When I realized that my October 2009 historical from Berkley Indiscreet was going to be set, for the most part, in the Ottoman Empire, I had to do some research. It is a fact of my writing process that important developments develop in media res, so it’s not as though I knew ahead of time I wanted to set a story outside of England.
At some point during the writing, fairly early on, I am glad to say, I discovered — that’s how it seems to me, I don’t decide, I discover– that my hero and heroine meet in Turkey. Oh, how interesting, I thought. And then I thought I’d better do some research about that.
Some random Facts
Foreigners (non-Muslims for the most part) were not permitted to live in Constantinople. Instead, the extensive European community lived just outside the capital, in two cities, for the most part; Pera and Buyukdere. There were European diplomats from Britain, France, Russia, the Netherlands and Prussia among many others. The British had a not insignificant military presence, as did the French. And these men brought their families or were married here and started families. There was great alarm on one occasion when the wife of a British diplomat received a Turkish dignitary in her home in her husband’s absence. But there wasn’t the feared international incident with the potentate taking offense at being entertained by a woman without her head covered. By all accounts he was charmed. There was as well as subtext of his having found her sexually attractive. Were overtures subsequently made? There are hints.
The heavy diplomatic and military presences shouldn’t come as a surprise since Napoleon was mucking about in Egypt at the time. Egypt was fairly unstable internally, though Ibrahim Pasha had a firm grip once he’d massacred the Mameluks. Earlier in the 1800’s, British and Turkish troops marched through the desert to Egypt in order to put on a show of force. British accounts of the desert march were not particularly complimentary of the Turkish troops which were not trained with the European love of discipline. I’m quite sure prejudice and ignorance of culture and custom played a large role in the troubles.
It was customary for British ships to fire cannons (salute) when they passed the Seraglio, a word by the way, that was specific to the sultan’s harem, despite the definition having since been often misused to refer to any harem.
There were, reputedly, over 30,000 women in the Seraglio. Parents sold their daughters into the Seraglio in the hopes that she would catch the sultan’s eye and bear him a son. A son would immediately elevate the woman into favored status. Such a woman had political influence. The sons, however, did not have the princely life you’d imagine. They were confined to their own quarters, uneducated for the most part, and deliberately isolated so they would not represent a threat to the Sultan. Historians have speculated that this isolation and lack of training of any possible successor deeply contributed to the decline of the Empire.
British accounts of sojourns in Ottoman Turkey are overwhelmingly, gushingly complimentary of the horses. Arabians, of course. They were small but hardy, fast, tireless and smart, subsisting on meager rations. A day’s journey of 25 miles through rugged country was quite common. The British were not so complimentary of their treatment of these Arab horses. The local custom was to leave the horses saddled, wet blankets and all, for the entire course of journey. Most every account takes disapproving note of this practice. The Bedouins were considered heroic with respect to their horsemanship.
I came across some interesting spellings of city names which I conformed to current spellings where those cities still exist — most do. Iskenderun, on the Mediterranean coast of modern day Turkey, was commonly spelled Skanderoon. Beirut was often spelled Bayroot. Iskenderun, by the way, is named after Alexander the Great. It is not far from the pass where he defeated Darius of Persia.
The Syrian city of Aleppo, in ancient times and presently called Haleb, may well be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world — at least 5,000 years. Aleppo was once the crossroads for caravans from all directions. It was the trade center of the ancient world and for centuries beyond.
Throughout Syria, Serjillo to the north for example, there are Roman ruins, entire villages, actually, that stand as if only recently abandoned. Crusaders from England, Richard The Lionheart among them, came to what is now Syria, some were imprisoned in the Citadel of Aleppo.
The Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire, with Aleppo still dominant, was a religious melting pot. Christians (Nazrins), Druze (often spelled Drooze, in period writings) the Wahabists, Muslims all made their homes here.
The Levant Company was the functional equivalent of the East India Company. The diplomatic corp was funneled through and approved by the Levant Company. So, often, was foreign policy. King George, and later, the Regent, had frustratingly little input — in part as a function of time. It’s difficult to conduct foreign policy when instructions to the region might take 6 months to get there and by then, conditions may well have changed. The Levant Company, in effect, conducted British foreign policy in the region and you better believe commercial interests superseded politics more than once.
Well, there you go. A quick and random overview of the Regency era Ottoman Empire.
Carolyn very interesting. I don’t think I’d be happy to be one of the Sultan’s women. What about antiquity and such? I know that the British were very interested in the statues and artefacts they found. Know anything about that?
When I was doing my research I was, for the most part, targeting a fairly narrow period of time. If I hadn’t been under a deadline, I would have expanded my research. I also had to confine myself to areas, places and events (after some general somewhat broad reading) that involved my evolving plot.
The question of antiquities was not within the scope of my research as I more narrowly focused on the political and military issues.
As many of us are aware a very large number of artifacts made their way from Ottoman Turkey and other holdings back to Europe.
A novel that involved that as a plot element would be really fun to research and write, I must say. But it would also have been a fundamentally different novel than the one I actually wrote!
Carolyn, this is great!!
I love learning new things. I never heard of the Levant Company before. Who knew?
Jane Austen, I think I would most not wish to be a sultan’s son. That sounds like a dreadful life!
Cool trivia! And funny timing, since i just read a regency where the Hero called the Heroine his “odalisque” and i had to look up what that meant. I didn’t realize how much cultural influence the Ottoman Empire had during the Regency era.
@lustyreaderL An odalisque, as you probably learned, referred to a female servant (slave) in a harem. Usually a large harem. In the West, the term has a highly sexual content that did not attach to the original meaning of the word. Though it was possible, of course, for an odalisque to be noticed as an object of the Sultan’s sexual desire, if she were lovely or otherwise accomplished, she would probably not be a servant. I would imagine that a young girl might grow up in the harem as an odalisque and after puberty (one hopes) be noticed and promoted, as it were.
Oh my god, what an idiotic way to treat the males who might succeed you! Duh! Big time EmpireFail.
Of course, you could probably go unnoticed in the seraglio if you weren’t that attractive. At least you’d be cared for. Altho’ 30K women in one spot? Imagine the Period Sync.
I recently finished reading Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones. She had an empire on a parallel world where the emperor did exactly the same thing with his heirs and then got blown up. Now I know where she got the idea!
And those poor horses. No wonder they were tough.
Wow. Lots of bits and pieces to work into an MS.
I’ve never had the pleasure of a trip to Turkey, but my husband spent a month there and came away with the impression that it’s one of the most fascinating places in the world – gorgeous landscapes, impossibly picturesque ruins, and due to its blessed climate and location as crossroads to EVERYWHERE, arguably the most delicious and healthful cuisine in the world.
All to say – I hope you’ll include some food references!
I enjoyed that post very interesting I don’t think I would like to be in a harem
Fascinating stuff, Carolyn! Not much foresight in those emperors was there? What a sad and wasteful existence for someone who was supposed to be a prince.
Lots of really cool information here. My Dad spent time in Turkey and he found it a very exotic and interesting country. My Mom has some lovely silk and some interesting leather-worked bags from there. She also has an gorgeous set of bracelets from Turkey. She never wears them. Wonder if I could “borrow” them for Nationals.
As to the princes and their isolation, there were a lot of them! But yes, it does seem very shortsighted not to train your successor. It was the women of the harem (favorites who were mothers of princes) who had a lot to do with who was going to be the next Sultan…
I agree, I don’t think it would be very fun to be in a harem.
I would absolutely love to do to Turkey one day. I’d also love to visit Syria, which has has some truly marvelous history.
Hopefully next week I can post some more information about harems and Western notions of White Slavery…
“I agree, I don’t think it would be very fun to be in a harem”
It would certainly be DULL. 🙂
What a fascinating post, Carolyn. I’ve read quite a bit about India in the period, but very little about Turkey and the Middle East. I hope when the book comes out you’ll share more about how you integrated the research into the story, too! (I’m always looking for tips on how to do that…)
Louisa, you should definitely borrow those bracelets!!!
Fascinating. Thanks for the post, Carolyn. LOL, Megan on the 30K period sync. That number blows my mind.
My husband and I visited Istanbul in May and found it beautiful and fascinating. I loved, loved, loved the Archeology Museum, which is filled with jaw-droppingly beautiful objects, including mosaics from Babylon and the Alexander sarcophogus (he’s not buried there but portrayed in the carvings). And that doesn’t begin to cover what you see in Topkapi Palace, the incredible tile work in the mosques, the Hippodrome, and many other places too numerous to count. We were there for a full weeek, constantly on the go, and still didn’t manage to see everything.
Our tour guide told us of the habit of “caging” the princes, and I totally agree it’s a recipe for failure. At one point the princes were part of the sultan’s entourage and met with diplomats, went on military campaigns, and in other ways prepared to be a ruler. But because the rules of succession were so easily thwarted (Selim the Grim murdered his father, uncle, and various brothers), I guess isolating them to cut down on the carnage seemed a good idea at the time. Nonetheless, after hearing what Roxelana (wife to Suleiman the Great) did to competing princes, it was apparent it did not stop the bloodshed. She had one young prince, described in the guidebook as handsome and popular, killed by deaf mutes (one can only wonder why deaf mutes?). She also conspired to have one of the most capable of the viziers killed. Later in life, she seemed to worry about her reception in the afterlife, because she built hospitals, soup kitchens, and did other good works. Not sure if, in the end, they balanced everything she did earlier to ensure that one of her four sons inherited.
At any rate, if you have a chance to go to Istanbul, definitely go.
Maybe deaf mutes because they couldn’t repeat what they did to anyone and if someone asked them if they killed someone they wouldn’t be able to hear so they wouldn’t be able to react physically?
I shall certainly get a copy of ‘Indiscreet’and look forward to the Ottoman elements. My own latest novel ‘April And May’ begins in Constantinople in 1804. Because of my Turkish husband I’ve enjoyed very many aspects of Turkish life and culture over many years. It is such a beautiful, rich country and the people are so kind it’s humbling.
Hey Beth! Thanks for the comment. The Ottoman Empire, as you know, is quite a fascinating subject. When I was a teenager, I had a pen pal from Turkey, and just recently his daughter contacted me (via facebook!)
I would so love to go to Turkey one day. When I’m rich and famous, eh?
When does your April and May book come out in the US?