Pleasure jaunts in Ottoman times
Niki Gamm ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily NewsThe most researched aspects of the Ottoman Empire over the centuries have been the court, government and armies. We rarely catch a glimpse of the Ottoman at leisure and certainly we don’t very often see how women amused themselves, especially out of doors. Until the 19th century and the introduction of public transport, we might assume that a woman’s leisure time was spent at home or visiting with nearby friends and relatives. Oh, yes. The sultan could put on lavish displays for members of the court, some of which are depicted as miniatures in books created to commemorate special occasions such as the circumcision of Sultan Ahmed III’s sons. Only when Western travelers at the beginning of the 19th century came do we get representations of leisure activities and written descriptions.
Where men were concerned, the 17th century Ottoman travel writer, Evliya Celebi, has been one of the very few who let us know what he and his friends did during their leisure time such as the days when there was a religious holiday like Şeker Bayram and Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice. Today there are complaints that such religious holidays are only an excuse to take a vacation. It seems that the Ottomans also used them to take a break.
Evliya Celebi writes, “There have been such amusements and pleasures on these green fields that no words can fully describe. All gentry, noblemen and prodigal sons of the plutocrats of Istanbul adorned the valley with more than 3,000 tents. Every night these tents were illuminated with thousands of candles, oil lamps and lanterns. In the evening the leading groups were entertained by musicians, singers, minstrels and performers… until sunrise while 100,000 fireworks adorned the sky with lightning, stars, butterflies, etc., and the entire Kağıthane was bathed in this radiant splendor. Guns were fired from dawn to dusk. Besides these tents, scattered along the two banks of the Kağıthane River, were more than 2,000 shops vending not only foods and drinks but also myriad valuables. Every day the clowns, jesters, jongleurs, bear, monkey, donkey and dog trainers, puppet shows, birdmen, and sword eaters, about 360 entertainers performed and made great profit. Four janissary platoons were assigned by the palace to maintain order in this area. Most of these janissaries used to swim in the Kağıthane River.”
Going out of doors was a different experience for an Ottoman woman, although it apparently became easier in the 19th century. Until then, women from the imperial harem would be transported in closed carriages to places along the Golden Horn such as Kağıthane, known also as Sadabad and the Sweet Waters of Europe. If the area where they were going to be was not enclosed by high walls, a canvas would be stretched along the limits of the area. Janissaries would patrol the outside and the black eunuchs would ensure privacy from inside. In the best known miniature depicting women at play outdoors, we see several women relaxing alongside a river with fountains playing in it. One woman is swinging from a tree while another pushes her. Yet another woman is stretched out beneath a tree and smoking a water pipe. On the other side of the water, several men can be seen talking with each other while two men seem to be selling food. The artist obviously felt it was all right to show men that close, although he made the figures much smaller in an attempt to add depth to the picture. Clearly women had a much quieter outdoors experience than men did.
Looking beyond the harem women to the outside, we have the letters of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador who was in Istanbul in 1717-18. She was particularly interested in the Turks and in her letters, she seems to have contented herself with visits to prominent Turkish ladies and other members of the diplomatic corps.
Julia Pardoe, a young British woman, was in Istanbul with her father in 1836 and wrote about her experiences and observations. She seems to have particularly liked the Sweet Waters of Europe, which was the name given by foreigners to the area just to the west of Sadabad. She describes the area as “the loveliest spot in the neighborhood of Constantinople.” The stream there runs through green vegetation and because it is the only stream of any size near the city, “it is an object of great enjoyment and admiration…You feel at once that it was destined by nature for holyday [sic] uses.”
Pardoe continues, “The green sward was covered with merry groups – Wallachian and Bulgarian musicians were scattered among the revelers; Bohemian flower-girls were vending their pretty nosegays in every direction, so skillfully arranged that each veiled fair one saw in an instance had been anticipated by the dark-eyed Flora – mounted patrols appeared and disappeared along the crests of the hills as they pursued their round of observation.”
“As we continued our drive, we passed a hundred groups of which an artist might have made a hundred studies. All was enjoyment and hilarity. Caiques came and went along the bright river; majestic trees stretched their long branches across the greensward; gay voices were on the wind; the cloud had passed away; and the sun lay bright upon the hill-tops. I know not, a spot on the earth where a long, sparkling summer day may be more deliciously spent, than in the lovely Valley of the Sweet Waters.”
The Sweet Waters of Europe apparently lost some of its attractiveness by the time Dorina Neave was living in Istanbul at the turn of the 20th century. She describes going there in a closed landau carriage and being unable to even acknowledge that she knew anyone in the various carriages that passed hers. She writes, “to me it was more like taking the part of a caged animal in a circus parade… This was considered one of the bright recreations suitable for a Turkish lady’s life, but I have seldom found any excursion more trying.”
On the other hand, Neave was marginally more enthusiastic about the Sweet Waters of Asia. “One of the pleasant summer outings amongst the few amusements permitted by Turkish etiquette to the ladies of the harem was the weekly visit on Friday to the Sweet Waters of Asia. This was quite a fashionable rendezvous and afforded an opportunity for foreigners to get a good view of Oriental ladies at close quarters in their becoming national costume and yashmak – the veil which mysteriously hid the Circassian beauties, but left their beautiful eyes uncovered. The scene was very picturesque as the caiques with their fair occupants were rowed up and down by two or more caiquejis, dressed in flowing white trousers and richly embroidered zouave coats over white shirts, and wearing the inevitable red fez on their heads. Turks in smartly gilded skiffs followed the ladies’ caiques, as closely as they dared, and many a romantic intrigue was carried on at these Friday meetings, in spite of the fact that the river was patrolled by police, who kept a vigilant look out to prevent any man from speaking to the ladies when the river became so congested that the only means of progress was by pushing one’s craft forward by hand at the expense of the boat alongside It was at such a time that one could see men contrive to slip billets doux into gloved hands as they brushed past…”
The Ottoman’s Sadabad, Kağıthane and the Sweet Waters of Europe and Asia no longer exist. We have other ways of taking pleasure jaunts today.