively) approach the foot of the bed.
The Sultan’s bed was a palace in miniature, made in imitation of a Roman temple with columns of fluted silver. Crystal lions topped the bed posts and the hangings were gold brocade. A silver lantern inlaid with gold and encrusted with turquoise and rubies hung from the ceiling and next to the bed the Sultan kept his bow and arrows. So large was the chamber that the Sultan had his own archery range within its walls.
The sight of the arrows must have sent a shiver down the virgin’s spine as she stood at the foot of the bed. Under instruction from the eunuchs, she would lift up the coverlet and raise it to her lips, then creep beneath the sheets until she was level with her Sultan.
What happened next was entirely the Sultan’s pleasure.
The System Inside The Harem
The harem’s ten kitchens served delicacies: dates, plums and prunes from Egypt; honeys from Romania and Hungary to sweeten drinks of cool sherbet; olive oils from Greece; pigeons and guinea fowl; and melons under ice from Mount Olympus. Turkish Delight was flavoured with mulberries, white grapes, apricot kernels and rosewater.
The seraglio of the Topkapi Palace was the grandest — and cruellest — of the empire, but in the minds of western Europeans it was only one of a vast number of Ottoman pleasure palaces where perfumed virgins reclined on tasselled cushions and rapacious pashas — dignitaries appointed by the Sultan — smoked bubble pipes. Every bathhouse became a place of imagined debauchery, where a daughter, sister or fiancée might be abducted and enslaved.
The harem was sumptuous, but a prison. Every window over the Bosphorus — the straits dividing Europe and Asia — was barred with an iron grille and a 50-strong guard stood by the main gates. At night, their number was swelled by janissaries, an infantry unit armed with yatagans — short, curved sabres. Inside the palace, the women were under the watch of the eunuchs.
There was a hierarchy: white eunuchs from Georgia, Hungary and Croatia were entrusted with administrative and secretarial roles, while black eunuchs from Abyssinia and Sudan had more mundane servants’ duties. Male slaves were fully emasculated with a pewter needle and sharp sickle-shaped knife. Seraglio doctors inspected the eunuchs not only when they entered service, but every few years. ‘Just to see,’ wrote Norman Penzer, ‘that everything was in order and that nothing had grown again.’
Watched by the eunuchs within the palace and surrounded by guards outside, the women of the harem were exquisite birds in a gilded cage. The penalty for rebellion was swift and merciless.
The Kislar Agha, chief eunuch, would send word to the janissaries giving the name of any woman who stepped out of line. She would be seized, tied in a sack weighted with stones and thrown into a small rowing boat, attached to a larger vessel by rope. The janissaries would then sail out into the Bosphorus and with a few sharp tugs of the rope, capsize the smaller craft.
On one horrific occasion, the Sultan Ibrahim, who ruled between 1640 and 1648, decided to murder his entire harem — so that he might have the pleasure of assembling a new one. As many as 300 women are thought to have been drowned.
There’s an old Sultana’s tale of a diver in search of shipwreck treasure who reached the bottom of the Bosphorus. All he found was many hundreds of weighted sacks, each the size and shape of a dead woman, swaying in the currents.
The Fantasy Of Eroticism
Over centuries, this fear and eroticism has been fuelled by Mozart and Victorian painters such as John Frederick Lewis, Frederic Leighton and Frank Dicksee who travelled to North Africa and the near East to paint scenes of languid women reflected in turquoise pools or coquettishly curled on leopard pelts. Frank Dicksee’s portrait of the fictional ‘Leila’ in apricot silk is typical of this sultry style of painting.
For although a man such as Mozart’s hero Belmonte dreaded the abduction of his beloved to a harem by some wicked pasha, he was, at the same time, tantalised by the fantasy of finding himself in a tiled courtyard surrounded by virgins competing for his affection and desire.
The secrets of the harem have enthralled Western visitors to Constantinople, now Istanbul, for centuries. Who would not be seduced by stories of a gated palace with secret corridors, home to 370 women — 12 wives or Sultanas, concubines and virgins — and 127 eunuchs?
This story has been recently awakened through an exclusive performance of Mozart’s comic opera, The Abduction From The Seraglio by the Glyndebourne Tour where performances will be staged at its exquisite opera house deep in the Sussex countryside. Here, the curtain will be raised on this most exotic of Mozart’s masterpieces, revealing what really went on in the seraglios, or harems, of the Sultans.
Tickets to the opera cost £12 and the UK Daily Mail is offering free tickets to its UK readers to be found in tomorrow’s issue so watch out!
Culled From: MailOnline