eunuchs at the palace -- 3/15/22

Today's selection -- from The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs by Marc David Baer. The child eunuchs of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, the main residence and offices of the Ottoman sultans in the 15th and 16th centuries:
"Only the highest officials in the land and foreign ambassadors could pass through the Gate of Felicity [at the Topkapi Palace]. The Chamber of Petitions, the external throne room, was located just on its other side, in the third courtyard. Within the third courtyard, the gate itself was flanked by the dormitories and schools of the pages in training for palace service, a male harem. The third and fourth courtyards thus made up the inner palace, hosting the sultan and the youth being trained for imperial service. The fourth courtyard contained gardens, pools, and pavilions, and the residence of the sultan's pri­vate physician. Mehmed II's privy physician was an Italian Jew, Giacomo of Gaeta, who converted to Islam and became known as Hekim Yakub Pasha.

"The Collection of children was institutionalised with the build­ing of the schools in Topkapi Palace. An Ottoman decree from 1493 commanded those conducting the levy to take boys except those who 'show signs of reaching puberty or [who] have begun to grow a beard'. When the levied boys arrived in Istanbul as a tribute tax imposed on Christian subjects, they were circumcised. The 'children of superior beauty' were taken into inner palace ser­vice. Their superior moral qualities were allegedly revealed by the pseudoscience of physiognomy, which deduced which boys had 'the sign of felicity on their foreheads' as determined by the eunuch who was the agha ('lord' or 'master', a ranking servant of the imperial household) of the Gate of Felicity. After a number of years of education in the palace, those in this first, privileged group -- the pretty palace pages -- again passed through a selection process in which those with the best moral character and physique were chosen for further physical, spiritual, and cultural education. They would become the leading administrators of the empire.

Roumeli Hissar Castle, built by Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1452, before the Fall of Constantinople

"Those with 'the mark of evil and rebellion in the part of the forehead between the middle and the temple', however, would not be taken into inner palace service, for they would be susceptible to being 'seditious, tyrannical, and egotistical and destroy the peas­antry with the flame of oppression, burning them'.  Rather than obtain administrative positions, they would become soldiers. The majority of boys were thus not taken into palace training as pages but were sent to Turkish farms in Anatolia en route to becoming Janissaries. They engaged in difficult physical labour for seven or eight years, becoming accustomed to hardship, learning Turkish, and studying Islam after having been circumcised and converted to the faith. Following this, the young men were called back to the imperial capital, where they served as a labour force in the palace stables, kitchens, and gardens, or in apprenticeships at the arsenal or mosque construction sites, or with the military (army or navy) before finally being enrolled in the elite infantry unit of the Janis­saries, one of the army's two main fighting forces (the other being the provincial cavalry)."



Marc David Baer


The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs


Basic Books


Copyright 2021 by Marc David Baer


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