HISTORY – Homosexuality – Turkey and Ottoman Empire – Sultan Boys

Anthony Gayton - Harem
Anthony Gayton – Harem

Jutting into the Mediterranean Sea from southwestern Asia (and including some territory in Europe and the island of Cyprus), the modern nation of Turkey is 780,580 square kilometers in area. Roughly seventy percent of the population of 66 million lives in cities. The interior lightly populated. The annual rate of population growth is 1.27%. Eighty percent of the population is Turkish. Twenty percent (mostly in the southeast, close to Iraq and Iran) Kurdish. The inhabitants are nearly all (99.8%) Muslim, mostly Sunni.

The government–a parliamentary democracy–and even more so, the army– which has intervened at any signs of Islamicist influence in the government–have been resolutely secular since the “Young Turks” headed by Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal, 1881-1938) overthrew the Ottoman dynasty, which had combined the secular power of sultans with religious primacy of caliphs for six centuries, and founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Ataturk shifted the capital from Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople and Byzantium) to Ankara.

From Assyrian, Hittite and other civilizations

The center and eastern part of what is now Turkey was part of Assyrian and Hittite and other civilizations. The site of the court of King Midas, and the homeland of the self-castrated galli priests of the goddess Cybele.

The Mediterranean coast (and, just off it, the island of Lesbos, home of Sappho) was Greek in culture and language in ancient times. In addition to ancient Troy, the great trading port of Ephesus (modern Izmir) is on the west coast.

The western portion of modern Turkey was the Roman province of Asia. Including what had been the kingdom of Pergamom that was bequeathed to Rome upon the death of Attalos III in 133 B. C. E. The capital of the eastern Roman empire, Constantinople (Kostantiniyya in Turkish). At the edge of Europe, became Byzantium and the center of (Eastern) Orthodox Christianity, until the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II conquered it in 1453.

Homosexuality has figured prominently in Turkish history and literature. In modern Turkey the status of homosexuality and of glbtq communities are insecure at best.

Divan Poetry

Classical Turkish poetry celebrated beautiful boys and bemoaned both their fickleness and their growing up and sprouting facial and body hair. Some of the poetry praising the beauty of boys may be interpreted as metaphorical praise for the divine. The most famous of the homoerotic mystic poets, Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) became the leader of Sufism in Konya in what is now central Turkey, and was known as “Rum” within the Seljuk Empire.

Homoerotic poetry was much admired during the Ottoman period. The eighteenth-century court poet Nedim being the most important later poet.

 

The Ottoman Empire

Detail of Harem by Anthony Gayton

In the Ottoman Empire, as in the Mamluk regimes of Egypt and Syria eventually subdued by and incorporated within it, the ruling elite consisted of slaves (kullar, singular kul) who were born Christian, acquired early, and trained to defend and administer the empire. Free of family obligations, they were bound only to the sultan who raised them.

The exclusion of those born Muslims, including the sons of the ruling elite, was consciously designed to prevent the concentration of inherited fortunes and the concomitant feudal growth in power of rich families.

Ajem-oghlan (foreign-born youths) were separated at an early age from parents, homeland, and the Christian faith. They were selected for their “bodily perfection, muscular strength, and intellectual ability. The very choicest–“all handsome boys, physically perfect, and of marked intellectual promise”. They were taken into the palaces of the sultans as iç oglans( pages). When presented before the Sultan, they were clothed in silk and cloth of gold and silver thread.

“The Turks rejoice greatly when they find an exceptional man, as though they had acquired a precious object. They spare no labor or effort in cultivating him.” Subsequent historians have not considered that criteria such as bodily perfection and muscular strength might encompass a sexual attraction, as well as an aesthetic one.

 

 

Leisure hours with boys

Sultan could not enjoy association on terms of intimate friendship with those who were high officials of state. He was practically forced by a combination of principles and circumstances to spend his leisure hours with boys, eunuchs, and women. Before the middle of the reign of Sulayman (the Magnificent, who ruled 1520-1566), no woman resided in the entire vast Topkapi palace, where the sultan spent most of his time.

Homosexual relations are a predictable outcome of a social system in which the sexes are segregated. Individual masculine prowess is highly valued, and women derogated and isolated. The boys were watched carefully by eunuchs, both day and night. Paralleling the surveillance of harem women, indicates that homosexual relations amongiç-oglans was a concern.

Serving a sultan or other high official sexually might have been expected on the part of iç-oglans. A high-placed Ottoman official would not have been eager to publicize such service. It might subject the youth to taunts similar to those that reminded Julius Caesar of his youthful relationship with Nicomedes of Bythinia (in the northern part of what is now Turkey).

Did the Ottomans Decriminalize Homosexuality in 1858?

Decriminalization of homosexuality refers to the legalization of consensual private sexual activities or the absence of penalties assigned to private same sex intimacy (Buist & Lenning, 2016). This formula for decriminalization stems from the history of the Western penal regime (Dalacoura, 2014;
Rahman, 2014; Woods, 2015). 2 Thus, the conceptualization of decriminalization is restricted to the Western legal experience in terms of same-sex
intimacy. This framework of decriminalization does not reflect non-Western (or less-Western) countries’ penal experience concerning same-sex intimacy.

The Ottomans went through comprehensive penal reform during the late
19th century. They adopted the 1810 French Penal Code, which had been
JOURNAL OF HOMOSEXUALITY 5
influential throughout Europe at that time. The contentious article of the
1858 Ottoman Penal Code is as follows:
Art. 202—The person who dares to commit the abominable act publicly contrary
to modesty and sense of shame is to be imprisoned for from three months to
one year and a fine of from one Mejidieh gold piece to ten Mejidieh gold pieces is
to be levied (Penal Code of the Ottoman Empire, 1858).

Prior to 1858, there were two other Ottoman penal codes (1840 and 1851),
which did not mention consensual sodomy or private same-sex acts.

Following the penal codes authored by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th
century, the last Ottoman Penal Code (1858), which allegedly decriminalized
sodomy/same-sex intimacy, included these articles that regulate sexual
offenses:


Art. 201—Whoever dares to behave contrary to public decency by making it
a habit to incite and entice young persons from amongst males or females to
obscenities by perverting or deceiving them or facilitating the means of the coming
about thereof is punished with imprisonment for from one month to one year; and
if this matter of perverting or deceiving in this manner proceeds from persons who
are the father or mother or guardian, they are to be punished with imprisonment
for from six months to one year and a half.

Art. 202—The person who dares to commit the abominable act publicly contrary
to modesty and sense of shame is to be imprisoned for from three months to
one year and a fine of from one Mejidieh gold piece to ten Mejidieh gold pieces is
to be levied. (The Ottoman Penal Code,1858)

Missing Voices in the Age of the Beloveds: Ottoman Same Sex Intimacy

By Nailya Shamgunova

Tayyib and Tahir, two young Ottomans, were travelling to Egypt to become dervishes. When their ship was captured by Christians they were enslaved by Christian noblemen. Instead of pain, captivity brought them love and happiness, as both men fell in love with their captors, and those feelings were mutual. A barbaric Christian official thought that their love for each other was mere sodomy, however, and all four were imprisoned. The Ottomans were pardoned and fled the lands of the infidel, but their beloveds lingered in prison. Unbeknown to the Ottomans, the Christians managed to escape and later reunited with Tayyid and Tahir. The Christians saw the superiority of a religion that accepted their desires, and they converted to Islam; all four men lived happily thereafter in Istanbul.

This remarkable story is the plot of a 1627 poem by Nev’izade ‘Atayi Heft Kan. Relationships between older men and younger, most often unbearded, boys were widespread in early modern Ottoman society. Admiration of younger male beauty was seen as acceptable by many Islamic jurists, with the exception of the most strict interpreters of the Quran. However, the purpose of these relationships and the physical extent to which they could be developed was a matter of debate. Whilst no Quranic scholar explicitly endorsed penetration of men by other men, love poems were widespread that praised the beauty of boys and described kissing boys at social gatherings, as were cruder anecdotes and images of boys being penetrated by men. For example, Ahmad al-Aqhisari lamented that homosexual relationships spread in the Arabic speaking world to the extent that Arabs ‘are proud of it and blame someone who has no beardless friend (amrad), speak evil of him, and say that he is not a human (adami) and has no taste (madhaq)’. Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani emphatically stated that ‘no one should act in accordance with those scholars who have been led astray from the Holy Law and permitted […] carnal penetration of a male slave on the basis of ownership’. On the other end of the critical spectrum, countless Ottoman poems talk about the beauty of a boy who ‘has deprived the gazelle of his attributes’.

Despite the vast range of sources featuring sexual or romantic same sex relationships, the vast majority of these early modern Ottoman sources are either written by people assessing the value of these relationships or by those in the dominant position within them. These sources end up silencing those with the least agency. I argue that it is the historian’s duty to try to unveil the perspectives of the boys themselves, or at least to highlight this inherent power dynamic and make it a focus of research in itself.

As scholar Joseph Allen Boone argues, the ‘boy’ in a male-to-male Ottoman relationship could in fact be anywhere between prepubescent age and his late 20s; he could be bearded or unbearded, muscular of androgynous, free or enslaved. However, in the vast majority of cases, he would be in the socially inferior position to the uşşak ‘lover’ in some form – as a slave, servant or, in the case of sultan’s relationships with other men, subject. Some of the people who occupied the position of the younger male in a homosocial if not homosexual relationship have provided us with their perspectives on the experience. For example, in his description of his life at the palace page school, Evliya Çelebi wrote of his experience of replacing Musa Çelebi, according to Evliya a favourite of Murad IV, who was murdered by the sultan’s former tutor. The sultan composed several poems, varsağı, about his beloved Musa, including the following, which he subsequently regretted and banned from being performed in the sultan’s presence. The sultan wrote of Musa:

The mouth of the beloved hints at the hidden mystery.
When he begins to speak, he hints at the magic of eloquence.

In Evliya’s account the sultan refers to Musa as dilber and mahbub, words often interchangeably used to describe a male beloved. Evliya wrote directly that he was there to ‘replace’ Musa. Evliya pointedly never refers to himself as a dilber. Even if the relationship between the sultan and Musa was not sexual and if Evliya’s role at court did not go beyond that of a boon companion, this episode still shows Evliya’s unease at even hinting at being in the position of a ‘beloved’. This episode tells us a lot about ideas about power relationships between lovers and beloveds and allows us to tease out reluctance to self-identify as the ‘boy’ in a relationship between two men, even when one of them is the Sultan himself.

Sultan Murat IV dining with his court. Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul.

As scholar Joseph Allen Boone argues, the ‘boy’ in a male-to-male Ottoman relationship could in fact be anywhere between prepubescent age and his late 20s; he could be bearded or unbearded, muscular of androgynous, free or enslaved.

However, in the vast majority of cases, he would be in the socially inferior position to the uşşak ‘lover’ in some form – as a slave, servant or, in the case of sultan’s relationships with other men, subject. Some of the people who occupied the position of the younger male in a homosocial if not homosexual relationship have provided us with their perspectives on the experience. For example, in his description of his life at the palace page school, Evliya Çelebi wrote of his experience of replacing Musa Çelebi, according to Evliya a favourite of Murad IV, who was murdered by the sultan’s former tutor.

The sultan composed several poems, varsağı, about his beloved Musa, including the following, which he subsequently regretted and banned from being performed in the sultan’s presence. The sultan wrote of Musa:

The mouth of the beloved hints at the hidden mystery.
When he begins to speak, he hints at the magic of eloquence.

In Evliya’s account the sultan refers to Musa as dilber and mahbub, words often interchangeably used to describe a male beloved. Evliya wrote directly that he was there to ‘replace’ Musa. Evliya pointedly never refers to himself as a dilber. Even if the relationship between the sultan and Musa was not sexual and if Evliya’s role at court did not go beyond that of a boon companion, this episode still shows Evliya’s unease at even hinting at being in the position of a ‘beloved’. This episode tells us a lot about ideas about power relationships between lovers and beloveds and allows us to tease out reluctance to self-identify as the ‘boy’ in a relationship between two men, even when one of them is the Sultan himself.

Another way to refocus our attention on the boys is to highlight the inherent privilege of the sources we do have and to emphasise any acknowledgement of the power imbalance between the lovers and the beloveds in the sources. For example, Mustafa Ali’s Table of Delicacies, a tract about sociability and manners written around 1599, makes a clear connection between the access of lower class young men to palace service and the spread of carnal lust for boys in the palace. He argued that ‘spoiled brazen youths […] should not be accepted into palace service’. He continued that ‘quite apart from ruining themselves, they turn the servant corps into the disgrace of the world’ as ‘the way they squander themselves […] introduces the vipers of lust into the treasure in the imperial cask’. Similarly, Ali was concerned about the corrupting influence that men from lower social classes with access to the palace could have on the palace boys, as the ‘person of ill repute […] infects and corrupts the world of servant boys who are under the spell of carnal desires’. Although class is the focus of Ali’s anxieties about male relationships, whether the lower class person is the older corrupting man or a lazy lustful youth, Ali’s focus on power dynamics is a good starting point for studying the complexities of Ottoman male love.

European travel accounts from this time do focus on the consent and lack of agency of younger men. Using them is problematic as they often represent a biased outsider’s view of Ottoman society, and their concern is for Christian boys only. Most English travellers disregarded male victims of sexual violence and were anxious mostly about the threat of circumcision and castration. They also primarily focused on slaves who had not been sexually or physically violated yet. James Wadsworth was the only English traveller who wrote of victims of sexual violence as worthy of ransom after the act itself – he pleaded for the ransom of ‘the fairest and youngest’ of his companions ‘whose bodies’ the Turks ‘abused with their Sodomy’. European accounts do not explore the power dynamics of non-Christian slaves and their Ottoman masters, and the picture of slavery in the Mediterranean they present is far from a one size fits all model they make it out to be – experiences of boys sold at a market of a port town in Algiers and a refined page to an Istanbul grandee could have been vastly different.  Yet, European accounts do offer a contemporary framework in which the power dynamics between lovers and the beloveds could be explored.

All of these frameworks are far from perfect and none of them would provide us with the perspectives of the boys themselves. And yet, it is important to use them, and come up with other similar contexts in which the power dynamics between Ottoman men and boys were acknowledged in order to uncover at least a fraction of the boys’ agency. Just reclaiming queer pasts of Islamic societies is not enough if it does not acknowledge the experience of the least powerful. The study of history is a process of reclaiming the voices of peoples of the past. In the words of Yaa Gyasi, ‘when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?’ The story of the Age of the Beloveds is told by the lovers and is missing exactly that – the voice of the Beloveds, younger boys who might not have had much say in what was being done to them. It is our job to try to not forget about them.

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