The nectar of the sultans – şerbet and şarap
NIKI GAMMLook at any history of drinks and about the only thing that’s agreed upon is that beer and wine were the first two alcoholic beverages to be made by man. When they were first made remains a mystery, lost somewhere back in prehistoric times. Some say beer would have first been brewed when mankind began to cultivate grains. Wine may have been discovered because fruit left on the vine too long ferments. The picture on nonalcoholic beverages is less clear, aside from the consumption of water and milk.
The ancient Egyptians had both beverages and even included them among the pictures painted in the pharaohs’ tombs. Wine was imported from the Lebanon area while beer was made locally. How much water might have figured in the daily intake is unknown. The Hittites were particularly partial to wine, as can be seen from rock carvings in Anatolia, an area that even today produces excellent wine. The Greeks were into wine, but usually watered their drinks down with water. The Romans had both wine and beer. The northern Europeans had beer because the climate wasn’t suitable for growing grapes.
Islam, on the other hand, bucked the trend by prohibiting the drinking of fermented beverages as a sin. While one or two of the verses in the Qur’an suggest overdoing the drinking that is prohibited, still other verses leave no doubt that it is forbidden. Not that that stopped Muslims from drinking wine and stronger alcoholic beverages such as the anise-flavored arak.
The Ottomans and their beverages
The Turks who came from Central Asia brought with them their own drinks, including ayran, boza and kumiss, but that did not keep them from being attracted to what was available in the Middle East. It is probable the Turks were introduced to certain beverages when they arrived and they adopted with relish, so we see arak practically becoming the national beverage, rakı. At the same time they may have adopted şerbet and şarap (wine), both words coming from an Arabic verb meaning to drink.
By the time we reach the Ottoman period and after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman palace had a full-staff kitchen crew that took care of all visitors, right on through the members of the imperial dynasty. Almost all of the buildings that were the location of food and drinking making on the right as one entered the Second Courtyard have survived over the centuries. A rigid protocol, first laid down during the time of Fatih Sultan Mehmed (r. 1451-1481), defined everyone’s job and the servants’ pecking order, right up to the nineteenth century with little change.
As one might expect, there was someone who was considered the şerbet maker (şerbetçi). Gibb and Bowen describe him as a person who “accompanied the Sultan whenever he left the Palace, whether in state or incognito, with such food, drink, eating and washing utensils as might be needed, loaded on two mules.” There also were şerbetçis for the princes who were the sons of the reigning sultan and those of deceased sultans. One has to presume the şerbetçi also was responsible for producing the şerbet that was so beloved by the palace.
The person responsible for providing some of the ingredients for the şerbet was the chief physician. It was he who was responsible for growing the various plants, often medicinal, that were used, or at least for obtaining the ingredients fresh or dried from elsewhere.
Sweet water from Çamlıca
There was also a Su Kullukçu (Water Servant) who was in charge of seeing to it that sweet water was brought from Çamlıca to the palace on mules. It is known the Ottomans didn’t drink water with their meals, as one can see in a number of miniatures that show banquets.
In spite of the many references to wine being drunk by the sultans, there does not seem to have been any person in charge of this. Moreover we only know the sultan drank wine. What about the other people in the palace? Ironically, we have records of purchases that are quite detailed. For example, we know how many roses Sultan Süleyman ordered, but no one seems to have been interested in determining how many casks of wine were bought and how often. Nowhere does any Ottoman writer even suggest that rakı or other hard liquor was drunk.
Muslims may not have been supposed to drink in theory, but there was no such prohibition against the Christians and Jews who lived among them. That made it very difficult to enforce any imperial prohibition, since it merely created a black market and shops in shady alleys away from the eyes of the police. Not only that, the sultans who did try to stop drinking forgot they received a large amount of revenue from taxing it. This was soon pointed out by the head of the treasury, so such decrees would be rescinded.
For those who did not drink at the palace, it seems that the favorite beverage was şerbet. One of the last sultans, Abdulhamid II, was known for his love of limonata şerbet. Because there was no refrigeration as we know it, the drink would be made fresh every day. The most popular of these şerbet seems to have been the one made from rose petals. Practically all of them were made the same way. Fruit, flower petals or herbs would be combined with sugar (honey), water and lemon. The main ingredient would be mixed with water and brought to a boil, strained, brought to a boil again with sugar and lemon; it would then be allowed to cool before being served. Where the Ottomans were concerned, snow or ice brought from nearby mountains would be used to make it cold. On really special occasions, fountains would be made to serve şerbet.