The Age of Beloveds Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society
By Walter G. Andrews
Duke University Press Copyright © 2005 Walter G. Andrews
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780822334507
There is a story about Mehmet the Conqueror (Sultan Mehmet II, r. 1451-81) and Lukas Notaras found in the history of the fall of Constantinople by the Byzantine Greek Doukas. Doukas was from an old Byzantine family of the upper classes. His grandfather had fled Constantinople during the civil wars of the mid-fourteenth century, taking up residence in Ephesus under the patronage of the Turkish emir of the ruling Aydinoglu family. Doukas himself lived in various parts of Asia Minor and was in Constantinople at the time of its fall. He knew Turkish and Italian as well as his native Greek and was able to gather accounts of the siege and its aftermath from both the conquerors and the conquered. What intrigues us about Doukas's story-one not found in contemporary accounts by other Greeks who witnessed the siege firsthand-is the degree to which it is about love, and honor, and sexual behavior.
The story of Lukas Notaras and Mehmet the Conqueror is rather simple as Doukas tells it. Notaras was the high admiral and grand duke of Constantinople, the emperor Constantine's right-handman. His father andgrandfather had long been in the service of the Byzantine emperors. Notaras's father had been a court functionary and envoy for Manuel II Palaelologus, and Notaras himself had already been an ambassador to the court of Mehmet's father, Sultan Murat II (r. 1421-51), eight years before Mehmet's birth. The Ottomans were well acquainted with Notaras. Prior to the siege of Constantinople, he had covered all possible avenues and all eventualities. He held Genoese and Venetian citizenship, kept a good part of his vast fortune in Italian banks, and had sent his daughters to live in Venice, where they would wait out the siege in safety and comfort. As the Ottoman noose tightened around the city, he had served his emperor's interests by mediating between the Unionists, who in return for a crusader army would have healed the Great Schism and welcomed the authority of the Roman pope in the East, and the Anti-Unionists, who would have died first (and in many cases did). It was rumored that he had won over the Anti-Unionists by crying out: "Better the sultan's turban than the Latin miter." Many believed that he would have sold the whole city, turbans, miters, and all, to Rome for a few boatloads of defenders and worried about handing it over when the siege was lifted.
As Doukas tells it, when Constantinople fell and the youthful Mehmet (he was only twenty-one at the time) entered in triumph, he thought to offer Notaras a position as leader of the Greek community in the now Turkish city. But, when he demanded Notaras's handsome youngest son, supposedly to be used sexually to sate the sultan's perverted lusts, Notaras refused, and the merciless Mehmet had Notaras, as well as his older son and son-in-law, executed. Doukas's account polarizes the protagonists and attributes value to both sides by contrasting the love (for a son, for honor) of the Notaras family to the lust (purely sexual desire and abnormal desire at that) of the sultan.
Some people who are familiar with the history of stories about sex and love will recognize close parallels to the story of Saint Pelagius, the thirteen- year-old Christian martyr of the early tenth century, said to have been a beautiful and pious youth, who was tortured and dismembered by the Cordoban caliph Abdu'r-Rahman III when he refused the caliph's sexual advances. It is easy to see how it could have seemed meaningful and hopeful to a Greek mourning lost Byzantium to reference the cult of Saint Pelagius, which for centuries provided spiritual energy to the Spanish Reconquista. Thus, although it is likely that Doukas's tale owesmore to Saint Pelagius and a long history of attempts to portray Muslims as morally inferior than to anything that actually happened during the conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul, it is a useful story for our purposes nonetheless.
Let us imagine how we would fictionalize Doukas's fiction in a way that also accounts for what Sultan Mehmet might have been thinking had such an encounter actually occurred. It could go something like this, beginning in the aftermath of the great siege and the triumph of the Ottoman armies:
Entering the city for the first time, the young sultan, still stunned by his incomprehensible victory, paused for a moment on the great acropolis of the Byzantines, which jutted its prow out into the convergence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Over waters glistening in the sunlight, white gulls wheeled and cried-a deceptive contrast to the city, where flocks of carrion crows, black and gray as death or the garb of Christian monks, croaked their way through a thin haze of smoke from feast to feast, disturbed only by tired soldiers leading forlorn bands of captives into amurky future. But the gulls, now shining pure as shards of shattered diamond in the bright sky, would also stoop to the same grisly supper. Tonight, brave men would feast, and brave men would be feasted on ... the way of this transitory world.
The sultan would need some of the old Byzantine nobility to legitimate his reign among the Greeks who remained in his dominions. If he could find Gennadius the monk, voice of the Anti-Unionists, who really did prefer the turban to the miter, he would make him patriarch of the Eastern Church, and a compliant Notaras could manage the secular affairs of the Greek community in the city of the Turks, Istanbul, which was no longer the city of either Constantine, first or last. Yes, he would see Notaras soon and woo him to his side-or at least know which way the winds were blowing. Even now the great train of wagons that provisioned his army was proceeding by another route toward the Hippodrome. This night he would feast with his army in the heart of the city, against the backdrop of the Hagia Sophia's great dome. They would put death and a bloody day behind them; on bellies filled in peace for the first time in a long while, they would transmute a thousand tragedies into the honeyed words of poets and dreams of a brilliant morrow:
I saw an angel, a sun face or this world's moon Black hyacinth curls, smoky sighs of lovers
An alluring cypress, clad in black, like the moon in night, or the Franks whom his beauty rules
If your heart is not bound in the knot of his heathen belt, You're no true believer, but a lost soul among lovers
His lips give life anew to those whom his glances kill Just so, for that giver of life follows the way of Jesus
Avni, have no doubt, that beauty will one day be tame
For you are ruler of Istanbul and he lord of Galata
Avni (Sultan Mehmet II)
It was now time for Notaras. Mehmet had sealed his unbelievable victory with prayers beneath the awesome dome of the Hagia Sophia, now the grandestmosque in all Islamdom. His representative had been sent to Galata, across the Golden Horn, to calm the skittish Italians by assuring them that their economic interests-ever foremost in their minds-would continue to be served (and far better served) by the city's new masters. It was time for the first steps in waging a successful peace and creating the eternal capital of the Ottomans on the ruins of Byzantium. Notaras's house was not far from the Hippodrome. When Mehmet arrived, accompanied only by Ya'kub the physician and a modest escort of his household janissaries, he found the house guarded by two soldiers of the feudal cavalry. One of them beat on the door with the butt of a dagger, and Ya'kub, his personal physician, spoke briefly in Greek to a red-eyed and trembling servant who emerged from the gloomy interior. After a moment, the master of the house, accompanied by his two sons and a son-in-law, all dressed in formal robes and conspicuously unarmed, appeared in the doorway and ushered the royal party into a large room. Mehmet was shown with exaggerated courtesy to a backless sofa set on a dais that extended from wall to wall at one end of the room, whereupon the grand duke and his sons prostrated themselves before him under the stern gaze of the silent janissaries standing vigilant at his side. When Notaras proffered a coffer brimming with gems and strands of pearl and said, in a grave yet fearless voice, "This and all that is mine are at your service, my lord the sultan," Mehmet waited for Ya'kub to translate even though, having learned some Greek at his mother's knee, he understood every word. He accepted the gift with a nod to one of the janissaries, who took it from the grand duke's hand. Without looking at the coffer, he spoke to his physician translator: "You might tell him that such a gift should have been given to his emperor, who had more need of it than I. Or you might tell him whatever you think fitting." The physician turned to Notaras and, with laconic brevity, said: "The sovereign appreciates your gift." Both physician and sultan were certain that the grand duke, on his part, held in reserve more knowledge of Turkish than he let on; the reproof and its embedded threat would not go unremarked. Let him not mistake who is in charge here.
The young sultan-motioned for the Greeks to rise. As they did, he passed his eye over the four with a disconcerting deliberateness. The grand duke and his sons were tall and slender: the eldest son, a grown man like his graying father, freshly scarred by the battle they had so recently escaped; the younger son, about fourteen years of age, slim and supple as a cypress, with dark eyes and a handsome face as white and glowing as a full moon framed in dark curls, another Jacob by name, by looks another Joseph. The son-in-law, a Kantakouzenas, was shorter and stocky, his face bruised on one side by some powerful blow. With an air of choosing his words carefully, Mehmet addressed his tautly expectant hosts: "Serve me well from this moment on, and I will restore you to the power and position you once held under your late-emperor-nay, I will elevate you to power and position far beyond that in a city more glorious than you have ever known. What say you?" The physician translated, this time in full.
"My lord, we are yours to command," replied the duke.
"And your honored wife, God willing, she is well?"
"Unfortunately she lies ill in her bed. Otherwise she too would have been honored to greet you, my lord."
"Take me to her."
An instant of bewildered incomprehension ... and then they led the sultan to the bedroom where the grand duke's wife lay. He spoke to her tenderly-he was only twenty-one and had buried his own mother not that long ago, and tenderness had not yet been wrung out of him by time and trial-"Be not afraid, mother. We will watch over you and restore to your family all it has lost. We will be pleased to see you well again, God willing."
The wish was sincere, but doubt hung between them like an early-morning mist rising from the abyss of age and faith and culture that separated the sultan from the grand duke. Could they indeed be trusted, the sultan mused? Could they ever know him well enough to be loyal? Could he know them well enough to rely on their loyalty? As these thoughts occupied one part of his mind, another part contemplated the young man holding his mother's hand on the other side of the bed.
The shape of the body and the lineaments of the face are the outward signs of inner intelligence and character, or so the respected sciences of physiognomy tell us. I would surround myself with such young men. Not only would they ever remind me of divine beauty, but they would serve me well: purity of face bespeaks moral purity; beauty and intelligence go hand in hand. Yes, he could serve, they could serve; fortune has favored me thus far, and why not in this also? I am riding the ascending arc of fortune's wheel; let those who have ridden it to its nadir now rise again with me.
They departed in a shower of formalities, the sultan riding off to feast the flower of his army, the Byzantines left behind to gnaw at the bitter ends of loss.
As the long night of feasting began in the ruddy light of sunset on garden fields of carpets laid in the great tent pavilion set amid the cooking fires and great cauldrons that dotted the great square of the Hippodrome, the grand vizier asked after Notaras and his family. "They are in good health," the young sultan said, "and I have plans for them." The vizier nodded and smiled ... which gave Mehmet to understand that he had plans for them as well. He could not dally; he must exert himself to win the loyalty of the grand duke away from his vizier.
With an almost imperceptible nod the sultan summoned to his side the chief eunuch of his household, a huge man with large, languid eyes set in a preternaturally impassive face who stood like a shadow in the background, attentive to the sultan's every wish. When the eunuch bent to receive his command, he whispered: "Go now to the Notaras house, and bring the young man to serve at my feast."
"On my head ... ," replied the Eunuch and departed in dignified haste with a small contingent of janissaries.
It seemed a brilliant ploy. The young man, with all his beauty and grace, and honored in the eyes of all by this invitation, would burn like a bright candle illuminating the gathering. The poets would be like moths to his flame; they would die in the incandescence of his charm and, dying, sing eloquent, impassioned staves of love, like nightingales trilling their longing for the fatal embrace of the rose. His name would be on all tongues, and, thus elevated, he would join the janissaries of Mehmet's household, where the most elite of young men were trained for positions of great prestige and power. In the janissary corps-the "new army"-everyone was a slave, conscripted from the non-Muslim population and those taken as captives in war, and from such conscripts came those who would rule the empire. As the son rose in service to the sultan, the bonds between the father and the Ottomans would grow stronger, and each, by serving his own ends and the ends of his family, would ultimately serve the interests of the sultan.
The news of this honor came like a cannon shot to the Notaras household. Without warning, the chief eunuch and his retinue appeared at the door. The summons was relayed and then repeated several times in ever simpler Turkish and then pidgin Greek until the father was sure he understood. Understood is, perhaps, the wrong term; he knew what was asked but could not fathom what it meant. After ushering the emissaries into a waiting room, the adult men of the family excused themselves "to prepare the boy" and gathered in one of the private inner rooms. They had lost so much this day it was inconceivable to them that this new development did not signal yet another and equally terrible loss. The father and brother sat as if stunned. The Kantakouzenas son-in-law, his face dark with rage, was the first to speak: "We know these Turkish dogs; their lust is unbridled by faith or morality or any of the nobler feelings common to civilized men. This tyrant wants the boy in order to sate his unquenchable rapaciousness. Do we send our beautiful and innocent Jacob to be the catamite of this devil? Do we next send our wives and sisters to be his whores?"
"No," the father replied, still pensive, "that we cannot do. But this sultan is a young man himself and appeared sincere in his approaches to us. Could it be that there is more to this summons than we can make out from here?" The son-in-law: "I doubt. The wolf, I am certain, has appeared to us in sheep's clothing, father. It is a ploy to humiliate us and all whom we serve, now and in the annals of history. We may be lost if we refuse, but are we not lost in either case? Is it not a question of whether we be lost with honor or without?"
Excerpted from The Age of Beloveds by Walter G. Andrews Copyright © 2005 by Walter G. Andrews. Excerpted by permission.
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