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In Constantinople there is only one ruler: Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Lord of Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, Allah’s Deputy, absolute ruler of the mighty Ottoman Empire. And at the heart of his palace is the Sultan’s vast Harem, the domain of hundreds of scented, pampered women—some wives, ...
In Constantinople there is only one ruler: Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Lord of Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, Allah’s Deputy, absolute ruler of the mighty Ottoman Empire. And at the heart of his palace is the Sultan’s vast Harem, the domain of hundreds of scented, pampered women—some wives, some concubines, some merely slaves. Among them is Gülbehar, the Sultan’s submissive favorite and mother of his heir; Julia, the daughter of an Italian lord, kidnapped when she attempted to flee Venice with her lover; and Hürrem, a Tartar girl from the Russian steppes, sold into slavery.
All three women are beautiful, but Hürrem is the most dangerous—ruthless in her desire to rule the Harem and, ultimately, Süleyman himself. Endlessly manipulative and clever, she carefully arranges the downfall of her rivals and endears herself to the Sultan, who places her at the center of the Empire’s power. It is his obsession with Hürrem—not his enemies—that in the end costs Süleyman his allies, his sons, and finally his dynasty.
Bestselling author Colin Falconer offers an irresistible glimpse into a world of intrigue, sensuality, and violence, where an empire can be controlled not by the might of its king but by the women hidden behind the Harem walls.
Silence, but for the steady rhythm of the rain, splashing into blood-stained pools, dripping from the eaves of the tents. Camels and men trudged through the mud; even the nostrils of the beasts of burden twitched at the stench of sick men and poor sanitation, but most of all at the reek of the moat.
The moat around the fortress was sixty feet deep and one hundred and forty feet wide, and in places it had been almost filled with the bloated bodies of the dead. The smell of putrefying corpses pervaded everything, seeping into clothes and hair and skin, pungent even in the silken sanctum of the Sultan's tent itself, despite the incense burners and the perfumed handkerchiefs that the assembled generals held to their noses.
The young man who sat with his legs astride the mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell throne looked like a panther poised to spring. His lips were drawn back from his teeth in a snarl as he listened to the mumbled obeisance of his second vizier. His long artist's fingers curled and uncurled into claws, the face below the silken turban pale with rage.
"How many of your Sultan's men did you lose today?" he hissed, referring to himself, as he always did in public, as if he were some other person.
The second vizier's face was blackened with dried blood from a sword slash on his forehead. It had dried and crusted in his black beard, where it glowed, dully, like a thousand small rubies. Half a dozen times that day he had led the charge to the breach in the wall below the towers of St. Michael and St. John, while the grizzled old veterans of the Cross slashed down his azabs with their broadswords and their arrows. Women and children had torn up paving stones from the streets and hurled them down on their heads from the ramparts. He had even seen one of their pale priests take a turn at the walls to help upend the vats of boiling pitch. Some of his men had run, their nerve broken; Mustapha had cut them down with his sword, then rallied his soldiers again for a renewed effort.
And now, for the first time that day, he was afraid.
"How many men?" the young man on the throne repeated.
Mustapha dared to raise his head a little to stare into the Sultan's eyes. Oh, great God. "Twenty thousand, Lord," he whispered.
"Twenty thousand!" He leaped to his feet and every man in the room—except one—took a pace backward.
In the long silence that followed, several of the generals thought they could hear Mustapha try to swallow.
When Sultan Suleyman spoke again, his voice was soft and sibilant. Like the death rattle in a man's throat, Mustapha thought. "You advocated this expedition. For three centuries the infidels have taunted the Osmanlis from this fortress. Even the Fatih and my father Selim could not dislodge them. But you told your Sultan that this time it would be different!"
Mustapha was silent. He knew there could be no excuse for failure. Besides, he could not be sure his men would follow him to the walls again.
The silk of Suleyman's robes rippled in the light of the oil lamps as his body shook with the force of his rage. His hands were clenched into white fists at his side. A froth of spittle had formed in the corners of his mouth.
"Another twenty thousand of your Sultan's army lie in the mud at the foot of this accursed rock, the rest are afflicted with the pestilence, and still the walls stand! Winter is at hand; even now the storms are boiling on the horizon, ready to shatter the fleet and freeze the rest of your Sultan's army. Yet if Suleyman turns away now, it will be to drag the banner of the Osmanli, the banner of Islam, in the dirt! You brought your Sultan to Rhodes. What will you have him do now?"
Mustapha was silent.
"You advised this!" he screamed, and he stabbed his finger at the second vizier as if it were an iron spike. He turned to the bostanji waiting in the shadows, a sullen and malevolent presence. He made a quick motion with his hands to summon the deaf-mute and screamed, "Execute him!"
The negro strode forward and shoved Mustapha to his knees with one expert motion of his left leg and arm. The bands of muscle in the man's back tensed as he brought his killic above his head to strike.
It was old Piri Pasha, the Grand Vizier, who moved first. He stepped forward, both hands held upward in supplication, momentarily distracting the bostanji. The blade of the killic glittered in the light of the oil lamps.
"Great Lord, please! Spare him! Misguided he may be, but he has fought like a lion in front of the walls! I have seen him—"
"Quiet!" Suleyman screamed, and now there was saliva on his beard. "If you think he is so worthy, then you can join him in Paradise!"
It was as if an unseen hand had swept the room with a scythe. Piri Pasha! He was an old man, the Vizier who had survived Selim the Grim, and had been Suleyman's own tutor as a child. He himself had advised against the attack on Rhodes. The generals and counselors assembled in front of the young Sultan fell on their faces, each of them moaning forbearance.
It was only Ibrahim, the falconer, who dared approach him. "My Lord," he whispered, and took Suleyman's hand. He knelt, and kissed the ruby on the ring finger of his right hand.
Suleyman was about to summon his bostanji for a third commission when he recognized the young man at his feet.
"Great Lord, there is another way."
Suleyman seemed about to pull away from the young man, who still held his hand in both of his. Instead he said: "Tell it, then."
"The histories tell us that the Greeks besieged Troy for fourteen years for the sake of a woman. Will not the Turk, then, oppressed by piracies and invasions from this rock for over three centuries, endure one winter's siege?"
The bostanji shifted his weight. The killic was growing heavy.
"What is your counsel, Ibrahim?"
"They say that when one of the Roman Caesars invaded an island, he would burn his fleet on the beach. Great Lord, perhaps if you were to build a villa on this hill, in full view of the castle, the defenders will know there is to be no reprieve until the fortress is ours. It will crush their spirit. And if our soldiers know your conviction also, it will give them heart."
Suleyman sighed, and eased himself back on to the great throne. With his forefinger he caressed one of the turquoise stones inlaid near the arm. "And what of them?" he said, nodding in the direction of the two men who still knelt, heads bowed, below the killic. He looked at old Piri Pasha and winced. How could he have contemplated such a thing?
"There has been too much Turkish blood spilled today already," Ibrahim said.
What a diplomat you are! Suleyman thought. An almost imperceptible shake of the head and the bostanji vanished once more into the shadows.
"Very well," Suleyman told them. "The Sultan stays."
1. When Meylissa becomes pregnant with the Kapi Aga’s baby, why does Hürrem rush to her aid? Is there any kindness involved in the act? Do you think that the kernel of Hürrem’s plot sprouts this early in the novel, or does she improvise as she goes along, only arriving at her master plan later?
2. The Kapi Aga is driven to suicidal recklessness and even madness by the temptation to reclaim a lost part of himself through forbidden sex: “It was the confirmation of a manhood he thought he had lost, the rediscovery of potency that was at once irresistible and irreversible.” What reclamation projects of their own obsess Gülbehar, Ibrahim, and Süleyman? Discuss how Abbas, Julia, and Hürrem, on the other hand, cut their losses early in the game.
3. Rüstem, nicknamed “The Man Who Never Smiled,” is the most mysterious character in the novel. A consummate self-promoter, he is wealthy and corrupt, utterly self-reliant, unfazed by bribery and blackmail attempts, and detached from the histrionics of the court. Yet, against his better judgment, he questions Süleyman’s motives for warring with Bayezid. When his protests fail to sway Süleyman, Rüstem’s sense of personal defeat is profound. “The final bookkeeping of his life vindicated everything and demonstrated his worth. He waited for the sense of elation to overtake him but now, with death beckoning him with one crooked finger, he struggled with the lingering sensation that perhaps there was something he had missed.” What is the significance of this complex, minor character and his eleventh-hour qualms? Is the author moralizing about the crossroads of money, power, and happiness?
4. When Gülbehar urges Mustapha to dispose of Hürrem, he literally washes his hands of the concept, Pontius Pilate-style. Where else in the novel do you find biblical or mythological references?
5. Julia’s only source of human connection and emotional survival in the Harem–her relationship with Sirhane–smacks of sin, according to the dictates of her Roman Catholic background. Thus, her only joy is tainted with guilt and alienation: “She knew she was slipping further from Venice, and from God.” Discuss loss of faith as a theme in the novel.
6. Süleyman’s agony stems largely from his desire to live the life of a normal man, unfettered by his responsibility to his empire. Repeatedly, he attempts and fails to carve out some private space for himself: “I will do my duty. I will lay the foundations of my Empire in the kanuns, the written law. I will send my armies to the walls of Christendom and tear them down and I will feed and clothe my Empire. But there must be something left for Süleyman!” Is this a reasonable wish? Discuss this statesman’s dilemma as it pertains to modern leaders.
7. Discuss Abbas’ act of revenge against Gonzaga. Do you consider his choice merciful? Did it surprise you? Why does Abbas experience vengeance as a loss?
8. What technicality does Hürrem cite to convince Süleyman that his oath to Ibrahim is null and void in certain circumstances?
9. Süleyman views the yeniceris as a bloodthirsty bunch of lunatics. But there’s a specific reason for their hunger for war. What is it? Why does it never occur to Süleyman that rewriting the law could tame the yeniceris’ fixation with battle?
10. What happens between Julia and Süleyman that transforms Julia into an enemy of the state? What causes the incident? How does her sentence change her life forever? If their meeting had gone well, what would have happened to Julia instead? Would her lot in life have been better or worse?
11. A hovering, all-seeing hawk is mentioned several times in the novel: as Hürrem contemplates her incarceration; as she meditates on her first pregnancy; when Süleyman places Ibrahim at the head of the army; as Bayezid trudges toward defeat at his father’s hands; etc. What does the hawk symbolize? What are other recurring symbols in the novel? How does the author incorporate nature into his storytelling?
12. Muomi is a survivor of genital mutilation at her family’s hands; Hürrem is sold into slavery by her own father; Julia is the product of an absent mother and a tyrannical father. Discuss parental betrayal as a driving force in the novel.
13. Although Julia’s tenure in the Harem is short, she is used as a bargaining chip in nearly all the major blackmail transactions in the Harem for years after she leaves. What is the source of her potency as a weapon?
14. How does Hürrem subtly build a case against Ibrahim? How and why does Süleyman believe it?
15. Bayezid is keenly aware of the horrible limitations of his position: “The Fatih’s law allowed for a Sultan to kill all his brothers and their children to protect his succession and the stability of the Empire. That was his own future, he knew. He would one day be Sultan, or he would one day be dead.” How is this utter lack of self-determination reflected in the lives of all the main characters in the novel? Is anyone exempt from it?
16. The novel slowly builds to the crescendo of Abbas’ and Hürrem’s final act of revenge on the Ottoman empire: the destruction of the Osmanli line and the crowning of an imbecilic pretender. Terrible tension is wired into the story by the fact that the two main protagonists are also the two main sources of destruction. Do you pity Süleyman here? Why or why not? By the end of the novel, who are you routing for? How does the author play with the reader’s sense of satisfaction amidst tragedy?
17. As Hürrem watches a Muslim prayer gathering, it occurs to her that she might harness the very power of Islam. “What a vast energy it was to tap! Perhaps, she thought, a velvet fist I have overlooked in my contempt…. She would use the will of God to bend [Süleyman] to the will of his woman.” In what concrete way does she achieve this lofty goal? What role does Abu Sa’ad play in her charade?
18. Süleyman tells Hürrem, “You are such a comfort to me. I live my life among snakes and vipers. Yours is the only voice of reason and moderation.” How do you explain his severe naiveté in this relationship? Do you read Süleyman as a tragic hero, misunderstood and maligned, who simply wants “to build, not to destroy”? If not, why not? Does he ever discover the “Beast in his own soul” that he fears so much?
19. How does Süleyman explain his total lack of interest in his own Harem?
20. The control of “whispers” is a major strategic tactic in the politics of Süleyman’s court. What measures does Süleyman take to monitor public opinion? How do Abbas and Hürrem exploit local gossip to contribute to Ibrahim’s downfall?
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted January 30, 2011
I cannot put this book down. I do not want it to end for it will be hard to find another book which stirs my emotions like this one, yet, I need to know if these characters who suffer so much will be justified. If that is even possible after the unbelievable cruelty and suffering they have endured. Colin Falconer has outdone himself with this one. I recommend you read all of his books but this is by far the most intriguing and chilling.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 28, 2010
Sultan's Harem / 978-0-307-23845-0 The Sultan's Harem is a spectacular tale of hatred and revenge, as Falconer weaves the tale of a single woman - a slave of the most powerful man in the world - who tears down a powerful empire by careful manipulation of the man who loves her. This one woman, Hurrem, manages to take down an entire empire, all while only ever being seen by a handful of men - the sultan and his personal eunuchs. While all this may seem completely cold-blooding, out heroine staunchly disagrees with the idea that she is a slave now, so why not make the best of it and be a good harem girl? She despises her sultan, the man who tore her from her home as just another bauble to add to his endless harem, the man whom she must keep amused lest she be tossed aside for another faceless girl waiting, claws ready, in the harem to overthrow her. Carefully, coldly, she designs to bear the sultan a child (not necessarily HIS child, if the situation requires), remove his previous favorite, entice him to fall in love, and then maneuver her freedom and unprecedented marriage to the emperor. No longer slave, but wife, she is still a slave in all but name, and she uses her mental hold on her husband to send him spiraling into madness while the kingdom collapses slowly around him. Falconer carefully treads the personal and the political here, as with all his novels, and we see sympathetic glimpses into both the main players (sultan and sultana) and into the lives of the hapless girls living silently in his lavish harem. Each girl has her own history, her own loss, and her own sadness, and - faced with the realities of the harem, and of the monogamous sultan - finds her own pastimes and petty jealousies. Are these women better off than the ones on the outside? They have little freedom, but they are safe and pampered. Since the sultan is not particularly voracious in his appetites, they are not even really 'sex' slaves. Yet the silence and loneliness gnaws at their souls and the passage of time weighs heavily on all involved. Is Hurrem, our dark heroine, really so unusual in her hate, cruelty, and madness? Perhaps all the other women in the harem feel as she does, but does not have the fortune to act out. Gripping and suspenseful, the Sultan's Harem is a compelling read - I could not put it down. I agree with another reviewer in that the story would make a wonderful movie, should anyone ever acquire the rights. Like other Falconer novels, the writing is frank and does not shy away from the 'facts' of life, but the writing is not overly lurid or vulgar, and he does not give into the temptation to throw in gratuitous sex scenes to try to increase readership. ~ Ana MardollWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 11, 2005
A tale of a revered ruler and the woman who would ultimately destroy him, his sons, his allies and his dynasty. Author Colin Falconer effortlessly breathes colour and life into a tale of obsession built around a ruthless and fascinating woman ¿ Hurrem. Brought to the Sultan¿s Harem from her country of Ukraine, the Tartar red haired vixen was determined that she would not live the life of a slave in an empire she despises. When a terrified Jewish harem girl confides in Hurrem that she is pregnant, Hurrem seizes the opportunity to use this information against the Kapi Aga, who, fearing for his life, yields to Hurrem¿s threats and ensures that Hurrem shares the Sultan¿s bed. One night was all she needed for thereafter no one else existed before the Sultan. With the Sultan¿s firm and unbending fixation on her, Hurrem¿s power over him and the empire becomes catastrophic, as she succeeds in influencing him to destroy his loyal followers and those who sincerely loved their Sultan. Falconer leads us through the turbulent times behind the giant doors of the Sublime Porte during the Ottoman empire, and brings us face to face with names we have encountered in history, bringing to life honourable men such as Suleyman¿s Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha, Suleyman¿s honourable firstborn son, Mustafa and their tragic endings. The fictional side story of Venetian beauty Julia Gonzaga and Abbas adds a more mesmerising tune to this haunting depiction of 16th Century Turkey. Falconer¿s dark, caustic storytelling flair and elaboration of every morbid and particular detail cleverly recompenses for the wooden dialogue and repetitive, tiring descriptions of the exotic surroundings. Those interested in tales of vile, malicious and venomous women would shiver at Hurrem¿s touch. A revisionist historical fiction at its finest that will slip under your skin, invade your bloodstream and seize your heart.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 9, 2005
I enjoyed the historical aspect of the book, and it did create an interest in the story for me. The story grabbed my attention pretty quickly, and always seemed to have something exciting happening, so it never really got dull. I did find the last few chapters a little tedious, and didn't particularly care for the war scenes. A few things that would have made this book better would be a pronunciation guide at the beginning (A LOT of unfamiliar/foreign words), and maybe a description of each character at the beginning to help readers keep everything straight (there were also quite a few characters, some who floated in and out of the story so they weren't easily remembered), and I also wish that Hurrems history had been shared with the reader. For instance, why was she so angry, why did she want revenge so badly, etc. Also, I really wanted to know what happened to Hurrem's letter, and a little more closure on Julia. Overall, I was actually relieved to have finally finished this book, and move on to something a little more enjoyable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In sixteenth century Turkey Sultan Suleyman has three hundred women in his harem. Of all these beautiful females his favorite is Gulbehar because she has given him a son. However, truth be told, the weight of empire building and international relations plays heavily on the weary Suleyman so he has little interest in the inner goings-on inside his harem as long as the ladies do not disturb him.---- The omega entry in Suleyman¿s harem is the newcomer the Russian Hurrem, who resents being a slave and worse being the runt amongst a pack of subservient succubae. Her plan to be first in line immediately is to use her body to seduce Suleyman and her wiles to defeat these jackals that surround her. Thus, the ladies of the harem who previously understood their place in the queue now battle for supremacy in a scheming arena of intrigue, blackmail, and homicide. Hurrem is the ruler magically seducing Suleyman over time so that even some of his supporters in the royal court consider emulating the queen of mean to take control of the empire.---- THE SULTAN¿S HAREM is an intriguing historical work of fiction that highlights four decades in the inner court of Suleyman the Great during the first half of the sixteenth century. The tale crafts a comprehensive (somewhat exhausting) vivid look at the mores of the harem and to a degree the royal court especially the intrigue, treachery, and strange bedfellow politics, but fails to place any of this on the bigger stage of momentous events. Readers who appreciate an interesting solid diligent glimpse at pebbles with no boulders will enjoy the regal intrigue of Suleyman¿s harem.---- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 10, 2004
Even the imaginative Scherazade could not have woven tales more fascinating than the stories revealed by those behind the giant doors of the Sublime Porte during the Ottoman Empire. 'The Sultan's Harem' is revisionist historical fiction at its finest, skillfully weaving fact and fantasy to create a tapestry of intrigue and passion. Readers of Colin Falconer's story of Cleopatra, 'When We Were Gods,' will be equally mesmerized by his portrayal of the absolute ruler Suleyman and the women who were able to bring him down. Rich with period detail 'The Sultan's Harem' is an epic drama whose star is Suleyman the Magnificent. At that time Constantinople knew only one mighty ruler:sultan, Suleyman, 'Lord of Lords of this World, Possessor of Men's Necks, Allah's Deputy.' He ruled not with an iron fist in a velvet glove but solely with an iron fist. His home was an opulent palace, and at the heart of the palace was his Harem, the envy of many European kings. Here lived hundreds of women, women of them never even saw their master. Traditionally, a harem was described as the women's portion of a Muslim household. In Suleyman's case it was a small community comprised of hundreds of women, including his mother, his daughters, his favorites, plus countless concubines and slaves. It was a place where power was currency. Among those who had found favor with Suleyman were Gulbehar, the mother of his heir; Julia, a young Italian woman who had been kidnaped; and Hurrem from the Russian steppes who had been sold as a slave. Of the trio Hurremwass the most greedy, the most conniving, determined to have total authority in the Harem and even over Suleyman himself. Step by careful step she undercut her rivals just as she ingratiated herself with Suleyman. He becames obsessed by her until she who was once a slave is now t mistress, holding the power. Falconer's story is taken from a time during the 16th and 17th centuries in Ottoman Turkey which was called The Reign of Women, when the Sultan's mother and his favorites usurped his power and position. Factually little is known beyond that. Leave it to the innovative Falconer to once again bring history to wide screen, full color life. - Gail CookeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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