BLOG 29 14/03/2016 The Imperial Harem of the Sultans: An Ottoman Wedding.
The Imperial Harem of the Sultans: An Ottoman Wedding.
Everyone loves a wedding, especially a royal wedding. No one can do pomp and ceremony like them. The Ottoman Sultanate was no different yet hardly any documentation survives to give us a glimpse into the forbidden world of the Imperial harem and the lives of the women who inhabited the world of the gilded cage. One such insight comes from the memoirs of Leyla (Saz) Hanimefendi, a woman who was privileged to have been raised in the Imperial household.
Leyla was born in Istanbul in 1852. Her father, “Hekim” (a term used to define a doctor) Ismail Pasa, was a typical product of the Ottoman Meritocracy. He was born on an Aegean island of Greek parents and sold in the slave market of Smyrna. A Jewish surgeon bought him and later instructed him in his profession. Ismail must have been extremely clever because he eventually became a Pasa and was appointed the Royal Surgeon at the Palace. He had the great honour of circumcising Sultan Abdulmecid when he was a boy and consequently became a trusted friend of the Royal Family. After his marriage to a woman of Tartar extraction, he had two daughters, Nefise, the older of the two and Lela. Leyla was placed at an early age in the old Cirahan Palace as a lady-in-waiting to one of the daughters of Abdulmecid. Life was strict but as an extended member of the family, she was brought up and educated with the greatest of care. She lived through the reigns of six Sultans and was 71 when the Republic was proclaimed.
Her memoirs make for fascinating reading but none more so than the weddings of three of Abdulmecid’s daughters. Sultan Andulmecid had 15 daughters, seven of whom died at a young age. For the most part, the surviving ones had different mothers. Among the princesses she knew the best were: Fatma Sultane, whom she describes as being a person of superior intelligence and incomparable distinction; Refia Sultane, and especially Munire Sultane with whom she had spent her childhood. To marry all his daughters, all of whom were married to the crème de la crème of Ottoman society, the Sultan needed very deep pockets. All weddings took place on a Thursday – Friday being the holy day. On the appointed day, Leyla went to the Serail with her mother and sister; the other married Sultanes and wives of the ministers were already there. The custom of the day was that when the carriage carrying the bride to the palace arrived amidst a fanfare of military music, it was received by the chief eunuchs who paid his respects, followed by other eunuchs of high rank. Two pieces of cashmere were held up vertically so that the bride could descend from her carriage and pass through the gate to the Serail without being seen by any males other than her husband who was called over by the chief eunuch to “coax her out of the carriage” as was the custom. The higher the rank, the longer the time needed to persuade the bride to leave the carriage. Once the ritual was completed, the bride was escorted by the groom and the chief eunuch into the courtyard of the Serail where the Imperial Orchestra was in full play. Guests threw coins over the newlyweds’ heads which were later picked up by onlookers and kept for good luck.
Refia Sultane’s dress was of a deep blue silk embroidered in golden flowers in pearls and diamonds. The skirt had three trains and the edges were bordered with golden thread, pearls and lace. The influence of European fashion was just beginning to make itself felt in Istanbul; the bodice was in the style known as “the amazon” – it was short, opened somewhat in front with double-flared sleeves. The blouse was of light silk which could be seen at the throat and the sleeves. It was also embellished with fine lace. The salvar was made of the same cloth as the dress and was heavily embroidered. The trains of the dress itself were very long with slits on the side.
The jewellery and the wedding presents from the Sultan, particularly ordered for the occasion, consisted of a great diadem, a necklace, a brooch, earrings and bracelets. The princess also wore white gloves making it impossible to see the rings on her fingers. Her shoes were long boots which matched the dress and the veil was the same colour covered with embroidery. In her hair was placed a simple white feather replacing the fashion for the aigrette.
When Cemille and Munire Sultane were betrothed, they were quite young. Munire Sultane was hardly more than a child and quite a time passed before the marriage. Prospective son-in-laws were always chosen by the Sultan and announced by the mothers. Being much closer to Munire, Leyla describes the gifts in great detail; one in particular which her husband gave her – a ring with a brilliant solitaire which she says “must have cost many thousands of Turkish pounds”. Then there were all sorts of perfumes placed on silver trays covered with transparent lids; magnificent bowls of musk and mastic; crystal carafes containing syrup and porcelain vases from Saxony holding all sorts of preserves, and finally, there were eastern and western candies on plates of Chinese porcelain.
Munire Sultane’s mother gave some of the perfumes and tasty morsels of food to the other Sultanes and then to the guests. The administration of the Civil List (the office responsible for the Sultan’s wealth) was responsible for the dresses to be included in the trousseau and the Sultanes’ mothers were responsible for the rest of the trousseau. For the jewellery, the silverware, and the golden embroideries, the Sultan’s family had recourse to the family of Kucukoglu who were Armenian jewellers in the Bazaar. Lela notes that among them, Agop Aga was the cleverest and the most intelligent and he was the only one who had been able to gain the confidence of the princesses and gain access to the Serail. “Accompanied by the eunuchs, he would bring his samples to the Serail, where the Great Kalfa (chief slave) would take them to the mother of the Sultanes who would make her choice. The samples were returned and an order placed.”
The first dressmaker permitted into the Serail was introduced by Agop. Meryam was also Armenian. When the trousseau was complete, Agop’s sister, Miss Sophie, was also allowed to pay her respects to the young princesses. As might be imagined, the Kukukoglus grew very wealthy through their Imperial patrons and kept a beautiful yali (mansion) on the Bosphorus.
When the date for the marriage had been fixed, the trousseau and wedding presents were put on display in the great hall. Caskets containing jewels and other precious objects were placed on silver trays covered with garnet velvet. The trays were then covered with a fine mesh with a handle on top in the form of a pineapple. Objects of considerable value included the following: a Koran with a golden cover and a writing set ornamented with precious stones, a diadem, a necklace, a brooch, a clasp for a belt, bracelets, earrings and pins, watches, a round fan of feathers with a handle encrusted with precious stones, a coffee service composed of ten cups and saucers in gold encrusted with precious stones and a small placement of diamonds on the handles, and many more extravagantly decorated household items of tableware and accessories. I have to confess that a particular favourite of mine is the fly chaser with a handle set off by precious stones. One can only hazard a guess as to the thoughts of the guest who gave it. “Let’s give them something different; they have everything else!”
After the gifts had been viewed by the Sultan and other august members of the Imperial family, they were put into the great caiques of the palace, covered with tapestry and red cloth and taken to the newlywed’s new home on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus. No objects of clothing or underwear were on display. They were locked away in wooden trunks, most of which were covered in red velvet.
Lela Hanimefendi dictated her memoirs to her son and they were first published in Turkish newspapers between 1920 and 1921. She makes a point of telling us that her years spent in the Serail “in this environment of refinement, of elegance, of incomparable richness” were the happiest years of her youth. She also said that “it has to be said that if there was one thing that could never be found in the Serail, it would be anything of the ugly sort. The girls who populated the Serail were recruited from Circassian slaves, specimens of every kind of beauty chosen and brought up with the greatest of care. They were all, by perfection and the distinction of their manners, worthy indeed to serve such illustrious masters.”
She was highly educated and well-travelled. She accompanied her husband when he became Governer of Crete for a few years, and then to his various posts throughout the Balkans and to the Black Sea region. She later obtained a Royal Pardon (the nearest thing to a divorce) and settled back in Istanbul where she made a name for herself as a poetess and a musician. Her drawing room became the meeting place of all the successful writers and musicians of the day. It is said that a song she composed called “Akdeniz” became the favourite march of Mustafa Kemal. Leya (Saz) Hanimefendi died on December 5th 1936, aged 86
Excerpt from The Embroiderer.
As guests moved into the Grand Salon, the magnificence of the occasion became apparent. The air was filled with the fragrance of sweet-smelling tuber roses and elegant consoles were covered with crystal glasses, fine French wines, and champagne bottles in enormous silver bowls filled with ice. And for those for whom alcohol was forbidden, there were goblets of delicately flavored sherbets and chilled fruit juices of every description. To rapturous applause, Sophia released her first collection. Daring, off the-shoulder gowns with deep décolletés edged with ribbons of velvet and silk in a palette of watercolor pastels; creamy ivory, mother of pearl; the soft tones of wet pebbles and seashells; the translucent blues of the Aegean; the soft silvery greens of olive leaves as they shimmer in the hot sun. It was an elegant collection, romantic and overwhelmingly feminine.
Anticipation filled the air as the next collection was about to be released. The lights dimmed and a hush descended over the room. The orchestra began to play Rimsky-Korsakov and guests were immediately transported to the fabled palaces and deserts of the world of Scheherazade. One by one a mirage of Eastern beauties stepped into the Grand Salon. There were gasps of delight as these sensuous creatures, looking as if they had stepped out of a Persian miniature, moved gracefully through the room. Gone were the contrived silhouettes, and in their place were flowing silken salvars, fragile gossamer robes, and luxurious gold and silver embroidered kaftans held in place with finely woven sashes and lavishly worked silver belts. But it was the fabrics that gave these clothes their splendor. Extravagantly embroidered silks were layered with floating silk-chiffon and cobweb-thin metallic lace. The opulence was spellbinding. Here were the colors of the spice markets and of rich natural dyes. Perfumed in oils of sandalwood, musk, and Damask rose, their hair tumbling freely down their backs, occasionally twisted with strings of pearls or narrow colored sashes, the women exuded mystery combined with a touch of wild gypsy spirit.
Sophia received a standing ovation that swept over her and she breathed a sigh of relief. Resplendently dressed, her curvaceous figure was wrapped in a finely pleated pale turquoise silk dress, over which she wore a long robe in shades of lapis edged in silver. On her feet, she wore a pair of turquoise velvet slippers made by her grandmother; discreetly embroidered at the back was a tiny crimson silk tulip. In her long black hair, she had carefully positioned a Damask rose. At least one male guest was heard to say, ‘A more beautiful spectacle was never presented to my eyes.’ Thanking everyone present, Sophia conceded that this collection would not have been possible without the high-quality bespoke embroidery produced by Dimitra, Photeini, and their artistic and highly skilled team of embroiderers in Smyrna.
Buy The Embroiderer
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.