Memories of an Ottoman Princess
Memories of an Ottoman Princess (De la part de la princesse morte) has been an immediate bestseller in every country where it has already appeared. A work of epic proportions, it is also a love letter from a daughter – the author – to the mother she never knew.
This authentic story begins in 1918 at the court of the last sultan of Ottoman Empire. Selma, the beautiful granddaughter of Sultan Mourad V, is only seven when she witnesses an empire crumble. The sultanate is dissolved and the royal family exiled. Selma, who has lost a country and a father at the same time, grows to womanhood in Beirut. Here she will meet her first love, a young Druze chieftain; but which will only lead to a broken heart. Following tradition, and in view of the deteriorating family financial situation, Selma agrees to an arranged marriage to a wealthy Indian rajah, whom she has never met. In India – under British colonial rule – she will live in royal splendour, and will witness the last days of the British Empire and the struggle for independence. But in India, just as in Lebanon, she is always considered a "foreigner." She flees India for Paris – ostensibly to give birth to the rajah’s heir – but actually to seek freedom. But the Second World War breaks out, and Selma, destitute and terrified, finds herself stranded in German-occupied Paris. There, she gives birth to a daughter and a few months later dies tragically – at the age of 29.
Kenizé Mourad – the author – is the daughter. She spent four years researching and writing this work, retracing her mother’s footsteps, from the splendour of the palaces in Istanbul to Beirut, India, and thence to Paris. She interviewed people, consulted countless archives and records, and then wrote this extraordinary book.
– "This rich tale has the flavour of the best of The Arabian Nights combined with moving confessions whispered out of the harem and grand-style reporting from India under British rule." – Le Monde (Paris)
"… one of those rare books, both fascinating for its insights into history and also a finely constructed novel." – ABC (Madrid)
"Full of tension and feeling, this exotic, arabesque tale is firmly anchored in reality. It weaves complex historical patterns into a meaningful whole." – Frankfurter Allgemeine (Frankfurt)
KENIZE MOURADwas born in Paris in 1940. She studied psychology and sociology at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. From 1970 to 1982, she worked as a journalist and feature writer for the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, specializing in the East and the Middle East. A war correspondent in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Lebanon, where she spent three months during the siege of Beirut in 1982, she also covered the Iranian Revolution for more than a year. In 1983, she interrupted her journalistic career to carry out research in Turkey, Lebanon, and India, and to collect all the necessary documents to write her book, Memories of an Ottoman Princess. The book has been an international bestseller, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. The sequel, Le Jardin de Badalpur, was published in France in 1998.
"Uncle Hamid is dead! Uncle Hamid is dead!"
In the white marble entrance hall of Ortaköy Palace, lighted by crystal chandeliers, a little girl was running. She wanted to be the first to tell her mother the good news. In her haste she almost knocked over two elderly ladies, whose aigrettes and jeweled headbands marked them as persons of wealth and rank.
"What impertinence!" fumed one of them.
"What do you expect?" her companion chimed in. "The Sultana1 spoils her to death. She is her only daughter. A delightful child, of course, but I am afraid she is going to be a handful for the man she marries. It is time she learned how to behave. A girl of seven is not a child any longer, especially when she is a princess."
Far from worrying about the disapproval of a hypothetical husband the little girl ran on. She was out of breath by the time she reached the massive double doors of the haremlik2, the woman’s apartments, which were guarded by two Sudanese eunuchs in scarlet fezzes. There had been few visitors today, so they had sat down and were chatting. As they saw the "little Sultana," they jumped up and half-opened one of the great bronze doors, and bowed with particular deference for fear she might report their indolence. But the child was too preoccupied even to glance at them. She hurried in and paused briefly in front of a Venetian mirror to check her light auburn curls and make sure her blue silk gown was tidy. Then she pushed aside a brocade curtain and entered the small boudoir to which her mother customarily retired after her late afternoon bath.
Unlike the dank palace corridors, the room was pleasantly warm, thanks to a silver brazier tended by two female slaves. Reclining on a divan, the Sultana was watching her grand coffee mistress ceremoniously filling a cup on an emerald-encrusted salver.
The little girl paused, momentarily overcome with pride at the sight of her mother in her long caftan. In the outside world Sultana Hatijé complied with the European fashions which had been introduced into Istanbul in the late nineteenth century, but in private she insisted on dressing à la turque. No corsets, leg-of-mutton sleeves or hobble skirts for her, not at home; there she gladly wore the traditional robes that enabled her to breathe freely and recline in comfort on the soft, yielding sofas that abounded in Ortaköy’s reception rooms.
"Come here, Sultana Selma."
At the Ottoman court, familiarity was frowned on, and parents addressed children by their titles to instil in them as early as possible an awareness of rank and responsibility. While the maidservants were performing a graceful temenna, a profound obeisance in which the right hand touched the heart, lips, and brow in turn, Selma quickly kissed her mother’s perfumed fingers and put them to her forehead as a mark of respect. Then, too excited to contain herself any longer, she cried out: "Annéjim3, Uncle Hamid is dead!"
The little girl thought she detected a spark of triumph in her mother’s grey-green eyes, but the voice that promptly reprimanded her was cold as ice.
"You mean His Majesty Sultan Abdul Hamid, I presume. He was a great monarch – may Allah welcome him to paradise. Where did you hear this sad news?"
Sad? . . . The child stared at her mother in amazement. Saddened by the death of that cruel great-uncle, the man who had deposed her own father, Selma’s grandfather, on the ground of insanity?
Her wet nurse had often told her the story of Murad V, a likeable and liberal-minded prince whose accession had been greeted with universal rejoicing because the people had expected him to introduce far-reaching reforms. But Murad V reigned for only three months. His naturally nervous disposition had been so affected by the palace intrigues and assassinations that had accompanied his rise to power that he lapsed into a state of extreme melancholia. The distinguished Austrian specialist Dr Liedersdorf assured the court that a few weeks’ rest would restore His Majesty to health, but his advice went unheeded. Murad was deposed and, together with his entire family, confined to çeragan Palace.
For twenty-eight years Sultan Murad had lived at çeragan, constantly spied on by servants in the pay of his brother Abdul Hamid, who feared a conspiracy to put him back on the throne. Only thirty-six when he entered captivity, he did not leave until the day he died.
Every time Selma thought of her poor grandfather she felt like emulating Charlotte Corday, the heroic assassin whom Mademoiselle Rose, her French governess, admired so much. And now, today, the tyrant had died peacefully in his bed!
It was impossible that Annéjim felt sad, she who after twenty-five years of being sequestered in çeragan had regained her freedom only by accepting the frightful husband imposed on her by the Sultan Abdul Hamid. Why was she lying?
This blasphemous thought jolted Selma out of her reverie. How could she for a moment have imagined that a mother as perfect as hers would stoop to a lie? Lies were to be expected from slaves afraid of punishment, but not from a sultana! Upset, she finally managed:
"I was walking through the garden and I heard the aghas4 talking about it."
Just then a rather portly eunuch appeared in the doorway, wearing white gloves and the traditional black tunic with mandarin collar. Having bent almost double in three successive temennas, he straightened up and decorously folded his hands on his paunch.
"Most respected Sultana – " he began in a falsetto, but Hatijé cut him short.
"I already know," she said. "Sultana Selma has been more diligent than you. Go at once and tell my sisters, the Princesses Fehimé and Fatma, and my nephews, the Princes Nihad and Fuad, that I shall expect them here this evening without fail."
Sultana Hatijé, who was now forty-eight, was the eldest of Murad V’s children. Since the death of her brother, Prince Selaheddin, she was also, because of her intelligence and willpower, the undisputed head of the family.
The seeds of her inflexible personality had been sown on that terrible day forty-two years ago when she thought the gates of çeragan Palace had closed on her forever. The little girl nicknamed Yildirim, or "Lightning," because she so delighted in tearing around the gardens of Kurbalidere, her father’s palace, or sailing the Bosphorus in a caique with the wind buffeting her cheeks – the girl whose dreams were all of freedom and heroism – had found herself a prisoner at the age of six.
Hatijé had wept and hammered on the bronze gates until her knuckles were raw, but in vain. Then she fell ill – so ill that everyone feared for her life. A doctor was summoned urgently, but Abdul Hamid kept him waiting three full days for permission to enter çeragan.
He had applied leeches to Hatijé’s body and made her drink a potion of bitter herbs. Whatever it was that saved the little prisoner, the physician’s learned medications or the two old kalfas5 who told their amber beads and recited the ninety-nine attributes of Allah night and day, she had recovered consciousness a week later. The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was her father’s gentle, handsome face. But why did he look so sad? Then she remembered . . . . It was not just a bad dream. She curled up in bed and started sobbing again.
Sultan Murad looked stern. "Sultana Hatijé," he said, "how do you think our family could have ruled such a great empire for six centuries if we had wept each time we ran into some minor problem? You are a proud little creature. Let your pride teach you dignity."
Then, with a smile, as if to mitigate the severity of his reprimand, he had added: "If my daughter refuses to laugh any more, who is going to bring any sunshine into this palace? Do not worry, Yildirim, we will leave here sooner or later. And when we do I will take you on a long journey."
"Oh, Baba6," she had cried ecstatically, "will you really?" No imperial princess had ever been far from Istanbul, let alone Turkey. "Could we go to Paris?"
Sultan Murad chuckled. "Quite the little woman already, eh? Very well, my blossom, as soon as we get out of here I promise I will take you."
Had he believed it himself? Without hope he could not have gone on living.
Living? The Sultana’s eyes clouded at the recollection of her father’s twenty-eight years in captivity. Day after day throughout that time, Sultan Murad had endured his living death.
Dusk was falling when two phaetons came clattering into the inner courtyard that led to the women’s apartments. From the first of these ornately gilded carriages stepped a graceful figure in a mauve silk charshaf, or voluminous cape. The plumpish woman who alighted from the other wore a black charshaf of classical design. The two charshafs exchanged a cursory embrace before hurrying into the palace, with eunuchs ceremoniously preceding them and bringing up the rear.
Like most royal residences, the palace was constructed of carved wood – a wise precaution in a city prone to earthquakes. Painted white and set amid gardens abounding in fountains, roses, and cypresses, it overlooked the now twilit Bosphorus. The festoons and arabesques adorning its balconies and staircases, verandas and terraces, made it appear a mansion of lace.
Sultana Hatijé’s chief secretary was awaiting the visitors at the foot of the double staircase leading to the first-floor rooms. Dressed in a high-buttoned satin gown, she wore the traditional muslin toque – no respectable woman went bareheaded, even in her own home – and carried her symbol of office, a long cane with a gold knob.
She had scarcely bowed to the sultanas before together they folded her in a warm embrace. In noble houses, elder kalfas of her seniority were treated almost like members of the family. Although they would never have violated protocol, of which they were fiercely protective, they regarded the esteem lavished on them by their royal mistresses as a well deserved tribute to their devotion.
The old kalfa looked on, tremulous with joy, as the sultanas divested themselves of their bulky capes with the help of two slave women.
"Allah be praised!" she exclaimed. "My lionesses grow lovelier each day."
She bent an approving gaze on the ivory taffeta that set off gentle Fatma’s superb dark eyes, then turned her attention to Fehimé, her ebullient sister, whose slender figure was enhanced by a gown sprinkled with butterfly bows – a creation straight from Alder Muller, the finest couturier in Vienna. Paris, alas, had ceased to be a source of modish marvels ever since Turkey had made the mistake of declaring war on France in August 1914.
The sisters linked arms, laughing, and had just started to climb the stairs when they were almost knocked over by a little blue hurricane who hurled herself at them and smothered their hands with kisses.
"Djijim7, you’ll be the death of me yet!" exclaimed Fehimé, giving her an affectionate hug. The old kalfa, outraged by Selma’s lack of decorum, muttered indignantly.
Following in the hurricane’s wake came a fat, pallid little boy, who greeted his aunts with a self-important bow. It was Haïri, Selma’s brother. Two years older than his sister but her devoted slave, Haïri constantly disapproved of Selma for her mischievous behaviour but never dared to oppose her.
Sultana Hatijé appeared at the top of the stairs. Taller than either of her sisters, she carried herself with sinuous, majestic grace. Even the most rebellious members of the family bowed to her authority, and when they spoke of "the Sultana" it was her they meant, even though the title was given to all three of Sultan Murad’s daughters.
Fatma stopped short and gazed up at her eldest sister with undisguised admiration. Fehimé, who by conventional standards was the prettiest, was clearly irritated and hastened to break the spell.
"My dear sister, what made you summon us at such short notice? I had to cancel an invitation to a soirée at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy tonight that I was looking forward to."
"Why? Because our uncle, Sultan Abdul Hamid, is dead." Hatijé’s tone was all the more portentous because she had not quite yet decided what attitude to take.
Fehimé raised her eyebrows. "And why should that . . . that tyrant’s death ruin my evening?"
"Bravo, Aunt! Well said!"
The booming voice made them jump. A corpulent man in his thirties had just materialized behind them. Prince Nihad, eldest son of Prince Selaheddin, was accompanied by his younger brother Prince Osman Fuad, handsomely attired in the gener- al’s uniform he never took off. The "General Prince," as Fuad liked to be known, for he valued a title earned on the battlefield more highly than one acquired by birth, had been badly wounded on the eastern front some months before. He was now spending an enjoyable convalescence in Istanbul and brazenly making the most of his heroic reputation with the ladies.
Having bowed to the sultanas, the two men followed them into the green drawing-room, where some youthful kalfas had almost finished lighting the hundred and thirty-seven oil lamps in a crystal chandelier. Haïri and Selma tiptoed in behind the grown-ups.
Smiling, Sultana Hatijé waited for everyone to sit down. She knew that this contest could be difficult to win, but she relished the challenge.
"I have called you together this evening so that we can all decide whether or not we should attend the ceremonies to be held tomorrow in honour of Sultan Abdul Hamid. Tradition demands that the princes should follow the funeral procession through the city. As for the princesses, they are expected to call on the wives and daughters of the deceased and offer their condolences." The Sultana injected a note of solemnity into her voice. "I am asking you to disregard your personal feelings and instead only think of our public image."
Fehimé was the first to break the silence. "I find this whole situation melodramatic," she said. "But as for me, I have no intention of going. Our beloved uncle ruined twenty-five years of my life, and he is not going to spoil one more day of it!"
"But isn’t this an occasion for forgiveness?" Fatma ventured timidly. "The poor man atoned, after all – he himself was deposed and imprisoned for years. Can’t we forgive and forget?"
Prince Nihad’s face was so flushed that for a moment Selma thought he would choke. He glared at his young aunt, his eyes filled with fury.
"What about loyalty? Loyalty to my grandfather Sultan Murad, who was vilified and buried alive? Loyalty to my father, who was carried off by neurasthenia? To attend that funeral would be to vindicate our persecutor. I say we should stay away; that would be a public statement about the irreparable injustice done to our family. That is what our dead expect of us."
"Please, Brother. Let’s not speak for the dead."
All eyes turned towards Prince Osman Fuad, who was savouring his cigar.
"Being the youngest here, I must beg your pardon if I seem to be offering advice to my elders, but my years at the front with my men – simple folk from Anatolia, Izmir, and the Black Sea – have taught me one thing: despite our failings, the people love us. They simply will not understand a public show of disunity. To them, Murad’s replacement by Hamid and Hamid's replacement by his brother Reshad seem merely quirks of fate. The main thing is, our family has always rallied around the throne. Especially now, during this war, the people need a firm focal point. For six centuries that focal point has been the Ottoman family. Unless it remains so, we may live to regret it bitterly . . . ."
At that moment a eunuch came in to announce that a messenger from the Sultan had arrived.
The messenger was a Sudanese of imposing build. Although he was a slave they all rose, not in deference to his person – in their eyes he did not exist – but to convey their respect for the message he bore.
"His Imperial Majesty Sultan Reshad, Commander of the Faithful, Shadow of God on Earth, Master of the Two Seas, the Black and the White, and the Emperor of the Two Continents, advises Their Imperial Highnesses as follows: on the occasion of the death of Our well-beloved brother, His Imperial Majesty Sultan Abdul Hamid II, We invite the princes and princesses of the house of His Imperial Majesty Sultan Murad V to mourn his passing as custom prescribes. May peace be with you, and may Allah the Almighty preserve you from harm."
They all bowed. It was not an invitation. It was an ultimatum.
Prince Nihat scowled at the messenger’s receding figure and shrugged. "Well, I am not going whatever happens," he growled.
"Come, Nihad," the Sultana said reproachfully. "Fuad has a point, I think. The situation is serious. Family unity must be preserved at all costs."
"Family unity? All right, my dear aunt, let us talk about that! A family that for six hundred years has been endlessly killing one another for the sake of power. How many brothers did our ancestor Murad III, the ‘Conqueror of the Persians,’ have put to death? Nineteen, if I am not mistaken. His father was more modest: he limited himself to five."
"They killed for reasons of state," Sultana Hatijé cut in. "These dramas are common to all royal families, the only difference being that European monarchs have fewer brothers . . . . Personally, I no longer bear Abdul Hamid any ill will. In those difficult times, when Britain, France, and Russia were planning to carve up our territories between them, we needed a man like him at the helm. For thirty-three years he managed to preserve the empire from those who wanted to dismember it. My father – being too honourable and too sensitive a man – might have failed to do so. In any case, doesn’t our country take precedence over our own petty considerations?"
Fehimé and Osman Fuad glanced at each other and smiled. Hatijé had always been a woman of principle. But who cared about principles these days? Fehimé’s main ambition was to have fun, and she pursued it with a zest intensified by the feeling that she had wasted the best years of her life in captivity. Her frivolous manner had earned her the nickname "Sultana Butterfly," and all her gowns were adorned with the butterfly bows that had become her symbol. She was an artist; she played the piano well and had even written some music. But there was nothing she detested more than solemnity and responsibility.
Her nephew Prince Osman Fuad resembled her. He had the same lust for life but a keener sense of reality. Very conscious of his own interests, Fuad knew how to give an inch in order to steal a mile, and he relied on his charm to extricate him from awkward situations. At this point he could not refrain from teasing his Aunt Hatijé.
"Simply be there," Sultana Hatijé told him. "But remember this, Fuad, and you too, Nihad: if either of you succeeds to the throne, model yourselves on Sultan Abdul Hamid and not on your grand-father Sultan Murad. One cannot have a child and preserve one’s virginity as well."
She burst out laughing at their expressions of amazement – they had never become used to her forthright language – and brought the meeting to an end by rising to her feet.
1. Princess of the blood royal and daughter of a sultan. A sultan’s wives were known as
2. A Turkish harem might be occupied by several wives and concubines, or by one wife
only and her maidservants, as was often the case during the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. To avoid confusion, the one-wife harem is here referred to by
its Turkish name, haremlik.
3. “Dear and respected Mother.”
4. Eunuchs whose seniority entitled them to respect. Until the Ottoman Empire was
abolished in 1924, every princely or aristocratic household employed eunuchs as a
medium of communication between the women’s quarters and the outside world.
Ladies in the service of a palace.
7. Darling. Term used in addressing children.
8. Your Grace. Used for members of the imperial family.
© Robert Laffont
© Century Hutchinson, for English translation