Meeting the Sultan at Topkapi

by John Mole

Editor’s note: The following is by the oldest blogger we have ever published. Actually, he is more than 400 years old. Contributor, John Mole, was so taken by the diary of Thomas Dallam, who, at age 25 was charged with delivering the gift of a self-playing organ and clock from Queen Elizabeth to Sultan Mehmet III of Turkey, that he translated the work into modern English. This post, originally titled ‘The Sultan’s Organ” was written in 1599. It includes what is probably the first ever recoreded glimpse inside the Sultan’s harem by a foreigner. 

 

I set up the organ in the grandest pavilion of Topkapi palace. Inside was a little apartment. I have never seen the like for carving, gilding, paintwork and varnish. The Sultan had nineteen brothers put to death in there. It was built for the sole purpose of strangling them.

The main hall has two rows of marble pillars. The pedestals are made of brass and double gilt. The walls on three sides only go up to the eaves and the rest is open. But if there is a storm or a gale they can quickly lower cotton hangings that will keep out any kind of weather and just as quickly open them again. The fourth wall is made of porphyry so polished you can see yourself in it. On the floor are rich silk carpets. There are no chairs or tables or benches, only one royal divan. On one side is a pond full of different-coloured fish. 

***

The Sultan came over the water in his golden barge. I was ushered out of the room and the door locked behind me. I heard the Sultan arrive and the loud noise of his retinue. He sat down on his great throne and commanded silence. The Organ began to salute him.  First the clock struck the hour. Then a chime of sixteen bells played a four part melody. Two figures raised silver trumpets to their lips and blew a fanfare. Then the music started with a five part song played twice. At the top of the organ a holly bush full of blackbirds and thrushes sang and flapped their wings. Various other movements amazed the Sultan. He sat down in front of the keyboard and asked the Chief White Eunuch, the Kapi Aga, if he knew anyone who could play it. He said the man who brought it was outside the door. 

“Fetch him here,” said the Sultan.

The Kapi Aga came out and took me by the hand. I went through the door and was astonished by what I saw. The Sultan sat on a rich throne about sixteen paces away.. On his thumb was a diamond half an inch square, at his side a beautiful scimitar, a bow and a quiver of arrows. He was magnificently regal but nothing compared with the retinue that stood behind him, a vision that made me think I was in another world. There were two hundred principal pages, the youngest sixteen years old, the oldest about  thirty. They were dressed in calf length coats and matching caps of gold lamé, with long pieces of silk around the waist for a belt and knee-length red Cordovan leather boots. Their heads were shaved except for a lock of hair like a squirrel's tail behind the ear. They were clean shaven apart from moustaches. Another hundred were deaf-mutes and also dressed in rich gold lamé and Cordovan boots. Their caps were of violet velvet with the crown like a leather bottle and five peaked corners on the brims. Some of them had hawks on their fists. The remaining hundred were all dwarves, big bodied men but small. Every dwarf had a scimitar by his side and they were also dressed in gold lamé. I was most amazed by the deaf-mutes for they communicated perfectly with signs.

The Kapi Aga told me to go and play the organ. I refused because the Sultan sat so close to where I had to play that I could only do it by turning my back on him and touching his knee, which nobody was allowed to do, on pain of death. The Kapi Aga told me to pluck up courage and pushed me forwards.  I bowed my head down to my knees and turned my back on the Sultan. He could not see what I was doing and stood up so he could see my hands. He could not help nudging me, since he sat so close. I thought he was drawing his sword to cut off my head.

I stood there playing until the clock struck again. I bowed as low as I could and stepped away. The Kapi Aga told me to put the cover on the keyboard. I bowed and shuffled again and they all laughed. I saw the Sultan hold his hand out behind him full of gold, which the Kapi Aga took and gave to me. It was forty-five sequins, more than two hundred pounds. I was taken out the way I came, very pleased with my success.

***

My escort said that if I stayed in Constantinople for ever, I would have everything my heart desired. The Sultan would give me two wives, either two of his concubines or two of the most beautiful virgins I could find for myself. 

We crossed a little square courtyard paved with marble. He pointed to a grating in the wall. Through it I saw thirty of the Sultan's concubines playing ball in a courtyard. At first I thought they were young men but then I saw their hair hanging down their backs in plaits with tassels of little pearls, and other obvious signs, and I realised they were women and very pretty at that. They wore little gold lamé skull caps. Around their necks were pretty pearl necklaces and jewel pendants and jewel earrings. They had loose coats like a soldier's of red or blue satin tied with a cord of the opposite colour. You could see their thighs through the calf length cotton trousers, snow white and fine as muslin. Some of them wore Cordovan knee boots others had bare legs with a gold ankle bracelet and velvet platform shoes four or five inches high. My interpreter advised me not to talk about what I had seen, for if it got out it would mean death for the man who showed me. 

 

John Mole lives in London and Greece. He has written novels and travel memoirs about Greece and Russia. His latest novel is The Quest for Helen, a tale set in Ottoman Greece. To learn more, visit www.johnmole.com. The Sultan’s Organ is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon and additional formats on Smashwords.com.

 

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