HISTORY – Homosexuality – Turkey & Ottoman Empire

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, with 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.

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.


Although 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

harem_02Classical 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 homoeroticmystic 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, as well, with the eighteenth-century court poet Nedim being the most important later poet.

The Ottoman Empire

Detail of Harem by Anthony Gayton
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, so far as it could be judged without long testing” at the non-Muslim margins of the empire. The very choicest–“all handsome boys, physically perfect, and of marked intellectual promise”–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.

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As Busbecq noted in the sixteenth century, “The Turks rejoice greatly when they find an exceptional man, as though they had acquired a precious object, and 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.

Because a 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. That 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.

While 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, as 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).

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