When is a ‘kafes’ not a cage?

When is a ‘kafes’ not a cage?

Niki Gamm ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
When is a ‘kafes’ not a cage When is a “kafes” not a cage? When is a cage not a cage? Oh, yes. The Turkish word “kafes” is translated as cage in English, but it gives a person something of a wrong impression when it is used in regard to a sultan, his sons and Topkapı Palace. Until 1603, it was common practice for a brother who was to inherit the Ottoman throne to kill all his brothers to ensure that there would be not challenge to his rule; not doing so had produced civil war and chaos. The Turks did not practice primogeniture; rather, inheritance went from brother to next younger brother, rather than from father to son to son’s son. But if you didn’t kill off your brothers, what were you to do with them?

Part of the education system for a sultan’s son was to send the boy off to administer a province with a tutor and his mother. There he developed independently and learned how to govern. So somewhere, somehow the decision was taken that it was too dangerous to provide a potential heir with such training. He would be kept close to home and what was closer to home than the harem at Topkapı Palace and at the Old Palace which was where Istanbul University stands today. That potential heirs were no longer sent out to administer a province appears to be the only change in the system.

Children born into the imperial dynasty were raised with the greatest care and strictest discipline.

Imagine a situation in which the sultan fathered 20-30 children and all of them were being raised in the imperial harem within the course of a few years. Without the discipline, one can readily imagine the disruption to daily life. Not only were the children raised to follow a strict protocol, they were also taught not to raise their voices.

The young princelings (sehzades) would start life with wet nurses and nurse maids in addition to their mothers. Unless their mother had remained a favorite with the sultan, she would have been assigned quarters in the Old Palace. When the boy had grown enough, he would be brought every day to Topkapı for schooling in the Qur’an and religious studies, geography, mathematics, etc. Where the boy showed a special aptitude, he would be encouraged to follow it and tutors would be brought in from outside. Later he would attend classes conducted in Topkapı for the students of the imperial palace school or Enderun which produced the ruling class elite and the Janissary corps for the Ottoman dynasty.

The boys who displayed talents in other areas would be encouraged to follow these and again tutors would be brought to the palace to train them. Music was particularly important so they would be taught singing or playing a musical instrument. Several of the “caged” princelings were accomplished composers like Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839), some of whose pieces are still played today. Sultan Ahmet III (r. 1703-1730) was not only a poet, he was also a particularly skilled calligrapher whose works can be seen in the library at Topkapı that he had built. It was a tradition among the Ottomans that each one of them learn a skill on the grounds that if one day they had to support themselves, they would be able to do that. Carpentry was one of those skills.


This miniature painting shows Ahmet III with
two of his sons, proving that the young boys
weren’t ‘caged’ in the palace.

Freer in new palace in Edirne

Presumably, the young boys would also have been introduced to horseback riding since that was the primary way in which they would get around. In some of the miniature paintings we see the sultans riding and we know that hunting was a favorite pastime. It’s not so far out to imagine the boys out riding, even if they would have been surrounded by servants and guards. Until the middle of the 18th century, they would have spent time at the New Palace in Edirne and they would have been somewhat freer there. It is known that even while the sultans were in residence in Istanbul, they would go to some of their other palaces or hunting lodges – usually on the Asian side of the city – to hunt small game and perhaps the boys also went with them.

There were entertainments and there’s no reason to believe that the boys would have been kept from attending them. There were frequent sporting activities and competitions – archery, horse racing, jeerit (a competition with sticks and horses) and wrestling were among the best known. There were even two teams called the cabbages (lahanacılar) and the okras (bamyacılar) which used to compete. They were made up of the men who were part of the imperial household and they often played in the area below the harem section of the palace where Gülhane Park is now, or in Sultanahmet Square. There also was a small zoo at Gülhane Park and the animals could be observed from the Cinli Kosk. For more refined tastes, there would be special evenings in the harem which might include music, dancing, singing, poetry reading and even plays.

The Ottomans loved parades and there were many of them, such as for the wedding of one of the sultan’s daughters or the sultan going off to war - or at least pretending to go to war - and the sailing of the Ottoman fleet in spring and their victorious return (sometimes). Even the grand vizier’s coming and going from Topkapı was a kind of parade, so many people would be escorting him. There were also celebrations for religious festivals and other occasions such as circumcisions, the quarterly distribution of what was owed to the Janissaries and the reception of foreign ambassadors.

Were the young princelings bored? Probably, although no more so than other youngsters their age and no more so than other members of the imperial household. Everyone had some duty to perform in addition to attending prayer services five times a day. The boys as young men were given concubines, although they weren’t allowed to have children.

Some historians and others, especially in the West, have concluded that these potential heirs to the throne were locked in cages, denied their freedom and raised in an atmosphere of debauchery. As a result they were incapable of governing if they did ascend the throne. Yes, an area of the palace was called the “kafes,” but there doesn’t seem to have been any locks there because, when officials came to tell İbrahim that he had become sultan, he had to barricade himself inside to prevent them from entering. In other words, he could come and go as he needed to. Ahmet III had 14 sons, two of whom became sultans, but as they were growing up, all the boys could have one day become sultan. A palace official wouldn’t have wanted to alienate a single one of them, even though the odds were against it.

Life in the Ottoman palace was bound by rules; infringement brought discipline but it did not mean being locked in a small cage for one’s entire life. Freedom can mean different things to different people.