The Egg-Splitting Gun of the Sultan
by Satyajit Sarna | January 06, 2011
The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin, 2006
Gentile Bellini's drawing of a seated Janissary.
Image above and on article thumbnail is from the Wikimedia Commons here.
In the armoury at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is a musket, the barrel of which proclaims that on a particular day, the good Sultan Mehcit II used it to cleave an egg into two pieces from a distance of 400 yards. It is remarkable that Sultan Mehcit II was possessed of such powers of marksmanship so as to hit such a small object at so great a distance with such an unreliable weapon, and that a bullet hit an egg and only two discrete pieces resulted. Of course, I speak from a position of ignorance and against the written record, but I cannot discount the possibility of an artful courtier presenting the Sultan with two beautiful globular halves of some other, entirely unconnected egg. Alternately, we can never be sure that Sultan Mehcit II did not absolutely smash some egg at a respectable distance like twenty yards and that the artisan who then inscribed this most honourable musket did not think that a sufficiently impressive a feat for the Son of Heaven to have accomplished. Regardless, that musket must teach us to be chary of those who appear to think too highly of us.
In Istanbul, it is impossible to definitely know the truth of any fact because the uses of history are so many. Whose inscription of what date will you believe? Certainly, there is no shortage of records, not in this fabulously old, literate, heart of the world, but one man’s coronation is always another’s treachery. For example, it is very tempting to believe that the unfortunate Sultan Selim II, best known as Selim the Sot, actually drowned in a bath of champagne, but his excesses had cost the empire too much, and it would have benefited many to have brought his six-year-long reign to an end. All of Ottoman history is covered by this shifting veil of truths and interests, and before that, so was the history of sickly Holy Roman Empire, when Istanbul was Constantinople, and before that, it was true when Constantinople was only Byzantium. The only truth in that city is that none of this happened for the first time, that all of these events were merely manifestations of a pattern repeating itself. Civilization here is so old that it groans with age. Even the very stone of the Omphalion of the Aya Sofya is eroded by the kneeling of Emperors being anointed.
Fitted into this forever crumbling tracery of untruths is The Janissary Tree, a crime novel set in Istanbul in 1836. When soldiers are murdered in gruesome ways in the dark streets of Istanbul and the Circassian houris are strangled in the heart of the Imperial harem, the Empire needs one man to get to the bottom of things, and that man is Yashim the Eunuch. Because Yashim is a eunuch, he belongs everywhere in society and nowhere. He can go from the harem, where no whole man may step, to the posh European enclave of Pera and yet back to his garret in narrow alleys of the Kara Davut. Of course, he is also excluded from his society, never to know the “knowledge of women who’d speak the truth to their lovers in the quiet, and turn over the small business of the day with them; and the company of men who joked, jostled and held their common secret like ripe melons.” Yashim skirts the edges of the elliptical world that is Istanbul, from the cross dressing Kocek dancers to Stanislaw Palewski, the alcoholic Ambassador of Poland, which has been wiped off the map by Austria. They have something in common, claims Palewski, “I am an ambassador without a country and you – a man without testicles.”
But, at least metaphorically, Yashim has balls, and he needs them for the challenges that his assignment forces him to face. In a matter of pages, he is nearly torn apart by hostile tanners, cooked alive by murderous hamaam employees, garroted by mute wrestler assassins. In the finest tradition of the potboiler, Yashim dodges and circumvents all of them and uses his guile and cunning to eke out patterns and uncover the larger plot. Clearly, The Janissary Tree is not high literature, but high literature has never been this enjoyable. No, Yashim is an Ottoman Flashman, a James Bond of the Sublime Porte.
"Young Greeks at the Mosque" (Jean Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1865); the picture portrays Greek youths, converted to Islam, and made into Janissaries.
Image above is from the Wikimedia Commons here.
Yashim’s investigations lead him to probe deeper into one of the most tumultuous events in the history of the Empire - the suppression of the Janisseries. The Janisseries were the shock troops of the Sultan, taken from Christian families in the Balkans when they were young boys, converted to Islam and raised as an elite military unit. When Mehmet the Conqueror’s cannon breached the walls of Constantinople in 1453, the Janisseries were the first to enter the breach. From the gates of Vienna to the Sudan, they were the symbol of Ottoman might, breaking armies with their discipline and fanaticism. But like all forces given too much power, they were corrupted. Turning inwards, they became a tyrannical and unpredictable militia acting domestically, running riot, overriding their old restrictions and rising even above the Sultan on occasion.
On June 15, 1826 the Janisseries were incited to revolt by an incendiary fatwa, and then put down savagely by Sultan Mahmud II with his new guard of European-trained soldiers, bombarded in their barracks and executed in cold blood. The survivors of the massacre went into hiding and escaped into the provinces. Imperial chroniclers glibly labelled the events of the day the ‘Auspicious Incident’. But, in the name of strengthening the empire, Sultan Mahmud II had fatally weakened it, because there was now no longer a link between the Christian Balkans and highlands and the Islamic core; the tributary links of the empire had been snapped at one blow. The Empire would stagger into decline but still survive till the end of the First World War.
Between analysing scraps of mystical poems and tracking down renegade janissaries, Yashim relaxes and cooks; in a book full of delights, these are the most charming. Goodwin describes his dishes in pornographic detail.
“The rice had gone clear, so he threw in a handful of currants and another of pine nuts, a lump of sugar and a pinch of salt. He took down a jar from the shelf and helped himself to a spoonful of oily tomato paste which he mixed into a tea glass of water. He drained the glass into the rice, with a hiss and a plume of steam. He added a pinch of dried mint and ground some pepper into the pot and stirred the rice, then clamped on a lid and moved the pot to the back of the stove.
“He had bought the mussels cleaned, the big three-inch mussels from Therapia, up the Bosphorus. He opened them one by one with a twist of a flat blade and dropped them into a basin of water. The rice was half cooked. He chopped dill, very fine, and stirred it into the mixture, then tipped it onto a dish to cool. He drained the mussels and stuffed them, using a spoon, closing the shells before he laid them head to toe in layers in a pan. He weighed them down with a plate, added some hot water from the kettle, put on a lid and slid the pan over the coals.”
Image above is from realSMILEY's phtostream on Flickr.
That passage goes down as easily as one of these mussels, which they stuff, squirt with a wedge of lemon and serve in the fish market of Beyoglu even today. Suddenly, quicker than by flight, I am transported to a crowded bazaar below Seraglio Point, smelling the salt of the Bosphorus. It is a cold day and the wind is cutting. Come, Effendi, it is time for civilised men to be away; a cay and a nargileh, if it is not too much trouble?