A fresh lesson on Eastern history, with a romantic flick

Roxelana_TizianNot sure how many people really enjoyed the way history was tought in school, but I can say for myself that, whilst my former history teachers had an pleasant presence in the class room, none of them really stuck to my mind whatsoever. Considering I have always loved history, that says enough.
Bombarded from everywhere with too much information about the right here, right now, and pushed to know too many flimsy things, which do not add anything at all to our lives, I also wonder how many people today do think about the past and how history made society (and the other way around). I am saying this because loosing one’s inherited wisdom and knowledge can have a destructive outcome.

At the same time though, people who do know or are interested in history should just make an effort and see it, analyse it, understand it for what it is. Too many times I have seen the past being used either as an excuse for what we/they/nations do or don’t do today, as well as a kind of a fragile safe, golden place to escape to when failing to face the present.

If you are still reading and didn’t just press the x at the top right of the page it means I didn’t bore you to death. Or maybe you are very patient. Or maybe you are just a friend who is used to my speeches.

(Picture: Painting of Roxelana or Hurrem Sultan, by Tizian)

This particular speech on history came as a result of me reading over the internet on the Ottoman Empire. It is quite silly how I got to the topic, as scrolling and jumping around the www from page to page I read some entertainment news about the Turkish period soap opera “Suleyman the Magnificent”, very much loved especially by the feminine audience in Romania last summer or so. I watched two episodes with my mum and nan while visiting and, for a soap opera, I can say it wasn’t so bad.
Should I confess that watching period soaps with my mum and nan has been a guilty pleasure of mine? Before moving to the UK, during my three months spent at my parents’ house, we used to be stuck to the tv every evening for an hour when they had a Korean period soap on.

So I stumbled upon the Turkish series yesterday, while scrolling mindlessly up and down on my laptop. And then I wanted to check how real the feminine character which bewitched the great Sultan was. And boy she was real!
During my school years, when history written by communist standards was fed into our minds, kids who were good in writing essays and stories were always asked to start from real events and fictionalise them, and compose texts about the brave Romanian people and how they have withstood the vicissitudes of history. We all read and had to learn the stories about how the Romanians, squashed in between two great empires (the third was never mentioned, the Russian Czarist Empire, of course, as Russians were the friends of our people) have been so strong and undefeated, facing both powers and never really giving up the fight.
Nothing furthest from the truth, I believe today.

One of these two powers was, of course, the Ottoman Empire. Pushed from the East by the Mongolians who had repeatedly defeated them, the Turkish came to the edge of Europe and it was there were they started to grow. Osman I was the ruler under whom the Turkish success started to come to life, and the name of the whole Empire is, if sources correct, derived from his. Mehmet the Conqueror is another name familiar to history lovers, as he crushed the Byzantine Empire by taking over the heart of it, the city of Constantinople.
I won’t pretend I am an expert on Ottoman history now, after reading some sources such as Ecyclopaedia Britannica article on the origins and development of the empire, however there are some things that I had connected in my mind even before getting better informed. One of these things is the historic background for Romania’s flawed society and over corrupted system today, and it helps to understand how history makes reality.

What I have not known clearly before, but somehow felt it to be true, was the way the Ottoman power worked. The sources talk about how the strength of the whole empire relied on dominating territories which they were not particularly interested in occupying, but only getting resources out of (I can’t help now but say “aha!!” in my mind, an imaginary light bulb over my head – sounds a bit familiar with some approaches today). That is how the South and East of Romania, while under Ottoman rule, still had their local leaders who acted as vassals to the Sultan and had to pay tribute. Some of them would be rebellious and even managed to defeat armies sent to discipline them, which wasn’t particularly uncommon either in the empire. At times, local rulers would become strong, but then this was food for warriors in need of a new fight.
And the Ottoman power was built on the loyalty and fierceness of its Janissary army. Again, it was not clear in my mind before last night that these armed troops were actually entirely made of Christian slave boys from either occupied territories or the bordering countries, snatched from their families either by force or as an established part of the tribute. These boys were then grown and educated to become the perfect soldiers, loyal to death and always willing to fight for the Sultan. To keep them happy, however, there was need for conflict and opportunity to defeat and plunder.

At the same time, the Sultan’s Harem was made entirely of Christian girls and women. This came as a surprize, as many things concerning the private life of the Ottoman ruler. And somehow I owe this to the Turkish period soap opera. Well, my guilty pleasure proved not entirely bad after all.

In the Golden Age of this Eastern Empire, under the rule of Suleyman the Magnificent, who brought it to its largest territory in history, strange things happened in his harem.
To highlight these strange things I need to say first that the Sultans didn’t have wives. Not really shocking, considering that a wife would have had more rights, even in those times, than a concubine. If what I have read is correct, which I have no reason to believe it wasn’t, the sultan would have four Kadins, who were his favourite concubines. Also, the harem would be led by the Valide Sultan, the Queen Mother. The most favoured of the four Kadins was the one who gave him his first son and assumed heir to the throne. And then there were all the other concubines, most of them would only spend one night with the Sultan to whom they have been given as gifts or bought from the slave markets. There were many virgins in the harem, who performed the duties of servants.

So how shocking is it that the most powerful Sultan, the one who extended the empire into Europe by conquering modern Hungary and getting to the gates of Wien, broke all traditions in this aspect?
No wonder the story has the power to fire up imagination.

istanbul 303

(Photo: In 2009, at the entrance to Topkapi Palace, Istanbul)

An Ukrainian girl, kidnaped in a Tartar raid over her village, when she was only 14, then sold as a slave to the Sultan’s harem, had somehow pulled it off and got chosen for the Sultan’s bed. At the time there was already a favourite Kadin, who gave the Sultan his heir. However, the Ukrainian young woman, whom the Sultan named Hurrem (the cheerful one), became the love of his life. He wrote her poems, he named her his lover, best friend and advisor, and one of the sons she gave him became the new heir to the throne, after the former first Kadin was banished. He even freed Hurrem from slavery, and when she converted to Islam, took her as a wedded wife, breaking a strong tradition in the history of the Turkish Sultans.
Apparently, the reason why the women in the harem were enslaved Christians was that, by law, no Islamic woman could go to bed with a man who wasn’t her husband, this being considered adultery, a very serious offence. The Sultans imposed their way around it, until the strongest of them decided to wed his former slave.

I find this story fascinating in quite many ways. First, a strong woman succeeded to secure her place beside one of the strongest man in the world at them time, against odds. Second, with this started what was known in the Turkish history as the Sultanate of Women, which lasted for about 130 years, time during which either the consort or the mother of the Sultan in power, or both, played a very important and active role, behind the scenes, even in politics.
The say that behind every great man there is a great woman is somehow proven right. It might be the mother who brought him up. The correction I would bring is that there tends to be a great woman BY every great man.

Then there comes the romantic side. Give a man a whole harem, the opportunity to choose from hundreds of beautiful women, if he falls in love, he would stick by his loved one.
And another quite romantic detail is that this woman wasn’t considered to be a particular beauty. Ugly she wasn’t, according to the paintings showing her, but apparently the written sources mention that she didn’t distinguish herself by looks, but by brains, wit and a very pleasant presence.

These being said, I will go back to the way the empire dominated territories such as Wallachia and Moldavia, both part of today’s Romania. The Ottomans did not have any interested whatsoever, as a warring power, to invest in such territories, especially as they were led by local Christian rulers. They took tribute in money and resources, including humans. Some people who lived in poverty even sold their kids to be slaves, as there was a chance they could have better prospects for the future becoming Janissaries or going to the Sultans harem.
I grew up with stories in communist books about how strong and inventive the Romanian people were, how they always managed to fare through, how they faced Turkish armies even if they were outnumbered and not skilled in waging war. One of the best tricks up their sleeves was to run to the mountains when the Ottoman troops were approaching and to set fire to crops and poison wells. This way, the armies would have to go back. It was taught to us as a very inventive way to face the adversities of a strong empire.

I am not saying it wasn’t. The peasants wouldn’t have stood a chance against such armies, anyway. But on the other hand this was the state of things: lack of stability, starting everything from scratch again and again, a dominating power which never invests, but keeps on milking everything they can from the locals. This was indeed the story of the South and East of Romania, so different from how things were in Transylvania, were the Hungarian rulers, with the advantage of having a long range of mountains as a natural defence, strengthened the boarder and fought against the Turkish armies or had treaties with the Ottomans. 

It surely gives you much reason for reflection when you are of a nation always in between big powers, and only briefly managed to raise and develop, when the whole world is shaken somehow. The time Romania really flourished was late 19th century, early 20th, as both big closest empires shook and crumbled around.
Right now though, it feels like the country is still led by some distant rulers, who couldn’t care less of what really happened to it.

 

 

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