Daily Archives: 28 August 2013

Emptying the Ottoman Palace, 1909

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 216-217:

As the lions in the zoo roared with hunger, the Committee started clearing out the Yilditz, which resembled nothing so much as an immense junk shop. ‘No large city store, and still less the household of any other monarch, could produce an array of contents to compare with that of Yilditz.’ wrote Alma Wittlin in Abdul Hamid: Shadow of God. ‘There was an immense cupboard containing nothing but shirts – thousands of them. Nor could these be hurriedly piled up and removed. Each individual shirt had to be searched for the costly objects which were found concealed in some of the garments – strings of pearls whose value ran into tens of thousands of pounds, small bags of precious stones. One drawer contained two hundred medals mixed up with rubies and railway shares, and probably stowed away in this fashion by Abdul Hamid himself. Whole bookcases were filled with five-pound notes.’

The parasites who infested Yilditz also had to be ejected. Those who had not escaped – servants, spies, astrologers – left in a dismal rainsoaked procession half a mile long. Most were well treated, though known ‘criminals’ were hanged in public on Galata Bridge by gipsy executioners who received a fee of ten shillings per head. Among them was the grotesque bloated Kislar Aga, known for his cruelty, and Mehmed Pasha, the head executioner, whose favourite method was to drown suspects by slow degrees.

The Committee had to face another problem: what to do with the harem? Out of the thousands who had fled, there still remained some 900 women of the harem – odalisques and their servants – together with hundreds who had served in the suites of the sons and daughters of the Sultan. They could hardly be turned out into the streets, for most had spent their adult lives under a fairly beneficent umbrella of protections. Mostly slaves, mostly unversed in the ways of the world, ‘freedom’ to them must have been an unpleasant prospect.

Accordingly, with a touch of modern panache, the Young Turks advertised in the newspapers, requesting anyone whose daughters had been kidnapped for the harem to come to Constantinople at the Government’s expense and claim their relatives. They cicularised the Circassian villages, for generations a centre of the slave trade. The reponse was remarkable, culminating in a long procession of women and eunuchs, passing for the first time in history out of the harem and into the streets of Constantinople. It was followed by a bizarre scene. At the head of a long room sat a Commissioner of the Young Turks. Down one side sat the ladies of the harem, down the other an assortment of roughly dressed tribesmen, mostly armed. At a word of polite command, the concubines, protesting and praying, unveiled in public for the first time in their lives, to recognise or be recognised by long-lost fathers and brothers. Scores were reunited and, after tearful farewells with their fellow odalisques, set off for the rigours of a life in the mountain homes of their families – with regret or relief no one will ever know.

Many relatives were never traced. Some girls disappeared. The rest made their way to the old Grand Seraglio Palace, where they joined the ranks of discarded concubines from past imperial harems. It was comfortable, at least, and secluded from the problems of the outside world. This was the end of the harem life, the last link with the excesses and debauchery of an era that had closed.

The new dawn had broken. And the excesses and debauchery would be of a different kind.

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The Turkish Defeat at Plevna, 1877

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 189-191:

The breakout was, of course, doomed from the start. And yet Osman Pasha all but brought off another miracle. Security in Plevna had been so strict that the Russians were quite unaware of the plans until a Polish spy woke up Skobeleff at 4 a.m. on the day. The Russian troops had hardly assembled before masses of Turkish troops started streaming across the snowy plain west of the town. At their head rode Osman Pasha on a chestnut stallion. Behind them rumbled thousands of wagons. Without wavering 2000 picked Turkish troops, with bands blazing and banners unfurled, charged the Russian trenches. By 8.30 a.m. they had annihilated one Russian regiment and broken the first links in the iron ring.

Without hesitation Osman charged into the attack on the inner Russian defence line, but here the opposition was stiffer as nearly 50,000 Turks and Russians fought hand to hand. Yet the Turks were holding their own against heavy odds and might well have succeeded, but for a catastrophe. A stray bullet wounded Osman Pasha. Those around him saw him lurch, then fall from his horse. In fact he was only wounded in the leg, but in a matter of moments the rumour galloped through the Turkish ranks that he had been killed. It was more than the half-starved, half-sick men could bear, and in a panic they streamed away from the Russian defences. By the time they had been regrouped, it was too late, and the Russians had occupied the Turkish redoubts, cutting off any hope of reaching a temporary sanctuary there. By one o’clock, the last shot was fired in a siege that had lasted 143 days, and from a house near the bridge, where the wounded Osman had taken refuge, a white flag fluttered.

Osman Pasha was treated as a hero by the Russians. When the Grand Duke Nicholas finally came face to face with him, he shook his hand and cried, ‘I compliment you on your defence of Plevna. It is one of the most splendid exploits in history.’ The immaculately booted Russian officers echoed, ‘Bravo!’ And when Osman Pasha first met the general in white uniform and realised it was Skobeleff, he took his hand and said to him, ‘One day you will be commander-in-chief of the Russian Army.’

The Czar invited Osman Pasha to luncheon, and when Osman removed his sword the Czar returned it to him. As Osman prepared to leave for internment in Kharkov, a member of the Czar’s staff offered him a sprig of myrtle – a traditional Russian sign that he was no longer their enemy.

A very different fate was reserved for the soldiers of the line. Despite repeated Russian promises that prisoners would be well treated, nearly 45,000 Turks were kept in the bitterly cold open air of Plevna for two weeks. They received virtually no food, drugs, medical aid; nor could then even drink the water of the River Vid which was contaminated by hundreds of corpses. Three thousand men died before the rest set off in the snow to various interment camps. Of the 42,000 men who started, often barefoot, on the long march to prison, barely 15,000 reached Russia. A fate as terrible awaited the seriously wounded left behind by Osman. The Bulgarians, conveniently ignoring their promises, dragged them from the hospitals and massacred every man.

One last and gruesome echo of the heroic siege of Plevna appeared in, of all places, a Bristol newspaper. It consisted of one paragraph that escaped general notice in England. In an article dealing with fertilizers, it read simply: ‘Thirty tons of human bones, comprising thirty thousand skeletons, have just been landed at Bristol from Plevna.’

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