You are young and you are beautiful. You have been captured by the Turks after your Balkan city succumbed to a long siege. Your father and brothers are dead. You are terrified you will now be raped and murdered.
|EUNUCH GUARD, TUNIS 1931: photograph Recuerdos de Pandora|
But you are not harmed by your captors, fearsome as they look. Instead you are taken back to the Ottoman capital and introduced into a gloomy wooden palace the Turks call the Eski Saraya.
You are put into the care of the Mistress of the Robes, where your flair for needlework is put to good use. You are taught Arabic and the Koran. But it is made clear to you that you are now a slave. Whatever high position in life you had before, now you are nothing; the Sultan’s plaything.
You accept that will never see your own country again. This is your home now and there are only two ways out of this dreary place. If you do not attract the Sultan’s eye he may one day give you away as a wife to one of his senior officers or ministers. But that’s if you’re lucky. You might just as easily be neglected and forgotten.
Or you can turn the tables.
You soon realize that these other women who share your predicament are your competition. One of them is going to be the mother of the next Sultan and attain a position of pre-eminent power in the country that enslaved her. If you are beautiful enough and clever enough and cunning enough that woman could be you.
The first step is to become gözde – ‘in the eye’; that is, you must catch the attention of the Lord of Life, the Sultan himself. An ambitious girl like yourself might find a way. It depends how devious you are.
Or you may rely on kismet, fate. One day you will wait with a hundred other girls in the court of the harem, pearls and jewels glittering in the sun. As the Sultan passes among you, he will take a handkerchief from the sleeve of his robe and drape it over your shoulder. You have been chosen! This is your golden chance.
You may have one night and be forgotten; or this could be the road to absolute power. It is entirely up to you.
You are taken first to the Keeper of the Baths, your entire body is shaved by slave girls and you are bathed in water scented with jasmine and orange. Your hair is shampooed with henna. Afterwards another slave coats your body with a mixture of warm rice flour and oil.
You are then prepared and coiffed and primped down to the last eyelash and the last drop of balm, dressed elaborately in clothes of incredible richness. Finally the Chief Black Eunuch escorts you to the Sultan’s bedchamber.
If you can please the Lord of Life then he might invite you back to his bed again. If the invitations become more frequent then you become iqbal, a favourite.
You will be given your own apartments, your own eunuch slaves, even an allowance of your own. You are on your way. But it will all count for nothing unless you get pregnant and bear the Sultan a son. If you do, then you become a kadin, one of the Sultan’s wives.
You are now playing this deadly game in earnest because there are only ever four kadins. After that, the abortionist is called in.
As one of the select four you are just a breath away from power now. You are also in deadly danger.
Only one of you can become the mother of the next Sultan, the Sultan Valide. If you do, your power will be unquestioned, you will rule the entire Harem and your son will reign supreme in the country that made you a slave.
If you fail? You will probably end up at the bottom of the Bosphorus, drowned in a sack. So you cannot afford failure. You must be clever and you must be charming and you must be attractive and you must be utterly ruthless.
These are your choices. This is the game.
This is the harem.