Books: The boil of Selim the Grim

Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul by John Freely Viking pounds 20
The fall of an empire is always more interesting than its rise. During the early years of growth you have the conquest of foreign territories, the opening of trade routes, a succession of decisive rulers, the relative tolerance of other creeds and races, the grateful devotion of a prosperous people united beneath stern but adored kings. Then come the years of complacency, a series of useless moderates who build elaborate palaces, and increasing periods of peaceful but ultimately false security. In the final stage you get sickly boy-kings who are inbred and insane, paranoid plots to wipe out lines of power, and lunatic displays of decadence. The decline of our own empire proving disappointingly unexotic, we turn to other more flamboyant worlds and find that the Ottoman Empire fits the bill. Over a period of 700 years, a Muslim empire flourished and fell at the dividing- line between East and West, its centre in Istanbul, its imperial dynasty the House of Osman, comprising 36 sultans ruling through 21 generations. The behaviour of these sultans, seen through their laws and their customs, seems monstrously cruel, but always exotic and strange. All the elements of romantic adventure are present: beautiful slave girls, scheming vizirs, lustful eunuchs, plots and assignations.

Although this period of history is immensely intriguing, it has rarely surfaced in unexpurgated form for general readership, but there seems to be a resurging interest in the Ottoman Empire. Last year, Jason Goodwin's Lords Of The Horizons became one of those rare books that broke out of its immediate readership. Here we have the same history, but presented in a more digestible form. Although John Freely is an expert on his subject, he has not allowed his erudition to disorient the casual reader, and takes care to keep us by his side through the maze of power-plays, executions, circumcision festivals, impalements, births and poisonings. As sultans come and go, it's the details of these dynasties that stay with you longest. We learn that the women of the harem were only allowed cucumbers cut into slices in case they were tempted into lust, of the obsession with tulips, of aviaries built to house swans that could provide feathers for the arrows of the sultan's hunting bows. "Example Stones" displayed the severed heads of those who had fallen into disfavour, white chef's hats were created for the sultan's highly privileged confectioners, a sultan's eight year- old daughter was married to a 55-year-old man, and women were punished for witchcraft by being bound hand and foot, tied in a sack and thrown in the sea.

But then this was also a world where fratricide was made legal, where family members were routinely strangled to prevent lines of succession, where an astonishing number of powerful men seemed to collapse with sudden stomach pains, where month-long tortures were the inevitable result of loss of trust, where subtle shifts of loyalties endangered everyone near the sultan, and where women in the harem could anonymously provide children or become greatly revered mothers. Just as females were provided for leisure but also occupied powerful positions, boys of promise were groomed from an early age and educated as janissaries, the sultan's elite infantry corps, and were not allowed to marry. The sultans were adept at trading privilege off against loss of freedom; the order of court life offered both severity and luxury.

When sultans died, the fearful Christians of the West held huge celebrations, thankful that invasion had been averted once again. One European remarked that "Selim the Grim died of an infected boil and thereby Hungary was spared."

The world of the seraglio was a baroque array of secret ritual, decorative art and formal display, where harem women bathed one another while great numbers of courtiers stood motionless before their sultan in total silence. Here, order and manners were so highly respected that a single thoughtless remark could alter the court forever. It was a world where sensuality took precedence over science, causing one westerner to admit in 1718 that perhaps they had the right notion of life, passing it in "music, gardens, wine and delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some scheme of politics".

The sultans, generally prone to fatness, sporting huge turbans, often succumbed to sensuality and drink, but still the Ottomans were a fatalistic warrior caste and that was reason enough to fear them. There was much to marvel at, too, and Freely pushes open the palace doors far enough for us to observe their hidden private behaviour. There is the base material here for a dozen books, and the only disappointment arises from spending too little time with each idiosyncratic ruler, but Freely delivers what he promises, and the effect is of removing the roof from the Topkapi Palace and having a good nose inside without the risk of losing your head.

This is an astonishing era that deserves to be more widely understood, if only because it is so alien to our own, and Freely provides a fascinating, easy-to-follow overview, beautifully researched and riveting in its detail. After reading it, you may want to progress to Goodwin's volume, which is more attuned to the grace and paradox of its subject, but less accessible.