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.
28 August 2013
Emptying the Ottoman Palace, 1909
From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 216-217: