The poet Figani with a young cupbearer. Ottoman miniature painting from
an illustrated volume of a copy of Senses of Poets (مشاعر الشعراء
Meşairü’ş-Şuara, 1568) by Aşık Çelebi. Istanbul, Millet Yazma Eser
Kütüphanesi, Ali Emiri Collection, TR 772, fol. 534a.

Tayyib and Tahir, two young Ottomans, were travelling to Egypt to become dervishes. When their ship was captured by Christians they were enslaved by Christian noblemen. Instead of pain, captivity brought them love and happiness, as both men fell in love with their captors, and those feelings were mutual. A barbaric Christian official thought that their love for each other was mere sodomy, however, and all four were imprisoned. The Ottomans were pardoned and fled the lands of the infidel, but their beloveds lingered in prison. Unbeknown to the Ottomans, the Christians managed to escape and later reunited with Tayyid and Tahir. The Christians saw the superiority of a religion that accepted their desires, and they converted to Islam; all four men lived happily thereafter in Istanbul.

This remarkable story is the plot of a 1627 poem by Nev’izade ‘Atayi Heft Kan. Relationships between older men and younger, most often unbearded, boys were widespread in early modern Ottoman society. Admiration of younger male beauty was seen as acceptable by many Islamic jurists, with the exception of the most strict interpreters of the Quran. However, the purpose of these relationships and the physical extent to which they could be developed was a matter of debate. Whilst no Quranic scholar explicitly endorsed penetration of men by other men, love poems were widespread that praised the beauty of boys and described kissing boys at social gatherings, as were cruder anecdotes and images of boys being penetrated by men. For example, Ahmad al-Aqhisari lamented that homosexual relationships spread in the Arabic speaking world to the extent that Arabs ‘are proud of it and blame someone who has no beardless friend (amrad), speak evil of him, and say that he is not a human (adami) and has no taste (madhaq)’. Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani emphatically stated that ‘no one should act in accordance with those scholars who have been led astray from the Holy Law and permitted […] carnal penetration of a male slave on the basis of ownership’. On the other end of the critical spectrum, countless Ottoman poems talk about the beauty of a boy who ‘has deprived the gazelle of his attributes’.

Despite the vast range of sources featuring sexual or romantic same sex relationships, the vast majority of these early modern Ottoman sources are either written by people assessing the value of these relationships or by those in the dominant position within them. These sources end up silencing those with the least agency. I argue that it is the historian’s duty to try to unveil the perspectives of the boys themselves, or at least to highlight this inherent power dynamic and make it a focus of research in itself.

As scholar Joseph Allen Boone argues, the ‘boy’ in a male-to-male Ottoman relationship could in fact be anywhere between prepubescent age and his late 20s; he could be bearded or unbearded, muscular of androgynous, free or enslaved. However, in the vast majority of cases, he would be in the socially inferior position to the uşşak ‘lover’ in some form – as a slave, servant or, in the case of sultan’s relationships with other men, subject. Some of the people who occupied the position of the younger male in a homosocial if not homosexual relationship have provided us with their perspectives on the experience. For example, in his description of his life at the palace page school, Evliya Çelebi wrote of his experience of replacing Musa Çelebi, according to Evliya a favourite of Murad IV, who was murdered by the sultan’s former tutor. The sultan composed several poems, varsağı, about his beloved Musa, including the following, which he subsequently regretted and banned from being performed in the sultan’s presence. The sultan wrote of Musa:

The mouth of the beloved hints at the hidden mystery.
When he begins to speak, he hints at the magic of eloquence.

In Evliya’s account the sultan refers to Musa as dilber and mahbub, words often interchangeably used to describe a male beloved. Evliya wrote directly that he was there to ‘replace’ Musa. Evliya pointedly never refers to himself as a dilber. Even if the relationship between the sultan and Musa was not sexual and if Evliya’s role at court did not go beyond that of a boon companion, this episode still shows Evliya’s unease at even hinting at being in the position of a ‘beloved’. This episode tells us a lot about ideas about power relationships between lovers and beloveds and allows us to tease out reluctance to self-identify as the ‘boy’ in a relationship between two men, even when one of them is the Sultan himself.

Sultan Murat IV dining with his court. Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul.

Another way to refocus our attention on the boys is to highlight the inherent privilege of the sources we do have and to emphasise any acknowledgement of the power imbalance between the lovers and the beloveds in the sources. For example, Mustafa Ali’s Table of Delicacies, a tract about sociability and manners written around 1599, makes a clear connection between the access of lower class young men to palace service and the spread of carnal lust for boys in the palace. He argued that ‘spoiled brazen youths […] should not be accepted into palace service’. He continued that ‘quite apart from ruining themselves, they turn the servant corps into the disgrace of the world’ as ‘the way they squander themselves […] introduces the vipers of lust into the treasure in the imperial cask’. Similarly, Ali was concerned about the corrupting influence that men from lower social classes with access to the palace could have on the palace boys, as the ‘person of ill repute […] infects and corrupts the world of servant boys who are under the spell of carnal desires’. Although class is the focus of Ali’s anxieties about male relationships, whether the lower class person is the older corrupting man or a lazy lustful youth, Ali’s focus on power dynamics is a good starting point for studying the complexities of Ottoman male love.

European travel accounts from this time do focus on the consent and lack of agency of younger men. Using them is problematic as they often represent a biased outsider’s view of Ottoman society, and their concern is for Christian boys only. Most English travellers disregarded male victims of sexual violence and were anxious mostly about the threat of circumcision and castration. They also primarily focused on slaves who had not been sexually or physically violated yet. James Wadsworth was the only English traveller who wrote of victims of sexual violence as worthy of ransom after the act itself – he pleaded for the ransom of ‘the fairest and youngest’ of his companions ‘whose bodies’ the Turks ‘abused with their Sodomy’. European accounts do not explore the power dynamics of non-Christian slaves and their Ottoman masters, and the picture of slavery in the Mediterranean they present is far from a one size fits all model they make it out to be – experiences of boys sold at a market of a port town in Algiers and a refined page to an Istanbul grandee could have been vastly different.  Yet, European accounts do offer a contemporary framework in which the power dynamics between lovers and the beloveds could be explored.

All of these frameworks are far from perfect and none of them would provide us with the perspectives of the boys themselves. And yet, it is important to use them, and come up with other similar contexts in which the power dynamics between Ottoman men and boys were acknowledged in order to uncover at least a fraction of the boys’ agency. Just reclaiming queer pasts of Islamic societies is not enough if it does not acknowledge the experience of the least powerful. The study of history is a process of reclaiming the voices of peoples of the past. In the words of Yaa Gyasi, ‘when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?’ The story of the Age of the Beloveds is told by the lovers and is missing exactly that – the voice of the Beloveds, younger boys who might not have had much say in what was being done to them. It is our job to try to not forget about them.

Nailya Shamgunova is working on a PhD on Anglophone concepts of sexual diversity in the Ottoman Empire, c. 1550 – 1700 at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in history of emotions from a transcultural perspective. She tweets @nailyas_

 

 


The Historical Locker Room explores homosociality – same sex social bonds – in historical context. Read the previous articles in this new feature: 

Underneath the Arches: Gilbert & George, Homosociality, and Post-War Reconstruction

A Hundred Men Bathing: Male Bonding in the Early Medieval West

“Never in the Presence of Any Woman”: Male Homoeroticism and Elite Education

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