These couple of days in Istanbul we are thoroughly discovering the old town of Sultanahmet located on the Seraglio point. Also we had the opportunity to learn about the city’s colorful history, much of which we share with both the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire due to Macedonia’s proximate location to now day Turkey, which was automatically an easy target for the Ottomans to conquer and control. This is not to take for granted their power and influence all over Europe, the Middle East and Africa which was at its peak during sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s reign in the 16th century.
What is more interesting though is the lifestyle of the Ottoman sultans at the palace. The empire was really powerful for over 500 years especially during the time of the Italian Renaissance and through the Tulip period in the 18th century. Together with their victories, the sultans’ representatives brought with them treasures, slaves and the most beautiful women from the provinces they controlled, into the harem- or the home of the Sultan’s concubines. Competition within the palace was intense as each of the women was trying to win the sultan’s attention, aspiring to a more priviledged lifestyle and position.
No doubt the most successful of all was Haseki Hurrem, a Ukrainian slave turned sultana, or wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Thanks to her beauty and brilliant mind she earned her freedom from the Sultan, bore him four sons and a daughter, successfully conspired against and arranged the execution both for his first born son Mustafa from another concubine, Gul, and for Ibrahim pasha, the grand vizier and childhood friend of the Sultan. After securing her prominent position both in the palace and as the sultan’s favorite she extended her political influence as well- writing diplomatic letter to the emperor of Iran and maintaining a stable relationship with her homeland the then kingdom of Poland. She also commissioned grand architect Sinan to build religious pilgrimages in Mecca, Medina and Egypt- achievements none of her predecestors and successors surpassed.
I want to become the khalif instead of the khalif is an expression from a comic strip I used to read when I was a kid. In the story the grand vizier always struggled to trick the sultan so he himself can become a sultan- situation so familiar in the Ottoman court, and in every court for that matter. The father of Suleyman, Sultan Selim I, killed all of his sons except one to eliminate all succession obstacles and Sultana Nur Banu was keeping her son Murat III entertained in the harem so she can control the political power.
Even with the domestic tug-of-wars Ottoman Sultans proved to be powerful when challenged by foreign enemies. The Ottoman influence is engraved in the mentality of the Macedonian people- we eat baklava, we drink Turkish coffee, we are hospitable to our guests just as Turkish are with theirs and at least 10% of our words arrive from Turkish origin. There is no authenticity on the Balkan peninsula, our culture, food, music and genes are all a mix and match from the region. The funny thing is, because of the long years of war we dislike our neighboring countries, but essentially we are the same people.
During my master at LSE I became closest friends with a Greek, Danae, a Turkish, Tugce, a Bulgarian, Ioana and a greek Cypriot, Noni- we are all friends because we discovered how similar we are, while in the real world our countries are enemies, all of us are great friends with a lot in common- and we consider ‘the lot in common’ as a special constructive connection rather than as a cause for conflict.