Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans of Istanbul

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9780140270563: Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans of Istanbul

This volume takes us behind the doors of Topkapi Sarayi and the other palaces of the Ottoman sultans who for more than six centuries ruled one of the world's most powerful empires. The heart of the palace was the Harem, the women's quarters, ruled by the Valide, or Queen Mother. Here the Sultan took his ease surrounded by his wives and concubines with their guardian black eunuchs, amused by his favourite pages, dwarfs and mutes, his younger brothers either slaughtered upon his accession or confined to the prison of the Cage. Earlier sultans like Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleyman the Magnificent lied in Topkapi Sarayi only between their campaigns of conquest, but their weak and dissolute successors such as Selim the Sot and Ibrahim the Mad spent their reigns entirely in the Harem, where some of them died of over-indulgence or were brutally murdered. such were the private lives of the |Ottoman sultans in the pleasure dome known as the House of Felicity. Described here with attention to every extraordinary detail and wit, and illustrated throughout with images of this sequestered court, is the history and life of this remarkable palace in all its colour and opulence, and the story of its influence on a great empire.

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Review:

John Freely has written dozens of books about Turkey and Istanbul, and is certainly well qualified to provide an account of the goings-on inside the seraglios of the old Ottoman emperors. His earlier Istanbul: The Imperial City is a fascinating guide to the splendours of the city, and Inside the Seraglio is a fitting pendant to that book. Scores of sumptuous illustrations, along with extensive selections from contemporary sources, give a rich sense of the "House of Felicity", the Topkapi Sarayi, in which generations of emperors indulged themselves. As the Court Poet to Ahmet III (The Tulip King) put it: "let us laugh, let us play, let us enjoy the delights of the world to the full."

This is a sensual and often beautiful study that paints a vivid portrait of Oriental living. But there is a problem--it is now nearly 20 years since Edward Said wrote Orientalism, his devastating attack on the Western tendency to see the East as a repository of sensual indulgence and weak-minded decadence. This is not, as Said says the East, this is a biased version of the East, but it is this version that the reader is likely to take away from Freely (who doesn't mention Said in his bibliography). Read these two books side by side for an interesting sense of the dialogue about contemporary representations of the Orient. --Adam Roberts

Review:

'An astonishing era that deserves to be more widely understood... Freely provides a fascinating overview, beautifully researched and riveting in its detail.' - Christopher Fowler, Independent on Sunday; 'A richly-coloured, highly-entertaining book that I wished I'd had to hand when I strolled round the Topkapi.' - Lawrence James, The Times; 'Wonderful... rich with anecdote and first-hand accounts.' - Mail on Sunday

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