In this post, I continue looking at a select few biographies about mad, bad and dangerous monarchs and masters of nations in who ruled during the first two decades of the 20th century. They were all connected politically – at that level of power there aren’t that many people – but they were able to rule at a time when individuals with absolute supremacy, who ruled over people who had hardly any rights and freedoms, still existed. Despots and dictators in countries all around the world have tumbled from their pedestals (literally and figuratively) in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the kind of behaviour shown by these people, born to reign, is difficult to grasp. But there they are, in biographies and history books, in all their horrible glory.

Blame it on the women and the eunuchs

Lords of the Golden Horn – The Sultans, their harems and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by Noel Barber (1973) Cover image by Arthur Barbosa.

A surprisingly bloody period in history

I really am not a historian, in fact, I consider myself badly educated about history, and frankly, I’m often confused by all the tides and changes, conflicts and plots, alliances and allegiances – and reversals of these – that make up the history of the world. I shouldn’t be, considering that I grew up in a country that was fighting a war on its borders for 23 years and, simultaneously, an internal armed conflict for 43 years. But if you’re a frog in a pot of slowly heating water, you don’t think about getting boiled.

So, I was riveted while reading Noel Barber’s popular and easy-to-consume history of the Ottoman Empire sultans. His angle is that the behaviour of the individual sultans, and the influence on them of their harems, consorts, wives and army of eunuchs, led to the fall of their empire. Noel Barber (9 September 1909 to 10 July 1988) was a British novelist and journalist. He wrote six novels, and 22 non-fiction works from 1951 to 1979, many resulting from his travels and experience as a foreign correspondent to political hotspots in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. They include A Handful of Ashes: A Personal Testament of the Battle of Budapest (1957); The Flight of the Dalai Lama (1960); The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerrillas, 1948-60 (1971); and Fall of Shanghai: Communist Takeover in 1949 (1979).

In fact I have read Lords of the Golden Horn more than once, returning it every few years to discover some new angle or connection, and to compare his points of view with the ever-changing assessments of historical figures and events. These days, looking at the extensive influence of the sultanas and the women in the harems, it almost seems as though they were practicing female liberation long before their time. They might have been wielding power from behind screens, but they caused mayhem and death on a grand scale. I almost pitied the sultans whose mothers, wives and favourite concubines played them like puppets.

Pretty Aimée from France

I found one sultan, Abdul Hamid I, the most interesting because he was married to Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry, who was, according to some records and some legends, related by marriage to Empress Joséphine Bonaparte of France.

Abdul Hamid I was the 27th in the line of 36 Ottoman Sultans, who ruled the Ottoman Empire in an unbroken line of descent from about 1299 for more than 620 years! The last sultan, Mehmed VI, was in power until 1922 when the Sultanate was abolished, after which the Republic of Turkey was formed on 29 October 1923.

What Barber does very well in this book is to create compelling portraits of the sultans, their families and familiars. He focused on the personal minutiæ – like their lifestyles, opinions and habits – as far as those could be ascertained from historical records.

But, in an almost nonchalant way, he drops, every so often, a line or two about the results of their governance. So many thousand dead. This and that minority group exterminated. That person’s head chopped off, or that village burned down.

The sultans lived lives of isolation, luxury and personal indulgence in their grand palaces in Constantinople, but, as with the so-called Butterfly Effect, their smallest whims led to battles and wars, and seldom to anything good for their subjects. Oddly, considering that they locked up their women in harems, they were also prisoners of a sort, raised in lonely isolation in their palaces and the Seraglio, and limited in their freedoms by their royal status.

Barber says in the introduction:

“It is not so much the story of great battles as of the events leading up to them, though I have made an exception with the siege of Plevna, partly because it provides a superb example of the Turkish talent for bulldog defence, and also (to be truthful) because it is such a rattling good yarn that I could not resist it.”

Lords of the Golden Horn, by Noel Barber, Acknowledgements

The book is indeed packed with juicy, scandalous, eye-raising facts, all of which are fun to read, but the reader must not ignore the dreadful reality behind it all. Particularly, one must remember that “…the Ottoman Empire was essentially a military one, its primary aim the conquest of non-Turkish lands.” (p.115) So, at the beginning of the 19th century, the empire, its tributary states and its dominions in Europe covered 238,000 square miles, but “…it was not size alone that kept the Empire alive, it was a deeper feeling. To paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, Europe was a land, Russia was a people, but the Ottoman Empire possessed the quality of an idea.” (p.116)

One of the illustrations in Lords of the Golden Horn, by Noel Barber, pp. 120-121: a rare image of “Sultan Abdul Hamid I Leaving the Seraglio for Friday Prayers”. It is a copy of an engraving by Levasseur, made from a drawing by Louis François Cassas, 1788. From Cassas, C.F., Voyage en Syrie etc, Paris, c. 1798, in the Rodney Searight Collection in The British Museum, London, UK. (Image cleaned and repaired.)

A French girl in the harem

When Abdul Hamid I was about 59 years old, in 1784/1785, he was given Aimée Dubuq de Rivery as a gift – “a golden-haired French girl with a witty, upturned nose below large blue eyes, and a perfectly formed Cupid’s bow of a mouth above a determined chin.” (p.118). (I was wondering what constitutes a “witty” nose.”)

Sure, it was slavery; Aimée, born in 1761, was about 23 years old at the time. Talk about an age gap. She was a captive, assigned to a life of chastity except for the attentions of the Sultan, and she spent the rest of her life locked away in the harem.

When she gave birth to a son, Mahmud (also spelled Mahmoud), Abdul Hamid’s second son – he only had two – and the Sultan celebrated by ordering a huge tulip-festival (tulips come from Turkey originally, then were exported to Europe and the Netherlands), “…and for a centrepiece in the Seraglio grounds he commanded a kiosk to be made entirely of spun sugar, decorated with palms, the traditional emblem of fertility. Cages of nightingales hung from the trees or encircled the splashing fountains. Afterwards there were wrestling matches a the Hippodrome, which Aimée watched unseen from a latticed window. Five hundred sheep were ritually slaughtered ands given to the poor.” (p. 122)

But she made the most of it and escaped being just another ignored, aging slave in the harem: first she became the favourite, and then the ninth and last wife and consort of Abdul Hamid; then the friend of Sultan Selim III (the successor to Abdul Hamid I), and then, late in life, the Valide Sultan (or legal mother of the sultan) when her son took the throne as Sultan Mahmud II, “The Reformer”. She played a role in the lives and regimes of no less than four sultans, managing to stay alive, get her son on the throne, and introduce new traditions at the royal court, before her death on 28 July 1817, at the age of 56. Not bad for a convent-educated girl from Martinique. Or so the story goes in Lords of the Golden Horn.

Other historical references say she was a princess, who came from a family with origins in the Caucasus region, or that she was actually Georgian, and raised in the Ottoman palace and given a thoroughly Turkish Islamic education. That would not explain her decidedly French ideas, language skills, and her practical influence on Abdul Hamid I and Selim III to introduce modern European innovations, particularly in the army.

“There is little doubt that Aimée was deeply attached to the Sultan, who was a man cultivated enough to stop ‘once and for all the wretched practice of immuring possible heirs in the Cage; he treated his nephew Selim, heir to the throne, as a son, and allowed him complete liberty. Selim was about the same age as Aimée, and when Sultan Abdul Hamid died in 1789, and Selim III was proclaimed Sultan, he was already a passionate devotee of her French ‘liberalism’.”

Lords of the Golden Horn, by Noel Barber, p.122

Modern techniques brought instability

Barber writes that one of the first steps on the Ottoman Empire’s road to the downfall was the modernization of the Janissaries, the elite infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan’s household troops and bodyguards, and which was the first modern standing army in Europe. This led to problems with the selection and loyalty of the Janissaries that began in the reign of Selim III. But, considering that the Ottoman Empire was all about military campaigns and conquests, the Janissaries had to be kept busy and the army had to be kept on the move and fighting. Nevertheless, Selim III did not have military success. When Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great gave the order to attack Ismael, a Turkish fortress on the Danube river, so as to cause unrest in the Ottoman Empire, the Turks lost the battle. The death toll was huge: 34,000 Turks dead, killed when it was so cold their corpses couldn’t be buried and in stead were thrown into the Danube. It was the first of many major battles and campaigns that Selim III and his successors lost.

However, this event also caused the Ottoman Empire and Aimée Dubuq de Rivery to reconnect with France:

“Selim’s empire was now in a decline which seemed impossible to check. But at least to Aimée and Selim there was always France to fall back on. Selim was amongst the first rulers in Europe to recognise the [French] Republic. After some heart-searching, Selim made history by appointing the first Turkish ambassador to France in 1797, though Aimée had been horrified by the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But Napoleon [Bonaparte] was now married to Joséphine so the cousins could write to each other, and Napoleon welcomed the new ambassador warmly, though secretly ‘he had long had his eye on Constantinople as the greatest strategic prize Europe could offer’.”

Lords of the Golden Horn, by Noel Barber, pp. 123-124

And so the game of expansions of empires (Games of Thrones?) spread wider in Europe, to France, Britain, Russia and China.

Historical accuracy

Though Barber does not clutter up his text with footnotes and references, he provides Notes on Further Reading (pp. 291- 291), an extensive list of English and French reference works which he had consulted, some published as fast back as 1700, and a long list of archival documents, the oldest dated from 1625. The book contains a decent index and a generous number of illustrations. I had difficulties with only one aspect, and that is the spelling of the Anglicized Turkish names. Barber explains in the Acknowledgements, that “…since there are often half a dozen different ways of spelling a Turkish name, I have used the simplest European versions.” Even so, I frequently got the sultans and their offspring mixed up.

The end of the saga

Barber carried out 18 months of research on the ground in Turkey, particularly in the buildings in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) where the sultans had kept court, which were subsequently used as administration buildings, museums, schools and libraries (the Grand Seraglio was then called the Topkapi Palace). When his work was done, in 1972, he said:

“It is hard to sometimes, sitting there in the shadow of the great and beautiful mosques, of the Seraglio itself, to realise that this was once the heart of a tyrannical empire so formidable that the Western world trembled at its might; despite the centuries of greatness, of conquest and oppression, ‘of the intrigues of the ‘favoured women’ in the harem, of the miseries of its millions of subject peoples, it might all have been nothing more than a bad dream.”

Lords of the Golden Horn, by Noel Barber, Acknowledgments

Next post: The Last Empress, by Anchee Min – Was Empress Orchid really so terrible?

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