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I am a truly inept plotter, not a good quality in a writer of historical fiction. But some times history smiles and throws me a bone. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, which I researched for my latest novel—many bones.
The Harem Midwife is set in Constantinople in the 16th century. My heroine, Hannah, is midwife to the harem of Murat III. History tells us that Murat suffered from a rare and dangerous disorder: although he was surrounded by the most gorgeous girls of the Ottoman Empire, he was besotted with his wife, Safiye, and could perform sexually only with her. It was widely assumed she had bewitched him.
It was a dangerous state of affairs. Murat’s only son and heir to the throne of the largest empire the world had ever known was sickly. In those days of high infant mortality, it was not enough to have one son, or even an ‘heir and a spare’ as the British say. Dozens of son were required to ensure the continuation of the sultanate.
The Valide Nurbanu, the Sultan’s mother, purchased a slave, a young Circassian girl. The Sultan had a glimpse of the girl, and she captured his fancy. She was the great Circassian hope for the Osman dynasty.
The ploy worked, unleashing the royal stud in Murad III who promptly sired 20 surplus sons—all of whom had to be strangled after his death and one, so abruptly, that the poor boy was not permitted to finish his bowl of cherries.
Thus, was born the opening chapter for my novel. I didn’t have to make up a thing.
The Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultan and his harem was a magical place of eunuchs, menageries of exotic animals, steams baths, remarkable beauty treatments, and lovely, bored young girls. Too much leisure time and too much money is always a recipe for lascivious, interesting behaviour.
I learned how eunuchs are made—a long and excruciating process. Apparently only one boy out of every nine survived the ordeal. Given what was involved, it is a wonder any survived. But in a society where men kept their wives, daughters and sisters secluded in a harem, eunuchs were vital as guards, confidants and occasionally lovers. As one eunuch famously said of his conquests:‘They yearn for my ‘tree’ because it cannot bear fruit.”
History even provided me with special effects. The Ottomans were fond, some would say excessively fond, of theatrical contrivances. A hundred doves with orange pomanders around their necks were released from a golden cage to scent the air of the Valide’s private apartments. An army of slow-moving tortoises with candles affixed to their shells moved about the palace gardens on moonless nights.
At Prince Mehmet’s Circumcision Parade—53 days of rejoicing in the streets of Constantinople— the crowds were fed whole roasted oxen out of which raced, when they were cut open, live foxes and wolves, no doubt causing panic among the crowd.
And then there is the story of Gentile Bellini, the famous Venetian painter, and Mehmet the Conqueror who didn’t like the way Bellini portrayed the beheading of John the Baptist. To show him how it was done, Mehmet ordered a slave executed on the spot.
Could any novelist fabricate such wonderful details without being criticized for shameless exaggeration? Not I.
The Harem Midwife has become a favourite of book clubs, and I have appeared at many gatherings both literally munching Turkish mezzes and pide, and drinking wine and virtually on Skype or Face Time. Please see my JBC Live Chat profile to arrange an appearance. My website is: www.robertarich.com.