The sun is about to rise, but the fog and the cool mist diffuse the light. It is as dark as night. All but one of the heavy velvet drapes of the palace salon are drawn. The open drape allows a peek into the courtyard. It is the year 1526, and Roksalena walks on the smooth Persian carpet in little steps to settle down on the lush brocade of the sofa. She bends over the mother-of-pearl writing table. She grabs the quill pen which she had abandoned minutes ago. At that moment she sighs contentedly and a smile forms on her lips. A beam of sunlight has penetrated the mist and shines into the salon. It sparkles on the crystal ornaments of the chandelier.
She dips her quill into the ink-pot and begins to write. “ Oh, my Sultan, you are inside my heart. You are the balm of my tortured life, the budding flower of my paradise. I would fly to you through the highest flames if you just but beckoned. I am your concubine for the rest of time, a helpless slave that belongs to you body and soul.”
This lovely girl, chosen from the Ukraine when she was sixteen, was trained for the pleasure of Crown-Prince Süleyman in the palace in Istanbul. She was so fair and worldly that they called her Hürrem Sultana. Her extensive palace-education, enhanced by her native wit, natural charm, and sensual beauty soon made her the favourite companion of the Prince who was destined to become Süleyman the Magnificent, one of the mightiest Ottoman emperors.
Hürrem folds and kisses her letter to her husband. She holds it tightly against her heart as two dewy tear-drops trickle down her rosy cheeks. She sends the letter in the white wings of a royal dove to her Sultan, who is fighting in the fields of Hungary.
This Sultana, as intelligent and ambitious as she was beautiful and loving, is now best remembered for her commissions to Sinan, the immortal architect who left his imprint all over the Capital. For Hürrem he constructed a pearl-like complex in Haseki, as well as the ethereal Roksalena Hamaam in Sultan Ahmed.
Winter ends giving way to Spring, heralding a new beginning, celebrating Life. There are no more yellow leaves on the trees in the gardens, no more turbulent winds. Mihrimah Sultana, Hürrem Sultana’s beloved only daughter is growing up in Süleyman the Magnificent’s harem into an amber-haired beauty. She is now seventeen and a favourite of the palace, a ray of sunshine in the harem. She peruses the horizon dreamily from a tourquoise-tiled window, she envisions herself as yet another of the waves splashing purposefully on the shore. She is a talented poet with a silver tongue and a mellifluous song always on her rosy lips. She has been properly educated by her mother, Hürrem. She is a true princess of the royal blood. She grows impatient to hear news from Diyarbakir...
Hürrem Sultana had decided to give her dear daughter’s hand to the Governor of Diyarbakir Rustem Pasha. But there is terrible gossip poisoning the air: “Rustem Pasha is a leper!”, say the evil tongues. The highest authorities are consulted and their message is clear: “He cannot be a leper if there is even one louse on his person!” Expert physicians are sent to examine the Pasha. Their careful research comes to a joyful conclusion: “Rustem Pasha is not a leper, because, the physicians who attended to him have found a louse on his shirt!” It is the year 1539. “Prosperity to Rustem Pasha and happiness to Mihrimah Sultana!”
In gratitude for her good fortune, Mihrimah gives an order to Sinan, the famous architect to construct two mosques. one on each continent, saluting each other from across the Bosphorus. An elegant architectural marvel in Üsküdar on the Asian side, and a mighty temple in Edirnekapı on the European shore.
Nakşidil Sultana is of Caucasian birth. She is tall and blond with an hour-glass figure. Her skin is creamy white with a rosy hue. Her beauty is a paradigm of all the sultanas before her. She spends her days in the magnificent gardens of Çırağan Palace, which refresh her soul with cleanly etched tranquility and the deep perfumes of roses, carnations and hyacinths. She gages her visits to the gardens, waiting for the right time of day, anticipating the pleasure, refusing to rush it.
The perfect harmony of this emerald-green refuge never ceases to bewitch her. Not a single blade of grass has been overlooked, not a twig has been allowed to detract from the sublime wonder of the flowers. She tip-toes on the grassy paths which are cleared every morning by the gardeners, her soft feet shod in silver-strapped, diamond-ornamented sandals gliding as if on a silk carpet. She arrives at her favorite magnolia tree. Two white doves flutter among the flowers causing an aromatic breeze to caress her fair face.
It is the year 1785 and the Sultana, who is just twenty two, is very happy. Her much-loved husband Sultan Abdülhamid I continues to favour her as his most beloved wife, while her three-month old infant-son Mahmud is healthy and growing bouncier with very passing day, a true crown-prince for the imperial Ottoman throne. Every morning when she wakes up, he enchants her with a smile on his baby lips, filling her with boundless bliss.
Nakşidil Sultana constructed a complex of public buildings in Fatih at her own expense. Named after her, the complex includes a school for young children, a madrasa, a fountain and a mausoleum. The marble façade of the fountain is a masterpiece of elegance and a true example of Ottoman architecture, albeit in a small scale.
As the silver-lined clouds covering the sky disperse, sunlight flashes down and then hides again in quick succession. At every variation of sunlight, the waters of the Bosphorus are bathed in different colours, now an ominous grey, then a joyful sapphire-blue. Bezmiâlem Valide looks out from the Pink Ballroom of Ciragan Palace, as the ripeness of the redbuds of Kandilli paints the hillside crimson. The sun now shines into the palace, awakening the glitter on the carved gilded frames of the priceless oil paintings.
This compassionate and sensitive first lady of the Palace is called "Bezmiâlem, which means “the person who brings joy to those in the entourage”. Beloved wife of Sultan Mahmud II, she devotes her spare time to the homeless, always extending a helping hand to those in need.
In the year 1845 she founds The Guraba Hospital. As it is about to be opened, she leans over the mother-of-pearl desk-top and adds a few more items to the rules. "The ward for infectious diseases will be separated from the others... service to the poor will be given free of charge... no deductions will be made from the patients’ allowance... even if they cost a fortune onions will be provided for the kitchen... 25,241 olive trees will be donated to the hospital ..."
She turns her green eyes further into the distance. The blue waves splashing the shores of the palace gardens remind her of the rules of the charitable foundation she has started in Damascus: “ The sweet water of Damascus will be moved to Haremeyn with camels, to be served to the Pigrims."
The Bosphorus cannot find happiness today. It flows red when the sun turns into fire at sunset, magically tinting the sky deep shades of pink. And when darkness descends, it becomes grey alternating with silver as the moon skips from cloud to cloud. And finally black from raindrops that cannot decide if they should pour or merely drizzle. Pertevniyal Sultana is also melancholy as she gazes at the flowing waters, standing tall on the red carpet in the middle of her well-appointed room. She is tall and voluptuous with creamy arms and well rounded hips, like Aphrodite, like Venus. Her chestnut-colored hair sways and catches the light, glimmering with flecks of gold, as she turns her head slowly to show a profile that seems sculpted from the finest marble.
The year is 1871. Pertevniyal, a Causasian beauty of superior intelligence, is only sixteen, but she has already claimed the passion of Sultan Mahmud II, and has captured the attention and the devotion of the court. She, herself, has only one passion: To see the completion of the mosque and its complex that she had commissioned to be built in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighbourhood.
The Sultana paid 7,538 gold coins just for the plot of the Mosque’s land and donated 1,055 unique works to its library. She hired the Italian architect Montani to collaborate with Turkish experts and build this elegant house of worship, combining elements of Turkish architecture with Gothic and Indian. They decorated either side of the courtyard gates with facades of marble columns. On the arches they carved relief motifs, and created refreshing fountains out front. A delicate and astonishingly beautiful creation that impresses to this day.
The mist is slowly lifting. Only a thin veil of wispy fog hangs over Istanbul now. Şevkefza Sultana bends to pick up a book she had recently put down just as the hills and the waterside homes of the opposite shore begin to come into sharp focus. Next comes the sparkling moment when the rest of the fog has melted and the sun has broken through to blaze in the sky. The waters of the Bosphorus playfully reflect the crystalline shards of sunlight. Sevkefza, the wife of Sultan Abdülmecid is overwhelmed by the astonishing spectacle of this majestic re-awakening.
She is Caucasian descended from Abaz. A dream has reminded her of her first day in the palace. She was a little girl then, with long black hair. The memory brought a smile to her lips. That was when they had given her the name Şevkefza, which means “the person who brings cheer”.
It is August 7, 1867, a Wednesday. The olive-eyed Sultana rejoices in Dolmabahce Palace. It has been an endless forty-five days since her son Prince Murat left for Europe. He has visited all the cities of the West on the occasion of the Great Exhibition of Paris, which honored Napoleon the Third of France. News has arrived that the Sultana’s yacht, on which the Prince is sailing, has left the port of Varna last night and is expected to arrive in Istanbul any moment. The people have gathered on the shore, chanting his name all night long.
Şevkefza Sultana lounges on her embroidered chair. She is staring at a painting that peers down at her from the carved ceiling. She is at peace now and much happier. Her beloved son will be at her side soon.
Golden sprinklings of yellow-bright sunshine beams through the thin clouds of a pale sky. Dew that had collected on thin tree-branches trickles off like tiny raindrops. Reddening trees appear purple as delicate blossoms lend softness and life to winter-weary trunks. The lawn on both sides of the path to the palace glitters in the flashes of sunlight, as the mist in the air melts and the light fog lifts into the heavens. The emerald green of the grass and the warmth of the speckled sunlight is a joyful amalgam of approaching springtime.
Tîrimüjgân, is a Caucasian belle, famous across continents for her willowy slim-waisted figure, her honey-coloured eyes, her long auburn hair that falls gracefully on pearly white shoulders, her kindness, her gentle breeding. She is grace incarnate. Her every smile treasured. Her kindness legendary.
She is taking her usual walk in the Ciragan Palace gardens, a flower herself blending in with the purple violets, the primroses, the white carnations, the snow-white gardenias, the plentiful lilacs. She bathes in the intoxicating fragrances. She settles into the red-velvet armchair that she had requested be placed under the young magnolia tree. Her elegant fingers pluck the delicate strings of the golden-wired tambour. Ismail Dede Efendi’s kissing song's mournful lyrics flow forth from the Sultana’s ruby-rose lips like panacea to an aching soul: "A cursed Fate stabs at my heart, but loving you is my only sin ..."
Tîrimüjgân married Sultan Abdülmecid in 1839 to become queen of the Ottoman Court. She stayed madly in love with her husband to the end. She gave birth to Abdülhamid who succeeded his father to the throne.
Esma Sultana, Sultan Abdülmecid’s aunt, languishes in the magnificent palace where she lives in state. She is lonely and unhappy because she is childless. She decides to adopt Rahime, a one year old girl from Halil Bey, a Circassian nobleman. The girl is petite and gracefully delicate, like a bird in flight. Esma nicknames her Perestû, which means “Swallow”. She loves her little swallow and lavishes her with the finest education in courtly manners and the arts, and keeps her outside the gossip of the harem.
The years pass. Rahime is now fourteen, still thin and willowy, as graceful as any bird in the sky. On a fine spring day, the Sultan catches sight of her as he walks in the garden. He is captivated by her, he cannot get her out of his mind. He quizzes everyone about the identity of the alluring blue-eyed girl, but no one seems to know her. In desperation he turns to his aunt. Esma realizes immediately that he is talking about her daughter Rahime, the Swallow.
In an effort to help Abdülmejid forget her daughter, Esma brings together all the finest and most beautiful concubines of the Palace to amuse her nephew. She hopes that the Sultan will develop an interest in one of them and forget his hunt for Perestû. But the Sultan is seriously smitten by the little bird, he cannot get Rahime out of his mind. Esma accepts the inevitable and orders the harem-master to find Rahime. “Fetch Perestû and order her to bring a cup of coffee to my Lion!”
Soon enough the blue-eyed girl enters the hall bearing coffee that she serves in diamond encrusted cups for the pleasure of the Sultan. And as tradition dictates, she waits modestly until he has finished his coffee. Abdülmecid does not hesitate. He holds both of his aunt’s hands in his own and asks for her daughter’s hand in marriage.
A week later Rahime “Perestû”, splendid in a pearl-embroidered red velvet gown, golden crown and veil, is driven to the palace in her mother’s silver-plated carriage. The year is 1844. The road on which the bridal procession passes is sprinkled with gold, as sherbet is being served to the guests who are waiting in Topkapı Palace. Everything is very festive this day, in readiness for a magnificent wedding.
It is April 1839. The gentle sun of early spring weaves a lacy green mantle on the lawn of Çırağan Palace. The leafy branches of a honeysuckle vine are climbing on the iron trellis as the intoxicating perfume of its delicate flowers is carried by the breeze to enchant Gülcemal Sultana. Crimson geraniums and yellow bleeding hearts decorate the fringes of the garden.
Gülcemal, in her gold-embroidered dress, red-satin baggy trousers and pearly scarf is awed by the soul-stirring sight of the purple-flowered Judas trees. She is the most precious flower of this garden, lush brown hair framing her comely face accenting the brightness of her dark eyes. Of Caucasian birth, her skin is white and smooth, her face is like a rose, which is why they named her Gülcemal (“rose-face”).
This tall and graceful woman is married to the handsome Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid. She bends down to pluck the most perfect violet of the garden. She has been melancholy for many days. Her sadness is overwhelming. She has not been with her husband for the longest time. She desperately wishes to lie with him and assure him that she loves only him. She murmurs to herself: “How can I share my feelings with you, my Sultan, if I never see you...” Then she shrugs off her anxiety with a smile. She is convinced that there is a happy ending to every twist of fate. Soon he will come to her. Soon her longing will be over and she will be lying with him on silk sheets once more.
Soon he will come to her. Soon her longing will be over and she will be lying with him on silk sheets once more.
It is another phantasmagoric Istanbul sunset. It colours the sky in all shades of orange and red, while the waters of the Bosphorus reflect elongated shadows in wavelets of purple. The sun shoots a final salvo of flames and then sinks into the wet horizon like spent silver. The villages along the shore seem ghostly in the twilight. Fatma Sultana, overawed by the fiery spectacle and its aftermath, feels as if she too has melted into the sky.
Fatma, a Caucasian by birth, is best remembered for her love of roses. A lot like a rose herself, with her blushed cheeks and full red lips, she was nicknamed Gülistû (rose-garden). She is wearing a lilac-coloured velvet caftan decorated with roses embroidered in golden yarn. It is of the finest quality as befits her station in life.
The sunset colours have given way to night with only the sparkles of the Sultana’s diamond-encrusted hair-ornament to illuminate the darkness in the room. She approaches the window and admires the new moon, a diamond-like thin crescent that winks at her from above. Her heart is heavy. She longs for her beloved husband Abdülmecid Khan. She smiles bitterly, thinking: “Love is magic. It’s not something you can control. No one falls in love willingly.” Fatma’s devotion to her husband is endless. She feels enchanted by the alchemy of this love but she cannot understand it.
Fatma Gülistû Sultana, whose son Vahidettin became the last of a long line of Ottoman Sultans, passed away with love still in her heart in the month of May, 1861, when she was only thirty-one years old and Istanbul was awash in roses.
It is the year 1258. Springtime in Domaniç is as beautiful as heaven. Its vast meadows, like spacious palace ballrooms in green, are surrounded by tall plane trees and even taller hornbeams. The nomads have set up their tents near the creek. Hayme Sultana, sits under the huge oak tree that has grown out of all proportion on the fertile ground. This young grandmother rocks the cradle that she has set on a branch of the oversized oak. Her grandson Osman Gazi lies awake in his tiny cradle, so fragile and vulnerable in its gigantic setting. She is murmuring a lullaby. When the royal baby cries, she sings “Do not lament, my baby boy, do not have any fears...” The sweet song seems to please all who hear it: the bright sun, the flowing creek, the blooming fields; like a good omen, like a blessing from God.
Hayme Sultana is the mother of Ertuğrul Gazi, the valiant victor of the Mongols. Her body is still slim and full of health. Her skin shines with a thirst for life and a generous spirit. The gentle breeze tousles her blond hair which seems darker the more it undulates.
Hayme, the grandmother of Ottoman Sultans, lovingly rocks the cradle of little Osman who is destined to become the founding father of a noble dynasty. His descendants will rule the known world even though he hails from a people who started their nation in four hundred tents. The Sultana’s green eyes piercingly gaze far into the distant horizon.
Fourteen year-old Signorina Baffa, daughter of Baffa, the Governor of Corfu, stands tall on a hill overlooking the sea, her wheat-coloured hair tousled by the wind her hazel eyes wistful. She is a rosebud. A pearl that is fit for a Sultan: she’s to travel to the harem this day. She’s anxious and afraid but secretly, despite herself, excited.
Her excitement lasted for three years as they taught her how to read and how to speak and all else there was to learn. It was vigorous training, but she proved talented and clear-minded and soon mastered all she was taught. She wanted to succeed, because she knew that one day she’d be queen.
When she was seventeen and deemed ready, she was presented to the palace of Prince Şehzade Murad, the favourite grandson of Süleyman the Magnificent. For the occasion they renamed her “Safiye” and dressed her in embroidered satin and pearls and brought her to a room that was inlaid with ivory and lapis lazuli and the finest silk rugs on the floor. She felt as if she was entering a fairy tale where all her wishes would come true.
She craved power and was eager of glory. She set her mind on marrying Murad to achieve her ambitions, to become the first lady of the Ottoman Empire. And one magical evening, beautiful Safiye prepared herself for the visit of the young and handsome Murad. Bejeweled and alluring, she smiled at Murad and gazed with love into his fiery black eyes. She enchanted him and he fell in love. His first love, and a love that would endure and nourish both of them for the rest of their lives.
In the year 1597 Safiye Sultana, by now the powerful wife of Ottoman Emperor Sultan Murad III, laid the cornerstone of Yeni Camii (New Mosque) on the shore of the Bosphorus. This architectural masterpiece of the early Ottoman Era that was destined to become one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, prims on the silhouette of the City to this day. Safiye did not live long enough to see it completed.
It is the summer of 1604. High noon. The sun is overhead and beating down on the royal city. There is no movement and no shadows. Even the leaves of the tall elm trees of the palace garden are perfectly still. All of Istanbul slumbers in suspended animation in the scorching heat. The Imperial caïque with its five double masts has sailed from Üsküdar and is approaching the palace docks at Sarayburnu.
Aboard that caïque is Aziz Mahmud Hüdâyî, the most respected mystic and philosopher of his age, and a particular favourite of young and studious Sultan Ahmed. The Sultan has summoned him to the palace to perform an ablution for the sake of the Empire. A golden water sprinkler and a silver washbowl have been prepared. The Sultan, respectful of his wise guest, reaches for the sprinkler and pours water on the aged man’s hands.
The still youthful Handan Sultana, the Sultan’s mother, dressed in a full-length midnight-blue dress stands behind a screen that is embroidered with jade and turquoise. The Circassian beauty with the almond shaped eyes and the milky complexion bears only one ornament, a royal crest delicately inlaid with priceless diamonds. She hands the ceremonial towel to Aziz Mahmud Hüdâyî, saying: “My greatest desire is to witness one of your miracles, oh great master.”
He smiles at Handan and looks shyly into her eyes. He speaks with humility: “Your majesty, you honour me far beyond my worth! How could I possibly improve on this moment? The Sultan of all the Ottomans pours water on my hands and the Valide Sultana prepares my towel. This is a miracle beyond my wildest dreams!” Handan Sultana smiles bashfully, exchanging tender looks with her son the Sultan.
Aziz Mahmud Hüdâyî rests in peace on a lovely hill in Üsküdar contemplating the ever regenerating waters of the Bosphorus from the great beyond. All of mankind is enlightened by the eternal embrace of his limitless compassion.
A fiery sunset has painted Istanbul crimson. The Galata Tower, Kâğıthane, the New Mosque, Kiliç Ali’s dome, the bridges across the Golden Horn, all seem to be crowned in flames. Sineperver Sultana’s bosom is also afire. The young woman pines for the sole object of her desire, her husband Sultan Abdülhamid Khan. This night she has chosen the blue silk dress with the silver-embroidered crescent-moons that her Sultan loves the best. Her svelte body is as thin as it was before she gave birth to her son Ahmed. Her satin-smooth skin shimmers seductively under the sheer fabric. There is nobility in the gaze of her enchanting eyes.
The Sultana’s rosy lips murmur with longing: “You are the essence of my life! Every time you kiss me, it is like my very first kiss. Oh, my husband, you are the light of my eyes, the joy of my heart! I am lost and desperate without you...”
In 1780 Sineperver Sultana builds an elegant marble fountain in Üsküdar at her own expense from the proceeds of her farmlands. She dedicates it to her son Ahmed who died at an early age. Both mother and son will be remembered forever with this fountain, as fine an example of outstanding Baroque architecture as any in the world.
Big rain-drops, like multifaceted diamonds, are falling on the leaves of centuries-old plane trees. Pearl-like droplets linger on the diminutive flowers of the lilacs. The sky seems determined to shed all its tears at once. The heavy rain forces Hatice Mahfiruz Sultana to take shelter under the glazed tiles of Çinili Kiosk. The carefully landscaped garden has turned into a large puddle. No one who enters it can escape the mud. When the rain is finally drained, sunlight peeks through the clouds. Its warmth and bright light is like a tender caress on the soaking lawn.
Circassian beauty Hatice takes light dance-like steps on precious Persian carpets to the window. She throws open the fiery-red curtains with her graceful hands. She is particularly seductive today in her emerald-green veil. The curves of her shapely body blend flowingly into each other as if painted by an Italian master. Her clear skin is the essence of springtime. Her long lashes flutter to shield her eyes from the strong sunlight.
A rainbow has arched its coloured arrows across the hillside. It excites the Sultana. She softly sings a love poem for the king of her heart, Sultan Ahmed I:
“My Sultan, my husband, you’re the light in my eyes!
I wait out the day impatient for the night
so that I can see you in my dreams.
My only beloved, my sweet master!
I want you, I need you, I miss you.
You’re the only one I’ve ever loved,
you’re the only one I could ever love.”
Hatice Sultana turns away from the window and lets the curtains fall shut. She resumes her slumbers on the soft sofa. It’s many hours yet until night-time when the Sultan might come to her...
Her name was Mahpeyker. She shone with innocence and an unadulterated beauty that stood out in the harem. A native intelligence sparkled in her pure-black eyes as she walked in the palace garden, her waist-length, jet-black hair reflecting the sunlight back towards the sky. But, she knew that beauty alone would not suffice to elevate her status in the harem. She needed to prove that she was worthy of more than serving simply as a concubine. She dedicated herself to her lessons, until she had memorized everything she was taught, making it her own, and at only fifteen years-old she was deemed ready to meet the Emperor.
She conquered the heart of Sultan Ahmet immediately. He embraced this extraordinary girl and dignified her with a preferred status, treated her like the precious jewel that she was, and married her without further ado. The influence of the young bride grew as the Sultan’s infatuation turned to undying love. By the second year of her marriage she had already become the most famous woman in the household.
The Sultan’s nickname for her was “Kösem”, and this soon became her official name. And like other successful concubines before her, she attained great wealth. Her understanding of human nature and her grasp of politics made her a favourite with Western ambassadors in Istanbul. They called her “Sultana Kösem” and deferred to her on matters of State. She became the talk of the Courts of Europe before she was twenty, she had the world in her palm, but her happiness was not to last.
She was widowed at the age of twenty-eight. She was devastated at first, filled with terror and a tremendous sense of loss. But she overcame her weaknesses for the sake of her son, the Crown Prince Murat, who was only twelve at the time. As his mother, she had the right to rule until he came of age. But the palace was fraught with intrigue, and holding onto power required much strength and skill and perseverance.
Kösem proved her mettle, she chose her allies well, she used her immense power compassionately, and has come down in history as one of the most influential Sultanas of the Ottoman Empire. She also attained property across the Bosphorus in Üsküdar, where she commissioned mosques and schools and fountains and blue-tiled baths to be built for the glory of her son, Sultan Murat.
Tarhan is the precious daughter of a Slav family. Blonde and etherial, she is as extraordinarily beautiful as she is talented. She has grown up in the harem and educated in the fine arts. She writes tuneful poems which she sings like a lark.
Sultan Ibrahim, the Lord of the harem as well as the entirety of the Ottoman world, is worried. Although only in his twenties and intimate with a number of wives and concubines, he has no issue, no heir apparent to ensure the next generation of the dynasty. Worse than that, he has yet to find a woman whose love can sustain him and with whom he can share his throne.
One magical, unforgettable day he notices the delightful Tarhan. The young Sultan loses himself in her sky-blue eyes. It is love at first sight. They walk together along perfumed garden paths with dewy spring flowers that glitter in the warm sunlight like jewels. Tarhan sings softly so that only he can hear her. Ibrahim is joyful. His heart is telling him that she is the one he has been looking for. They’re exchanging glances full of love, but the Sultan is now fearful that he would have to lose her if she cannot give him a son.
One year has passed, and Istanbul rings with exultant news: Tarhan Sultana has become a mother at the age of fifteen! The empire now has an heir, and his name is Mehmed. But soon enough the Royal household meets with tragedy. First Ibrahim dies and then his mother Kösem. Tarhan, left alone with her young son, lives up to her promise. She takes over the Ottoman Empire and rules it with great success until Mehmed comes of age.
The heat wave of midsummer 1641 was more intense than any in memory. For weeks on end sunshine cascaded down from the sky in waves of angry flames turning Istanbul into a scorching furnace. The citizens, desperate for a cooling breeze, find shelter in the shade of ancient plane trees that have spread their leafy branches over entire squares. They listen to the music of tambours and reed-flutes being played in the harem. The melody is the lilting and sensual “Mahur”, a prelude composed by Gazi Giray Han. It excites souls and arouses appetites despite the stifling heat.
Dilâşub Sultana is of Crimean origin. She has crossed her legs and tugged them under the hem of her white, large-sleeved chemise. She holds one of her hands on her knee in a royal gesture. She has unbuttoned her florally printed dress down to her cleavage in an effort to cool off. Her caftan, with the yellow prints on a red background, sits lightly on her shoulder. The diamonds on her purple crest dazzle the eye as they reflect the sun’s rays. The odalisque attending the Sultana offers scant comfort with an ornate fan. Dilâşub’s emerald-green eyes glance again at the letter that she has put down on the mother-of-pearl inlaid coffee table. She has read its message countless times already, but it still fills her with joy, brightening her face with contentment, making the heat entirely tolerable. It is from her husband, Sultan Ibrahim, the sovereign of all the Ottomans.
“My beautiful Dilâşub! I am your slave, your most devoted servant. My love has no bounds. I surrender my body and soul and heart to you. I am at your mercy. It feels as if I would die without you. My prayer is that you come to me tonight. To love me and be mine. I am desperate for you.”
Dilâşub has roused such great passion in İbrahim’s heart, that his only happiness is to embrace her and be embraced by her.
The bedroom is enclosed by delicately-carved panels, its walls layered with exquisite tiles from Iznik that reflect the muted morning light like a turquoise dream. Floral motifs on the panels and on the gilded sideboards begin to shine brightly in the sunlight that now beams down from a skylight on the arched ceiling.
Süleyman's legendary paramour Nurbanu flutters her eyelids as she slowly stirs on her goose-down bed. The Venetian blonde with the lily-white face and the willowy figure hesitates to wake up completely lest she lose her extraordinary dream. She had been debating where she should commission the mosque to be built. And this night an answer of sorts has been revealed to her. A white-bearded wise man came in her sleep with a strange instruction: "Let the wind lift your veil from the pier at Besiktas, and build your temple wherever it lands." She repeats the words until she has memorized them. Her chest is heaving with excitement, her face lit-up with a smile of pure bliss.
The year is 1570. The emerald-eyed Nurbanu Sultana obeys the oracle in her dream and hurls her veil into the wind at Besiktas. After an extended flight it settles down at the top of Toptasi hill. She bids Sinan, the architect of all the ages, to adorn that hill with elegant domes and slender minarets.
The year is 1517. Midnight under a full moon. Brilliant light bathes Manisa Palace. Hafsa Sultana, her rosy lips whispering prayers, kneels under the low beam of the hallway, blue light reflecting on her radiant face from the turquoise wall-tiles. She despairs more with every passing day that she will ever be reunited with her beloved husband, the fearless Yavuz, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He is in Ridaniye running from one victory to another, with no chance of ever returning alive. She has only one hope left for happiness: her son Süleyman. She prays for the day he will assume Yavuz’s throne and allow her to supplement her beauty with the advantages of being the Sultan’s mother.
The rose-faced Sultana, suffering for years her husband's wars, shouted in tears: "I am but a wretched slave, weak and unworthy of your beneficence, my Sultan. I am but the soil on which your steed rides you into glory. My only hope is that Allah will grant the grace Prince Süleyman needs to achieve the throne and finally bring peace and some sort of happiness to an unfortunate mother.”
When this came to pass, and Süleyman became Sultan, Hafsa Sultana settled into her dream of building mosques and madrasas and hospitals inside the walls of Manisa Palace, illuminated by the now-famous lighthouse that is dedicated to the new Sultan.
Devlet Sultana, beautiful as a ripe rose, wakes up suddenly from a nightmare in the most splendid bedroom of Bursa Palace. She is shaking with fear, her breast heaving, her eyes awash in tears. It’s a hot summer night. She walks to the window and throws open the velvet curtains. She trains her blue eyes on the trees, then raises her gaze to the sky. A myriad stars appear to be embossed on the dark firmament as if fixed with golden nails. They are a random scattering of joyful flickers, forming a background for one very bright star that burns orange as if about to explode...
The year is 1389, and Sultan Bayezid is poised in front of the fortifications of Niğbolu city. The sky is pitch black. The Sultan, who is the only lover Devlet has ever known, is refusing to listen to his advisers. He mounts his horse in fury and rushes the castle singlehandedly. The enemy army is all around him, but he is like a thunderbolt. He finds a breach in the battlements and penetrates the castle. He stands tall on the ramparts.
The enemy soldiers are dumbfounded. They await his next move. A brave voice resounds from the battlefield below the walls. “Bayezid, hey Bayezid!’ The Sultan is astonished that anyone should address him thus. He peers down and demands the speaker show himself. A rider slowly appears from the shadows, but he is covered head to toe in long flowing robes. The Sultan does not recognise him. “I am here to encourage you to persevere, to be patient. Victory is within your grasp!” And he rides away into the forrest...
The Sultana, strokes her long golden hair, and a smile crosses her lips. She decides that it was not a nightmare, but actually a vision, a very good dream with a positive omen. Her husband is safe. He has won the war. It makes her happy to believe this. She returns to her silk bed, but she cannot fall asleep. In her heart she is still afraid. To her great relief, the morning brings excellent news. Two white carrier-pigeons land in the palace garden at dawn, with a message from the Sultan: he’s indeed victorious, and on his way back to her.
An azure, cloudless sky has luxuriated over the palace for more than three weeks. It has shined unabated on a plethora of deeply scented roses and carnations and all manner of colourful wildflowers, the combined perfume of which intoxicates all who are near them. This is the miracle of springtime and it echoes melodiously in the youthful innocence of Muazzez Sultana. She visits the garden every day at sunset accompanied by her odalisque. She walks delicately to the second elm tree, under which a gilded sofa has been readied for her with soft cushions, under a canopy which is silk-embroidered in crimson carnation designs. The hem of her dress, made of diamond-embroidered velvet, sways with every steps she takes, mirroring the undulating waters of the ever-breezy Bosphorus as they flow past the palace at Sarayburnu.
It is 1642. Not even a full year has passed since her wedding to Sultan İbrahim whom she has learned to love passionately and devotedly. She is the most beautiful of all the favored women of the harem, and its newest arrival. She desires to be with her husband every night, but she tells this only to her tambour. The tall Venetian beauty with the dark blue eyes and long lashes takes the bejeweled tambour from the hennaed hands of her odalisque, and plucks it passionately, singing:
“Do not tell your secret to unworthy people. Do not open your heart to anyone. Don’t share this joyful yearning with the courtiers, lest it become gossip, and you become the object of derision, a target for their scorn. Oh, my master, my Sultan, my very own Ibrahim! When I look into your eyes all my pain disappears. When you are by my side all the happiness of the world is mine.”
The heart-felt verses pouring out from the rose colored lips of Muazzez Sultana melt into the melancholic sound of the tambour and become part of the aromatic garden air that wafts high into the sky where angels dance.
The sky is dark and ominous. Thick black clouds are being driven across the firmament by stormy winds. Stinging rain- drops rattle the palace windows. The walls of Valide Mehpare Sultana’s apartment are inlaid with florally designed tiles. Thick yellow velvet curtains hang on the windows. Mehpare, now in her forties, is as beautiful as a rose in full bloom. She draws the curtains and gazes out towards Topkapi Palace with teary eyes. The letter she holds in her elegant hands is soaked with her tears.
She closes her eyes and remembers her childhood on Crete. The wings of her imagination carry her next to her first days in the harem, where they renamed her Mehpare, meaning “a slice of the moon”. They also called her Gülnûş because her face was like a rose blossom. It was not long afterwards that she married Sultan Mehmed IV and set out with him to mountain forests for riding and hunting. They toured the Balkan cities that were part of their empire. They visited the Thessalia Region in a silver coach and in the Dimetoka Palace they lodged along with their one-year old son Mustapha.
Many years followed during which she lived with all the honours befitting a queen and first wife and mother of the crown-prince. But in 1687, her destiny changed catastrophically. Her husband was violently dethroned and imprisoned in Topkapi Palace, while she was kept in isolation, away from the court and any position of influence.
The Sultana sighs with unbearable sadness, and re-reads for the thousandth time her husband’s last and only letter: “Oh, my Gülnûş, my Mehpare, who must now wear black for her king and husband. I am alive but would be better off dead. I feel your deep sorrow in my broken heart every time you sigh. I cry in a corner of my cell. I am no longer Sultan Mehmed, emperor of the Ottomans, I am now but a pitiable beggar, condemned forever to live my life in the dark without you, my love, my beautiful rose.”
Mehpare Sultana found refuge from her sorrow in public works. She commissioned and financed many institutions for the betterment of her people. Among others, she built a school, a university, a fountain and an alms house near Yeni Mosque, and the same in Üsküdar. Her memory is cherished to this day.
The Golden Horn flows murky and pale like an old silver ingot. A grey veil covers Istanbul under the clear sky. Only the lead ornaments on the dome of Sokullu are still able to sparkle.
Sultan Mustafa’s mother Gülnuş Valide Sultana is passing through Azapkapı. She commands her driver to stop. Her eye is drawn to a beautiful little girl with lustrous, waist-long black hair and shiny black eyes who is drawing water into a clay jug from an elegant fountain. The Valide Sultana’s attention distracts the girl, who drops her filled jug to the ground. It shatters into a million pieces, water spilling all over herself. The young girl, whose name is Saliha, breaks out in tears.
Gentle Gülnuş steps out of the silver-plated coach, holding the skirts of her gold-embroidered dress. She hugs Saliha, and wipes away her pearl-like teardrops, consoling her with soothing words: “Don’t be sad my sweet darling. I will replace your jug with a much more beautiful one.” To which Saliha replies with a surprising answer: “My Lady, I am not just crying for the broken jug. I am angry with myself because I failed this simplest of chores. If I can’t even fetch water from the fountain, what good am I?!” Gülnuş Sultana, astonished by the depth of little Saliha’s emotions, takes her to the palace and educates her with tenderness and care.
In the year 1695 Sultan Mustapha II, Gülnuş Valide Sultana’s son, accedes to the throne of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, her protégé Saliha has grown into an astoundingly beautiful woman. The Sultana introduces her to the new Sultan, and Topkapi Palace witnesses a mythical wedding.
Saliha Sultana’s adventure which began in front of a fountain continues to dwell on fountains. The magnificent plaza and ornate fountain which the Sultana commissioned for Azapkapı are regarded as masterpieces of Ottoman era Turkish architecture.
The rain has finally stopped. Dark clouds are slowly sinking into the horizon behind the thick fog. A clearing has opened in the sky above the Palace and expands slowly outward.
It is the year 1703. The ample formal ballroom of Topkapi Palace has new decorations. Its walls are lined with antique ceramic tiles and its ceiling is covered with frescoes of dreamy landscapes. Unmistakable woman’s touches. It is a stunning room, but it languishes unused behind its thick blue-velvet curtains.
Şehsuvar Sultana is suffocating in this disquietingly peaceful environment. It makes her feel lonely and conflicted. As if she doesn’t belong here. It overwhelms her. Her heart flutters like a trapped bird. She runs to the light in her pearl-embroidered slippers, which hurt her feet. She opens one of the windows wide and leans out over the Bosphorus. She fills her lungs with deep breaths of Black Sea air.
A few years back, she had attracted the Valide Sultana’s attention with her tall and shapely figure, her abundant auburn hair, her extraordinary beauty, her intelligence. The Ukrainian-born girl, only sixteen, was to become a concubine to the Sultan Mustafa II, and renamed Şehsuvar, which means "elite”. Mustafa seduced her and made her love him, only to forget her utterly when he tired of her. Her heart is broken for all time, she is in despair.
Elbows trembling on the window sill, she wants to scream: “Oh, my Sultan! You are my hell and my heaven. I cannot fall asleep when I cannot dream of you. Without you the sun will not warm me. It is you who stirs the winds to blow. And unless you wink at the roses they will not grow and never fill the air with perfume.”
Her chest is heaving rapidly up and down. She can’t hear anything but the loud thumping of her heart.
It’s the afternoon of April 7, 1789. White-bright sunlight reflects off the waters of the Golden Horn painting them silver. The roses of the big rose bush, wilted from the heat, look as if they’re asleep. Sultan Mustapha III’s widow Mihrişah Sultana is lying down on the velvet sofa in the shade of an ornate canopy to while away the hours on this suffocating, remarkable day. The blond odalisque is tirelessly fanning the Sultana with a peacock-feather fan. Tree branches, dressed in the early buds of spring, veil the pure blue of the cloudless sky like elegant lace.
Suddenly a repeatedly explosive cannonade shakes the entire city of Istanbul. The shots are heralding the accession of her son Sultan Selim III to the throne of the Ottoman Empire. A eunuch comes running excitedly to announce the momentous news: “My most worthy mistress, you are now a Valide Sultana. The Mother of the Sultan!” Mihrişah lets the book that she was holding slip off her fingers onto her knees. Her most fervent wish has finally come true after fifteen long years of waiting.
The Sultana, who is now forty five years old and still strikingly beautiful, will be returning to Topkapi Palace accompanied by the traditional retinue of a “Valide”. Her gilded coach, drawn by six white horses is saluted by the janissaries on Divanyolu as gold coins are distributed to the poor. When her coach has driven through the Gate of Happiness, the new monarch greets his mother by bending to the ground three times. He kisses her hand which she has offered from the window of her carriage.
Mihrişah Sultana commissioned a complex of public buildings in Eyüp at her own expense. In it there are an alms house, a school, a library, a fountain and a mausoleum, all bearing her name. She also built many fountains wherever in Istanbul they were needed.
Kâğıthane had been royal hunting grounds since the times of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. In 1724 Sultan Ahmed III opens this fairy-tale setting to the citizens of Istanbul for their diversion and enjoyment. It becomes an instant success with the public who come from all corners of the city to wander on the emerald-coloured lawn and in the meadows of tulips that are bordered by the crystal-clear waters of a creek. Hundreds of tents have been set up in every corner of the huge garden. Oil lamps and candlelight illuminate the star-bright nights as fireworks streak across the sky like multi-coloured comets. The sweet melodies of delicate strings and soft percussion join the parade of pleasures as the tulips sway in the gentle breeze inviting all to wonder if they have indeed arrived in paradise.
Thirty marble columns prop the elegant summer house on the shore of a brook: Sâdâbat. The aquamarine waters of the pond shimmer invitingly in front of the house. There is a dragon-shaped fountain in the middle of the pond that spouts water from the elm-tree garden which is beloved by Râbia Sultana.
It is after sunset in the summer garden of the harem. Râbia stands under the canopy of the magnolia trees. Her hair is golden, her eyes sapphire-blue, the skin of her attractive face rosy-white, her body supple and vital. Her full lips break into a seductive smile as she stretches out on the velvet sofa. Râbia Şermi Sultana is of Circassian origin, and though only seventeen, she has been the favourite wife of Sultan Ahmed III for more than three years. Two tall black odalisques try to refresh her with the cooling breeze of semi-circular fans on long handles.
The sky is overcast with black, ominous clouds. There is a heavy rain that veils the view. The Bosphorus, so glorious in sunshine, now appears gloomy and murky. Raindrops stream from the harem’s domed roof and flow down the pink hall’s arched windows to make puddles around the flagstones of the yard by the entrance to the odalisques’ quarters.
Helene Sultana is lost in a reverie of summertime when she would throw gold coins into the marble pond and then watch the palace dwarves jump in fully-clothed to find them. The Circassian odalisque knocks on the door drawing her away from her pleasant day-dream. Sultan Mehmed II, who has put an end to one era and started another by conquering Byzantium, is on his way to be by her side. Her heart beats excitedly. Her long-lashed black eyes stare at the engraved wooden door with anticipation.
The daughter of Mora’s Archbishop Demetrius, Helene is lovely and merry. She has a golden belt on her waist, and in her hair, a feathered crest that is ornamented with emeralds and rubies. It is the year 1474. The Conqueror’s first and most cherished task upon his return from the war is to come and see his baby-son Ahmed. He raises him high in his strong arms and kisses him with limitless love. This is the latest son his beloved Helene has given him. Her face brightens with joy. She bows to her Sultan and caresses the infant. She crosses herself with her hands on her chest. She smiles with tenderness, as she speaks, “You are the light of my life, the star of my heavens. I pray every day that you have a long and happy life”.
Sultania dances elegantly, her gold-embroidered long dress swaying with every step. The sunlight poking through the trellis enlivens her face, gladdening the heart ever more with its long lashes and sculpted features. All eyes are upon her, everyone is in love. She is like springtime, her supple body like a breeze, her smooth skin like honeysuckle, her hair glitters like a treasure-chest full of jewels...
She gives life to this house. She makes time stop with a single gesture. She arouses happy dreams in thousands from a simple smile.
I wish everyone could see her. Anyone tasting this heady potion is enchanted. Springs turn into summer; winters into spring. Delights never cease in her garden of love. Sultania... Sultania... She is an arrow through the heart. Unrequited longing. Even bitter grief and painful sighs. Endless love is like that, as it rises every day in the soul like the sun and reveals a secret world redolent with joy. She is like the rarest of wines, a taste and an aroma so magnificent that life without it becomes impossible to bear...
Sultania dances elegantly, her perfumes, her brightness, the glitters in her hair burning in my heart like uncontrollable desire.
Selçuk Sultana is the middle of the seven daughters of Çelebi Sultan Mehmed. It is autumn and the yellow leaves of chestnut trees are falling to the ground one by one. Selçuk is wearing a fur cape which is lined in brown-striped silk. She is still beautiful despite the fine wrinkles on her creamy-white neck and the dark circles around her black eyes. She leans out of the arched windows of the palace, her gaze lost on the lazily rolling waters of the Golden Horn. She is remembering the old days...
It is the year 1421 and Selçuk is only fourteen years old. She weeps inconsolably, hidden in a corner. Her father has passed away. Her oldest brother Sultan Murad, who now sits on the throne, has given her hand to Candaroğlu Ibrahim Bey, the wedding to take place in four years. This comes to pass and the seductive black eyed girl, now a queen, is living in Kastamonu Palace. Her happy marriage lasts eighteen years and segues into widowhood when Ibrahim dies. She retreats to the ancient palace in Bursa with her son Ishak and her daughter Hatice.
Selçuk Sultana smiles brightly at the sight of the seagulls flying bravely close to the windows of the harem, as her reveries continue. She is re-living the magnificent wedding of her nephew Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Istanbul, who married Sitti Sultana in Edirne. Sadly, new sorrows were not far behind. The sudden death of Sultan Mehmed II, which shocked the nation, led to the disastrous in-fighting between his sons for the right to accede to the throne. Selçuk, one of the most respected elders of the royal household, served as mediator to the brothers, the first woman in the Ottoman Empire to be entrusted with such a position. Finally, destiny chose Bayezid who was crowned Emperor.
Selçuk Sultana, who lived to be seventy-eight years old, constructed three elegant mosques, one in each of the three capitals of the Ottoman Empire: Bursa, Edirne and Istanbul, at her own expense. She is also the benefactor of numerous other architectural masterpieces, such as fountains, bridges, alms houses and schools. She now rests in peace next to her Sultan father in Bursa’s Yeşil Türbe (Green Mausoleum).
It is the summer of 1305. Just after noon, the hottest time of day. Söğüt Creek flows lazily as it skirts the meadow and picks up speed when it empties into a secluded pond. The water is fresh and the setting restful with its willows and tall poplars on abundant, shoulder-high, thick grass. The soft wind caresses Nilüfer Sultana’s long and wavy blond hair, as she sits on the edge of the pond to feel the coolness of its water. Pregnancy has given the young woman a luminous air. Her purple eyes glow brightly.
She is somewhat apprehensive. She fervently wishes to give birth to a boy who will be the heir to the Sultanate. She will welcome that as a gift from God. Her prayers for a baby boy take her mind to her husband Sultan Orhan with whom she is endlessly in love.
It was in Yarhisar, a Byzantine castle on the borders of Ottoman-held lands. She was called Holofera then, the beautiful daughter of Yarhisar Governor Mikhail. It was at a chance meeting with Orhan during a festival that their mutual love was born. Orhan discussed the situation with his father Osman Bey. The elder Osman agreed to ask her father for her hand, but he was refused because Holofera was engaged to be married soon to the son of the Governor of Bilecik. Osman Bey says to his son: “That’s all I can do, the rest is up to you.”
Sultan Orhan gathers his forces and attacks the wedding ceremony. He abducts the girl he loves and marries her himself. The wedding takes place on the banks of Söğüt creek during a wondrous ceremony. Holofera converts to Islam by her own wish. They change her name to Nilüfer.
The Sultana murmurs longingly, almost as a sigh, a song, a call to her husband: “I love you Orhan, I cannot live without you.”
We are in the Sultana’s private apartments. Precious Persian carpets are bordered by thick velvet curtains that shut away the night. It is bright inside and gently warm from a thousand flickering candles on the chandeliers. The music of the sweet strings of the rebab echo from a neighbouring room. Virginal, delightful Nigâr is riddled by an anxiety the likes of which she has never felt before. Her hands are cold as ice, her heart thumps ominously, she is barely able to contain her tears. Her eyes dance on the jewels and the silver of the room’s decorations, but they give her no solace. And then the door opens slowly.
She gasps and falls to the ground prostrate. Sultan Bayezid, the Emperor of all the Ottomans, enters and towers over her. He is the son and successor of Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople. Nigâr peeks discreetly up towards him. His expression is serious, almost fearsome, as he looks her over. She is devastated, and doesn’t know what she should do. She touches the hem of the Sultan’s kaftan with her lily-white forehead, to mask her agitation, to appeal for his mercy.
She needn’t have worried so. The Sultan is enchanted. He is staring at her not in disfavour but in admiration. She seems a fine painting to him, a perfect flower. He bends to her and holding her hands he helps her up. He seems lost in her youthful face. He murmurs: “You are so beautiful! You are silk and you are golden. You are indeed Nigâr, my tenderly sculpted beloved.”
The year was 1483… The moon. lazily rising in front of the Palace, was inching towards the clouds up above. By the time it could hide behind them Nigâr Sultana would already be pregnant with Crown Prince Korkut and the Ottoman throne would be assured of its dynasty.
Celebi Mehmed’s wife Emine Sultana lies on golden colored satin sheets, under silk blankets that are decorated with precious stones. Heavy red-velvet curtains, embroidered with gold and silver threads hang on the windows, sheltering the Sultana from the outside world. The warm air is redolent of the perfume of roses and carnations. The gazelle-eyed daughter of Dulkadiroğlu Mehmed has been installed in this handsome room after the birth of her son, the Crown-Prince Murat.
It is midnight in the spring of 1404. The candles have been snuffed out, but the lone great golden candlestick burns into the night. Two tired concubines are sleeping on pillows on the floor. The melodious sound of water sprinkling from the marble fountain in the courtyard wafts into the room.
Emine Sultana is too excited to sleep. Her hennaed hair flows freely down to her shoulders. She leans on her feather pillow. She allows herself to dream about her future glory. Occasionally she casts a shy glance at little Murat who is sleeping, wrapped in the yellow swaddling clothes of an infant. She is dreaming of the day that he will have ascended to the throne of the Ottoman Sultanate. She imagines the power that will be bestowed upon her because she is the mother of this innocent baby-boy. In this rosy dream, her heart flies far away to the magnificent palace in Bursa, the original capital of the Ottoman Empire.
It is July of 1444. Sultan Murad Khan, signs a ten-year treaty with the Hungarians. But the Senate of Venice has other ideas. Aiming to drive the Ottomans out of Rumelia, the Venetians convince the Hungarian King to renege on the treaty. All of Europe is united in opposing the Ottoman Empire. Murad sets out for war, which lasts many months on Balkan soil. Finally victorious, the Sultan heads home. His exultant news is announced with canonnades from the top of Keşiş Mountain. Bursa, the capital city, resounds with joy. All the citizens pour onto the streets to celebrate boisterously. Velvet banners are hung down from the palace’s walls, to welcome the return of their glorious Sultan and his brave army.
Murad, salutes his people but does not linger. He is anxious to see his beloved wife, Hüma Sultana. She is breezily dressed in her unbuttoned long dress which is embroidered with golden thread in a design of clouds on a pale-rose sky. The bejeweled poniard dangles on her waist in its silver sheath. A triple golden-chain necklace adorns her neck and diamond rings glitter on her delicate fingers.
Tears well up in the bright green eyes of this mother of the future conqueror of Istanbul. Then, she smiles sensually and embraces her husband with her naked arms. She caresses Sultan Murad’s tanned face with her own velvet-smooth cheeks, her pink welcoming lips. She is all tenderness and love. She murmurs: “The star of my happiness! Put your hand on my heart and feel how fast it beats.”
Hüma, who founded “Hatuniye School” at her own expense, now rests in peace in her mausoleum which was constructed by her husband.
A scorching sun is beaming down in all its might directly on the palace. It seems as if the lawn would catch fire if it weren’t for the shade of the dense foliage of the ancient plane trees. Tall elm trees are arranged in a row, like columns of a Grecian temple. The branches of the lilacs and the laburnums, loaded with mauve and yellow florets respectively, are tangled together on the iron railings. The rose bushes planted next to the bannisters of the garden steps are ripe with hundreds of roses. When the air cools somewhat in the evening, the perfume of these roses intensifies and wafts all across the garden.
It is the year 1484. The almond-shaped eyes of Gülbahar Sultana, wife of Sultan Mehmed Khan, the Conqueror of Istanbul, are wet with tears. She sits in the shade in a corner of her garden as she rereads the letter she has written to her son Sultan Bayezid who is preparing for war against Bogdan Voivod:
“My hero, my son, the light of my eyes. My life is empty without you. I miss you terribly. I haven’t seen your sweet face for more than forty days. My Master, I fret for you. You’ll be gone to war soon and I must hug you before you go. My Sultan, please forgive the unease of a worried mother, but as you know you are everything to me!”
Gülbahar Sultana financed many benevolent institutions in Edirne and Tokat out of her own pocket. Noteworthy is one of the conditions she imposed on the shelter for the poor that she founded in Tokat: “Students, poor people and their guests will be served breakfast and dinner free of charge. The feed of their animals will also be supplied.” Gülbahar rests in peace in her mausoleum located in the yard of Fatih Mosque.
It is night-time at the end of May, in the year 1469. Ayşe Gülbahar Sultana wakes up in deep distress. She jumps out of bed and runs to the window. She quietly draws open the honey-colored curtains. She looks into the dark. The harem garden, bordered by tall cypresses, is silent and cold as a graveyard. Clouds are being driven by high winds. They seem to be marching across the sky like well-trained foot-soldiers. A total darkness descends as the moon and the stars hide behind the rushing clouds. Yeşilırmak shines like a silver necklace in the distance. It makes wild noises, that somehow rejuvenate her. She feels the cold wind on her face. She throws open her robes to refresh her naked body.
Suddenly her face brightens with an inner joy, something that she is barely able to contain or dare to believe. And yet she is convinced: she is pregnant. She, Ayşe, daughter of Alâüddevle Bey, descended from the Dulkadiroğlus, is pregnant with the son and heir of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid, the most powerful sovereign in the world. God has replied to her prayers. She lays down joyfully on the silk carpet that has been rolled out on the sofa. Her blue eyes well up with tears of happiness. Everyone in the city of Amasya is asleep. The night is tight-lipped. Ayşe Sultana must celebrate her precious secret alone. She remembers the wise words of Sultan Yavuz Selim: “This world is too big for one sovereign, yet too small for two!”
It is a cool May morning of the year 1870 in Findikli Palace. The golden rays of the rising sun are dissolving the last traces of a fine fog that had engulfed the Bosphorus. Istanbul’s splendid skyline begins to sparkle on the horizon. Inside the palace the bright sunlight turns the golden ornaments of the hall into gleaming diamonds. Sultan Mahmud II’s hazel-blue eyed daughter, the middle-aged Âdile Sultana is focused on mastering a Hicaz Hümâyun song that she loves. A sorrowful rustling of leaves draws the Sultana’s attention away from the notes to the alabaster silhouette of Leander’s Tower. Tiny clouds chase each other near the shore driven by the strong wind. The Sultana’s mind travels back in time...
Âdile was all of four years-old when her mother died. Only nine years after that, her father the Sultan followed his wife to the grave. Meanwhile the young princess was being well educated in literature, lettering and music, and in 1845 she was introduced to Mehmet Ali Pasha. Their wedding lasted seven days and seven nights and was widely celebrated by all the citizens of the capital. Several years of happiness were hers at Neşetâbat Palace, but darkness would soon descend on the Sultana. First her older brother Abdülmecid passed away, then the sun of her life, her beloved husband, and soon afterwards her only daughter Hayriye. Âdile’s world had turned upside down but this would not diminish her desire to live nor her ambition to improve the lives of her people.
This all-suffering woman is the only person in the royal family to have published a volume of her collected poems as well as being an accomplished music-composer and a master calligrapher. She is an enthusiast of the fine arts. She arranges for the publication of ‘Muhibbî’, the poems of Suleyman the Magnificent. She is generous and altruistic. She establishes fourteen charitable foundations, and uses all the means within her considerable power to serve the public. She grants trousseaus to brides who cannot afford them, gives homes to the poor, and finances waterworks for fountains that have gone dry. She commissions a complex of charitable buildings in Bâlâ and founds a school in Silivrikapı...
Âdile Sultana’s teary eyes slowly return to the notes of Hicaz Hümâyun.
Istanbul is on the midst of tulip madness: April, 1728. The tulip, emblem of the Ottoman Empire, has lent its name and comely flower to an entire Age. Every spring, tulips in every colour of the rainbow are in season and are grown religiously all over the capital. In the palace, in the markets, in parks and public squares, even on balconies in pots. The tulips are loved and they are revered. In order to make them last, they are covered at high noon to protect them from the sun which can wilt them. The Tulip Age is reflected in various ways in Topkapi Palace. An entire hall in the harem is dedicated to this flower. Tulips are painted on its walls, mostly in miniature. Mirrors that are placed strategically around the room and on the ceiling give an illusion of endless tulip gardens as seen from a distance.
Sultan Ahmed III’s beautiful daughter Zeynep Sultana is only fifteen years old. She is stretched out on the blue satin sofa, framed by abundant bouquets of tulips in golden vases. She is to be married this day to Mustafa Pasha. She murmurs a little prayer, her rosy lips quivering. She is anxious to become his beloved and hear him whisper “my white dove” as he kisses her.
Mihrişah Valide Sultana, Zeynep’s mother, walks into the room in a swish of velvet and pearls, accompanied by several odalisques. They help the bride-to-be dress in her white-silk, rose-embroidered wedding gown. It embraces her youthful body, clinging seductively to her budding womanhood. They gingerly place a cone-shaped, jewel covered tiara on her flowing chestnut hair. They attach her veil to the top of the crown with a diamond brooch. They adorn her neck with many strands of golden necklaces, and her ears with tulip-shaped earrings that are highlighted with pearls and rubies. Now ready, the bride’s procession heads for the ball-room where the groom awaits.
Zeynep Sultana and Mustapha Pasha’s wedding was a grand and lavish affair whose memory they both cherished during a long and happy marriage. The Sultana, in gratitude for her happy life, financed the building of many fountains in various corners of the capital and an elegant mosque in Sirkeci Soğuk Çeşme which she named after herself.
It’s dusk and the first stars have appeared on the pale sky. A grey fog is blowing in from the east and descends on Bursa like a fine rain of ash. Olga Sultana paces the length of the vast hall like a tiger. She is glorious in a tight red dress that echoes the carnation designs on the ceramic tiles of the walls. Youthful and comely, her vitality is barely contained by the fluid lines of her elegant body. The pearls of the necklace on her graceful neck sparkle as they reflect the flickers of light from the golden chandeliers. She is impatient for the homecoming of her Sultan.
Olga is the daughter of a Bulgarian nobleman. She is only seventeen, but she has been wedded to Sultan Bayezid, known as Thunderbolt, for more than a year. They are devotedly in love with each other, but Bayezid, has been waging war in the Balkans for many months. He hurries to his beloved Olga upon his return to the palace in Bursa. She is overcome with emotion. She kisses the hem of Bayezid’s red velvet caftan many times. She murmurs: “My master, my Sultan, my husband, being far from you was an unbearable pain!” She is speaking liltingly in her charming accent. “My Lord, please believe me that I have no life when you’re not by my side. I’ve been crying every single day that you have been away. My love for you is like an illness with only one cure, and that cure is you.”
Bayezid is humbled by her ardour. He embraces her with urgency. He too has been ill with longing for his Olga. “You are the light in my eyes and the flower of my life! And like all lovers who await the sunset to be with their beloved in the moonlight, I too have been waiting through this overlong sunset to be with you. A raging fire of desire has been scorching my heart, a flame so mighty that not all the rivers of this world could put it out!”
The fog has encircled the palace and made it invisible. The lovers are all alone with each other under a full moon they cannot see. Finally their night can begin…
A moonless night in the year 1389 on the foothills of Bursa’s Friar Mountains. The apricot-colored verandah juts out of a mansion that was carved in the rock like an eagle’s nest. A passionate sky, pregnant with a multitude of bright stars, lights the countryside softly in blue. There are intoxicating perfumes emanating from the stillness of the night as a nightingale sings its melodious trills from deep inside the woods accompanied by the croaks of frogs from the swamp to the side near the river.
It is a view of raw nature to inspire free spirits. Despina leans on the veranda’s wooden railing, propped on bare arms. She peruses the woods, her glances darting from one footpath to the other. As if she’s waiting for someone. Her jet black hair is scattered by the spring wind. The sleeve-less red-velvet caftan with the vividly embroidered carnations shows off her elegant body perfectly.
Despina Sultana, the violet-eyed daughter of Serbia’s King Lazar is only nineteen but she is madly in love with Sultan Beyazid, the fourth Ottoman Emperor, who is known as Yildirim (the Lightning). Her heart is filled with passion, but also with fear. She crosses herself and lays her palm across her chest praying to Jesus. Protect him, my Lord! Please keep him safe for me! With all her heart, with all her being, she wishes him to return home from the war…
In a few minutes her attendant rushes to her in tears of joy. “Our munificent Sultan, your beloved husband Yildirim is returning victorious from the war!”
They called her Şirin, which means sweetly-charming, because this Circassian, rose-faced beauty was as gentle and kind as she was talented and courtly. She was a great fan of poetry, particularly the flowing rhymes of Mevlânâ Celâleddin Rumi and the Iranian poet Sadi, which she studied every morning kneeling in front of her reading desk, committing the timeless verses to memory. In 1482 she married Sultan Bayezid with a mutual love that was meant to last forever.
One year later, in a soft spring night of 1483, Istanbul slumbers under a bright full moon. Şirin Sultana cannot sleep. She walks through the rose and violet perfumed garden-paths with her favorite odalisque in tow. She leans on a marble column. Her gaze wonders across the Bosphorus to the blinking lights of Üsküdar that shine among the centuries-old, tall and plentiful plane trees. Her pomegranate-red dress reflects an anxiety in her soul that cannot be diminished by the golden satin jacket, nor the priceless emerald of her ring, nor any of all the other extravagant frills due her station in the palace as the wife of the Emperor.
She is perturbed and confused. Her palms are wet, her ears are buzzing, her eyes begin to tear. She is ashamed to admit it, but she is jealous of her Sultan husband. She falls to her knees, dragging the odalisque with her. “Pray with me,” she mutters, “so Bayezid can hear us and be mine, only mine...”
At fifteen, Esma Sultana is Sultan Abdülhamid I’s youngest daughter. She is engaged to be married soon to Küçük Hüseyin Paşa, the Chief Admiral of the Ottoman Navy. The blond, blue-eyed girl is so fetching and delicate, she looks like a character from a fairy tale. She puts her knitting down on the velvet sofa. She stands up and shyly walks to the corner of the room where her wedding gown hangs, the umpteenth time she has done so this day. She strokes it lovingly, as if it’s an object of worship. Made of pink silk, the gown is in two pieces, a top and a skirt. Uniting the two parts is an elaborate embroidery of a flowering plant, with its roots on the hem of the skirt and its thin, long branches flowering around the bodice. It is a feast for the eyes with its spangles and crystal beads and silver thread. Open on the front, it has a square furbelowed collar and a neck-shawl of the same fabric. Its puffy sleeves are gathered at the elbow and vented to the wrists with golden buttons. She smiles with anticipated happiness and turns away to the window that looks out at the palace gardens.
It is the spring of 1792 and the magical day has finally arrived. The magnificent wedding begins with a cannonade from Topkapı Palace. All the citizens are invited to the ceremony. Acrobats and tumblers are performing in the public squares. Games and spectacles and amusements have been organized in all corners of Istanbul. Fireworks from Tophane streak across the night-sky. Multicoloured lanterns illuminate the palaces, the mansions and the houses of both the European and Asian shores of the Bosphorus. And amid all this merriment and excitement, beautiful Esma Sultana is married to her beloved.
Esma was the most powerful sister of Sultan Mahmud II. She had a palace in Divanyolu, manor houses in Çamlıca, Maçka and Eyüp, a mansion in Ortaköy. She was a poet and an accomplished musical composer.